Manna Dey

I had three musical influences in my very early childhood. My father was  forty when I was born and naturally had a sense of music that leaned on the likes of K L Saigal and Pankaj Kumar Mallik. For him Hemanta Mukherjee singing “Prangane mor shirish shakhaye” in the nasal tone was more acceptable than when the singer found a vocal rendition style that was his own. My Tagore influence clearly comes from my father. My mother, who even at this old age is a good singer, on the other hand counted Nazrul Islam, Rajanikanta Sen, Atulprasad Sen amongst her favorite composers. Listening to a weekly radio program every Sunday I realized, quite early in life, the inadquacy of range and repartoie of these composers compared to Tagore. The third member of our family was clearly my favorite person. My maternal uncle was staying with us in the industrial town, a couple of hundred kilometers west of Calcutta, because of his employment with Reckitt-Coleman. He used to work in shifts. This was perfect for me as I could have his company during the daytime, which more than made up for my father’s absence during that period. Perhaps because of his age, my uncle’s music choices were far more contemporary. It was my uncle who introduced me to the legend of Manna Dey

Far too young to understand the inner thoughts of any lyrics, it was Manna Dey’s voice and the orchestration of his songs that caught my fancy. How else can one explain a kid making pathetic attempts at rendering “Amar bhalobashar rajprashade” – but that was the first Manna Dey song I have recollections of memorizing and singing. This small town where we stayed – Burnpur – had an yearly cultural festival we looked forward to and participated in with boundless enthusiasm. Bongo Sanskriti Sammelan it was called. The festival had a generous skew towards music and offered two platforms for performances. One was free for all, open air, called Muktangan and the other more premium – named Abritangan – ensconced in a covered area. It was in one such Bongo Sanskriti musical programs in the Abritangan that I had the opportunity to experience – for the first time in my life – Manna Dey perform. It was truly performance as opposed to merely singing, a trait Manna Dey held on to all his works where he embodied the feelings of the song in the most dramatic manner. Social media was a few decades away and performing artists those days connected with their listeners and fans by the only way possible – a plain vanilla dialog. The audience would shout and Manna would strain his ears and say “jowre bolun, shunte pacchi na”. Finally when he heard he would either sing the request or – as I remember him admonishing a requester in one case for an inappropriate request – say “chup be”. That day was also when I realized he had a mind blowing repertoire of Hindi songs as well. The program went on late in the evening and my mother had dragged me out when Manna Dey was singing “laga chunri mein daag”. Those days they would install loudspeakers outside the venue as well and I could hear the end piece  tarana even as we walked back towards home

We all grow up and take to newer likes, often swapping  the ones of the past with shinier fascinations we pick up along our chronological progression. Manna Dey however continued his walk alongside me. Sitting in distant lands, far away from the towns and cities I grew up in, farther away from friends, his “coffee house” moved me to tears. In my lonely journeys to serve my profession, holed up in hotel rooms, I discovered golf-ball size lumps in the gut listening to his soulful “bowro eka lagey ei andharey”. Over glasses of alcohol and chatter of friends, someone would invariably sing out “na na na, aaj ratey ar jatra shunte jabo na”. I learned to choose between the many different sub genres that Manna Dey created in his own body of work. His fun songs, sung with a totally different timbre of voice than his serious ones, his classical based songs that I took to much later in life and then those that I really thought he should have avoided, like Tagore songs. His marriage of timbre and mood of a song to a celluloid character very effectively made him Uttam Kumar’s younger and light-mood voice. His songs from films like “Antony Firingee” and “Sanyasi Raja” will remain etched in the annals of time immemorial. Singing playbacks, Manna Dey would breathe life into the songs by assuming the character of the actor – be it the inebriated Uttam Kumar or a romantic Soumitra Chatterjee or the flippant Mehmood

Perhaps it was a bit prophetic that Manna Dey’s Hindi songs towards the later part of his career had a south-Indian-accent mimicry to it. That can squarely be put down to the Mehmood-effect. Whatever be it, I think Kishore Kumar summed it up quite well when he lamented that compulsions of the script required that Manna-da get “defeated” in the singing duel of “ek chatur naar”. Perhaps it is also a prophetic continuation of this accent that Manna Dey would be spending his autumn years in South India, in the lovely city of Bangalore not too far from where I live. Four years back he sang at a public event in Bangalore. My mother and I went to listen, knowing that such opportunities will trickle down as the singer ages. Another veteran, Ameen Sayani, compering the evening introduced and welcomed Manna Dey on stage and the man walked in straight and immediately corrected Sayani saying “I am not eighty eight. I am eighty nine years old. Sorry, young”.  As if prove his point, he immediately went on sing ” aja sanam madhur chandni mein hum” accompanied by a twenty something lady. At around eleven in the evening the mindless Bangalore curfew kicked in and someone walked up stage and mumbled the news to Manna Dey. Forgetting where he was, Manna Dey retorted loudly, “Keno? Iyarki naki!”. Composing himself to an appropriate language he looked down at  the police officer, who was standing at the closest exit, and said, “another thirty minutes. You also sit down. You will enjoy the music. This one is for you”. And he sang “aye mere zohra jabeen”. Age is simply a chronological phenomena, nothing to do with the mind and spirit, I was convinced that night

The genius turns ninety three today. It is superfluous to wish a man full of life that he be happy on this day – he is the eternal fountain of musical joy destined to delighting generations of the past, present and future

Is it even possible to do a Top Ten (plus one bonus track) for such a genius? At the risk of being shouted down with a “Chup be” by the man himself, here is my attempt. Won’t you leave a comment with your own favorites?

  1. Chaar deyaler moddhe nanan drishwo ke
  2. Ami jamini, tumi shoshee hey
  3. Oi mahashindhur paar hote
  4. Hoyeto tomari jonno
  5. Jwalao akashprodeep swranto e hemonto shondhaye
  6. Kaun aya mere man ke dware
  7. Aye mere pyare watan
  8. Na chahiley jare paowa jaye (this is the only one of his Tagore renditions I like)
  9. Ami tar theekana rakhini
  10. Coffee House
  11. Ek chatur naar (Was this a Manna song or a Kishore song? Was this a “song” to start with in its classical definition?)
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Hungry Jacarandas: 1. Introduction

Between 2002 and 2003 I lived close to eleven months in a country that transformed itself at breakneck speed from being the bread basket of Southern Africa to an incorrigible basket case. Zimbabwe.

There were two reasons why the country had any recall for me. One, the visual of Robert Mugabe hugging Mrs Indira Gandhi at the NAM summit in New Delhi. Two, India 17 for 5 at Tunbridge Wells playing the country at the 1983 World Cup – what happened subsequently is a part of cricketing history.

History is also something that Zimbabweans – the most friendly people one can find on this planet – tend to fondly remember. The day in 1980 when Rhodesia became two – east and west, and East Rhodesia became independent as Zimbabwe under the regime of the most loved leader of them all – Robert Mugabe. A huge crowd had gathered at the rally that day, my friend Jeremiah “Jerry” Gezana told me. Mostly blacks, they were waiting for the slightest hint from their leader and they’d tear down and occupy the plush bungalows of the British in leafy areas like Avondale. “Not a hair of any white men will be touched”, warned Mugabe, “today is the day of forgiving past sins and the whites are our brothers as much everyone else is”, he went on to explain to the stunned crowd. Mugabe was the instant hero for the a western world – a case study of erudite handling of regime changes. Mugabe went on to building the foundations of the nation with a remarkable sense of vision, allowing trained professionals like teachers and miners (Zimbabwe was embarrassingly rich in natural resources) immigrate easily to his country, allowing them citizenships on arrival. Thanks to such a scheme, Mrs. Arati Bose, her professor husband and two sons, Bapi and Toton chose to try their luck and come down to Zimbabwe in 1982. We will revisit this family again – many times – in this series because they adopted me into their family and I saw a lot of Salisbury (they were still not used to calling the capital Harare) through their eyes

Then something flipped. Zimbabweans, a rather politically averse community, never could put their fingers when. Some say it was in 1992, some say 1996 but they are reasonably unanimous that it had to do with two important but coincidental events. The rise of war veterans who wanted more power in the governance of the country and, mostly related, rise of Movement of Democratic Change (MDC) as an alternative against the monopolistic political structure of ZANU-PF. And that is when the old man lost it. “Before independence, in this Groombridge area, any black seen after sundown could be shot dead and no police case was registered. This was a white-only area. The memories hadn’t totally erased, they were merely controlled. Thus when it was needed, the whites were an easy target, you know Sub”, Jerry Gezana looked me straight in the eye as he sat down his bottle of Castle Lager in the pub at a stripmall at Sam Levy’s Village. “But what the old man did not realize was that the whites still farmed the grains and vegetables that fed this country. Drive them away you can – and some will argue you should – but who will farm the land and get us food?”, Jerry continued. “And when white nations collectively got against us, we could not import food as well. We were fucked”, Jerry took a last and symbolic swig at his beer. “Night operations by his goons evicted whites from their farms and by the next morning a black family – his supporters – were installed in the farm. Six months later the land was just as it was. The black guy did not know no farming so all he did was he built a bloody home near the gates of the farm. Just look for these farms with a house near the gate – those are the ones taken away from the real farmers, the whites, and given to the guy who perhaps used to sprinkle fertilizers”, Jerry said as I settled the bill. “C’mon, Sub, leave the guy more than $500 tip – that’s like less than one US Dollar where you get your dollars exchanged”, Jerry chuckled and was back in his ways of pulling my leg. He was the Deputy CIO of African Banking Corporation – he perhaps knew what the bank was paying me!

Zimbabwe was a living laboratory for any student of economics and political science. Every theory of those subjects could be tested with live examples and case studies in this country. Alas, I was a novice at economics and nescient in anything political (including those played at workplaces. That explained why I was consulting a Bank here and my friends in New York City). I saw Zimbabwe through the eyes of day to day living in the capital city, through relationships I built with different types of people – both at work and outside, through my travels across the country and of course my faithful camera. It will be unfair to not mention a line about my camera. The technology dinosaur that I am, I was still using my Nikon FM10 manual focus camera and carried an assortment of films ranging from 50 to 200 ISOs and two lenses with me. Much later I had the prints from those days converted to digital format but with significant loss of quality, not to mention the negatives I lost while moving houses

The name of the series also merits a small explanation. Before the Bank found me a home, they had put me up at the Crown Plaza. From my room I would look down at the city and the view was a canopy of green with long slashes of vivid, lusty violet. I later realized they were Jacaranda flowers. Someone who must have loved the city as much as he loved the flowers had planted trees on both sides of several avenues in Harare (perhaps it was Salisbury then). The trees grew up and bent over to embrace their across-the-road neighbors as time passed by. And in spring they would light their romance up in bright, vivid shades of violet flowers. For the traveller it seemed a heavenly canopy of regal violet. As days pass, my memories of that wonderful country recede in the abyss of black and white leaving only the Jacaranda flowers to rekindle the remembrance