Coffee House-er shei addata aaj aar nei
nce upon a time, a robust boy learnt wrestling and boxing and loved to fly kites. He loved team sports like football and cricket. His father wanted him to follow the family tradition of law.
He had a very loving uncle, Sangeet Acharya Sri Krishna Chandra De who turned blind when he was 13 but was a famous vocalist and musician. He discovered that his nephew not only had a gifted voice but, if trained and handled well, would grow up to be a great musician.
Over time, that young boy grew up to become one of the most versatile and long-standing singers in the country. Born on May 1, 1919 in Kolkata originally christened Probodh Chandra De, he became famous as Manna De and went on to win the biggest award – the Dadasaheb Phalke in 2009.
His passing away marks the end of an era. There is no Indian language which has not been influenced by the melody of this multi-talented singer. He has recorded more than 3500 songs in Hindi and other regional languages besides 2500 songs in Bengali. His music has enthralled music lovers across the world. He has been titled the National Singer of India, bestowed the Padma Shri, and Padma Bhushan besides two Honorary D.Litts from the University of Burdwan and the Rabindra Bharati University. In 2003, he sang for four hours to raise funds for the Robin Raina Foundation in Atlanta, a charity to aid under privileged children worldwide. Till 2009, he could stand ramrod straight and hold an audience captive for a three-hour solo performance insisting on playing the harmonium himself.
As a child, he would listen to his uncle rehearse under Ustad Badal Khan Saheb. “I would often be asked to fetch paan for Ustad-ji. One day, he heard me singing a few notes from one of his tans. He was so pleased that he called me back. That was my first music lesson. At Scottish Church Collegiate School, during recess, I would entertain my friends with songs sung loudly, keeping time by beating on the desks. Soon, the news reached the principal, a Scotsman. He penned a letter to my uncle asking him to allow me to take part in a music competition in the college.
The competition had ten sections such as Drupad, Khayal, Tappa, Thumri, Bhatiali, Baul, Keertan and Ghazal and I stood first in every section. This feat was repeated the next two years after gruelling training sessions under my uncle and Ustad Dabir Khan,” Manna-da said.
“I got my break when I was around 22-23, with a duet with Suraiya in Tamanna in 1943. My first solo was Upar Gagan Vishal for Ram Rajya in 1950 which branded me a singer of devotional songs. I was asked to sing for old bearded characters. It was frustrating. I sang Chali Radhey Rani Akhiyon Main Pani for Bimal Roy’s Parineeta. It was a big hit. Lip-synched on screen by a beggar, this remains one of the best situational songs in Hindi cinema. In 1952, Manna De sang both for a Bengali and a Marathi film of the same name and storyline – Amar Bhupali, and established himself as a Bengali playback singer.
The opening line of one of his famous Bengali songs happens to be the name a chain of Bengali restaurants in Kolkata called Bhojohori Manna from his song aami sri sri bhojohori manna. Another memorable number is Coffee House-er shei addata aaj aar nei, aaj aar nei. This song has a special place in Manna-da’s heart. The song vibrates with life and captures the pulsating culture of Kolkata’s legendary intellectual platform, the Coffee House. “The song carries the spirit of life and a sense of timelessness, a universality that transcends language, culture and people,” he would say.
“I owe whatever I have achieved as a singer to my uncle. He not only coached me in music and was my friend, philosopher and guide, but he also saw that I kept the company of people who would not distract me from music. He was strict but he never used harsh punishment,” Manna-da would recall.
Manna Dey said that aye meri zohra jabeen, tujhe maloom nahin from Waqt was rehearsed in an unique way. “A musician from Afghanistan came to rehearse. I observed him playing on the Rhubab (a stringed musical instrument) and tried to emulate him.” His rich repertoire comprises 3500-and-odd songs in Hindi and other Indian languages and 2500 songs in Bengali.
Among his most famous Bengali songs are - aami je jolsha ghore, Lal Pagudi Diye Mathe, o amaar mon jomunar ongey ongey, Lolita okay aaj chole jete bolnaa, ei duniyae bhai shobi hoy, uthali pathali amaar book, aami agantuk, aami jamini tuumi shoshi hey, ogo tomaar shesh bichaarer aashaye, chompa chameli golaperi baage, manush khoon hole pawre, hoyto tomaari jonne, lal neel shobujer, jaa khushi ora boley boluk, baaje go beena, aami kone pawthey je choli, bachao ke aachho morechhi je prem korey and so on.
Manna Dey captivated music lovers across generations with timeless renditions Lapaka Jhapaka Tu Aarey Bhadharwa, Sur Na Saje, Kya Gaaoon Main, Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, Pyar Hua Iqraar Hua Hai, Tu Pyar Ka Saagar Hai, Puccho Naa Kaise Maine Raina Bithaye, Naa Toh Kaarvan Ki Talaash Hai and Aao Twist Karein.
Alas! They do not make men like him anymore.