Top 10 – The many moods of Manna Dey.
To the best of my knowledge, Manna Dey didn’t play baseball. It didn’t matter as each melody worthy curve ball pitched to him, containing either gravity or levity, was hit out of the ball park for a home run. His phenomenal octave range owed its strength to meticulous training under various ‘Ustads’. When allowed, his myriad intonations could be dichotomous within a song; settling and disturbing, elevating as well as depressing, but always devoted to Saraswati, goddess of the arts.
The force of his vocals emanated and derived strength from the simplicity of his soul. He believed in the lines from his song Sur Na Saje (Basant Bahar, 1956) “…swar ki sadhna, parmeshwar ki,” meaning the pious allegiance to music is akin to worshiping God.
Among the great voices which ruled the Indian airwaves starting 1950’s, I heard Manna Dey live once in 1994 as part of his 75th birthday celebrations.
The performance lasted two hours, throughout which he stood wearing his favorite headgear, playing and caressing his harmonium, sure of it’s every curve like an old lover. When it ended, each throat present was parched and not an eye left dry. The full magnificence of his voice hit me like a locomotive engine that day.
Nevertheless, a disturbance in his fans’ force field over a distinguished career was how easily many of the great performances were relegated to being enacted by extras and supporting actors. Despite this, what outshone, was his immaculate rendition.
Here, laying out a selection of his work in varied flavours filmed on various artists, some of my favorites which have not been covered in earlier posts here (1, 2 and 3). A very small sample of Manna Dey’s greatness culled from his vast repertoire of almost 4000 songs. The duets, deserving of an independent post, are not included here.
The last oak has fallen. The Sur Samrat is dead. Long live the Sur.
Please click on the posters below for the pop up song links.
1) Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo – (Mera Naam Joker,1970, Shankar Jaiskishan, Neeraj)
Manna Dey was Raj Kapoor’s second choice voice. Here is burlesque in three parts; the frivolity of the joker’s sketch for the audience is contrasted with upbeat music and acerbic lyrical comment on the state of civilization.The ascension of Dey’s vocals in the final part is complemented with the camera riding high up on a crane, carrying us with it.
Poet Neeraj displays a virtuosity in simplifying a collective universal human experience “…thokar tu jab tak na khaega, paas kisi gham ko na jab tak bulaaegaa, zindagi hai cheez kyaa nahin jaan payega, rotaa hua aya hai, rota chalaa jaega.”
2) Har taraf ab – (Hindustan ki Kasam, 1973, Madan Mohan, Kaifi Azmi)
After collaborating on Haqiqat (1964) and Heer Ranjha (1970) for director Chetan Anand, the Madan Mohan – Kaifi Azmi combo was at its winning best again.
Dulcet tonality suited for a love song and sung like Dey had his eyes closed, thinking of his beloved during recording, descending to notes which would prove difficult to hear in life, let alone sing in tune.
Cheaply shot, probably in a day with Raj Kumar in his cavalier swaggering avatar.
3) Yehi paigham hamara – (Paigham, 1959, C Ramachandra, Pradeep)
In the news for being Arvind Kejriwal’s red colored pet anthem for AAP. Kavi Pradeep’s utopian call ushering ‘equality for all’ model, stands failed amidst rampant greed in a leaderless nation today.
Shared blame binds us all for the ideal we lost in pursuit of easy and/or corrupted wealth. But there is hope still as the young will one day take over, making amends for a generation’s mistake for not revolting enough.
May they realize Tagore’s vision, be fearless and equanimous in the face of ingrained archaic traditions and practices.
4) Aao twist karen – (Bhoot Bungla, 1965, RD Burman, Hasrat Jaipuri)
When Chubby Checker carried forward the Rock n Roll revolution with his Grammy award winning hit ‘Let’s twist again’ in 1961, Pancham tuned in his version for the future. Dey was a free-floating agent and Mehmood’s plan to appropriate the loyalty of his defined voice worked; he sang the most for Mehmood on screen.This song started it all.
With a layered chorus backup, the sedate, classical Dey does a Kishore on this one and rocks the floor.
5) Tu pyaar ka sagar hai – (Seema, 1955, Shankar Jaikishan, Shailendra)
Based on Raag Kannada Darbari, is this really a love song masquerading as a bhajan? The intact faith ringed in by inner turbulence, raising the immutable question of mortal love; a struggle to stand your ground or surrender to emotion.The calm of Sahni finely balances the storm brewing in Nutan. Seema, the title, is equated with boundaries of ethical disposition “…koi na jaane kahan hai seema, uljhan aan padi”.
Notice the girl sitting behind the piano. Even when her hands are not in the frame, she keeps on pretending to play, clearly visible in the shadows. Great directing.
6) Chalat musaafir – (Teesri Kasam,1967, Shankar Jaikishan, Shailendra)
The text which Hindi cinema spoke and sang for the first 50 years was supplied by the embarrassing wealth of talent from North India. Classical, folk, fusion were all consenting bedfellows depending on the situation in a film.
The lyricist Shailendra never recovered after producing this failed rural collage ‘Teesri Kasam’. Like all greats, immortality came to the film subsequent to death claiming him.
This Bhojpuri folk song finds Dey in pristine form, his Bengali enunciation completely abandoned. Filmed on Krishan Dhawan.
7) Laga chunri mein daag – (Dil hi to Hai, 1963, Roshan, Sahir)
After Barsaat ki Raat (1960) and Taj Mahal (1963), this is arguably the finest alliance of Roshan and Sahir Ludhianvi. Composed in Raag Bhairavi, here is a LIVE rendition of Dey’s classical prowess.
At an age when most gurgle through regular speech, the maestro reveals his lifelong conditioning. Sonu Nigam stands close, mike in hand, anticipating rescue ops when the breakdown in the 80 plus voice comes…. and he waits and waits. Dada offers him no opportunity.
Mesmerizing. Lots could be read into Sahir’s lyrics “kori chunariya aatma mori, mail hai maayajal; woh duniya mere babul ka ghar, yeh duniya sasural”.
8) Zindagi kaisi hai paheli hai – (Anand, 1971, Salil Chowdhury Yogesh)
A terminal cancer patient chooses to live till the reaper comes visiting before the final bow. Beginning with an intimate piano intro, the metaphoric release of the spirit (signified by unleashed balloons) introduce Dey with high note trumpets.
Underlined by Hindu philosophy critical of ephemeral accumulation of only the material and not the experiential as its theme, this ‘Ikiru’ inspired film is a triumph in Indian cinema. “Ek din sapnon ka rahi, chala jaye sapnon se aage kahan”.
A top notch performance by the often maligned superstar Rajesh Khanna is the highlight of this film.
9) Poocho na kaise – (Meri Surat Teri Ankhen, 1963, S D Burman, Shailendra)
A wealthy businessman abandons his new-born son. Reason is he can’t bear to look at his face which he defines as ugly. The boy grows to become a singer and in the fullness of time, his overpowering art conceals his every naturally endowed flaw.
A hybrid ‘Beauty and the Beast’ tribute to music, the film has Kanhaiyalal (Sukhi Lala from Mother India) in a hatke role, speaking lines like “Mandir ki ghantiyo aur muezzin ki aawaz mein ek hi pukar hai.. aur is pukar ka naam hai sangeet”.
And Dey’s vocals are pure as the sound of a new born Ganga at Gaumukh.
10) Kaun aaya mere – (Dekh Kabira Roya, 1957, Madan Mohan, Rajendra Krishan)
This overlooked sparkling comedy directed by Amiya Chakrabarty, the canteen manager who became the de facto boss of Bombay Talkies.
Anup Kumar does a non-stop head shake on this minimalist Madan Mohan melody, based on Raag Rageshree, with a persistent rhythm and Dey glides along effortlessly.
Manna Dey, the monarch of live performances, enthralled his fans well into his 80’s and has now entered the pantheon of everlasting legends. The maestro’s iconic legacy lives on.
Thank you for the music, Manna Dey sahab.