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A musical time machine (sunday pioneer)

Posted by ElJay Arem (IMC OnAir) on October 4, 2009

A musical time machine

Chandan Mitra

We never had an electric record player in our house in my childhood. My grandfather had an ancient HMV spring-operated player that only played 78 rpm shellac records. Although my father sang Rabindra Sangeet rather well, he wasn’t passionate about music.

So when we migrated from our ancestral town of Hooghly to metropolitan Kolkata in 1963, the gramophone got left behind. My father got me a rather sophisticated Panasonic all-band transistor, enabling me to connect Vividh Bharati without disturbing the rest of the family’s attachment to classical and Rabindra Sangeet.

But that too wasn’t enough. Finally, in 1967, I nagged everybody sufficiently to purchase a record player that played 78 rpm shellacs as well as 45 rpm EP (Extended Play) and 33 rpm LP (long playing) records. Called ‘Fiesta’ this brand new compact model was quite a rage in its time.

The first record I bought along with the player was the soundtrack of the Bengali superhit Anthony Feringhee, starring Uttam Kumar and Tanuja. The songs of the movie were the single most important factor for its commercial success. Bengali readers would immediately recall the popularity of Aami je jalsa gharer belowari jhaad and Aami Jamini, tumi Shashi he.

I have been a fan, virtually a devotee of Manna Dey ever since. Interestingly, he was less popular in Bengal than in the world of Hindi film music. But I caught up with his Hindi repertoire eventually. (Incidentally, the first LP I bought, costing a whopping Rs 36 those days, was a collection of his Hindi numbers, starting with Upar gagan vishaal). In Bengal those days, he was known more as nephew of the legendary, blind singer K C Dey than as an artiste in his own right.

Over the years, my fascination with Manna Dey grew progressively. Some of his romantic numbers like Pyar hua iqraar hua, Tum gagan ke chandrama ho and Yeh raat bheegi bheegi continue to delight music lovers across ages. As a Manna admirer I would resent his typecasting as a comedy singer, although some of them, especially the classic Padosan duet with Kishore Kumar, Ek chatur naar karke singar have now made it to the remix genre.

Naturally, therefore, I wanted to interview him for our sister publication, Darpan, then inflight magazine of Alliance Air/Indian Airlines. This didn’t turn out to be easy. Despite his advanced age Manna Dey (now 90) keeps a gruelling schedule, cutting discs, holding stage shows in India and abroad, but remains a reticent person, shy of talking to the media.

Nevertheless, I managed to buttonhole him at a show in Delhi in memory of another Bollywood legend of yesteryear, Anil Biswas. The time was too limited and I got get barely three questions through when his name was announced to get on stage. Perhaps moved by my devotion, he agreed to meet me again at his Kolkata home.

That was an incredible experience. I felt I had been transported to another world in a time machine. His ancestral house, 9 Madan Ghosh Lane is in the innards of congested North Kolkata. Proudly he told me it was 200 years old, which means it was built just about 100 years after Job Charnock founded the once-upon-a-time Second City of Empire.

The lane is not wide enough for cars to enter, but the overhanging houses in the locality where Swami Vivekananda was born are still rather well maintained. Manna Dey sat in a small room in a house opposite his own which he called his ‘baithak khana’ — meeting place. Across the road, a group of children were being taught to sing by members of the Dey clan; predictably, strains of Rabindra Sangeet, to the accompaniment of harmoniums filled the air. Manna Dey recalled how a noted zamindar of the city would send his Phaeton (a top-of-the-range horse-drawn carriage) to cart his uncle to his palace for musical soirees.

Looking at the house and its surroundings one could easily get lost in history — it looked like a period piece. Satyajit Ray’s classic film, Jalsaghar, chronicling the tragic tale of Bengal’s nobility in decline, suddenly seemed very real.

He opened up soon enough, making an interesting point about riyaaz, which is often overlooked even by classical masters. Pointing out that he never did riyaaz for more than two hours a day Manna Dey said rehearsals too were an intellectual exercise. “It is important to understand what you are rehearsing. Just by practicing to sing six hours a day can’t make you an expert singer,” he insisted.

Another remarkable facet of his personality was his humility. He candidly declared that Mohammad Rafi, Hemant Kumar and Kishore Kumar were better singers than he. “They had God-gifted voices. Mine, on the other hand, is a trained voice,” he said. The extent of his passion for learning was apparent from the fact that he engaged a Persian teacher to learn the Urdu script and studied ghazals for many years before venturing to render them.

Another amazing thing about the man, who has recorded over 4,000 songs in several languages, is his simplicity. He recalled the days when Sachin Dev Burman and he would travel by suburban train from Juhu to Cooperage in South Mumbai to watch football matches.

But an anecdote from his recent experiences was truly touching. Some years ago, at the persuasion of his daughter settled in Palo Alto, California, he decided to migrate to the US. After staying a few months, he had to appear before an immigration official to get his green card processed. Following examination of the records, the officer asked him with a bemused expression as to what he sang: Country, jazz, rock or what.

Manna Dey told him he had so far recorded songs only in Indian languages, but would not mind cutting a disc in English if that helped. The officer said he would like to sample a number. “So, I sang an old English song for him, and he was very thrilled,” Manna Dey revealed, with childlike glee. However, after everything was processed, he changed his mind about staying on.

The daily riyaaz would be a problem, he realised. Besides, America’s fast-paced life was a far cry from the languid by-lanes of Kolkata or the commuter trains of Mumbai. “Finally, I told my wife, if I have to stay here that will be the end of my music. No more recordings, no more fans, nobody to talk to. I have never worked for money. Music is my life. Take music away, and I will die. Do you want that to happen? And, then we packed our bags and came back.”

I am glad he did. Otherwise, my life long ambition of meeting the man on whose records I spent the bulk of my pocket money in school would never have been accomplished. And I would have been poorer in my journalistic career without a tete-a-tete that will forever be etched in my memory.

Needless to add, I am delighted the Government has conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for 2007 on this talented but under-rated singer whose passion for and command over every genre of music is simply mind boggling. As the last of the generation that includes Talat Mehmood, Hemant Kumar, Mohd Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar, the Award is befitting recognition of the way Manna Dey enriched our lives for so many decades.

This is an updated version of the article originally published on June 13, 2004

(Source: 10/04/2009 – sunday pioneer)

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