Bengal and the music of India’s popular imagination are twinned. Our patriotic music is, in its greatest and best part, derived from that part of the country. The national song, “Vande mataram” (1882) and the national anthem, “Jana gana mana” (1911), gifted to us by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and Rabindranath Tagore respectively, are our stellar songs of patriotic ardour. Both are in a highly Sanskritized tatsama Bangla, so much so that most Indians do not realize that they are actually Bangla songs. Supplementing these two patriotic songs from our Perso-Arabic and Urdu heritage are Iqbal’s immortal “Sarey jahan se achha” (1904) and another song, which for all its Urdu-Hindustani form is also a gift, one could say, of Bengal through Subhas Bose’s Indian National Army. This is the marching song composed by Ram Singh Thakuri for the INA, “Qadam qadam badhae ja” (1942).
In recent times, another song gifted by Bengal is one that has plaited itself into a love of the motherland: “Ae mere pyare vatan”, sung mesmerically by Manna Dey for the 1961 film, Kabuliwala. That entire film, in fact, has been created by what can only be called the Bangla mind. It is Bengal’s gift to India. The story is by Tagore. The film is directed by Hemen Bose, a Bengali who had served earlier as private secretary to Subhas Bose. It is produced by Bimal Roy and its most unforgettable song composed by yet another Bengali, Salil Chaudhuri, has been sung by none other than Manna Dey.
Why is the song so utterly mesmeric ?
Because, apart from its great words by Prem Dhawan, its music has been created with sheer genius and rendered in total alignment with that genius. No surprise, therefore, that the song has come to mean what it has. Love of one’s country is not an allegiance to some cartographic entity. It has to symbolize something that matters to our inner beings. “Ae mere pyare vatan” symbolizes one’s arzu (longings) and abru ( self-respect), both of which come mind-wrenchingly together in the song for the singer’s tamanna (ambitions) for his daughter. Manna Dey intones these three words with fidelity, of course, to their correct pronunciation but also, no less importantly, with a creative sensitivity to their musical potential. “Tamanna”, which coincidentally contains his entire first name, is a three-syllabled word. But the tremble he brings into it between the second and third syllables with a prolonged stress on the ‘nn’ is the work of musical imagination at its most innovative. Tamanna was also the first film he ever sang for, way back, in 1942. He also lurches the ‘a’ in arzu and abru and perches a tremor on the end ‘u’ in both, to mimic a dulcimer, to great effect.
Another deathless song in the same film is “Ganga ayi kahan se”, sung by — who else but? — another Bengali, Hemant Kumar. Some arzu it must have taken Bimal Roy to have had Manna and Hemant, two Titans, sing for him in the same film. And some tamanna.
Going beyond bounded lands to trans-boundary rivers, this magical song asks epistemological questions. For a story written by Tagore and visualized by Balraj Sahni to be remembered, no less than those ‘summits’, by two songs is a tribute to the genre of film-songs, to the lyricist, melodist and the singers.
Manna Dey will be remembered by his admirers and fans, each for different songs. But he will be remembered mainly for the effortless ease with which he gave his voice and what made his voice the medium for expressing emotions over the most spell-binding range. If Manna Dey and Balraj Sahni are inextricably linked to love of Motherland by that song, Manna Dey and Raj Kapoor-Nargis are by the lilting “Pyar hua ikrar hua”, Manna Dey and Rajesh Khanna in Anand (1971) by the aptly quizzical “Zindaghi kaisi hai paheli”.
All these songs hummed in my head when, in the May of 2005, I first met Manna Dey at the Bengal Club in Calcutta. But “Ae mere pyare vatan” was the only song and the only thought in my mind. The gathering had been organized to felicitate Dey. The young catalyst of the evening, Gautam Bhattacharjee, spoke briefly but tellingly in Bangla about Dey and the musician responded, also in Bangla, poignantly. He had long ceased to live in Calcutta, the city where he was born in 1919, but his heart had never left it. For this Calcuttan, his Calcutta was the kabuliwala’s Kabul.
Manna Dey’s domicile in Bangalore was a personal matter and for those like me who do not know of the family’s circumstances, it would be wrong to read too much into the shift. But at another plane, it is deeply symbolic of another ‘shift’. And that is the shift in the nature of Hindi film songs. To be sure, Manna Dey also sang songs that were below what may be called his benchmark. This has nothing to do with a censorious view of their content. “Laga chunari mein dagh”, for instance, is not a Manna Dey song I admire but I do not dislike it. “Ao twist karein”, directed by Rahul Dev Burman, on the other hand, did disservice to Manna Dey’s calibre. I dislike it. This has nothing to do with twisting. It has everything to do with the song’s music. Many other songs sung by him too could have been sung by anyone else. That of course could be said of Mohammed Rafi and Mukesh too. But ‘dips’ apart, the generation of singers in Hindi films, of which Manna Dey was an exemplar and Pankaj Mullick, Kishore Kumar the other ‘stars’, had a stamp and a signature that is gone.
All generalizations are risky. But not all generalizations are entirely off the mark. I may be permitted therefore to generalize: in the 1940s, 1950s and even until the 1960s, I would say the singers and lyricists and music-providers understood one another. And they tried to match the songs to the film’s story-line and its actors. The film and its songs were organically linked. Now, the picture is changed. The story and the song need have little in common. It is enough that the story gives a song its chance, its moment as an ‘ingredient’, not as a resource. Music has been replaced by noise and its melody by cacophony. The replacement of musical instruments by musical machines has made matters worse. The old team of lyricist, tune-maker, music-director and singer has given place to new devices, new stratagems. That, in fact, is it. Songs for films now are the product of market strategies, rather than musical strivings.
And in the process, music has lost its ‘vatan’. Bangalore, as a city, was hospitable to Manna Dey. And all friends of the master-singer should thank that gracious city. But the old film songs of Manna Dey’s high noon have now got domiciled in a metaphorical ‘Bangalore’ of a high-tech music-making. And that is where, with its ballast in Bengal’s musical heritage, it is likely to pass into oblivion.