Manna Dey turned 90 on May 1. The singing legend remains young at heart and keeps busy with shows and performances. He promises 15 minutes on the phone from Bengalooru, but gives us more than half an hour of characteristically candid chat.
We, however, begin on a false note, which the veteran singer has probably never delivered in front of a microphone in 3,500-plus recordings and hundreds of performances over 60 years. For when asked how he feels about entering his 90th year on May 1, he thunders, "Listen, my age is not something I wish to discuss! I will answer your questions if they are about me and not about my age. Age is just another year gone by - a mere birthday. It means nothing! I hope that this interview is about music and the wonderful time I have had with so many wonderful people! I have worked for over 65 years now. If you have done your homework and are willing to discuss my career, I would love to answer your questions!"
But that's Manna Dey as he 's always been - a man who never minces words. As we are on a 'phone line, he naturally does not recollect our earlier meetings from the 1991 recording for Nana Patekar's Prahaar, his last significant Hindi film song, to an hour-plus interview at his Juhu bungalow in Mumbai and several other smaller meetings .
"Hamari hi mutthi mein akash saara was a beautiful number, the last of so many for Laxmi-Pyare!" he recollects. "I remember Nana Patekar being after me for days and insisting that only I could sing that song. He even wanted me to lip-sync it on screen! Of course I flatly refused to be on screen an also said that my voice wasn't what it used to be and gently turned him down! Then Laxmi (Laxmikant) called up and requested me to come home and listen to the song."
Mannada requests me not to mention the few songs he was persuaded to record after that. But he clarifies that he is very much familiar with what is happening on the music front today. "Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy are doing some nice songs. Anu Malik has also done some good work over the years. But otherwise, it is the sound that has improved tremendously since our times. But that's more to the credit of the arrangers and therefore with the packaging, right? We have some excellent instrumentalists today. But what's the use of such talent? Arrangements minus a good composition mean nothing! The lyrics too have degenerated so much."
Manna Dey What about the new blood in his own field - playback singing?
"I think Sonu Nigam is very good, he is equipped with all the knowledge needed for a singer, is keen about doing good work and puts his heart into singing and understanding what he has to sing. Shreya Ghoshal is very good. But I will ask you something: In our wonderful country there is so much wonderful music. Every state is rich in music. But when you switch on the television, do you get to listen to anything nice?"
So where does he think the malaise lies? "Look, music is dictated by the kind of films being made, which is decided by the filmmakers. It's a demand and supply situation. A good singer like Udit Narayan has few takers. Why do you think a singer of the calibre of Kavita Krishnamurthi (Subramaniam) hardly records? It's a lie that it is because she is not based in Mumbai!"
We request Mannada to answer a hypothetical query: If Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh and he had all been active in today's scenario, would this decline had happened, and how would they have taken it? And the veteran replies, "We would have very, very nobly retreated!! Today our kind of singers are not needed. How could we have sung a mukhda with the word Saala in it? We could never have been a part of such indignities!"
Mannada's disciplined lifestyle and dedication to work has ensured that his memory remains sharper than the proverbial razor. Mention a composer, actor or film and he can rattle off details as if the events had happened just yesterday.
We go to the matter of his favourite composers. Having reiterated that Shankar-Jaikishan and Laxmikant-Pyarelal are the composers he rates high (which is what he has stressed in all our talks and has said on television even recently) he has mentioned R.D.Burman and Madan Mohan in other interviews. How does he reconcile this?
"It is silly to compare great composers, unless you are familiar with musical intricacies," he says with characteristic punch. "Madan Mohan gave me few but such soulful songs, like Tum bin jeevan (Bawarchi) and Kaun aaya mere man ke dwaare (Dekh Kabira Roya), so I am indebted to him. Panchamda was so good. He deserves the entire credit for the complex classic that was Ek chatur naar - the song was his concept from beginning to end, and Kishore and I just executed it to out best! See, it was less to do with the songs they called me for and more with the fact that they never got their dues in their lifetimes. Laxmi-Pyare were composers who have given me some fantastic songs right from Tum gagan ke chandrama ho in Sati Savitri - what a song that was! - to Prahaar. As for Shankar-Jaikishan - I was closer to Shankar - they were truly magical!"
Manna Dey He is not too taken in by my recalling S-J using Mannada for several heroes, even the Rafi-centric or Mukesh-centric ones like Shammi Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar and Raj Kapoor. "Look, there were all great singers then! If a song needed my skills, I was called to sing it. It was S-J's greatness that they thought I was the right singer for songs like Aaja sanam madhur chandni mein hum (Chori Chori), Lapak jhapak tu aa re badarwa (Boot Polish), Pyar hua ikraar kiya (Shree 420), Ae bhai zaraa dekh ke chalo (Mera Naam Joker), Sur na saje (Basant Bahar) or Jhanak jhanak tori baaje payaliya (Mere Huzoor) and for pitting me against Pandit Bhimsen Joshi in Ketaki gulab juhi in Basant Bahar. That's it!"
S-J also exposed him to Raj Kapoor, and the legend goes into raving mode as he speaks about the actor-filmmaker. "Rajsaab opened my horizons!" he says. "His way of conceiving a song was simply brilliant. The pains he took over a single song along with Shankar and Jaikishan was astounding. The way he enacted my songs like Ae bhai zaraa dekh ke chalo from Mera Naam Joker or Laaga chunari mein daag from Dil Hi To Hai was just unbelievable."
Since he has raised the subject, we mention that every playback singer has a couple of favourite actors whom they feel enhanced his songs and vocals best. Who were Mannada's favourites besides Raj Kapoor? "Mehmood obviously in so many songs," notes the singer. "Balraj Sahni was wonderful in Tu pyar ka sagar hai (Seema), Aye mere pyare watan (Kabuliwala) and even Tujhe suraj kahoon ya chanda (Ek Phool Do Mali). And I must mention Raaj Kumar for the way he carried the classical Jhanak jhanak tori baaje in Mere Huzoor."
But though Manna Dey sang for every hero from Dev Anand to Mithun Chakraborty with very few exceptions like Dilip Kumar and Rishi Kapoor, he was largely typecast as a comedian's voice or that of an old man. "Yes, I agree,"he says candidly. "I remember being very angry when I went to watch Parineeta and found that Chali Radhe raani, which was such a big hit, was filmed on an 80-plus old man! My heart sank. Slowly, my fears were realised. But I have no regrets. I came here after learning classical music and in a way my aim was to sing classical numbers, which I got in abundance. I sang classical songs better than others, but soon came a time when I was called for every kind of song along with Rafi. The rest were all great singers, but had their limitations. Rafi and I could sing everything, and he was such a gentleman. He was a better singer than me, and I will say this - that no one came even close to him! He deserved everything he got!"
Manna Dey Mention that Rafi had once told a scribe, "You listen to my songs. I listen only to Manna Dey!" and he feels that it was Rafi's greatness. "We recorded so many songs together right till Laxmi-Pyare's Waqt Ki Deewar in 1981. We had a great understanding and it was never about one-upmanship, " he recalls.
A curious point: Why did a classicist like him barely sing for the classical music-oriented Naushad? "He had a terrific understanding with Mohammed Rafi, that's why!" he thunders. "That's all right! Naushadsaab did give me some very good songs in Palki, Shabab and Mother India. And very few could match Naushadsaab in classical songs, and he was such a perfectionist."
Manna Dey, for those who came in late, was groomed and mentored by his uncle, composer-singer K.C.Dey, who brought him to Mumbai after he grew up in their joint family in Kolkata. Prabodh Chandra Dey, the boy for whom K.C.Dey was second father, teacher and everything else, was also named "Manna" Dey by him. "He was everything to me. He gave me a break in Tamanna in 1942. But my first film to make waves was Ram Rajya in 1943." However it was only with Mashal (1950) that Manna Dey got his real breakthrough. "Badri Prasad, for whom I sang in Ram Rajya, was not a big star, Ashok Kumar in Mashal was!" sums up Manna Dey succinctly. "Rafi was on the scene and it was tough to break into tge big league."
Mashal brought him very close to S.D.Burman, who later was to explore the full Manna Dey range from Chalti Ki Naam Gaadi's Baaju samjho ishare to Meri Soorat Teri Ankhen's Pooncho na kaise maine rain bitayee. "He was very fond of me. We knew each other since he was learning from my uncle." Kalyanji-Anandji and Roshan were two other composers of whom the singer was very fond. "Kalyanji-Anandji composed some beautiful songs for me like Kasme vaade (Upkar), Yaari hai imaan (Zanjeer) and Nadiya chale (Safar). Roshan was a master and gave me fabulous songs in Dil Hi To Hai, Dooj Ka Chand, Barsat Ki Raat and others and they were really superb compositions."
Manna Dey Despite his classical inclinations, Mannada was very fond of Western music, and sang in his college choirs. Did that help in his Western numbers like Aao twist karen (Bhoot Bungla), Jodi hamari (Aulad) and others? "It must have, because playback is about observation and learning from listening as well. My wife Sulochana was also responsible for teaching me a lot of Western nuances, and you may be interested in knowing that I used those finer points even in the way I rendered Aye mere pyare watan for Kabuliwala!"
Finally, we ask why he has sung in so many languages but opened his account in mother-tongue Bengali only after he made it in Hindi films? "I came to Mumbai then because I did not want to do what everyone was doing in Kolkata. But then came a time when distributors would refuse to touch a Bengali film if it did not have my song in it!"