In the early 1990s, when the concept of Sharad Samman awards caught the fancy of Durga puja organisers in Kolkata, they were faced with a strange conundrum. The popular Bollywood numbers that blared through the mikes of the pandals would not please the jury members of the awards committee, the strains of shehnai that was played during most Bengali occasions would sound too solemn. The need was of something that encapsulated the best of both worlds. A suitable background music to the festival which would be classy, beautiful, undeniably Bengali and also easily identifiable for the millions that thronged the pandals. And then “Coffee houser shei adda aaj aar nei” wafted through mikes across the city. Manna Dey was the answer.
It’s strange how nostalgia and Manna Dey’s voice walked hand in hand for most of us, strange because he was one of the most modern singers of all times, constantly reinventing himself, wearing different masks. If he was the confused, fumbling and quintessentially Bengali lover in “Ami kon pathey je choli” in the 1971 film Chhadmabeshi (music and lyrics by Sudhin Dasgupta), he was also the brazen“roadside romeo” in “Ke tumi Nandini, aage toh dekhini” (Teen Bhubaner Paare, 1969). I was a silent witness as he cajoled my mother with “Ami jamini, tumi sashi hey” (Antony Firingee, 1967), we hummed his “Ami sri sri Bhajohori Manna” (Pratham Kadam Phool, 1970) during our picnic trips. In a way, Manna Dey’s songs connected generations of Bengalis. If our parents nodded their heads in wistful agreement to his “Coffee houser shei adda aaj aar nei” (the conversations in coffee house happen no more), so did we. It was a perfect example of inherited nostalgia.
In the world of Hindi cinema, Manna Dey was the enigmatic chameleon who never really could be pinned down to one specific genre. My parent’s generation discussed Kishore Kumar and Mohammad Rafi with as much passion as Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna. Mukesh and Mahendra Kapoor too had a place in this revered pantheon of demi-gods, but Manna Dey occupied a special place there. He was spoken of with hushed tones, like a mysterious deity whose powers were still to be determined. There was no way of categorising him as the voice of a certain superstar, as was the trend of those days. If he stole Raj Kapoor away from his favourite Mukesh in one of his most celebrated love songs, “Pyar Hua Iqrar Hua” (Shree 420, 1955), he also gave his voice to the most hated villains of those times, Pran, in “Yaari hai imaan mera” (Zanjeer,1973).
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When he sang the duet “Ek chatur naar” in 1968’s iconic comedy Padosan with Kishore Kumar, it was a lost battle, at least on screen. He was the playback singer of the adversary (Mehmood) as opposed to Kishore Kumar singing for himself, and for the hero (Sunil Dutt). But then Manna Dey trumped and how. For Manna Dey did something that only the rarest playback singer can do, he became the character. For the entire length of the song, he was the disgruntled, classically-trained South Indian singer. He was hopelessly in love with his pretty student (Saira Bano). He was being upped by the rogue next door (Sunil Dutt).
Interestingly, Dey himself was a classically trained singer belonging to a family of well-known singers in Kolkata. His ancestral residence in North Kolkata, 9 Madan Ghosh Lane, is an address famous not only because of him, residents of the locality insist. “Manna da is of course the most famous resident of this area, but we know this house as the house of musicians. His elder brother Pranab Dey and his uncle Krishna Chandra Dey were also famous,” says Rekha Rani Ghosh, a resident of the area. “His uncle, Krishna Chandra Dey was a famous musician. He was the mentor of Manna Dey while my father Pranab Dey was a famous Tollywood music director of the 1940s for whom Hemant Kumar sang his first song,” says Basudeb Dey, nephew of Manna Dey. It was KC Dey who inspired Manna Dey’s Bollywood career.
As a child, Manna Dey grew up with music that his uncle dabbled with- the soft strains of Baul songs, Rabindra-sangeet and khayal. KC Dey acquainted Manna Dey with the subtleties of tappa, thumri, bhajan and qawwali. When the Kolkata-based New Theaters disintegrated in 1940, KC Dey decided to try his luck in Bombay. Manna followed suit. But success didn’t come overnight to him. “He had to struggle for years. At times he also thought of leaving everything and returning to Kolkata to pursue a career in law. But then slowly, he got his due. Nothing came easily to him, he had to struggle for things. That’s what made him what he is, I guess,” says Basudeb Dey.
A few years ago, when the Dadasaheb Phalke award was finally conferred on him, Manna Dey accepted it with trademark restrain. Recently, the West Bengal government conferred the state’s prestigious ‘Vishes Sangeet Mahasamman’ award on him, which was handed over to him by the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in his Bengaluru residence. “He always accepts awards graciously, but he always has a very stoic attitude towards them. He feels his work is all that matters,” said Anuradha Dey, daughter-in-law of Manna Dey’s elder brother Prakash Chandra in an interview.
He was not very restrained about food, of course. “He loved good food. Whenever he would come down, we would cook a meal comprising his favourite dishes like chingri malai curry, shukto, cholar dal and alu bhate,” says Manna Dey’s grand-niece, Devlina Dey. After all, he had to live up to his much loved avatar, Bhajohori Manna, the gourmand who travelled across different countries to savour the best they offered.