One of the great regrets of my life is that I did not take the opportunity to watch Manna Dey in a live performance, when that opportunity was given to me more than once. Manna Dey spent his last years in my town, Bangalore. Even in his late eighties, he continued to sing on stage, and each time I was invited to his concert, I promised myself ‘next time’. Today, I feel like kicking myself.
Without question, Manna Dey is one of the greatest playback singers in Indian cinema. He is right up there in the very top echelon, along with KL Saigal, Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao, KJ Yesudas and SP Balasubramanium.
Rafi and Manna Dey recorded fifty eight male duets, perhaps a world record in the genre. And like Rafi, Manna Dey recorded songs in almost every Indian language.
Chemmeen, released in 1965, is rated as one of the best Indian movies ever made. This Malayalam movie was the first South India film to be awarded the President’s gold medal and to be screened at the Cannes film festival.
Based on a famous novel of the same name, Chemmeen is a tragic love story set in a fishing community in coastal Kerala. I saw Chemmeen in Nataraj Talkies, Chembur when I was a boy. I’ve forgotten much of the movie, but one memory remains – Manna Dey’s song in Chemmeen, one of only two songs that he sang in Malayalam.
Composed by Salil Chaudhury, this song from Chemmeen is counted among the top ten Malayalam songs of all time. Manna Dey had a fundamental rule in his music – he would never sing a song until he understood its lyrics entirely. When he sang this timeless masterpiece, Manna Dey was tutored in its lyrics by his own wife, Sulochana, who was a Keralite.
Till this day, ‘Maanasa maine varoo‘ by Manna Dey haunts me. Although I still cannot understand some of its lyrics, the song plays in my mind endlessly, especially in the dark silence of a lonely night.
‘Maanasa maine varoo, madhuram nulli tharoo‘ – Oh little bird of my heart, come to me; Give me but one drop of your nectar.
The yearning call of unrequited love, composed by a musical genius and rendered by a true master of the craft – Manna Dey.
Cheers … Srini.