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Special tribute: Manna from Heaven

Manna Dey passed at the age of 94 on October 24, 2013. Yet a day of any celebration can become incandescent with his songs that most often would have benchmarked the genre.

Special tribute: Manna from Heaven
First Published Oct 25, 2022, 9:29 AM IST

The summer of 1974. Ravindra Rangashala, the open-air theatre amidst the dense ridge forests in Delhi wore the look of a bustling Mela Ground... After all Manna Dey was performing... Hundreds of people had poured into the concert organized by Bichitra a club of probasi Bengalis, of which my father was an active member... I was eight and running a high fever. But wild horses could not have pulled me away from the event, after all, he would sing 'Yari Hai Iman', a rage then and an iconic number now.

As luck would have it, my chronic bronchial spasms, had to make their rather acerbic appearance that day. Now we did not have fancy inhalers those days and it felt as though life was being sucked out of my lungs.

When  Prabodh Chandra Dey (May 1, 1919 − October 24, 2013 )aka  Manna Dey was in his awesome prime, he had to contend with the likes of Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Hemanta(Kumar) Mukherjee, Talat Mahmood, Mahendra Kapoor, and of course Kishore Kumar. A galaxy of geniuses whose symbiotic relationship with the superstars of the day, propelled them as well as the stars to pinnacles of popularity. Mukesh was Raj Kapoor's voice and if one's screen persona did not suit Rafi's voice, scant chance that the actor had of making it big as a hero in the fifties and sixties. As we rolled into the mid-sixties and seventies Kishor Kumar yodeled, crooned, and charmed his listeners as the voice and choice of Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan. Hemanta Kumar Mukherjee was Uttam Kumar's voice and paired with Sandhya Mukherjee formed the romantic core of the sizzling Uttam - Suchitra chemistry of the Bengali cinema. Besides, he was a producer and a celebrated music director, an exponent of the Rabindrasangeet, and a towering presence in the film industry.

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Where did it leave the nephew of KC Dey(Kana Keshto), who inspired him to sing, the classically super-trained Manna Dey, of the Bhendi Bazar Gharana? It left him to sing songs that only he could! The most difficult classical compositions; could be playful or melancholic, devotional or romantic, renditions of Madhushala or Nazrulgeeti, a hymn or a tease, when Manna sang, Manna sang...  The longevity of the songs bears testimony to their claims to be classics and a refrain or a tune invariably brings back flashes from the picturization, no matter how simple they were or how grand. Often the versatility of his voice would be used to set the keynote of the film such as Poochho Naa Kaise Maine Rain Bitayee in Teri Soorat Meri Ankhen, and many times to offset it as in E Bhai in Mera Naam Joker or Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli in Anand or the Unforgettable Laga Chunari Me Daagh in a not so memorable Raj Kapoor starrer. From an all-time Great Qawwali, Ye Ishq Ishq Hai in Barsat Ki Raat with Rafi, to the masterful duel in a duet Ek Chatur Naar, with Kishore Kumar in Padosan, to mellifluous ‘geets’ written by offbeat poets to renditions of master lyricists the list is way too long and varied.

And most often his song was the ‘item’ draw of the film, the centerpiece of the album, as it was with Yari Hai Iman in Zanjeer. The rise of the angry man in Zanjeer may have started taking the Hindi film music away from the romantic and the melodious, but not before Manna Dey turned in one that spun the heads of the Hindi Film Music Enthusiasts...

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On that day at Ravindra Rangshala,  someone from the organizing committee whispered the condition of a stubborn young fan to Manna Dey through his entourage -- Radha Kanta Nandi and Neel Kanta Nandi, the tabla players, and Topa da his constant companion... Manna Dey announced that he intended to end the concert with the song but had altered the plans to accommodate a young fan...

Slumped in my mother's arms barely conscious, I heard the great Manna Dey perform the song ahead of schedule.. For me!! I believe the whole gathering was up on its feet and dancing by the time he finished and called for a break to let me leave...On public demand, he sang the song once again at the end I was told later. The 'Yari' with his audience and the 'Imaan' towards his art made him a legend in his lifetime. 

His cult status in Bengal was reinforced once every year as the festive season brought in the latest Puja numbers. His album would be pre-booked and the first prints, vinyl, and cassettes would vanish within hours of hitting the music stands.

Manna Dey passed at the age of 94 on the 24th of October in 2013. Yet a day of any celebration can become incandescent with his songs that most often would have benchmarked the genre.

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