Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Concert Review - In Pursuit of Manna Dey, Part 1

EBC, our local NJ radio station announces that Manna Dey is in town for a show in August 2004. I jumped with joy. Finally a concert of singer who sings songs that I actually listen to(and more importantly has not sung any songs that I do not listen to!). I have to go.

But... there was a hitch. August 2004 was a time when my default concert companion Madhura was snowed down with ill-health and was not likely to accompany me. I needed another concert companion. Thus with a heavy heart I went in search of an alternate bakra. A daunting task, given the genre of music that appeals to me. But then yours truly is never say die, so I asked around. I got diverse reactions.

"Manna Dey, Hmmmm Tere Naina Talaash Karen Right??… That's a nice song…..but no.. I don't have much of an enthu for him.", said Savita mulling over the prospect.

She sometimes appreciates vintage music, so what if it is in spurts. I have a good chance. I must give it my best shot.

Tere Naina Talash is not the only nice song from Manna Dey, he has many other "nice" songs like Aaja Sanam Madhur chandani mein and Yeh raat bheegi bheegi, I said, trying my best to sell popular fare.

I have to stop here and say that Savita's music taste underlines the word eclectic. Despite her being my 'bestest' friend for the last 15 years, it would be simpler for me to fathom the direction a New york pedestrian would take than it would be to second guess her reaction to a given song.

"Ughhh! Puhlease there is no way I am sitting through those Raj Kapoor songs Manna Dey or no Manna Dey.", she shrieked(as she often does when she is mildly annoyed or pleased). Ah.. well that one backfired. Well look at the positive side, at least she shares my allergy for Raj Kapoor. Good for the 'friend-friend' bonding part of things. That however put an end at any effort to have her savour Manna Dey in concert.

Another music lover friend Shubhu loved the initial idea. He is a Bong after all and Bongs love their 'Manna Babu'. We had all attended the Asha Bhosle show together. So he went back to his wife Alka with the proposal, soon he was back rubbing a bump caused by the belan on the head. Manna Dey certainly did not boot her hard drive. Even the wonderful time we had hearing Asha Bhosle sing 'Kambakht Ishq', 'Sharara Sharara' and other such legendary songs did not help the matter. Well, that thread closed there.

In this process of trying to procure a bakra, one thing was becoming more and more apparent... for a casual music listener Manna Dey does not seem to have much of an appeal or stature. The true irony for Manna Dey however is this.. that even in the connoisseur circuit he sort of misses the bus. He is regularly accused of being mechanical, dry and predictable. Admirers, he has many, but he has never inspired the fanaticsm that a Kishore, Rafi, Hemant or even Talat Mehmood would inspire. Music lovers like Madhura Purohit who nurse a crush for his dynamic intellectual persona and equally flamboyant voice are few and far between.

And so it had to be Madhura Purohit who would come to my rescue. One evening I casually mentioned my lack of success in finding a bakra to her. In a highly emotional flourish that one reserves for the greatest love of their life, she said she would go.

Given her health condition (it was cancer that she was battling in those days) it seemed highly improbable. The cycles of chemotherapy and the ensuing debilitating pain gave her very little breather of relative physical comfort in which she could step out. And now she had a chemo on the Thursday before the Saturday of the concert. She would be in extreme pain on Saturday. But the clarion call of Manny dear was too great for Madhura to resist. Chemo or no chemo, pain or no pain she was going.

So on a very tentative note I bought the tickets for the show with the strong possibility of Madhura backing out.

Come Saturday and Madhura called me in the morning. I received her call in great trepidation. She had not sounded well at all last night and I knew it only got worse for her as the days progressed after the chemo. I had my doubts she would make it even though she had insisted she would. However, I wanted to wholly encourage her attempts at cheerfully and valiantly trying to fight the monster of the big C so I did not dissuade her from the project. Today, to my joy she came through bright and chirpy all geared for her date with her 'chashmewala hero'. To give a background. Madhura loves all bespectacled Bengali singers from her grand-father's generation. That includes Hemant Kumar, SD Burman, Kishore Kumar and ofcourse Manna Dey (See picture above to know why).. Get the drift?

So Madhuraji landed up at my place on Saturday afternoon and in our subsequent leisurely cups of Darjeeling tea and gossip time faded into the background. When finally we did glance up at the clock it was 7:15 PM. The show was to start at 8:30 PM and it takes at least an hour to get there. Back-calculating, we had to be out of the house by 7:30 PM. Even Dubya would know that it is impossible for two women to get ready in 15 minutes . We eventually scrambled out of the house at 7:45 PM. Mind you a feat that only Manna Dey could get us to achieve. Or rather a feat that only Manna Dey would get Madhura to get me to achieve!

With our past experience with IST(Indian Stretchable Time), we were sure that there was a dim chance of the show starting at 8:30 PM sharp. Yet, self-doubt is the bane of human existence. And as we crossed the 8:30 PM time mark, it began to plague us. What if this concert had actually started on time?. We would surely miss some songs. What if Manna Dey started with my favourite Poocho na kaise maine rain bitayi? The concert would be a wash out if I missed that song. By the time it was 8:50 PM we were quadruply(her double and my double together) sure that we must have surely missed a part of the concert. Why did we let Lopchu take precedence over Manny dear? The regret was writ large in our hearts. And 'chidiya chug gayi khet' ringing somewhere in the recess of our conscience.

We finally reached the venue at 8:55 PM. I quickly drew into the parking space, clicked on the lock and hurried towards the theatre as Madhura scurried behind. As soon we entered the venue, I gave Madhura an 'I told you' look and exhaled. There was a huge crowd standing in the foyer. The function had not started. One up for Indian Stretchable Time!

Now that we had all the time, we fell back into our stately pace. We cashed our e-tickets and headed inside. A leisurely halt at the samosa kiosk, a fruitful debate over the best chutney for the occasion and two plates of samosa later we were in the hall. It took us sometime to locate our seats and settle down. In about five minutes there was a whole lot of hooting and clapping. What's the matter? It took us a moment to realise that these were those traitor kind of Indians that migrate to the US and forget their all Indian Values. You know the kind of people that flaunt their un-Indianess by actually coming on time? Yet however much their 'joota' might be 'japani', their 'dil' is after all Hindustani. And a true Hindustani cannot resist the lure of the catcall, whether in pleasure or in pain. So while we sympathised with their pain of waiting for over an hour we revelled in our cent-per-cent swadeshiness and happily tucked away at our samosas.

Another five minutes there was an announcement that we would be starting shortly. This was accompanied with a flurry of activity around the stage. Another few minutes later the curtain went up and the musicians were all on the stage tuning their instruments. One has to admit that the catcalls do have their benefits as infallible catalysts. The instant activity on stage was proof enough for that theory.

The orchestra was a minimal one with a Tabla player, dholak player, keyboard player, guitarist and an electronic drum(forgot what you call it). I liked that. Too much orchestra is distracting in my opinion.

Finally, the MC came on stage. He was a typical fellow from the northern parts of India. Dressed in a bright silk kurta worn fashionably over blue jeans, he regaled us for a while with an introduction speech and then announced Manna Dey with a flourish of great showmanship. As everyone clapped lustily, the man of the moment made a casual entry with a contrasting modesty that I have come to characterise as very Eastern(read Bengali). He wore a formal jacket and trousers along with his trademark cap. My first impression was that he looked quite well-preserved for an 84 year old. And yes, he did look what I always call him….the uncle next door. Needless to say Madhura has never agreed with that observation of mine. (Please see picture above again!)

The first thing Mannada did after getting the microphone was to very humbly apologise for the delay. The driver had lost his way and it took them 1.5 hours to reach the venue...ouch!. (psst...I am sure the driver was a man). "I understand the importance of punctuality and I apologise on the behalf of the organisers. They are trying their best but sometimes things happen." he said with effortless humility, practicality and simplicity that can only come from someone of the old school.

That won me over there and then and I suspect it was the same with the rest of the audience. Here is an 84 year old man. He has been subjected to a tiring 1.5 hour drive through the chaos of New Jersey traffic that too just before a concert. He is not responsible in anyway for the delay, yet he thinks he owes his audience an apology. I instantly contrasted that with Asha Bhosle and Amit Kumar the two other film artists I have heard in concert(classical concerts somehow always start on time). Both made grossly late entries, kept the audience waiting for over 1.5 hours and did not think even an acknowledgement of the fact was required. The old school theory, I admit goes a little off skelter in the examples I state, but then when has Asha Bhosle considered herself old school?!

Coming back to Manna Dey, after apologising for the delay, he proceeded to introduce a singer whom he described as a budding talent based in New York. He praised her greatly and asked the audience to lend her an ear. I gave a sigh of impatience. In all these concerts these side-entries are very trying on the nerves. In the Asha concert there was Megha Naidu, Sudesh Bhosle and Adnan Sami one had to endure before one got to her. In the Amit Kumar concert there was his wife and a couple of other bores. So in this case too we waited for this new artist who went by the name of Zafreen Ani to come take stage and get over with it.

The lady walked onto the stage and very diffidently asked the audience to forgive her mistakes. I suddenly felt scared for her. She looked as if she would be chomped by the audience. I hoped from inside that they would be kind to her. Then she started singing. She first sang Ek pyar ka nagma hai from the Manoj Kumar film Shor. The whole effect sounded horrible. The orchestra was screaming and drowning her out. No for once LP are not to be blamed for that (** see note below). The effect was entirely the creation of the orchestra on stage.

Then suddenly Madhura pointed to a hand on the sidelines motioning the orchestra to tone down. Guess who that hand belonged to…. Yes, Manna Dey! With the orchestra (or shall be say Manna Dey) in control, Zafreen sang Oh mere sona re next. I was pleasantly surprised. Again, RDB does not get credit for that either (*** See note again!). Zafreen just had a lovely voice. A voice that reminded me of Geeta Dutt and Meena Kapoor. A husky voice that is full throated yet sweet and mellifluous. She is surely a very good singer. I hope she gets some good breaks. I enjoyed whatever she sang.

So now, all the extras, side-entries and MCs were out of the way. The stage was finally set for Manna Dey to make an appearance.

But wait... I am all done for today. All that comes in the next installment.
(Click to read Part 2)

See you!

Notes :
** - LP - Popular Hindi film music directors Laxmikant-Pyarelal known for their love for a grand(read screeching orchestra) and creators of the song in question. This song Ek Pyar Ka Nagma Hai however is uncharacteristically minimalist and could count as one of their best efforts.

*** - RDB - Iconic music director RD Burman. Arch rival of LP (at least in the minds of their fans), known for his 'Stylish' , 'Classy' and 'Avant-Garde' (not my words) use of the orchestra. Creator of Oh Mere Sona re, the second song Zafreen sang.

Complete Article


More about Manna dey
Listen to Manna Dey's songs
Watch Manna Dey Live in Concert

P.S - Tongue Firmly in Cheek!


  1. Ritu - this is awesome ... I was smiling all through your description.

    I still think the tea was a much needed respite and after all the caterwauling about the samosas... those were amongst the best samosas I have had in the US.

    Equally amazing is the fact that you have been nice to me in this encounter ( Not well?)I thank you and would like to remind you that when it comes to counting old men that we revere - I would be a poor second to vous :))

  2. Ritu,

    A very nice beginning! I like your chatty helps to break the formality and stiffness of the written word and puts your readers at ease.

    As for Manna Dey, while I belong to the category of hindi film music lovers whose feelings for him could be summed up by "Eh", I did manage to attend a concert of his back in the early 90s. I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it. Manna Dey was in good form (given his age, etc) that day, and the sparse attendance lent a cosy, private "mehfil" air to the concert and allowed for more informal interaction between Manna Da and the audience.

  3. Thank you Shalini and Madhura for inaugurating the comments section.

    @ Madhura : Let us take this topic of old men offline. As far as being nice to you is concerned...don't get into that illusion, I have just refined my skills to an understated art ;)

    @ Shalini : I concur with your observations on Manna Dey. His concerts are sans of any frills and flourishes and are about music purely. I don't relish him as much as recorded artist. But a concert is a complete experience. In that respect give me a Manna Dey over an Asha Bhosle any day!