I am listening to Poochho na kaise maine rain bitaayi as I write this. I am hearing Manna Dey’s voice, bringing so much emotion, so much frustrated longing into “Ut jale deepak, it mann mera; phir bhi na jaaye mere mann ka andhera”. And I am remembering all the other songs of Manna Dey that I’ve loved over the years. Songs that I grew up with (and, more often than not back then, didn’t know who sang them). Songs that I loved from the very first moment I heard them. Songs that have grown on me. Songs that make Manna Dey immortal, even though he’s no more.
Manna Dey (May 1, 1919-October 24, 2013) was not one of my first loves when it came to playback singing. Before TV came into our lives, we’d listen to the radio, or to my parents’ substantial collection of LPs. By the time I was 10 or so, I had heard Ameen Sayani mention—in his introduction to songs on Binaca Geetmala—names like Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh. But the first male singer whose voice I was able to recognize was Hemant. Then came Mukesh. Then, perhaps, Talat.
There were lots of songs, though, that I loved, even though I didn’t know who had sung them.
I remember watching Chori-Chori, for example, when I was about eleven. We lived in Srinagar, and the film was being shown on Doordarshan. I’d never been fond of Raj Kapoor’s films, and part of the reason for that was that I didn’t (back then) particularly care for RK’s quintessential voice, Mukesh. Too nasal for my taste.
So it came as a pleasant surprise to realize that Chori-Chori was chockfull of absolutely lovely RK songs. Songs I’d heard many times before, and which I’d loved. Aaja sanam madhur chaandni mein hum, or Yeh raat bheegi-bheegi. No nasal tones there, just a gorgeously seductive male voice, smooth and beautiful and so very sensual.
Around the same time, I watched Anand, and fell in love with Zindagi kaisi hai paheli.
And Bhoot Bangla, where I came across Aao twist karein, so utterly rollicking and madcap.
And Savera, which featured what remains, even now, my favourite kiddie song from Hindi cinema, the delightfully playful Chhuppa-chhuppi o chhuppi.
When we shifted from Srinagar to Delhi, I was nearly thirteen. In our school assembly, we’d have the usual school prayer, the national anthem, the pledge, a patriotic song in a regional language—and, occasionally, a solo song (always a patriotic one). One of my classmates used to be often called upon to sing solo. And she always sang the same song. A song that moved even a jaded veteran of countless school assemblies like me. Its words were Ae mere pyaare watan, ae mere bichhde chaman. It gave me gooseflesh.
Along the way, I came to recognize Manna Dey’s voice. I realized that a lot of my favourite songs were his songs. And songs that were never predictable. Yes, Prabodh Chandra Dey was a trained classical singer and is probably best remembered for gems like Poochho na kaise maine rain bitaayi or Laaga chunri mein daag—but this was also the man who was, in so many songs, Mehmood’s ‘voice’ (remember O meri maina? Ek chatur naar? Aao twist karein?)
His was also the voice of fabulously folksy songs: Chalat musaafir moh liya re pinjrewaali muniya, Chunri sambhaal gori udi chali jaaye re, Dil ka haal sune dilwaala. His was the voice of romance, of everything from the dewy-eyed dreaminess of Na jaane kahaan tum thhe to the more mature, self-assured affection of O meri zohrajabeen, to the hopeful Kaun aaya mere mann ke dwaare. His was the voice of qawwalis like Na toh kaarvaan ki talaash hai, of bhajans (Tu pyaar ka saagar hai remains one of the few devotional songs from Hindi cinema that I like), of club songs, of ghazals, of just about every genre of song out there.
That is what I love and admire about Manna Dey: his versatility, his immense range of songs, his ability to imbue his songs with so much emotion—whether that emotion was a deep love for one’s motherland, or pathos, or a rollicking don’t-give-a-damn. This was the man after one of whose songs a restaurant chain was named. This was the man Madan Mohan bribed with a mutton-bhindi curry to get him to sing a song. This was the man for whom Balraj Sahni put in a special request to sing playback for him in Waqt.
An era has gone. Manna Dey, the last of the great male playback singers of the golden years, has passed on. His voice will live on, though, and that will be some consolation. Some.
I would have liked to do a ‘Ten of my favourite Manna Dey songs’ on this occasion, but I’ve already done that, several years back. So I will restrict myself to listing ten wonderful Manna Dey songs that weren’t on that list (either because I hadn’t heard of them yet, or because I hadn’t seen the film in question, or because it simply slipped my mind).
Here is the list, in no particular order:
1. Upar gagan vishaal, neeche gehra paataal (Mashaal, 1950)
2. Chalat musaafir moh liya re (Teesri Kasam, 1966)
3. Laaga chunri mein daag (Dil Hi Toh Hai, 1963)
4. Dharti kahe pukaarke (Do Bigha Zameen, 1953)
5. Chhuppa-chhuppi o chhuppi (Savera, 1958)
6. Chunri sambhaal gori udi chali jaaye re (Bahaaron ke Sapne, 1967)
7. Aan milo aan milo shyaam saanwre (Devdas, 1955)
8. Pyaar bhari yeh ghataayein (Qaidi No. 911, 1959)
9. Na jaane kahaan tum thhe (Zindagi aur Khwaab, 1961)
10. Zulfon ki ghata lekar (Reshmi Rumaal, 1960)
And here, if you’d like to listen to them, is the playlist I’ve created, on Youtube. Besides these songs, I’ve also added in the playlist the ten songs that comprised my earlier Manna Dey list.
Sit back, relax, enjoy. And thank the man whose voice you’re listening to. RIP, Manna Dey. Thank you for the music.