The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Six decades of musical manna

In 1943, an assistant music director at New Theatres, just out of college, landed in Bombay with uncle Krishna Chandra Dey. Thus began the journey down melody lane for young Prabodh Dey.

Sixty years on, on his 84th birthday, the legend will be reliving his journey through memories and music at a programme at Netaji Indoor Stadium. The May 1 line-up features most major music directors for whom Manna Dey had sung during his long lyrical stint in Mumbai — Anandji, Ravi, Ravindra Jain and possibly Pyarelal.

“So many of them are not there any more — Shankar Jaikishen (for whom I sang the most number of songs) Madan Mohan, Salil…,” he says, clad in his trademark safari suit. “Pulak (Bandyopadhyay, the lyricist who committed suicide), too, went away so unexpectedly,” the voice quivers. “He wrote such beautiful lines for my Puja album for Kavita.” Kavita Krishnamurthy will also perform at the programme along with violinist husband L. Subramaniam.

The birthday gala would never have taken place if the Iraq war did not happen. “We were supposed to have been in the US with our daughter Surama, a software professional,” points out his wife Sulochana.

After decades in Mumbai, the Deys are now settled in Bangalore. But the veteran singer does not like it at the software hub. “South Indian music is alien to me,” he frowns, adding that it’s only the proximity to his younger daughter Sumita that keeps him there.

Does he not want to return to his roots' Mention Calcutta, and he becomes agitated. “Why should I return' Four years ago, Jyotibabu (Basu) said I was the last of the greats and I should spend my remaining days here. He promised me a five-cottah land to build a music academy. I am still waiting, though my enthusiasm for the project is fast waning.”

Mention of music and Bengal draws an acrid response: “This band and (octa)pad culture is so annoying. They may be earning a lot but there is no dedication among new artistes here,” he rues. But he sees promise in Bollywood. “Udit (Narayan), Sonu (Nigam), this new girl… Shreya (Ghoshal) — they are all singing well.” The TV buff, who caught Devdas on Sony last Sunday, feels Shreya could not have sung so well had her training been in Bengal. “There are good teachers here, but who has the time to learn'”

While Devdas has earned Dey’s displeasure for being so gorgeously un-Saratchandra, he accepts that it is the prevailing taste that the director had to follow. “But what about Jism' The film is close to pornography,” he exclaims. The master singer fears that as themes of films “go from bad to worse”, music, too, will take a beating. “There won’t be a sequence to fit in a Tu pyar ka sagar hai or a Kasme Vaade in such films.” But amid the current crop, he liked Lagaan (“Oi Aamir chheletake mondo laglo na”).

Flipping the pages of his music book, he says he hasn’t decided on what to sing. He doesn’t need to. After six decades, he can gauge the pulse of the audience and chooses his songs accordingly. His music book is a marvel, replete with short-hand notations. “He can sing any song just by reading the notations,” Sulochana smiles. “Lata and Asha learnt this from me out of curiosity, but they never practised,” he adds.

Dey had lost his music book once, having been mugged in front of his Mumbai bungalow. “I was going to take the morning flight to Calcutta on January 23, 1987. It was quite dark when I went out to hail a cab. A cab stopped, carrying four youths. They slashed at my midriff with a pickaxe.” Their target was the briefcase carrying the songbook. The quartet was arrested later but they had thrown away “the useless sheets”.

Even at this age, there’s no stopping Dey. On Monday, he recorded three Tagore numbers for a Gathani CD project. “There are 17 songs left, for which I will have to come back.”

The artiste met chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee later at Writers’ Buildings. “My audience is dwindling with the change in taste,” he told Bhattacharjee. “Some day in future, I will not be there, but the songs I have sung will stay on,” the Coffee Houser sei adda man added. The chief minister could not agree more.

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