Prabodhchandra Dey was in two minds after graduating
from Vidyasagar College, Calcutta - whether to become a barrister or a
playback singer. He was under the mesmeric spell of his illustrious uncle
K.C. Dey, the well-known singer and popular star of New Theaters. The uncle
took the nephew under his wings and the result was the phenomenon called
Manna Dey (petname 'Manna' was given by K.C. Dey), who would go on to enthrall
millions for five decades with his lilting songs that refuse to age with
Manna Dey grew up to the soft strains of Baul songs,
Rabindra-sangeet, and khayal. K.C. Dey put his nephew through the paces
acquainting him with the subtleties of tappa, thumri, bhajan and qawwali.
With the disintegration of the New Theaters in 1940, K.C. Dey left for
Bombay in search of fresh pastures. Manna joined his uncle and started
off in Bombay as the assistant to music director H.P. Das.
His first break came a year later when he recorded
a solemn number for the character of Valmiki in Vijay Bhatt's "Ram Rajya".
Years of struggle followed, at times compelling the talented singer to
wonder if his choice of career was the right one. He even thought of coming
back to Calcutta and take up his law. However, "Upar Gagan Vishal", the
marching song from "Mashaal", turned into a super-hit and made him stay
in the music line. Soon, a string of hits followed which established his
career on a firm footing.
Manna Dey was a flawless (I'm using past tense because
he seldom sings these days) singer who could sing any type of song. From
Qawwalis (Yeh Ishq Ishq hai) to romantic duets (Pyar hua iqraar hua), fast
nubers (Aaoo twist karen, Jhoomta mausam mast mahina) to patriotic songs
(Aye mere pyare watan) or prayer numbers (Tu pyar ka saagar hai) -- he
was the versatile genius. His mastery over semi-classical geets was something,
which even the multi-faceted voice of Rafi could not match. "Laga chunri
mein daag", "Tere naina talaash karen", "Poocho na kaise", "Aayo kahan
se Ghanshyam", "Jhanak jhanak tori baaje payaliya", "Phoolgendwa na maaro",
"Aaj mile man ke meet", "Tum bin jeevan" -- the list of his semi-classical
hits is endless. Being the versatile genius he was, he won the Filmfare award for his toe-tapping
number "Aae bhai zara dekh ke chalo" from "Mera Naam Joker".
The song happens to be one of the most intricate compositions
of Shankar-Jaikishen and it was the genius of Manna Dey that made it sound
so simple and fluent.
Yet the career graph of this great singer never soared
dizzy heights during his time. His deep voice was said to be unsuited for
young heroes. He was arguably the most talented among his contemporaries,
but he could never occupy the top slot. Even in his home state of West
Bengal recognition came late in the mid 60's. The Bengali audience were
spellbound by the mellifluous sweetness of Shyamal and the golden voice
of Hemanta, and for a long time had a closed ear on Manna.
However, once he established himself there was no looking back. His Bengali
compositions are all masterpieces -- 'Baaje go bina', 'Bendhona phool-o-mala
dore', 'Aami je jalsaghare', 'Kaharba noi dadra bajao', 'Behaag jodi na
hoy raaji', 'She amar chhoto bon' and of course the immortal "Coffee Houser
Belated recognotion and a low trajectory of his career
graph hardly bothers Manna Dey. "I was never in the top and honestly, I
never aspired to be in that race.", he admits. Stepped in the fine tradition
of New Theaters, his gentle low-key approach never matched the pomp and
pettiness of filmdom. 'Stubbornly unwilling to croon to the vulgar ditties
to the accompaniment of an unwieldy orchestra, the veteran indulges in
spending time in his own music room recollecting the legacy of the Golden
Era of Film Music, his uncle and New Theaters.'