Manna Dey is now 93. I wish he lives for many more years. And while he’s still with us, we must savour every moment of his presence.
Back in 2005, perhaps on the occasion of his birthday (May 1), Manna was interviewed on Bangalore’s Radio City FM channel. It was a lovely interview in which Manna recounted many stories and anecdotes. Sadly I can’t recall the name of the MJ or the RJ (or whatever they call themselves these days). But that young interviewer did a fine job.
Ek chatura naar
The recording started at 9 am one morning and went on till 9 pm. With R D Burman being the composer, and Kishore Kumar and Manna being the singers, the conversation in the studio was predominantly in Bengali. Kishore Kumar’s mother fried luchis for lunch for the entire recording crew. There was much improvisation and banter during the recording which was a lot of fun. Apparently Kishore’s line towards the end: o tede, seedhe ho ja re (see 4:28) was completely impromptu and unexpected. Manna was taken aback, but RD signalled that the recording should continue.
How did Manna rate Kishore’s classical singing? “Kishore … he had no classical training at all! But he was so enormously gifted, he could pull off anything!”.
Manna on Rafi and Lata
Manna believes that Rafi and Lata had the best voices ever. “Rafi’s classical training was insufficient … while singing classical duets with him I could easily spot his weaknesses … but he made up with amazing versatility. There was something so pleasing about Rafi’s voice. No one … no one else had that appeal!”. Manna said that Lata in her prime “was the ultimate nightingale”. She was also full of surprises: “Remember that oi oi oii (see 2:30) sound that she makes in Madhumati’s bicchua song. She completely surprised me! What can I say about Lata? She’s something else!”.
Kasme vaade pyar wafa
Manna apparently refused to sing this song initially. “I didn’t want to sing for Pran in Upkar. I said I won’t sing for a villain. But Kalyanji told me that this was a Pran with a sympathetic role, so I eventually agreed. Later I also sang yaari hai immaan, but the first song was much better”.
Ae meri zohra jabeen
This song request surprised Manna. “When Ravi called me to sing ae meri zohra jabeen for Waqt, I asked him: why me? You use only Rafi or Mahendra Kapoor. Ravi said it was Balraj Sahni’s personal request that I sing”. Manna Dey later sang another good song for Balraj Sahni in Ek Phool Do Mali: tujhe suraj kahoon ya chanda.
While we all remember Lata Mangeshkar for ae mere watan ke logon, some of us forget that Manna sang an equally soulful watan song in a truly magical voice.”When I started singing ae mere pyaare watan for Kabuliwala, the sound recordist told me ‘aaj voice jam nahin raha hain’, but Bimal-da rushed in to say this is exactly what I want! This was one of my best songs. Even Pandit Nehru cried after he heard it!”.
Singing laga chunari mein daag and other songs for Raj Kapoor
It is extremely unfortunate that Manna Dey never became the voice of a film hero. He was always picked for the classical songs and the occasional comic song for the hero (and more often for Mehmood). In the mid-1950s Manna had an opportunity to pair with Raj Kapoor that never came off. Manna probably regrets this to this day He recalled: “I loved laga chunari mein daag because I sang it for Raj Kapoor. What a handsome man he was, what a personality he had! After I saw Raj Kapoor’s lip movement for that song in Dil Hi To Hai, I called him and congratulated him: Raj-bhai, you have sung a beautiful song!”.
Tere naina talaash kare
One has heard stories that both mere sapnon ki rani and roop tera mastana from Aradhana were actually composed by R D Burman. But this Manna revelation about his Talash song is still a surprise: “Do you know who really composed my Talash song: tere naina talaash karen jise? It was Pancham, R D Burman! He used to assist S D Burman those days with Basu and Manohari. What a talented boy he was!”.
I remember Manna ended off that interview by humming sur na saje, kya gaoon main from Basant Bahar. And this is what the classically most perfect singer of his time had to say about his singing: “In this life, I could not achieve perfection. I’m waiting to be reborn again!”.
— I’m grateful to Chandrashekhar Shevde and Lata Karandikar for pointing out an error in the song lyrics.