The Sound of Soul
Inimitable and unforgettable, Manna Dey’s voice was the soundtrack of our lives
Idon’t want to write a traditional obituary for Prabodh Chandra ‘Manna’ Dey, because though he may have left us now, his voice bid us goodbye 30 years ago. That, to me, was when he died. Yet, in those 30 years, there has not been a single day, in my car, in my home or at my work place, where the voice of Manna Dey has not accompanied me.
My first ever memory of him is vivid. It was 1980, I was in Class VI and it was at the Chittaranjan Park Durga puja pandal in Delhi. I was very short and I couldn’t see him very clearly as I was at the back, hemmed in by a crowd. But his voice boomed at me. The song he sang was ‘Laaga Chunari Mein Daag’. I did not know then, beyond the fact that my parents often played his songs, who this great voice belonged to. But it stayed with me. The irony of it struck me years later, when I was composing the music for the movie Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, and I was offered the chance to use the original tune. I refused. “I will not touch God,” I said. I worked only with the essence of it.
I had sporadic interactions with Manna Dey over the years that began when a Bengali film I had directed music for won four national awards. I didn’t receive one, however. Mannada conveyed to a local newspaper how disappointed he was. I called him up to tell him that his disappointment was greater than any award for me. We chatted for an hour on the phone. Over the years, we spoke often. He told me, “I wish you were older so we could have worked together”. He was like that. People say he was frustrated, angry and disappointed but he wasn’t. He wanted to work with everyone. He wanted to be relevant across generations. He was frustrated when his health let him down because he was essentially a boxer. To have the will, to be young at heart, and to be let down by your body, upset him. When I was working on the song, ‘Shukriya Satrangi Jadugar’, to celebrate 100 years of cinema, I had Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle singing the opening lines. I wanted him there too, so I called him. But he couldn’t get out of bed.
His attitude to life was that of a warrior. He had a great sense of humour. It is jarring to think of him having passed away attached to a ventilator. That was not him. He is the kind of person who should have lived forever. As a nation, we are very good at analysing our flaws but very bad at realising our strengths. I hope that Manna Dey’s voice is studied because it is the greatest textbook left to us.
It is said of him that his classical training was an obstacle in his playback career. I have been influenced deeply by this. Today in the music industry we are all too used to discussions about whether a tune is hummable or whether it can be a ring tone. Everything needs to be quick to consume and easy to market. None of Manna Dey’s tunes was quick, fast or easy. Even today you cannot hum his greatest songs. But this does not mean they were not great. My greatest lesson from Mannada is don’t dumb down your art. If you can compose it well, then any song will become accessible.
I struggled with this during Parineeta, and I constantly kept him in my frame of reference, thinking to myself, what is it he must have gone through to keep his music true to what he wanted it to be? When Mannada sang, you should have seen him. He had no doubt in his head that this was how it was to be done. How to make inaccessible art accessible. That was Mannada’s