At 93, Manna Dey is able to resist requests for interviews most forbiddingly. An unusually hot summer in Bangalore where he lives has only deepened his discomfort. Only after several rounds of cajoling phone calls does he finally give in, even so, convinced that no one under 40 has the slightest interest in him. References to YouTube postings that indicate otherwise are batted away.
The way to Dey involves hopping over a wooden barricade at the entrance of his ground floor flat kept to corral a Lhasa Apso dog that snaps at the visitor. Dey is in a striped shirt and his trademark Kashmiri hat, seated in the drawing room, looking most put out. He directs you to a chair across, barred by the extended cord of the phone.
“Any person comes and takes an interview. How many interviews,” he says exasperatedly. Then he grimaces in pain. “What do you want? Tara tari korun (be quick),” he mutters as the grandfather clock starts chiming. He can’t sit upright for long and doesn’t want to waste time in pleasantries.
That’s understandable given that he has a severe lumbar problem and the agony impinges on the conversation repeatedly. “I can’t take a flight. I have been so sick for the last one-and-a-half years that I break down in pain,” he says.
Dey stays with one daughter in Bangalore. Another daughter lives in the US.
He asks me to speak up. His hearing maybe a tad impaired but he looks remarkably fit for a nonagenarian. His live performances posted on YouTube fairly recently reveal a voice that shows little sign of rust. “Of course, I was in very good condition then. For the last four-and-half years I have not been performing,” he says morosely.
His general despair is understandable. In January, his wife Sulochana, who was a Malayalee, succumbed to cancer. At the mention of her, he softens momentarily. “She was my everything. My inspiration, my companion, the one person I used to bank upon for all that mattered in my life: as singer, as a human being. I just couldn’t live without her, her passing away has left a very big void in my life. That’s why I am a little empty now. That’s why I avoid meeting people, because I am really not well at all, and without her, my day-to-day living has become different,” he says poignantly.
A trained classical singer from Calcutta, Manna Dey is more known for his film songs. His desire to pursue a career in playback singing was influenced by his uncle Krishna Chandra Dey, who wanted him to be a singer. “K.C. Dey never married, he was like a father to us. And because he was blind we used to be his eyes.”
Dey wanted to be as versatile as his uncle. “The way he taught us, it was only to become a full-fledged good singer, an all-India singer. That’s how I am what I am.” He pauses, looks at me discontentedly and pounces.
“You are knowing (sic) all these things! You have not jotted this down. Will you remember it?” I meekly point to the tape recorder. “Hmmmm,” he concedes, only somewhat mollified.
His responses follow a visible pattern: he frequently takes exception to words and questions before calming down to answer them. For instance, about his trademark, the Kashmiri fur topi. “So what? My fancy for wearing it. I wanted to wear it,” he bursts out. Then he explains that he had “scanty hair” even as a young man. Once while singing in the cold climes of Kashmir, someone came up to him. “He took out his cap, put it on my head and told me you will feel much better. I did. Ever since, I have been wearing it.”
The conversation flounders again as he twists in pain. He doesn’t like questions on favourites. He’d rather let others talk about his work. Instead, he talks about his dedication to his work.
“I am a very honest, sincere, very hardworking person. All my life I have struggled and enjoyed it. I have come up the steps. There was no godfather in my life,” says Dey, who got the Dadasaheb Phalke Award some years ago. By then he had sung over 3,000 songs in almost all Indian languages.
But his major contribution was as a playback singer in Hindi films, and later Bengali films as well.
In his memoir Jiboner Jolshaghorey (translated in English as Memories Come Alive) he reflects on the sheer variety of songs that he was asked to perform. He dedicated his Dada Saheb Phalke award to Shankar Jaikishen (SJ) and Raj Kapoor.
“I used to consider Raj Kapoor one of the icons in this line. Nobody but him gave me songs like Pyaar hua ikraar hua, Yeh raat bheegi bheegi, Dil ka haal sune dilwala. SJ and Raj Kapoor gave me those beautiful songs. People would say Manna Dey and singing love songs? Impossible. But I proved it. When I sang these songs people sat up.”
One masterpiece was Ae mere pyare watan from Kabuliwala. His rendition of the patriotic song was immensely powerful. Was he moved by the feeling of being part of a new country? “It is not that — Independence, anything of that sort,” he snorts. “Whatever the writer wanted to say through the song I have depicted it. Nothing else mattered to me. Who cares for Independence, shindependence? Yes, the way Salil tuned the song, Prem Dhawan wrote it, I sang it. That’s it. And when it was recorded, Salil said: Manna da you have done a commendable job. Burman saab, Madan Mohan, Naushad saab all said. It’s a beautiful song.”
Dey went from Calcutta to Bombay to pursue a music career in films. It was a struggle, and there are reports that he went seven years without a recording, between 1942 and 1949. He promptly corrects me, relying on his robust memory. “I recorded in 1944 for Ram Rajya. That’s the first song I sang.” Even his fallow years did not daunt him. “I was not made that way,” he says belligerently.
Even now if he listens to something he likes he will learn it. As he did for SJ’s Ketaki gulab juhi while singing with Bhimsen Joshi. “He told me, Manna Dey you sing classical very well. You should give classical performances. I told him singing a classical raga is not child’s play Panditji, I am singing this song because I have been listening to you,” Dey recalls.
A question about any recent recordings upsets him. “Why do you want to know that?” His fans would be interested. “I have not sung for the films. I have recorded other songs,” he says abruptly.
In Bengali or Hindi? In all languages, he responds in Bangla.
How long ago? About a year ago, he says mildly this time. But the next query on the album name has him irascible again. “Boltey parbo na oi shob. Album er naam jeney ki korbey? (Can’t tell you all that. What will you do with the name of the album?),” he demands.
“I have not been doing riyaaz after my wife’s demise but I shall start it very soon. Riyaaz keeps my voice fit. This lumbar problem is a very big hindrance in my walking and all that. I used to walk an hour every day. I am fed up with life because of this tremendous pain,” Dey says. Doctors have ruled out surgery at his age so he has to live on painkillers.
Do any of today’s singers impress him? “Today’s singing has no class. Myself, Rafi, we belong to some other class, Lata, Asha…” He pauses and grimaces in pain. “Bhishon durobostha (in a terrible state).”
He calls for the maid to bring out a glass of juice for his visitor. In the lull I ask him what inspires him, a question that shatters the calm again. Nor does he believe he or his music inspires people anymore. “I used to inspire people. Nobody bothers about what I am doing today. It is no joke that a person lives for 90 years, and sings. Let them do their homework on what inspired him to go on and on and give such gems of songs.”
Dey calms down enough to finally offer an answer to the secret of his incredible singing career. “Anyone who searches for Manna Dey’s secret of singing for 90 years will find that it is my riyaaz, my learning from gurus and my being initiated by my uncle. My learning has inspired me.”
Dey is tiring now of all the questions. He insists I drink the fruit juice and admonishes me as I do, “What else do you want to know? Amar jiboney aar kichhu nei… I am a singer. Don’t dig into other things for nothing.”
Dey moved to Bangalore after retirement to live with his daughter. He avidly follows news but the state of the country shocks him. “I personally feel we should have a very very big revolution. Sixty-seventy per cent of our people go without two meals a day. Chhi chhi chhi. What a country this is.” He comes out with other proclamations: “Karnataka is the most corrupt state in the country” and “My foot, she (Mamata Banerjee) can make a difference. Bade bade baatein karne se kuch nahin hota.”
As he calls it a day, his courtesy exceeds his pain. “Theek achhey. Enough of it today. Please leave me alone now. I shall go to my bed,” he says.
The phone cord is moved out of the way and I leave, seen off by the Apso.