Manna Dey is a renowned singer and a reputed figure in Indian music. He was born Prabodh Chandra Dey to Purna Chandra Dey and Mahamaya Dey, in an orthodox joint family in Kolkatta. His uncle, K.C. Dey, an extremely popular singer and music director in Bengali films, lived in the same house and would have many famous classical musicians of that visiting him. As a result, Manna Dey grew under a strong influence of music, specially classical music and also learnt the basics of music from his uncle.
Manna Dey’s singing talent was noticed during his college days and he started taking singing lessons from K.C. Dey as well as from Ustad Dabir Khan. S.D. Burman, who was one of K.C. Dey’s students, was also an early inspiration.
In 1942, he accompanied K.C. Dey to Bombay and started his career as his assistant. His first singing assignment was a lucky break. When K.C. Dey refused an offer to sing for another music director, Shankar Rao Vyas, the song was offered to him. “Gayi Tu Gayi” from “Rama Rajya” (1943) thus became his first Hindi film song. His first popular song was probably a duet composed by KC.Dey for the movie, “Tamanna”(1943), in which he sang with Suraiya. While he did sing a few other songs in the 1940s, his singing career did not really take off and he continued to assist music directors like Anil Biswas, Khemchand Prakash and S.D Burman.
The 1950s brought more signing opportunities. He start getting support from the music director duo Shankar-Jaikishan. Shankar-Jaikishan gave him their best songs, like “Pyar Hua Iqrar Hua” (“Shree 420”, 1955) and “Yeh Raat Bheegi Bheegi” (“Chori Chori”, 1956), despite Raj Kapoor’s preference for Mukesh. However, his high point in the 50s was perhaps a lesser known song in the movie “Basant Bahar” (1956). Manna Dey was asked to sing the song “Ketaki Gulab Juhi” in a jugalbandi from with with Bhimsen Joshi - and win! Manna Dey protested that winning against the classical maestro was implausible but eventually relented.
Ironically, his virtuosity in classical singing may have been detrimental to this career. He was typecast as a classical singer and did not get the recognition that was due to him. It is true that he will be best remembered for his classical-based songs like “Kaun Aaya Mere Man Ke Dware” (“Dekh Kabira Roya”, 1957), “Laaga Chunari Mein Daag” (“Dil Hi To Hai”, 1963) and “Poocho Na Kaise Maine” (“Meri Surat Teri Ankhen”, 1963). However, it is also true that he proved his singing prowess in a varietry of other musical styles - rock n’ roll (“Aao Twist Karen”, “Bhoot Bangla”, 1965), qawwali (“Aye Meri Zohara Jabeen”, “Waqt”, 1965) and folk (“Dil Ka Haal Sune Dil Wala”, “Shree 420”, 1955).
Manna Dey sang with a number of singers. He probably competed the most with Mohd Rafi and sang with him songs like “Yeh Hai Ishq Ishq” (“Barsat ki Raat”, 1960), “Tu Hai Mera Prem Devta” (“Kalpana”, 1960). He also sang many duets with Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. He also many songs with Kishore Kumar and had a lot of respect for him. It must have given him a sense of deja vu when R.D. Burman asked him to compete with Kishore Kumar in “Ek Chatur Naar” (“Padosan”, 1967). Only, this time he was asked to lose! This time, he was not prepared to lose and had to be talked into it by the director, Mehmood.
Manna Dey also sang for many songs for Bengali films. In the 1960s he came to be known as the voice of Uttam Kumar.
In a career spanning over 50 years, Manna Dey sang more than 3000 songs in as many as 16 languages. He has won the Padmashri, Padmabhushan and the Dadasaheb Phalke awards and was presented the Filmfare Life Time Achievement Award in 2011.