Dey broke into the Hindi film biz under the aegis of his uncle, the legendary blind singer Krishna Chandra Dey. In a career spanning the 1950s to the 1970s he sang a variety of songs from Urdu qawwalis (“Na to karvan ki talash” in “Barsaat ki raat”) to romantic ballads (“Oh meri zohra jabeen” in “Waqt”) and even comic songs (“Ek chatura naar” in “Padosan”). A classically trained singer, he wasn’t very happy about the latter number but gamely sang along.
Along with Kumar, Mohammad Rafi and Mukesh, he was among the quartet of male singers who dominated the Hindi film music scene in the middle of the 20th century. Actors lip-synched to his songs in the style of Bollywood films in such numbers as “Yeh raat bheegi bheegi” in “Chori chori” and “E bhai zara dekh ke chalo” (“Mera naam joker”) and in 1970s hit films like “Zindagi kaisi hai paheli” (“Anand”), “Yeh dosti hum nahin” (“Sholay”) and “Phir kahin koi phool khila” (“Anubhav”).
Besides Hindi, Dey sang in regional languages like Kannada, Bengali, Punjabi and Marathi.
Born Prabodh Chandra Dey, he was nicknamed Manna and once was an assistant to composer S.D. Burman. But all the composers of the day used his voice from Salil Choudhary to Shankar-Jaikishen and Kalyanji-Anandji and R.D. Burman, son of S.D.
Awarded India’s highest kudo for artists, the Padma Shri, Dey won a number of other trophies for his songs. Even though he had long since retired from the Mumbai film scene, tributes poured in from all over India. Lata Mangeshkar, who dueted with him on scores of songs, tweeted, “Today, great classical singer Manna Dey sahab, who we fondly called Manna da, is not among us anymore. He had a very pleasant and easy personality. He was very dedicated to his work. I salute him and pray that his soul rests in peace.”
Amitabh Bachchan, one of the stars of “Sholay” and “Zanjeer,” tweeted, “Strange how we connect events of our life with his songs.”