Manna De touched 94 on May 1st. However, considering the amount of his contribution and accomplishment, the response from the music lovers has been lukewarm to put it honestly. He was not a superstars’ voice, but even superstars had to turn to Manna De on special occasions when their “voices” could not deliver specialized services. And Manna De delivered happily- for Raj Kapoor a “Laga chunri mein daag”; for Shammi Kapoor a “Chham chham baaje re payaliya” or for Rajesh Khanna a “Gori tori paijaniya”. It is still a painful point to note that Manna De could never really make it very big in the Hindi cine industry. He had been there right from the mid 40s, assisted stalwart music directors and without doubt was more musically exponent than all his other popular colleagues.
Manna’s outing in the Bengali music had been quite late. He first sag for Uttam Kumar, the Bengali superstar, in Gali theke Rajpath(1958)- where he did a fine yodelling as well. Later in the 60s, he successfully established himself as the voice of the elderly Uttam, right till the end. Where Bengalis remember the romantic, chocolaty Uttam in the voice of Hemanta in the 50s, Manna provided the voice of a more matured and polished Uttam in the 60s and 70s. Uttam Kumar is perhaps the only superstar for which Manna could become a undisputed “voice”, thanks to music directors like Sudhin Dasgupta, Gopen Mullick, Anil Bagchi and Nachiketa Ghosh.
In Hindi amongst superstars, perhaps it was only Raj Kapoor for whom we can safely give Manna the tag of being “The Voice”, although his contribution in volume in front of Mukesh would be miniscule. But , whenever Manna teamed up with RK, the results have been mesmerising to say the least. And even Raj Kapoor knew pretty well, for a “Laga chunri mein daag”, one needs only Manna De. It is to be noted that, for Raj Kapoor, Manna babu could really come out of those special assignment classical numbers and cover more variety of the spectrum with “Aaja sanam madhur chandni mein hum”, “Mood mood ke na dekh”, “Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo” and the eternal classic “ Pyar hua ikrar hua”.
Balraj Sahani was another actor for whom Manna babu had significant contributions as a playback. It all started with Do Bigha Zameen(1953). Later, almost all the memorable Balraj Sahani songs on screen were rendered by Manna De- “ Tu pyar ka sagar hai”, “Ae mere pyare watan”, “ Ae meri zohrajabeen” and “Tujhe sooraj kahun ya chanda”.
Rajesh Khanna and Shammi Kapoor- two superstars generally identified by two voices,viz, Kishore Kumar and Mohd Rafi respectively, had some memorable Manna numbers for them also. Manna’s super execution of two differently mood songs for Shammi- “Mere bhains ko danda kyun mara” and “ Chham chham baaje re payaliya”- were both widely popular and he never sounded out of place for the yahoo star. Rajesh Khanna also got substantial contribution from this versatile singer in Anand, Bawarchi, Aavishkar and Mehbooba.
As far as his playback for Mehmood and Pran is concerned, they were definitely his most fruitful associations of all. He clearly became the voice of comedian Mehmood in the 60s. Even in his autobiography, Manna De admitted that it was only Mehmood out of all the actors in Bombay industry, who always wanted Manna De to be his playback. An only advocacy which Manna De otherwise lacked throughout his career. Even for Ashok Kumar, Manna De left a chain of memorable melodies. But then, at the end of the day, none of them were superstars that time. No Dev Anand or Dilip Kumar or Shammi Kapoor or Rajesh Khanna endorsement was available for Manna babu.
I think by the 70s, Manna De realized pretty clearly that things would remain more or less the same for him in Hindi film industry. That was the time he started concentrating more on his Bengali private albums. Aptly supported by Suparnakanti Ghosh, Manna De recorded some evergreen Bengali non film songs that time like “Coffee houser sei adda”( a song Bengalis universally adore) and “She amaar chhoto bon”.
There has hardly been any music director for whom Manna De had not recorded a song and there is hardly any music director for whom he was the mostly used male singer as well. His association with the Burmans, Shankar Jaikishen and Salil Chowdhury (perhaps the only renowned music director for whom Manna was the most used male voice) had been astounding. But he missed from many others for whom he could have contributed much more- Roshan, Naushad and Madan Mohan, with whom even with limited associations, Manna De created historical music. From the unreleased Dil ki raahein(1973), Manna De had recorded Raagmala for Madan Mohan; in my honest opinion, one of Madan Mohan’s best achievements.
Patronage is a big thing in the industry. Either a big music director, or a particular superstar or a particular group with similar demography- should endorse you fully. Otherwise, no matter, how much pride we show on our Golden Era of music, all being legends notwithstanding, a sorry story of a Manna De or a Jaidev or a Yogesh always pop up; who was not given his dues.