Music maestros turned to him to embellish some of their most difficult compositions, yet Manna Dey was perhaps the most underutilised singer in the Indian film industry.
Legendary singer Manna Dey passed away on Oct 24. He was suffering from lung infection. (Photo: Prabhas Roy Pubmarch)
Dey had it all - the voice, the range, the classical training and the temperament - but most composers somehow
preferred other singers like Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh and Talat Mehmood.
Nevertheless, Manna Dey remained a legend.
He did his musical apprenticeship under his uncle and the renowned 'blind singer' Krishna Chandra Dey.
By his own admission, Manna Dey's early passions were wrestling and football. He finally chose a career in music, thanks to his uncle and Sachin Dev Burman, under whom he worked as an assistant at the start of his career.
Once, the singer was informed by music composer Shankar (of the Shankar-Jaikishen duo) that he was to sing a duet with well-known classical singer Bhimsen Joshi for Basant Bahar.
Dey was terrified at the thought of matching his talent with the king of classical singing because he experienced a sense of trepidation and believed he would not be able to do justice. However, his wife Sulochana and Shankar convinced Dey to sing.
After Ketaki Gulab Ki was recorded, Joshi was impressed and complimented Dey for his natural ability to grasp the ragas.
Dey shared an unusual chemistry with singer Mohammad Rafi, whom he envied but also admired.
In his autobiography Memories Come Alive, published by Penguin a few years ago, he confesses how he was jealous when told by his boss to bring in Rafi to sing a particular song. Dey says he could not understand why he was overlooked. But after the recording was over, he realised that Rafi's voice was more suitable for that particular composition.
Dey was invariably lavish in his praise for Rafi, who in turn was equally generous in his appreciation of Dey.
Once, Rafi told Dey, "Dada, main apne gale se aap jaisi murki kar paon, to main zyada achha gayak ban paunga'' (If I can replicate the tonal expressions and vocal variations that you have, I will become a better singer).
Dey's versatility was his strength. He was able to capture the essence of a folk tune or any other composition.
He sang for many top Bollywood heroes of his time, but he never remained a constant voice for any actor in particular, unlike many of his contemporaries. He was, thus, nobody's voice.
Music director Shankar once told me that he found Dey's voice more suitable for Raj Kapoor, but the Showman himself preferred Mukesh.
Dey did sing for Raj Kapoor under Shankar-Jaikishen, the most successful composers of that time.
He gave memorable hits like Dil Ka Haal Sune Dilwala, Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua, Yeh Raat Bheegi Bheegi, and Aaja Sanam Madhur Chandni Mein Hum, and Ae Bhai Zara Dekh Ke Chalo.
Dey has also lent his voice to one of the best known qawwalis of Hindi cinema - Na To Karvan Ki Talash Hai composed by Roshan as well as the immortal Laga Chunri Mein Daag.
His other hits include Sur Na Saje Kya Gaon Mein, Tu Chhupi Hai Kahan, Jhanak Jhanak Tori Baje Payaliya and Tu Hai Mera Prem Devta.
Dey sang extensively for Bimal Roy's films. Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke for Do Bigha Zamin composed by Salil Chaudhury is considered among Dey's all-time hits.
Salil Choudhury utilised him many more times. The song Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli Hai from Anand became a huge hit.
Dey sang two of his other evergreen numbers for Kalyanji Anandji - Kasme Vade Pyar Wafa and Yaari Hai Imaan Mera Yaar Meri Zindagi.
The blockbuster Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin Todenge with Kishore Kumar and Ek Chatur Naar Badi Hoshiar were some of the gems Dey rendered for RD Burman.
Dey, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 94, was the last of the great male playback singers of the silver screen.
A toast to you, Manna Dey! Your voice will live on in the hearts of generations to come.
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