[Remembering this legend on his first death anniversary. I wrote this article just one year ago, the day he passed.]
A legend passes. His creations stay on. If you have time, visit some of his songs here.
Today, I am mourning Manna Dey, legendary Bengali and Indian singer. He passed away this morning in Bangalore. He was 94.
I grew up with Manna Dey’s music. He was a Bengali and his formal name was Probodh Chandra Dey. Under the tutelage of his proverbial singer-uncle Krishna Chandra Dey, who was blind and thus nicknamed “Kana Keshto” (the blind Krishna), Manna Dey began taking voice lessons when he was only a kid. Very soon, he became well known for his melodious singing style and dexterity in Indian classical ragas. After recording a few Bengali albums, he left for Bombay to record Hindi songs for the Bombay film industry, now known as Bollywood.
It was a time when Bombay films were soft and subtle, unlike today’s glamour and glitz. Indian film talked about a peaceful, loving life. Film music brought in loving, affectionate voices: Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Hemanta Mukherjee (also known as Hemant Kumar), Geeta Dutt. Manna Dey fit right in. His masterful voice that effortlessly transcended three octaves as well as his mastery on Bengali, Hindi and Urdu languages quickly made him a musical sensation. Legendary directors such as Raj Kapoor and composers such as Salil Chowdhury and S. D. Burman helped him flourish. Then, Manna Dey returned the favor to the industry, and brought in Mukesh and Mohammad Rafi to record Bengali songs.
And of course, we the Calcutta youngsters always vied on the superiority of Hemanta Mukherjee over Manna Dey, and vice versa. In fact, we were two invisible fan clubs.
For six decades, starting from 1940’s, Manna Dey held his own, prestigious place in Indian and Bengali music. He was a household name in all corners of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. I do not know of any South Asian family — North or South Indian living either in the subcontinent or across the world — that does not play Manna Dey’s songs.
There will be many obituaries on Manna Dey, some written by noted artists, singers and film personalities. I do not mean to add to that flood of statements.
I only remember Manna Dey whom I knew through that little transistor radio we had in our home in Calcutta. I remember how his Bengali modern songs, as well as a few Tagore songs he sang occasionally, stayed with me through my adolescent years. I remember how we would be glued to his songs played out of old-fashioned gramophone discs at our neighborhood Kali Pujas.
My best friend Subroto who killed himself in 1999 was a special admirer of Manna Dey’s jodi kagoje lekho naam…(if you write a name on a piece of paper)…he was in the midst of a broken affair at that time.
I remember hearing a much older Manna Dey once here in New York City. He was already well into his 80’s, yet he was so wonderful and smart and crisp. His voice faltered once in a while, but his memory and sense of humor — in both Bengali and English — did not. He never looked at notes. He sang from his memory. He played his harmonium with style. I believe he was 84 years old at that time. He in fact recorded a few albums past that age, one being a phenomenal disc of Tagore songs. Here’s one of those golden songs.
I remember attending a Bangladesh Institute of Performing Arts-organized open-air soiree at Queens’ Athens Park in New York. A group of Bengali Hindu and Muslim youngsters was singing a group Kirtana, directed by noted teacher Ms. Selima Asraf. Suddenly, a familiar-looking, old man in his familiar glasses and Nepali-style felt hat showed up and sat in a simple chair right next to the young singers. I saw this man closing his eyes in appreciation for the devotional music, and the environment where Hindu and Muslim young boys and girls were performing a Hindu musical ritual together. Suddenly, I realized it was none else than the legendary Manna Dey. It was like, WOW!!
We presented an honorary award to him at the end of the soiree. I even had a chance to say a few words of tribute for him. I remember I said, “in Bengali, we have a saying called Ashitipar Briddha (octogenarian old man), but here we see an Ashitipar Jubak (octogenarian youth). We are blessed that he is still with us. We are blessed that he is here with us.” Then, we put a flower garland around his neck. He smiled and said a few words too, in praise of the youngsters and their teachers.
Happy memories to remember.
Last year, on October 23, our beloved poet Sunil Ganguly passed. One year later, another man who got all our love and respect passes.
It is not easy to deal with such great losses. There is no other way but to be philosophical about it.
Their creations will stay with us though. The man has just left, but his genius has not.
Still, I shall be missing Manna Dey, a lot.
Paying a very heartfelt tribute,
Brooklyn, New York