BANGALORE : One morning, a decade ago, I had the privilege of meeting the legendary playback singer Manna Dey for the first time. That was the time he had just arrived in Bangalore to make the city his home.
When I learnt that my young colleague was going to his house to interview him, I didn't want to lose the opportunity of a lifetime. I told her I would accompany her. We were right on time and reached his house in Benson Town with nervous excitement.
As the interview progressed, I too joined in and spoke to him about Hindustani ragas and their corresponding Carnatic ragas. I could see that he was impressed though frankly speaking, I had no business to display my superficial knowledge in front of a legend whose life was music.
A couple of years later, I got the opportunity of interviewing him. On the D-Day, I reached his house near Kalyan Nagar and knocked at his door. The door was wide open and a voice said, 'come in'. There he was watching TV.
'Ok, shoot your first question,' was his opening remark. But what does one ask? Where does one even start when talking to a man whose career had profoundly impacted the music world for more than six decades? "Ten minutes," he said referring to the time he would give me. But once we started, there was no stopping him. The 10 minutes turned into four hours. This happened in subsequent interviews as well.
A couple of times I had to call him on phone for mini interviews. When he spoke, I could sense that he was impatient. After all, one casually doesn't pick up the phone and ask a legend to give his views on this and that. But once he warmed up, he would speak for half an hour at least.
How does one describe him? He was childlike in his enthusiasm about everything -from his favourite fish and football to film music and Rabindra Sangeet. He would say, "Do you know, even today (he was 90 then) I drive my car, go to the market and buy fish?"
From fish, he would jump to raag Ahir Bhairav and relate an anecdote: "It was 9.30 pm. We were in Bombay then. Sachinda (music director S D Burman) came home waving a paper. He wanted me to sing the tune he had composed. I did, and the next day we recorded it. That was Poocho Na Kaise from Meri Surat Teri Ankhen."
For six decades, Manna Dey enthralled listeners. And he held his own among his peers like Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Talat Mehmood and Kishore Kumar.
Every time I met him, I would wonder why he didn’t get his due though he was one of the best. There used to be this underlying sadness in his tone when he said that most of his early songs were picturised on old men or beggars. Or he got to sing only classical numbers. Even in his nineties, he was giving concerts. That he sang one of the most difficult songs-Laga chunri mein daag — with ease even at that age said it all.
What was great about him was his humility. He was very generous in his praise of his contemporaries. Among them, he would say Kishore Kumar just sang the way he liked...improvising along the way. “He was a genius,” he said.
Mohammad Rafi was the definitive voice and could sing any genre with ease, he would say.
When reminded of Rafi's famous quote: 'You journalists listen to my songs but I listen to Mannada's songs', Mannada would say: "That was big of Rafi miyan. I consider him one of the best singers." He then recalled a day when he was recording the song Hoke majboor mujhe from Haqeeqat with Rafi, Talat Mehmood and debutant singer Bhupinder Singh.
"As I was rendering my lines, Zulfey zid karke kisi ne jo banayi hogi... I saw tears in Rafi’s eyes. I was touched. When the recording was over, Rafi came and hugged me."
A man who was humility personified, spoke about the humility of another great person. The Deys and Bachchans were neighbours in Bombay. "During his morning walks, Harivanshji (Harivansh Rai Bachchan) used to pass by our house. He would stop outside the gate to listen to my riyaaz. Even when my wife Sulochana used to ask him to come in, he wouldn’t. Harivanshji used to politely refuse saying he didn't want to disturb my riyaaz... Such was his humility,” he said.
About music directors Shankar-Jaikishen, he would say: "I am indebted to Shankarji for promoting my career. He brought out the best in me and dared to experiment with my voice by making me sing romantic numbers.”
The immortal romantic number Pyar hua from Shri 420 has an interesting story. "Lata Mangeshkar and I were rehearsing this song in the music studio. Shankar and Jaikishen and lyricists Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri were there. We had packed up to leave at night when in breezed Raj Kapoor with Nargis. Then he requested us to sing the song again. Once we started, he enjoyed the song so much that he ordered for two umbrellas. Then he and Nargis waltzed across the room."
Manna Dey had made Bangalore his home in 2000. But his romance with Bangalore dated back to the early fifties. Mannada was in Bombay then. He had to sing a duet at a cultural programme with Sulochana Kumaran, whose mother tongue was Malayalam. The moment he met her, he knew that she was his soulmate. Love blossomed. But then Sulochana's father decided to settle down in Bangalore. "Thus began a two year separation. Every day of those two years we wrote letters to each other," Sulochana said.
Mannada couldn't live without his Sulu (as he lovingly called her). So he used to visit Bangalore often. During all of his interviews, Sulochana would join in. Mannada would look endearingly at her and say: “She is my anchor.” They were married for over 50 years and one could see that they were devoted to each other.
Sulu passed away before him. And barely a year later, this Sultan of Sur, who ironically sang Sur na saje (not able to sing in tune), joined her, leaving behind his treasure trove of melodies.