Manna Dey turned 90 on May 1. The singing legend remains young at heart and keeps busy with shows and performances. He promises Screen 15 minutes on the phone from Bengalooru, but gives us more than half an hour of characteristically candid chat
We, however, begin on a false note, which the veteran singer has probably never delivered in front of a microphone in 3, 500-plus recordings and hundreds of performances over 60 years. For when asked how he feels about entering his 90th year on May 1, he thunders, "Listen, my age is not something I wish to discuss!
I will answer your questions if they are about me and not about my age. Age is just another year gone by - a mere birthday. It means nothing! I hope that this interview is about music and the wonderful time I have had with so many wonderful people!
I have worked for over 65 years now. If you have done your homework and are willing to discuss my career, I would love to answer your questions!"
But that's Manna Dey as he 's always been - a man who never minces words. As we are on a 'phone line, he naturally does not recollect our earlier meetings from the 1991 recording for Nana Patekar's Prahaar, his last significant Hindi film song, to an hour-plus interview at his Juhu bungalow in Mumbai and several other smaller meetings.
"Hamari hi mutthi mein akash saara was a beautiful number, the last of so many for Laxmi-Pyare!" he recollects. "I remember Nana Patekar being after me for days and insisting that only I could sing that song.
He even wanted me to lip-sync it on screen! Of course I flatly refused to be on screen an also said that my voice wasn't what it used to be and gently turned him down! Then Laxmi (Laxmikant) called up and requested me to come home and listen to the song."
Mannada requests me not to mention the few songs he was persuaded to record after that. But he clarifies that he is very much familiar with what is happening on the music front today.
"Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy are doing some nice songs. Anu Malik has also done some good work over the years. But otherwise, it is the sound that has improved tremendously since our times.
But that's more to the credit of the arrangers and therefore with the packaging, right? We have some excellent instrumentalists today. But what's the use of such talent? Arrangements minus a good composition mean nothing! The lyrics too have degenerated so much."
What about the new blood in his own field - playback singing?
"I think Sonu Niigaam is very good, he is equipped with all the knowledge needed for a singer, is keen about doing good work and puts his heart into singing and understanding what he has to sing.
Shreya Ghoshal is very good. But I will ask you something: In our wonderful country there is so much wonderful music. Every state is rich in music. But when you switch on the television, do you get to listen to anything nice?"
So where does he think the malaise lies? "Look, music is dictated by the kind of films being made, which is decided by the filmmakers. It's a demand and supply situation.
A good singer like Udit Narayan has few takers. Why do you think a singer of the calibre of Kavita Krishnamurthi (Subramaniam) hardly records? It's a lie that it is because she is not based in Mumbai!"
We request Mannada to answer a hypothetical query: If Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh and he had all been active in today's scenario, would this decline had happened, and how would they have taken it?
And the veteran replies, "We would have very, very nobly retreated!! Today our kind of singers are not needed. How could we have sung a mukhda with the word Saala in it? We could never have been a part of such indignities!"
We go to the matter of his favourite composers. Having reiterated that Shankar-Jaikishan and Laxmikant-Pyarelal are the composers he rates high (which is what he has stressed in all our talks and has said on television even recently) he has mentioned R.D.Burman and Madan Mohan in other interviews. How does he reconcile this?
"It is silly to compare great composers, unless you are familiar with musical intricacies, " he says with characteristic punch. "Madan Mohan gave me few but such soulful songs, like Tum bin jeevan (Bawarchi) and Kaun aaya mere man ke dwaare (Dekh Kabira Roya), so I am indebted to him.
Panchamda was so good. He deserves the entire credit for the complex classic that was Ek chatur naar - the song was his concept from beginning to end, and Kishore and I just executed it to out best!
See, it was less to do with the songs they called me for and more with the fact that they never got their dues in their lifetimes. Laxmi-Pyare were composers who have given me some fantastic songs right from Tum gagan ke chandrama ho in Sati Savitri - what a song that was! - to Prahaar.
As for Shankar-Jaikishan - I was closer to Shankar - they were truly magical!"
Mention that Rafi had once told a scribe, "You listen to my songs. I listen only to Manna Dey!" and he feels that it was Rafi's greatness. "I sang classical songs better than others, but soon came a time when I was called for every kind of song along with Rafi. The rest were all great singers, but had their limitations.
Rafi and I could sing everything, and he was such a gentleman. He was a better singer than me, and I will say this - that no one came even close to him! He deserved everything he got! We had a great understanding and it was never about one-upmanship, " he recalls.
A curious point: Why did a classicist like him barely sing for the classical music-oriented Naushad? "He had a terrific understanding with Mohammed Rafi, that's why!" he thunders.
Despite his classical inclinations, Mannada was very fond of Western music, and sang in his college choirs. Did that help in his Western numbers like Aao twist karen (Bhoot Bungla), Jodi hamari (Aulad) and others?
"It must have, because playback is about observation and learning from listening as well. My wife Sulochana was also responsible for teaching me a lot of Western nuances, and you may be interested in knowing that I used those finer points even in the way I rendered Aye mere pyare watan for Kabuliwala!"
Finally, we ask why he has sung in so many languages but opened his account in mother-tongue Bengali only after he made it in Hindi films? "I came to Mumbai then because I did not want to do what everyone was doing in Kolkata. But then came a time when distributors would refuse to touch a Bengali film if it did not have my song in it!"