Sometime ago Internet rumors of Manna Dey’s death threw many into a tailspin where they sought answers to which gem amongst Aye Meri Zohara Jabeen (Waqt), Poocho Na Kaise Maine Rain Bitai (Meri Surat teri Aankhen) or Yaari Hai Imaan Mera (Zanjeer) besides hundreds of others would be the singer’s most enduring legacy.
But considering the interesting times we live in, sadly, a greater number might have asked “Who’s Manna Dey?” For all his life Manna Dey, one of India’s greatest singers ever, didn’t require any introduction but by the time the 94-year-old fell silent forever, the standard of playback singing in Hindi cinema had fallen so much that youngsters couldn’t really be blamed for being unaware of the legendary singer who possessed molten gold for vocal chords. Ever wonder why the songs from yesteryears were better?
Technically superior as it might be, contemporary Hindi cinema music lacks the distinct identity it used to once possess and a lack of vocal identity in present day stars could be a big reason for it. When was the last time you heard a song on the radio and managed to put an actor’s face to it?
Years ago when Rafi passed away someone told Shammi Kapoor that he had lost his voice. While Rafi had sung innumerable gems for Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand, he had come to be best known as Shammi Kapoor’s voice just like Mukesh was inseparable from Raj Kapoor and Kishore Kumar from Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna and later Amitabh Bachchan.
Manna Dey was never identified that strongly with a star but with his death have we forever lost the last of the greats who bought a kind of distinctiveness to Hindi film music that for is now largely faceless and almost impersonal?
A look at the biggest hits of the last five years reveals the advent of singers like Mohit Chauhan, Mika Singh, Atif Aslam and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan who are a departure from the traditional definition of a playback singer.
Many things separate them from the pantheon of greatness that was once the landscape of Hindi playback singing and the inability to sing in sur is just one of them. The lack of traditional classical training couldn’t stop someone like Kishore Kumar from hitting the right sur notes but today’s untrained voices only get worse with incorrect pronunciation and a conspicuous absence of correct note. It’s one thing to see such singers enjoy the kind of popularity they do but the loyalty they command is shocking.
The unhealthy symbiotic relationship between singers and Hindi film songs – where playback singing helps boost ticket sales for live shows and non-film success making a singer more attractive to music directors – has bought upon a situation where anything works in present day playback singing. Artists such as Honey Singh, a talentless hack according to this writer, have now become the highest paid singers whereas singers like Sonu Nigam and Kavita Krishnamurthy find themselves out of favor.
There have been many instances in the past where singers with limited talent managed to keep pace with the great ones but never has the disparity been so clear. As a playback singer Manna Dey preceded most of his more illustrious contemporaries such as Rafi, Mukesh, Talat Mahmood and Kishore Kumar.
In a cinema identified by its music, Hindi playback singers are perhaps the X-factor who transform the fortunes of the stars and although he sang for most of the leading ones, he never got associated with a particular one like Rafi or Mukesh. Manna Dey often mused that he would get songs that were either passed over by others or it seemed like no one else would sing.
Even his iconic rendition of poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s Madhushala, which remains one of his greatest accomplishments, came his way when the poet rejected Rafi and Mukesh refused the offer. Yet, the songs that his voice graced continue to be as unique as the singer himself. Even though he stopped playback singing in the early 1990s, in him we continued to have a connection with a golden past where even a singer of his caliber was perhaps the last amongst equals such as Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar.
In a cinema that is inseparable from music, synthesized exuberance has been regularly mistaken for melody these days. It may be far fetched but the very man who reinvented Hindi cinema’s music could be responsible its largely sorry state. While AR Rahman infused brilliance in the mundane, he, for some strange reason, always preferred the rawness of an unpolished voice, which could be enhanced with the help of technology, to suit a soundtrack’s aural mood. Initially he balanced Shweta Shettys and Baba Sehgals with SP Balasubramanium or Kavita Krishnamurthy in the same album but the passage of time has seen him place interesting timbre above all.
Therefore it doesn’t matter to him if Naresh Iyer couldn’t hit the right notes in Roobaroo from Rang De Basanti because he could simply supply the chorus line himself or use Sonu Nigam as the backing vocalist as long as everything else ticked. Many of the songs that Rahman sings himself (Mangta Hai Kya from Rangeela or even as late as Tere Bina from Guru) are filled with words impossible to decipher.
Somewhere Rahman lowered the bar of vocal selection to a level where Himesh Reshammiya and Farhan Akhtar are considered regular ‘singers’ and therefore it’s hardly surprisingly then that Rahman even approached them to croon for him. Every time one thinks Hindi playback singing couldn’t any worse, a Lungi Dance or Party All Night gently tells us otherwise.
This field of Hindi cinema has forever been star struck and if it relegated a singer of Manna Dey’s stature to the second-rung then the worst is yet to come.