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It's Manna for the soul

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Playback singer Manna Dey released his autobiography recently. Step into a mellow world of recording studios untouched by digitisation.

Paromita Pain

I have worked for nearly 55 years in Bombay (Mumbai), singing for all the major music directors there. Every one of them has blessed me and always called me back to sing for them. I genuinely feel very lucky," says Manna Dey, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan this year.

And yet, the mischievous boy growing up in Kolkata's Shimlepara and interested in kusthi (wrestling), certainly didn't show any signs of the musical legend he would become in the years to come. In fact, he wasn't even called Manna. His name was Prabodh Chandra Dey and after his graduation he nearly enrolled into a law college. He embraced music early on in his youth and his gradual transformation into one of Indian music's finest maestros is an enriching saga of mentors, perseverance, courageous humility and formidable talent.

He was born into a family interested in music and his uncle, the late K.C. Dey, an eminent artiste, composer and singer, became his music mentor and gave him the name Manna. K.C., who was also known as Kanna Kesto, facilitated Dey's first break in the movie Ram Rajya.

Manna Dey will be 85 this May. At the launch of his autobiography at Kolkata's Oxford Book Store recently, the patiently waiting crowd bore testimony to the singer's undiminished popularity. Theautobiography in Bengali is aptly titled Jibaner Jalsaghare (`In the Music Room of Life').

Like most biographies written at the end of a long and illustrious career, it is a compilation of different experiences, feelings and accounts of the people who have touched the protagonist's life. But it is precisely this that sets this account apart.

Dey sang both Bengali and Hindi film songs, so his narrative contains memoirs from a Tollygunje at its creative zenith and a Mumbai film industry vastly different from its present-day avatar. Though he has written about his experiences earlier too, this is his first full-fledged retelling of his life in the music industry.

He has known intimately and worked with cinematic maestros who shaped world cinema through their work. His descriptions of their style of working flesh out these characters, many of whom have faded into celluloid history. However, there are hardly any references to personal quirks or the sensational happenings of the day.

The ambience at studios untouched by digitisation is captured with an economy of words, at the same time bringing out the comradely warmth and geniality prevalent in those times. The tone is generally detached but becomes emotionally concentred when speaking of music, the people who composed it and the songs he has sung at different phases of his career.

Contemporaries and more

The singer comments on actors and contemporary singers with reverence. About his contemporaries he says, "Rafi and I shared a great rapport and I doubt if he shared this with anybody else. Rafi instituted a tradition by himself and his style remains unique. Lata has been singing for nearly 50 years now. She hails from a tradition very rich in natya sangeet, a convention with an amazing range of stylisations. Amazing also is her dedication. Once while recording for the movie, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Raj Kapoor told her that she must sing in the pure, unadulterated tones of a very young child played by Padmini Kolhapure in the film. She spoke to Padmini for a long time. When she sang, I could hardly believe it was Lata's voice and not Padmini's. The scene was a very tender one where the child is singing with her father, an aged man who coughs a lot. I sang for the father and put in a lot of coughing for effect." The song, Yashomati maiya se bole nandlala, became a national chant.

"Raj Kapoor was the living legend of his time. The more I got used to his style of work, the more astounded I was at his finesse. I would wonder how, without being a singer, he was always so flawless in his expressions. During rehearsals he would make various suggestions and also notice keenly the singer's voice modulations and expressions. While acting they were incorporated so skilfully that, on screen, they looked wonderfully genuine. I remember while recording the song Ae bhai, zara dekh ke chalo for Mera Naam Joker, he asked me to sing in such a way that even the common man on the street may say `ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo' very naturally. He energised me so much that the presentation won me a Padma Shree. While recording, I saw Raj Kapoor standing outside and practising his moves while lip syncing to the song," he says.

Dey formed an incomparable pair with Uttam Kumar, the greatest hero and character artiste to have graced the Bengali film screen. Antony Firingee remains a memorable hit. "Uttam Kumar's expressions for each of my songs were so brilliant that I often wonder whether they are my songs or his," says the veteran singer. "I believe he could sing very well himself so that he knew the exact movements that would match the rhythm of the song."

Dey recalls that he once spotted the actor on his morning walk, armed with a tape recorder and listening to the songs of Antony Firingee, trying to master them.

True music

Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, classical vocalist, finds Dey's expression in song and the purity of tradition commendable. Dey's repertoire wasn't limited to singing alone. A composer with many acclaimed hits, his deep voice frequently disqualified him from singing for the hero. While Uttam Kumar and he teamed up wonderfully in Bengali films, he had no such `partner' in Hindi films. "The simple reason is that I was not fit for it! Rajendra Kumar, the silver jubilee hero, always wanted Rafi. Raj Kapoor said `Mukesh is my soul'. Kishore Kumar sang for Rajesh Khanna, so only Mehmood was left for me! All my songs for him were super hits. He loved music. No matter what the song was about, he always portrayed it wonderfully."

Dey's range was extensive and he rendered songs like Laaga chunri mein daag as effortlessly as Ao kiss karen. Mumbai (then Bombay) wasn't very kind to start with and there were many who told him, "Bangali babu, tum Bombay mein kya karega? Tum Kalkutta jao." Awards too weren't forthcoming and his first Filmfare Award in 1971 came 25 years after he had joined the film industry.

His perseverance stood by him, though he wholly credits his film and music directors for his enduring success. His is a story of a life well lived with achievements, awards and veneration galore, but it says nothing about regrets or disappointments. The book doesn't belong to the `page turner' genre but the mellow recalling of a cinematic world long gone is still a delightful read, especially because it captures the essential simplicity of this singer who made music his life.

As he says, "My mother is my guru. My life is full of the memories of her love for me. I always thought of her at the start of my songs, and even today seek her blessings before I begin. I am indeed very lucky that in spite of the fact that there were greater singers than I, like Rafi, Asha and Lata, I was still sought after. I never cease to be surprised at the way these doyens sang. Their voices transport me to another world. I am honoured that I have been able to make a place for myself among them."

Picture by P.V. Sivakumar

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 18, 2005)
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