In Memoriam: Was Manna Dey (1919-2013) too much of a gentleman to succeed in Mumbai ?

Think of Manna Dey and a dozen classic classicals begin to play hide-and-seek in our mind. May 1 being his birth anniversary, here are excerpts from an interview he gave Subhash K Jha in 1997

In Memoriam: Was Manna Dey (1919-2013) too much of a gentleman to succeed in Mumbai ?

Subhash K Jha

Think of Manna Dey and a dozen classic classicals begin to play hide-and-seek in the corridors of our mind. This constantly shortchanged singer has given Hindi music listeners such glorious evergreens as Kaun aaya mere man ke dware' (Dekh Kabira Roya), 'Ae mere pyare watan' (Kabuliwalla), *Kasme vaade pyar wafaa sab' (Upkaar), ‘Laga chunri mein daag' (Dil Hi To Hai) and “Tujhko chalna hoga' (Safar). Excerpts from the interview taken in 1997.

The other day I was speaking to a music director. He said, "Manna Dey was too much of a gentleman to become a success in Mumbai."
(Laughs). I keep myself away from the industry. Certain things there never appealed to me. For instance the drinking. I don't drink. Secondly, there is the gossiping. My uncle's doctrine always played in my mind. He said, 'If you don't deserve it, don't desire it.

Competition in your times was rigid. Perhaps your lack of pushiness prevented you from claiming the success that was rightfully yours?

You are being too lenient about my failings. When I started singing there were quite a few stalwarts all around me - Mohd Rafi, Talat Mehmood, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar. There were only a limited number of songs in films. If a hero wanted Mr Rafi to sing for him, naturally it had to be him. Then if it was Dilip Kumar, who is a softspoken man, he naturally wanted Talat Mehmood. Raj Kapoor wanted only Mukesh. All of them had beautiful voices. Now you tell me, where did I stand a chance? I was given to sing songs like my uncle, in a stentorian voice.

I think they branded you a character singer.

Absolutely. In Bimalda's Do Bigha Zameen I sang a popular song 'Dharti kahe pukar ke' for Balraj Sahni. But in that film he looked emaciated, down-and-out. So that became my image. My song 'Chali radhe rani' became popular. But it was filmed on a beggar: So they branded me a side singer. You wouldn't believe it. But I used to weep about this. A young man like me had to sing only one type of songs! I don't know how their minds work in this film industry.
Would you say being part of a team is important for success?

Yes, unless he's taken in hand by a capable composer, a new singer has no chance. Of course Rafi saab had talent. But Naushad took him under his wings and groomed him.

Seen in that way even Lata Mangeshkar wouldn't have been what she is without the confidence shown in her abilities by Sajjad Husain, Ghulam Haider and Naushad.

But when Lata was coming up the other lady singers like Zohrabai Ambewali and Shamshad Begum didn't have her sophistication. Lata has a very very rare talent. I wouldn't say she has been taught music. Woh sun sun ke bani hai. She learnt from Noor Jehan. She even learnt by listening to Geeta Dutt. But Lata polished all the weaknesses in Geeta's throat.

At a time when you were hardly given love duets to sing how did you manage to get the haunting Soch ke yeh gagan jhoome' in the film jyoti?

Oh, I love that song! I don't think I was chosen by Burmanda. The picture Jyoti was produced by a gentleman called Alexander. He was a football buff like me. He insisted ke yeh gaana Manna Dey gayega.

But isn't it tragic that a singer like you who's sung such lovely love duets needed recommendation?
Believe me, I've thought about it many times. At one point I made up my mind to leave the film industry. I didn't have a Godfather and I didn't believe in asking for work. Yeh sab mujhse hota nahin tha. The turning point in my life was my marriage. Even though my wife was a Keralite she could sing Rabindra Sangeet beautifully. After marriage we would sing together at home.
Is it absolutely necessary to be pushy to make it big?
I'll tell you an incident. Years back, once when I was in Calcutta I got a call from Raj Kapoor's office informing me that I was to attend his daughter's wedding. I refused. Even Raj saab called me, which was a big happening. But how could I abandon all my recordings in Cálcutta and go running? This kind of attitude did a lot of damage to my career.

I feel, apart from a few composers like Sachin Dev Burman and Madan Mohan, the rest could hardly sign even their names. I was the only singer who made notations before recording a song. I taught the same to Lata and Asha but they never made good use of it. I used to work on the songs beforehand. When I came for recordings I could sing the number after only one rehearsal. I've always been a perfectionist. I took utmost care over every song that I sang so that even today people want to listen to them.

Did you turn to singing comedy songs for Mehmood for want of better opportunities?
Yes, that aspect of my singing was due mainly to Padosan. Earlier SD Burman had made me sing for Mehmood in Ziddi ('Pyar ki aag mein tan badan jal gaya'). He trusted me with his songs. I believe, to be genuinely humorous, one has to be a little educated. Without education you end up with the sense of humour of a rickshawallah.

Which other singers of the post-Mangeshkar generation had potential?
Anuradha Paudwal had a lot of potential. If whatever happened in her life didn't happen she would have taken Lata's place 10 years ago. She could surpass herself in certain songs. Her voice quality is terrific.

But don't you think Lata's influence on her voice is really heavy?
- Why not? Lata's influence had to be there. Someone has to serve as an inspiration for all singers.

And whom did you copy?
I used to copy my uncle KC Dey when I was young. When I'd sing his bhajans in college my friends would scold me for singing old men's songs.

Among male singers whom do you admire?
I'm a great fan of Mohammed Rafi. Suresh Wadkar's pronounciation is faulty. I think now they're making too much of him. It does a lot of harm to the singer. The composers we grew up with, Burman saab, Shankar-Jaikishan, Roshan, Madan Mohan, they used to compose songs according to the charac- ters on screen.

I've heard that music directors those days weren't at all to open suggestions. Is this true?
Oh no. Any song that I sang, I'd offer my suggestions. There came a time when even Laxmikant-Pyarelal used to take my suggestions. Invariably I'd be at the recording studio by 10 am before everyone else. I'd say it was very nice of the composers to place their faith in me. Except Naushad saab. He was too much of a perfectionist to take anyone's suggestions.

Do you know of any other singer whose suggestions were accepted by composers?
Lata. When Lata was given a free hand by certain music directors she used to excel herself. The nuances that she put into her songs, no one else could.

The last Hindi film song you sang was for Prahaar. Haven't you been approached for other songs?
They call me up sometimes. Jatin-Lalit called me the other day. I told them, “Tum ga lo na. Tumhari awaaz toh acchi aa rahee hai telephone par.' (Laughs).

You've always been ruining your own career.
Look, unless I'm absolutely at home with a composition I can't sing it. I know what they'll compose for me. Even for the song in Prahaar, Nana Patekar came personally to request me. I refused. But he refused to budge unless I agreed. Laxmikant-Pyarelal also called. When I rehearsed the song, I found it was almost made for me. But Laxmi-Pyare had their own way of thinking. I didn't subscribe to their theory of romantic composition. SD Burman, Shankar-Jaikishen, Roshan knew the art of romantic compositions. But Kalyanji-Anandji and Laxmi-Pyare wouldn't think the same way.

Don't you wish you had more hits in hindi films?
You should listen to my Bengali songs. I've sung any number of them. My entry into Bangla films was very late. Calcutta was full of Hemant Kumar. They wouldn't let me enter there. A producer, Saroj Kumar De, promised that he'd let me sing when he made a film. He made me sing for Uttam Kumar. That really helped my career. After that, each and every song of Uttam Kumar was sung by me. Hindi composers want to know how I infused so much of romanticism into my Bangla songs. But where are such songs in Hindi?

Did you record private songs in Hindi because of lack of opportunities in Hindi films?
Again, those are my tunes. The music directors in India never tried to find out my worth. The poet Madhukar Rajasthani once came to me with the lyrics Yeh sunsan ganga ka kinara/Pyar ka antim sahara / So raha koi kismat ka mara ... I tuned it there and then. Rajasthani said, “Mannada when you tune songs so easily I feel like calling producers to hear the end results." Then I sang Nathni se toota moti re. I got a letter from Mehndi Hassan saab. He wanted to know how a film singer could sing a non-film song so well.

What do you think of today's composers?
I don't like them. My wife and I think we're going back to the jungles (laughs).

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.