On Manna Dey’s 100th Birth Anniversary, a Look Back at His Journey

Commedy, classical, romance, bengali music - there’s nothing he didn’t do.

Indian Cinema
8 min read
On Manna Dey’s birth anniversary, here’s a peek into his lifelong musical journey

Calcutta, 1990. It was around 6 PM, and the sun had dropped behind the Hooghly which separated the city from its twin, Howrah. At the Open Air theatre at the North-eastern end of Jadavpur University, a huge crowd was flocking to see a legend in action. Manna Dey was to perform there. By the time it was seven thirty and the air carried a leafy smell, characteristic of autumn in Bengal, the septuagenarian was on stage, tuning his harmonium. The security was struggling to keep the mass which had assembled from places beyond Calcutta, mostly from the southern suburbs. The restlessness had spread to the front seats too. Suddenly, there was a request from the man himself – Manna. Please settle down. Yes, people in the front seats. Else I cannot start the show.

It was not exactly a request. It carried the gravitas of a directive. And the punch of a command.

The Era of Comedy & Classical Music

There is a key sequence in the film Dooj Ka Chand (1964) where we find actor Agha trying to woo a lady through an extremely well-crafted song, ‘Phool gendua na maaro’. Inspired by a lovely predecessor, a Bhairavi thumri made immortal by Rasoolan Bai, this song was no less a classical masterpiece, given the time constraint of a 78 RPM vinyl. However, there was one more limitation, the medium of cinema.

Much as one would love to place this number as a benchmark for classical based songs in Hindi cinema, the sequence mandated that it looked comical. Comical which loosely translated to looking and sounding stupid on screen.

With Roshan (the composer) and Manna Dey (the singer) no longer there, one can only envision the monumental effort which went into the making of the song. Needless to say, the entire musical effort was brutalised in a matter of a few minutes. With due respect to Agha, who lipped this exceptionally difficult to lip-sync song well, the audience laughed when they saw him on screen. They cried when the hero sang ‘Mehfil se uth jane walon’.

Tragedy and not comedy was kosher when it boiled down to music in the 1950s and the 1960s. Hence Bharat Bhooshan, the hero cum producer of the film would have Rafi and only Rafi when he needed to entice the audience. Point to note, that Bharat Bhooshan used Manna’s voice for the sloka which went with the title announcing the film. However, when the commercial element had greater stakes, he had to cater to the market demand. ‘Mehfil se uth jane walon’ probably could have been sung well by Manna Dey too. Or even Talat Mahmood. But the associated risk was high.

Satyajit Ray, in an article discussing the limitations of Hindi film music, had mentioned that listeners would be “more shocked than surprised if they were made to hear a voice outside a coveted set of six singers”. Maybe six was just an empirical number he had in mind, but throughout his career, Manna certainly was not one of the six when the requirement was singing for the lead actor. He was always the seventh, in the role of a specialist.

A specialist, but an outsider nevertheless. 

Manna Dey as the Playback Singer

The playback singing concept in India is a peculiar one. People ‘see’ the song and ‘listen’ to the on-screen actor. Regardless of how well Manna might have rendered the classical based ‘Kaun aaya mere man ke dware’ (Dekh Kabira Roya, 1957) or ‘Pyar ki aag mein tan badan jal gaya’ (Ziddi, 1964) the audience still laughed when they saw Anoop Kumar and Mahmood in the song sequences. Manna’s cause wasn’t served; never mind his clarifications which popped up in numerous interviews linking the melodies to Hindustani classical music.

The line dividing classical and comical had thinned down considerably when the medium was Hindi cinema. And Manna, for all his allegations, was partly responsible too.

He should have put his foot down much earlier. When he was already typecast from his second film as a playback (Ram Rajya, 1943), where, in his own admission, he regretted being the voice of Valmiki singing to Hanuman wagging his tail.

Incidentally, the first song which brought Manna some fame after a full inconsequential eight years was ‘Upar gagan vishal’, (Mashal, 1950). Parenthetically, this song too did not have a face and was used during the title run. Manna’s first song with a face, which still has a recall, was in Awara (1951).

Being the voice of Raj Kapoor was the greatest achievement in Manna’s career then. He wanted to continue being his voice, but Raj definitely loved Mukesh more.

In the song division exercise which was apparent in the films of Raj Kapoor, Mukesh would get the meatier chunk. Manna, in an interview to a veteran journalist, the late Bhaskar Rao of The Telegraph, Calcutta, had regretted that his offer to sing the title song of Shree 420 (1955) was turned down by none other than Raj Kapoor himself.

Later, in a radio interview, Manna came out rather scathingly, terming the song akin to a nursery rhyme, going by the manner in which Mukesh sung it. Maybe he was spot-on, but Bombay film industry has little tolerance for statements which are not politically correct.

One might take note that the earlier songs which spelt success for Manna were direct takeovers from a style patented by his blind uncle K C Dey, who brought his nephew Mana (as Manna was known then) to Bombay in 1942. Open-throated style of singing was in vogue at the theatre and the jatra in Bengal then. By opting for Manna, composers – from S D Burman to Shankar Jaikishan – found someone who probably reminded them of Manna’s illustrious uncle.

It needed the genius of Anil Biswas to scratch the surface and find someone whose command over light classical was exceptional for a thirty year old. The raagmala he made Manna sing in Hamdard (1953) had a discernible influence on other composers of the day. The greatest and the most well-known “classical song” story in Manna’s life was something which happened three years later, as ‘Ketaki gulab juhi’ (Basant Bahar, 1956), his famed duet with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.

Sometimes the universe whispers a gem of wisdom into unsuspecting ears. It is up to the alertness of the listener to pick it up. Post the recording of the remarkable duet, Panditji praised Manna and suggested he take up classical singing. One wonders what could have happened if Manna had heeded that fleeting piece of advice. He may have broken into the virgin non-film songs space that remained, barring a few exceptions, inconsequential, till Jagjit Singh brilliantly capitalised on with his own genre of ghazals. Manna did have his share of Hindi geets, including the famed Madhushala (1970), but these songs did not boast of a huge clientele.

Amidst the preponderance of irrelevant songs, featured on old men or on nameless characters, Manna did get a fresh lease of life in the mid-1950s when Raj Kapoor’s refusal to grant him his wish in Shree 420 made Shankar (of Shankar Jaikishan) promise him three duets in AVM’s Chori Chori (1956). The success of India’s best known romantic rain-duet ‘Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua Hai Pyar Se’ (Shree 420) probably also helped Raj make up his mind.

For a short period in his career, Manna was the voice of Raj. One is not sure, but the sporadic absence of Mukesh, preoccupied with his production Anuraag (1956) probably helped too.

During the mid and the late 1950s, Bombay cinema found Manna in an avatar not known well before. The romantic.

Manna Dey and 1960s Hindi Cinema

The 1960s changed the concept of a Hindi film.

Colour was in to stay. Nehruvian nation building ideals gave way to picture postcard romance coupled with vengeance stories. Music was more rhythmic, loud, and had tones of Punjabi brashness.

The adhesive underneath Manna's 'classical' label was still stubborn. Manna’s brand of romance, the sophisticated, controlled variety was no longer what seemed chic. While he sang memorable duets in unimportant films, he again got stereotyped as the voice of the elderly/side-hero, exemplified by the brilliant ‘Poocho na kaise maine rain bitayi’ (Meri Surat Teri Aankhen, 1963), a song dear to a luminary like Mehdi Hassan. Binaca Geetmala, the most vocal publicity vehicle of Hindi film songs, had no place for him in the early 1960s, barring a certain ‘Laaga chunri mein daag’ (Dil Hi Toh Hai, 1963), which again had Raj Kapoor masquerading as an old man on screen.

And gradually comedy took over.

Courtesy his no-nonsense and brusque attitude, Manna had no Godfather in Bombay. His Bengali status did not help either, as Bengalis in Bombay hardly promoted any of their kin unless it was family. Composers too had their own favourites, not always for musical reasons. Manna did not feature in the preferred list of any of the top composers of that time. So, while he won deep admiration, respect and adulation, he always remained niche.

There was a major consolation however. With epithets like niche and sophistication stitched to his style of singing, the ideal pairing Manna had during the late 1960s was with Balraj Sahni. The sudden collapse of sensibility which had happened during the early 1960s, courtesy the tasteless colour films, did harm his career, but gave him an alternative to choose from. Probably he had realised that he had to accept fate on face value, and gave all to the songs he was made to sing.

One example which stands tall is ‘Kasme wade pyar wafa sab’ (Upkar, 1967). Featured on Pran, it made Lata Mangeshkar cancel her recording, such mesmerising was its effect.

Manna’s Bengali Sojourn

It is said that when one door closes, another opens. His getting side-lined in Bombay made him take up more assignments in Bengal. Though he was nowhere as famous as Hemanta Mukherjee, his basic songs were moderately popular since the early 1950s. His sudden success as the voice of Uttam Kumar in Shankhabela (1966) (He had sung for Uttam first in Gali theke rajpath (1959), but it was such a colossal flop that he himself had no memories of the same till it was told to him by Siddhartha Dasgupta of AIR FM in the early 2000s) gave him the confidence of a college-grad whose start-up firm just got valued at a billion dollars. He gave Uttam’s image a fillip; no longer was Uttam synonymous with docility and righteousness.

Soon, Manna also became the voice of Soumitra Chatterjee, and of the city’s romanticism with unemployment, among other things.

Back to an autumn evening in 1990 at Jadavpur University. By the time it was half past eight, Manna’s bias for Bengali songs had surfaced strongly. While he was open to receiving requests, he was equally at ease with refusing numbers. The authors sent across a huge list of which he sang only one song, that too a Bengali super hit – Hoyto tomari jonyo (Teen Bhubaner pare, 1969).

Through his songs, it transpired, he was trying to bury his futile infatuation with Bombay. Maybe that accounted for the curt, military like behaviour throughout the show even when he was enticing a crowd of 5000. Maybe it was directed at people who had mocked his singing and had labelled him as a wrestler (He used to regularly wrestle when young at Gobor babus akhada). We will never know.

But signing off with a heer based song from Sujata (1974) – Koto na nodir jonmo hoye, and lastly a Rabindra Sangeet – Na chahile jare pawa jaye – he found it difficult to control his tears.

It was in the misty eyed man-child that we suddenly discovered the real Manna Dey...

(Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal are authors of the National Award winning book R D Burman- The man, The Music and the MAMI award winner Gaata Rahe Mera Dil)

Liked this story? We'll send you more. Subscribe to The Quint's newsletter and get selected stories delivered to your inbox every day. Click to get started.

The Quint is available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, click to join.

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!