If there was one man who defines Indian Classical music in Bollywood – it is Manna Dey. He had such a versatile voice that rock and roll came to him with equal ease as a heavy Raag based song.
Born as Prabodh Chandra Dey, he trained under his uncle Krishna Chandra Dey and then Ustad Dabir Khan. When he came to Mumbai, in 1942, he started working as an assistant for his uncle and then for the renowned music director Sachin Dev Burman.
His debut playback recording was in the same year for ‘Tamanna’ with the legendary Suraiyya and the song was an instant hit.
He sang for first time songs composed by Sachin Dev Burman for ‘Mashal’ in 1950, which became popular and his association with SD Burman and many subsequent hits began there.
However Manna Dey shot to fame with Bimal Roy’s ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ in 1953 where two of the songs sung by him and Lata Mangeshkar ‘Dharti kahe pukaar ke’ and ‘Hariyaala saawan dhol bajaata aaya’, composed by Salil Choudhury were superhits. Salil Choudhury and Manna Dey worked together in Hindi, Bengali and Malayalam movies till 1992.
Manna Da has many classic solo songs like ‘Aye Mere Pyare Watan’ from ‘Kabuliwala’ in 1961, ‘Pucho Na Kaise Maine Rain’ from ‘Meri Surat Teri Aankhen’ in 1963, ‘Jhanak Jhanak Tore Baje Payalia’ from ‘Mere Huzoor’ in 1965, ‘Ae Meri Zohra Jabeen’ from Waqt in 1965. These songs are still remembered today as some of the best from the era.
Manna Da’s association with Raj Kapoor was appreciated in many movies like ‘Shree 420’ for the song ‘Mud Mud Ke Na Dekh’, the romantic numbers ‘Yeh Raat Bheegi’ and ‘Aja Sanam’ from ‘Chori Chori’. The song that defined the epitome of Manna Dey and showed his prowess was ‘Laga chunari mein daag’ from ‘Dil Hi To Hai’
‘Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo’ from ‘Mera Naam Joker’, ‘Kasame Vaade Pyar’ from ‘Upkar’ that are identified with Manna da, and the films are remembered from the songs.
He recorded ‘Babu Samjho Ishaare’ for ‘Chalti Ka Naam Gadi’ with Kishore Kumar, but the most famous song that the duo san was for ‘Padosan’ – ‘Ek Chatur Naar’. It was a composition that Pancham, Kishore Da and Manna Da composed ad lib and the song is possibly one of the funniest compositions in any Hindi music lover’s playlist. The 30 or so songs that the duo recorded together, all of them went on to become superhits. He also sang songs in Bengali, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Punjabi, Maithilee, Konkani, Sindhri and Malayalam.
He is probably one of the most recognisable Bengali playback voices giving it for greats like Uttam Kumar.
He also recorded several private albums – ‘Pujo’ specials which have songs like ‘Coffee house’ which has become a youth anthem in Bengalis.
Along with number of awards from different institutions and bodies, Manna Dey was given the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1971, a Padma Bhushan in 2005 and Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 2007.
The phenomenon of Manna Dey was in his voice, in his simplicity, in his utter modesty and the fact that he was paired with the greats – singing with legends such as Bhimsen Joshi and yet standing his own. He loved music and not the peripheral fame that it got him. He is music – he has not died, his voice lives on in the music.