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The Matchless Mannada

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The Matchless Mannada, Super Six Singers, Hindi Film Music World. They were the super six of post-independent Hindi film music world. Rafi, Mukesh....

Today the Super Six Singers of the post-independent Hindi film music world are no more. The era ended last week with the sad demise of Manna Dey – the most versatile and the most under-utilised singers of Hindi cinema – and one cannot help but hum – Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haye, kabhie yeh hasaaye kabhie yeh rulaye.

They were the super six of post-independent Hindi film music world. Rafi, Mukesh. Talat, Mannada, Hemantda and Kishore Kumar. Their talent, versatility and staying power were amazing. Along with an equal number of top music directors, this ‘Super Six’ built up the careers of dozens of stars. The stars and their films might have been forgotten but not the songs. Even today, weekends in Mumbai are not complete without various clubs and organisations holding ‘Golden Oldies’ programmes which run packed. Television caught up in the race, telecast special programmes honouring the Super Six. The golden era of Hindi film music was from mid-1940’s to mid 1970’s and it was made possible by these six singers.

Today all of them are dead. The last of the Titans, Manna Dey, lived up to the ripe old age of 94 and passed away in Bengaluru last week. The great void in the film music scene can never be filled. Where are the giants of the past in comparison with today’s pygmies? The comparison was odious but facts could not be ignored. Melody reigned supreme in the past, lyrics breathed poetry and the singers did full justice to the unforgettable tunes offered to them. Mannada had the longest career of them all, his 60 plus years of singing began in 1942 in Mumbai. Having trained under his uncle and guru, KC Dey, the young Manna mastered classical music under Ustad Aman Ali Khan and Ustad Abdur Rehman Khan.

Bombay welcomed the young singer with open arms. KC Dey, Anil Biswas and SD Burman were already established and Salil Chaudhary was an upcoming music director. Starting his career with the 1942 film, ‘Tamanna’, the new singer began to excel in romantic duets in films like ‘Kadambari’, ‘Kamala’, ‘Insaf’ and so on. He set the trend of readily agreeing to work with newcomers which he continued till the end of his career. 40 years back in Ahmedabad, I heard his concert along with Kavita Krishnamurthy. A teenager then, Kavita shared the limelight with the veteran singer and basked in the experience. “Mannada never bothered with the senior-junior kind of attitude. If you sang well, you were readily accepted,” she told me. This attitude helped dozens of young singers like Sabita Banerjee, Sudha Malhotra, Meena Kapur and the young Asha Bhosle who he helped out while recording for the R K classic, ‘Bootpolish’.

He was most sought after during the 1950’s and 1960’s and recorded 758 songs between 1953 and 1969. Hindi film industry acknowledged that no one carried classical tunes better than Mannada. Naushad saab who was partial to Mohammed Rafi confessed it was hard to choose between the two and in some of his films split the classical tunes between them! Shankar & Jaikishan, the most prolific and popular music makers of that era were ready to acknowledge Mannada’s greatness and did not hesitate to replace Mukesh with him when the former temporarily quit singing to concentrate on acting. Remember the wonderful Manna-Lata duets in ‘Chori Chori? Or the pulsating rain-drenched duet, ‘Pyar hua ikrar hua’ from Raj Kapoor’s own ‘Shri 420’ where Mannada also belted out the foot tapping comic number, ‘Dil ka hal sune dilwala’?

Yet music lovers could never understand why Mannada was the first choice of only second-grade music directors. His voice could not be identified with just one hero -Raj Kapoor and Mukesh, Dilip Kumar with Rafi, Dev Anand with Kishore Kumar and later Rajesh Khanna with Kishore Kumar) and this was viewed as a handicap! The great singer once explained to me, “This was a trend in Hindi cinema and did not change easily. Music directors were hesitant to change successful combinations and try different singers for different actors.’ Mannada’s voice suited almost every singer. Instead of singing consistently for one or two popular stars, he ended up singing one or two songs per film. Take Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s classic, ‘Anand’. Two excellent solos were rendered by Mukesh and another excellent solo was given to Mannada (‘Zindagi kaisi ye peheli), all songs filmed on one hero, Rajesh Khanna. When the songs clicked in a big way, the popularly paired singers got more opportunities than the more versatile ones! It defied logic, but was true.

Mention, classical tunes and Manna Dey’s eyes lighted up. Numbers like ‘Laga chuneri mein daag’, ‘Ae meri Zohra Jabeen’, ‘Tu pyar ka sagar hain’ ‘Cham cham baje re payalia’ were immortal in concept and execution. And who could rival the singer in classical tunes with foot tapping rhythm like ‘Yaari hain iman mera’ or even the rumbustious ‘Aaon Twist karen’, not to mention the famous prison chorus from Bootpolish ‘Lapak Japak..’ Mind you it was the same voice which rendered the moving ‘Kasme wade’ in Manoj Kumar’s patriotic film ‘Upkar’ which moved the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to tears. For sheer versatility, it was hard to match Manna Dey.

It was a pity that such a rare talent was not utilised properly by our film industry. The nation did honour him with Padma Bhushan and Dadasaheb Phalke awards but the singer would have been happier with some more tuneful melodies.

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