Courtesy: Ei Samay, Bengali daily, Calcutta. October 25, 2013. Artist: Arindam Majumdar.
I could write so much about Manna Dey. I feel like I could write a book.
Last week, he left us. He was old and his health quit. But his music is never going to be old. His songs are never going to quit us.
In fact, if someone says, can you describe what his music was like — in one word?
I would say, well…really…I can’t. If you gave me a few words, then I would say, inspirational, pure magic, and a lot of fun.
Nobody, and I carefully use the word — nobody — was so versatile, so extremely skilled, and so full of life, when it comes to my somewhat okay knowledge of modern Indian music. His voice control, his modulations, his pronunciation and accent, his drama, his ability to understand the mood and melody of the song — every single song he recorded — were phenomenal.
Let’s visit history quickly. In India, we’ve never had any lack of very highly skilled musicians — vocal or instrumental.
We’ve had illustrious classical musicians such as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar, Nikhil Banerjee, Vilayet Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali, Begum Akhtar, Malabika Kanan, Annapurna, Girija Devi, Bismillah Khan, V. G. Jog. This is just a short list of Hindustani genre artistes.
We’ve had famous Bombay film playback singers such as Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Geeta Dutt, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosale, Talat Mahmud, Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar. Again, this is only a short list of Hindi playback singers. I’m sure there is a whole host of famous singers in movies made in Punjab, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu or Assam.
In Bengal, where we’ve also had thousands of non-film songs coming out on every festive occasion, we’ve seen glorious voices such as Hemanta Mukherjee, Pratima Banerjee, Sandhya Mukherjee, Shyamal Mitra, Mrinal Chakraborty, Arati Mukherjee, Manabendra Mukherjee, Nirmala Mishra, or Anup Ghosal. I’ve missed at least a dozen equally illustrious artists.
I could go on and on.
Each singer, each artist had their own style. Hemanta Mukherjee had his signature romantic style when he sang Hindi or Bengali film songs. He had his inimitable, sombre mood performing Tagore. Kishore Kumar was pure joy with his strong, masculine, overpowering style and one-of-a-kind yodeling. Mukesh and Mohammad Rafi were known for their own brand of romantic songs that ruled Bollywood in the fifties and sixties.
Likewise, famous female singers such as Lata Mangeshkar and her sister Asha Bhosale made their indelible marks in the modern Indian music world. Geeta Dutt, before her untimely death, swept India — both Bombay and Bengal — by storm with her wonderfully charming voice. There was a time when no romantic film song would be sung without borrowing Geeta Dutt and Hemant Kumar or Mohammad Rafi’s voice.
Manna Dey, for some strange reason, never got the same top ranking. For some reason I never understood, he was always ranked the second best by the media and the moguls. For those sixty-plus years he nearly 4,000 songs in ten-plus languages, he never enjoyed the status Mohammad Rafi, Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar or Lata Mangeshkar did. Even Lata Mageshkar admitted it in an interview last week.
Yet, looking back, I can’t think of one single performer who had talents so versatile that nobody else could ever match!
Going back to the question I had before, yes, I have one word for Manna Dey: FUN.
I shall talk more about his fun. Like I said, I could write a book on him. At least I feel like doing it.
Appreciating him more than ever before,
Brooklyn, New York