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‘I have sung my heart out’
He was the last surviving great from the age when melody was king. A remarkably modest man, PRABODH CHANDRA (MANNA) DEY wore his status as legend very lightly. Despite rendering over 4,000 memorable numbers in many languages, especially Hindi and Bengali, he never reached the iconic strata that his fans insist he deserved. But he was a happy man who, in the twilight of his career, was content to reminisce the sweeping changes in the world of Indian film music. In an interview that began in Delhi and ended at his 200-year-old ancestral home, 9 Madan Ghosh Lane, in north Kolkata, Dey talked with abandon to The Pioneer Editor-in-Chief CHANDAN MITRA, way back in 2004. Excerpts:
Many people say you are film world’s most under-rated and under-recognised singers despite being so phenomenally talented. Does this bother you?
It used to. I would be very hurt at being overlooked when it came to singing for the hero. Some music directors, such as Naushad saab, never used me, always relying on Rafi for the male voice. As a result, I never sang for Dilip Kumar. In my days of struggle, some producers were positively indecent. I will tell you two incidents to explain what I have undergone and how God has been on my side.
Bharat Bhushan was a big hero in the 1950s, especially after his Baiju Bawra became a major hit. His brother Shashi Bhushan decided to produce Basant Bahar and hired Shankar-Jaikishan to score the music. Shankar was my mentor in the film world and always pushed my case especially if the tunes were classical-based or very fast. They had composed Sur Na Saje, a really beautiful number. Rehearsals were complete and we were about to record when Shashi Bhushan heard I was to sing it. He said, ‘Nothing doing, get Rafi.’ Shankar argued but the producer would not listen. I was feeling very humiliated when Bharat Bhushan walked in. He heard the debate and finally said, ‘Let Manna sing now. We will see what to do later.’ As you know, the song became a very big hit. At stage shows, I am requested to sing it even now.
Another time, we were about to record Yeh Raat Bheegi Bheegi for the Raj Kapoor Nargis starrer, Chori Chori. It was a South Indian production by AVM, which was owned by some Chettiar. He had just flown into Mumbai that day and drove straight to the studio to attend the recording. As he entered, he yelled, ‘I don’t see Mukesh. Where is Mukesh?’ Shankar told him, ‘You don’t see Mukesh because Manna Dey is singing this number.’ Chettiar was very angry. ‘Cancel the recording,’ he ordered, turned to me and said, ‘You go home.’ At that point Raj saab really got annoyed. He told Chettiar, ‘Manna and Manna alone will sing this number whether you like it or not.’ Few people dared to talk to a big producer like that, but then, few producers had the guts to disobey Raj Kapoor. Reluctantly, Chettiar had to allow the recording to proceed. When I finished, the same Chettiar (he was quite fat) grabbed me and wouldn’t release me from his hug!
But you are right. I never got what I fully deserved. You see I was born into a very proud family. We had no ego but we were proud of our talent. So, I couldn’t do the rounds of producers and music directors’ homes, get into Mumbai’s sharabi-kababi culture, or sit in the durbars of big heroes. Most struggling singers have to do that even now. I was a struggling singer in my early years in Mumbai and, thereafter, when I did gain acceptance, I got somewhat typecast. Only a few music directors would experiment with me as the hero’s voice. But I don’t grudge anybody anything. I have sung my heart out, I have got people’s love in return, I love to sing even now; I have led a contented life. What more can a person ask for? I am very happy the way I am.
How did you get into singing in the first place?
Honestly, I didn’t know singing till Kaka (paternal uncle KC Dey, who, along with Raichand Boral, pioneered the art of film music in India even before KL Saigal) chose me. We were a joint family, all of us lived under one roof and I had many brothers and sisters. Now, I don’t really know why Kaka selected me from this lot to be his disciple. Till I finished graduation from Kolkata University in 1941, he never encouraged me to take interest in music. But as soon as I graduated, he began training me. My God! What rigorous training he made me undergo for years. He was himself a very disciplined man and his training was as rigid. Actually, he made no compromises about professional matters and was extremely rigid about his values too. He would always say don’t desire what you don’t deserve.
Are you saying that till you were in your early 20s, you had no musical training at all? How then did you know whether you would make a good singer?
I didn’t know anything. I did what Kaka asked me to. It is all destiny. Many people don’t know, Kaka’s musical genius blossomed only after he became blind at the age of 13. I was told by my elders that only after that tragedy did he suddenly develop an urge to learn music and the family woke up to his phenomenal ability. His fame spread rapidly and Harendra Nath Sil, one of Kolkata’s biggest zamindars of the time, adopted him. I believe a Phaeton (horse-drawn carriage) used to be sent from the Sil estate close to Rabindra Nath Tagore’s family house at Jorasanko, every day at 9 am. After a whole day of training and singing to invited audiences at the zamindar’s house, Kaka would be dropped home only by 9 pm. Imagine, what a gruelling life it must have been for a teenager. But he became so famous so quickly that his name was a household word in Kolkata. By the age of 18, he was a sensation. That time, this city was the hub of India’s film industry. New Theatres and companies like that were booming. So, Kaka got picked up by the film world.
Do you remember the first number you sang for a film?
Of course, how can one forget? It was for a film called Ram Rajya made by Prakash Pictures. I had moved to Mumbai and music director Shankar Rao Vyas liked me as a struggling artiste. The song was recorded in both Hindi and Marathi as the film had two versions. Those days, the singer’s name never appeared on the record. Instead the name of the character in the film who lipped the song was put on the credits. So my name is not there on my first ever record!
What were the recording sessions like in the 1940s?
Oh, they were very tedious and long-drawn. We had to rehearse for hours. There were only two mikes for recording both voice and instruments. Also sound-proofing was poor, so recordings usually happened late at night to minimise outside sounds. When new technology came, it brought a lot of changes. Microphones became very sensitive and captured every movement of the voice. Some singers suffered because of this technology. For example, my friend Talat Mahmood’s career was over once recording systems changed. Voice modulation was his biggest asset but in the new, sensitive technology, the trembling of his voice got highly exaggerated and did not sound good any more. So music directors discarded him. Let me tell you, even Mohammad Rafi was initially shaken by the new technology when it came in the 60s. But he worked hard to adjust to it.
How did you get selected by Raj Kapoor as his alternate voice?
It was all thanks to Shankar who knew me and appreciated my versatility. He came like a dhruvtara into my life and moulded my career. But I was surprised myself when he chose me to sing for Boot Polish...
But you gave your voice earlier in Awara for the dream sequence, Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi in which you sang the second half, Yeh Nahi Hai, Yeh Nahi Hai Zindagi...
Oh, could be. I don’t exactly remember the sequence. May be you are right. But my big break was Boot Polish followed by Shree 420 where Shankar gave me really good numbers. Raj Kapoor’s songs were in two categories — Mukesh and non-Mukesh. I was selected for most non-Mukesh numbers.
What was the last number you sang in films?
I remember that distinctly: Hamari Mutthi Mein Aakash Sara for Prahar (starts humming it). Nana Patekar virtually sat on dhama at my house insisting, ‘Dada, you must sing this.’ I kept saying I had given up film songs. He wouldn’t listen. Then Laxmi, of the Laixmikant-Pyarelal duo, who used to stay in Juhu-Parle where I also lived, came over and pressed me very hard. I agreed.
Why did you never get into composing music?
I believed it was not my line. Kaka composed many tunes although he had no Western classical training. But somehow, I never thought of getting into music direction in a big way. I have worked closely with top music directors of my time. They would be engrossed in composing. I have seen Shankar-Jaikishan preoccupied from morning till night thinking up tunes. SD Burman always looked lost to the world because he was obsessed with composing melodies. It is difficult to combine composition with rendition. Only a few people like Hemanta (Mukherjee) could do it.
But I remember you have composed some haunting melodies like Main Bhi Ek Mumtaz Thi and Sawan KiRimjhim Mein Thirak Thirak Nachey, apart from Bengali numbers like Lalita Okey Aaj Choley Jetey BoloNa...
My God, you are a real fan of mine! How do you remember these songs? Yes, I have composed many non-film numbers on poems written by people like Madhukar Rajasthani. But in the non-filmi category, you aren’t into competition, you don’t become part of the rat race. In Bengali, I similarly gave music to several non-film, Puja numbers. These were more for personal satisfaction than commercial intention.
You just mentioned SD Burman but you have sung great numbers for his son too. What was working with RD like?
He was just too creative, too talented. He lived, dreamed and breathed music. He wanted rhythmic sounds interspersed in his songs and wanted me to do that. But I would tell him that he was very good doing ‘ha-aha-ha-aha-ha’ in the interludes. That’s how he started and made that his trademark! People used to say he lifted Western tunes. That’s not true. He only used them for inspiration. That way even his father adapted and even directly lifted Rabindra Sangeet and folk. I remember a funny incident when Sachin Karta read an interview of Pancham in which he claimed partial credit for composing Roop Tera Mastana (Aradhana). I happened to be there and Sachin da was very angry. He called Pancham and demanded an explanation saying that the basic tune was borrowed from a folk tune of Comilla in East Bengal and how dare anybody claim credit for composing it! Pancham stood sheepishly, without uttering a word! By the way, Sachin was a great football freak, a staunch supporter of East Bengal Club. He would drag me to watch football matches in Mumbai. On many Sundays we would travel from Goregaon to Cooperage in a local train to see a football match. In pre-television days you were not even recognised.
You belong to a generation that produced the greatest male singers of our age. Who was the most talented of the lot?
Undoubtedly Kishore. He was simply fantastic, especially considering he had no formal training in music. He was also a very colourful personality, always laughing and making others laugh. Of course, unlike us, he was very money-minded which was perhaps a good thing because those days, singers were often shortchanged. It is said he would walk out of a recording halfway if the money wasn’t paid. He had a driver called Abdul who would be sent off to the producer’s house to collect the fee in case it had not been paid in advance. Kishore would start singing but his expression would change according to the sign Abdul made from across the glass partition of the recording studio. He would beam if Abdul indicated in the positive, or make an excuse and stop midway if the indication was negative! But his singing was just marvellous. I remember just staring at him almost to the point of losing my cue while recording Yeh Dosti for Sholay. He was simply mesmerising.
I read somewhere you were unhappy at the recording of the Padosan duet Ek Chatur Naar because you had to render the funny parts and lose the contest to Kishore...
What rubbish! There never was any difference between Kishore and me. I sang that song very happily and it was a really entertaining recording. In any case, I was quite reconciled to being Mehmood’s voice and sing funny numbers. In fact, I have always revelled in versatility. I didn’t mind singing Mere Bhains Ko Danda Kyon Mara for Shammi Kapoor in Pagla Kahin Ka.
Getting back to singers of your time, how would you rate their abilities?
Although I was closest to Talat Mahmood among the singers and felt sorry he destroyed himself by trying to become an actor, I believe Kishore was the best, followed by Rafi and Hemant da. Of them, Kishore and Hemant da had God-gifted voices. Rafi was a mix of a good voice and training. I honestly don’t place myself in the same category because mine is a trained voice. I have no hesitation in saying they were better than me.
You have always emphasised phonetics, perfected various accents and sung in many languages. Did you train for that too?
Of course. Before I attempted to sing qawwalis and ghazals, I seriously studied Urdu and Farsi. One Sayyid saab was engaged by Kaka to teach me Urdu. I have probably sung the maximum number of qawwalis in films, although most people remember only Na Toh Karvaan Ki Talaash hai from Barsaat Ki Raat. I was a great fan of Mir and Ghalib and memorised many ghazals (recites one of his favourites in perfect diction). Some of their ghazals conveyed extraordinarily powerful thoughts in a very simple way. I often got Bengali lyricists like Pulak Bandopadhyay to translate these ideas into Bengali songs.
You have sung many romantic duets with Lata Mangeshkar. What was your equation with her?
Excellent, I never had any problem. She was a kid when I was already an established singer. I distinctly remember reaching Bombay Talkies for a recording for Anil da (Biswas) and noticing a small, dark girl in ponytails sitting on a bench. Anil da said, ‘Manna, have you heard this little girl sing? She is Dina Nath Mangeshkar’s daughter.’ Then, turning to her he said, ‘Lata inko ek gaana suna do.’ (Sing a song for them). Immediately, she burst into a classical number. Her voice was truly mellifluous, even though at that stage it was not fully trained. I remember telling Anil da, she was a prodigy. Lata really struggled hard to rise in the cruel world of filmdom. That’s why when people say rude things about the Mangeshkar monopoly, I get angry. Both Asha, who is an equally talented singer, and she had to work very hard to secure their place and what do you expect: They should give up everything just like that?
How do you see the present times? Do you think there is any talent in the present crop?
Of course there is. May be music directors today don’t have a niche like say Madan Mohan, Roshan or C Ramchandra, but that doesn’t mean they are not talented. That reminds me of an incident. I had recorded a song, which entailed coughing in between verses. C Ramchandra happened to pass by and heard that. Past midnight, when we were sleeping, the doorbell rang. We aren’t late night people and my wife was worried. I gingerly opened the door to find C Ramchandra standing outside. He simply said, ‘Manna, aaj kya khaansa tumne. Mazaa aa gaya,’ and left! You don’t get characters like that these days.
But it is not a question of talent, then and now. What has happened is that commercialism has taken over and so there is nobody legendary any more. Rajesh (Roshan) has a lot of creativity. And I find Anu Malik has a talaash in him, he tries hard to create good music. Also AR Rahman is very talented. He may not know much music, which is why his tunes get repetitive, but his command over orchestration is sensational. I really liked the way he blended classical and folk in Lagaan.
And what about the singers?
Well, I will always be partial to Kavita (Krishnamurthy) because I have groomed her...
Isn’t she your relative?
No, no, many people make the same mistake. She is a Tamilian, my wife is a Malayali. Kavita’s father was a diplomat. One day, he came to our house with her and said, ‘She wants to learn from you.’ I said, ‘Sorry, I don’t teach.’ But they were adamant. My wife liked Kavita very much and persuaded me to make an exception. That’s how it all began. For 20 years, Kavita accompanied me to every concert at home and abroad. She has a bold, forthright voice, which is why she can do numbers like Hawa Hawai with such ease. I think she is a terrific singer. But these two new girls, Sunidhi Chauhan and Shreya Ghoshal, are very good too. Among the men, I like Udit Narayan and Sonu Nigam.
Finally, tell me some of your favourite songs, those you would like succeeding generations to remember...
My favourites are only romantic or soulful numbers although I am a great believer in versatility. I am glad I have sung O Meri Maina (Pyar Kiye Jaa) to Laga Chunri Mein Daag. I loved the soulful Aami Je Jalsagharer for the Bengali film Anthony Feringhee which gave my Bengali career a big fillip and then went on to sing the comic number Ami Agantuk in Shankhabela. In that film, I had a duet with Lata, Kay Pratham Kachhe Eshechhi which I rate among my favourites. In Hindi, I think some of my best numbers were Tum Gagan Ke Chandrama Ho, Sur Na Saje, Pyar Hua Iqraar Hua, Yeh Raat Bheegi Bheegi, Tum Bin Jeevan Kaisa Jeevan, Na Jaane Kahan Tum Thay, Re Man Sur Mein Gaa... The count can go on. But I believe whatever I sang, I sang with sincerity and commitment. My greatest reward is people still want to hear me and come for my concerts. My daughter had persuaded me to migrate to California, I went there but felt cut off from my music. I told my wife I would die the day music was taken away from me. So we came back. I have led a contented life and desire nothing more than people’s admiration, which I have got in abundance. See you have come all the way to interview me. What more can a singer want except recognition and love?
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