Remembering the Legendary Singer Mohammed Rafi

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Mohammed Rafi.

Mohammed Rafi died on 31 July 1980 leaving millions of fans across the globe in grief. But 38 years on, his popularity shows no signs of waning.

Bushra Alvi Razzack

AT A RECENT concert in memory of Rafi Sahab, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the main auditorium as well as the balcony seats were already packed to capacity when I arrived, and the aisles too were filling up rapidly.  I somehow managed to find a place to sit and spent the next four hours reveling in the memory of the singer whose contribution to Indian cinema is matchless.

Mohammed Rafi died on 31 July 1980, leaving not just an entire nation, but millions of fans across the globe, in grief. But 38 years on, his popularity shows no signs of waning. The innumerable concerts organized each year on his birth and death anniversaries are a testimony to his popularity and the love and respect he commands even today.

Mohammed Rafi was one of the best singers of Hindi cinema. In fact, he was ‘The Best’. Born on 24 Dec 1924 to Haji Mohammed Ali and Allahrakhi in the village of Kotla Sultan Singh, a short distance from Amritsar, Rafi’s singing talent was apparent from a very early age. He performed his first stage show at the age of thirteen in Lahore. He started singing for All India Radio, Lahore, from the year 1941. The same year, he recorded his first song Soniye Nee, a duet with the famous singer Zeenat Begam for the Punjabi film, Gul Baloch to music set by Shyam Sunder.

He shifted to Bombay in 1944 and started meeting various producers and directors. The first song he recorded in Bombay was Ai dil ho kaabu mein (Gaon ki Gori, 1944). Soon he started singing for top music directors like Shyam Sunder and Naushad. Mohammed Rafi got to work with all the best music directors through the next few decades like Laxmikant Pyarelal, Shankar Jaikishan, Madan Mohan, Ravi, Roshan, Rajesh Roshan, O. P. Nayyar, S. D. Burman, his son, R. D. Burman and others. With lyricists like Hasrat Jaipuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Anand Bakshi, Qamar Jalalabadi, etc., the songs they created together were to impact listeners all over the world.

Mohammed Rafi has been my childhood hero, an integral part of my growing up years and still holds a very special place in my heart. My childhood would have been incomplete without his songs.

We twisted to the up-tempo popular song Aaj kal tere mere pyaar ke charche har zubaan par (Brahmachari, 1968). We got goose flesh on hearing Kar chale hum fida jaano tan saathiyon, ab tumhare hawale watan saathiyon (Haqeeqat, 1964), one of the best patriotic songs given to us by our evergreen legend.

Our chests thrust forth with pride at our brave soldiers and our hearts thumped with emotion. We shook a leg to Aaja aaja, main hun pyaar tera (Teesri Manzil, 1966) and we swooned with gentle intoxication to Likhe jo khat tujhe, wo teri yaad mein (Kanyadaan, 1968).  Road trips across the country were rendered more enjoyable with Rafi’s songs playing on our transistors or cassette players or as part of the antakshari game we siblings loved to indulge in whenever we were together.

No wedding in India is complete without Mohammed Rafi’s songs. My wedding video too starts and ends with his golden melodious voice – from Baharon phool barsao mera mehboob aaya hai (Suraj, 1966) at the arrival of the barat to the heart-wrenching song sung in Rafi’s inimitable style, a song that pulls at every chord of my being and  brings tears to my eyes each time I listen to it, a song that is arguably one of his very best  – Babul ki duaaein leti jaa, jaa tujh ko sukhi sansaar mile, the vidaai song from the film Neelkamal (1968). Mohammed Rafi had actually cried while singing this song as his own daughter had got married just a few days prior to its recording.

And who can forget Shammi Kapoor’s Chaahe koi mujhe junglee kahe/kehne do ji kehta rahe (Junglee,1961). The word ‘yahoo’ in the song was not in Rafi’s voice. It was the voice of Prayag Raj, a writer in Prithvi Theatre. However, Rafi Sahab took this fast and peppy song from there and elevated it to such dizzying heights that it remains one of the most iconic songs of Shammi Kapoor. Mohammed Rafi was called the ‘soul’ of Shammi Kapoor. Shammi Kapoor himself admitted that he would have been incomplete as an actor without Rafi Sahab. The two went on to do many films together where Rafi gave voice to the songs the actor sang on screen.

Mohammed Rafi was a very versatile singer and had a song for every emotion. From classical numbers to patriotic songs, lively, happy numbers and intensely romantic songs to sad ones, qawwalis to ghazals and bhajans, village songs to songs sung in a club, his oeuvre was vast.

He was the man with the ‘Golden Voice’ who was conferred with the title, ‘Suron Ke Badshah’ and ‘Sangeet Duniya ke Anmol Rattan’. He sang with ease and there was a divine quality in his voice. He had a glorious career that spanned over four decades and thousands of melodies that are timeless and have touched the hearts of many generations of music lovers and will continue to do so for many more.

Rafi had the knack of bringing alive any song. He had the perfect blend of melody, emotions and energy. From the classically inclined songs of Baiju Bawra (1952) to the foot-tapping songs of Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), he gave each song the treatment it deserved. He is credited with elevating playback singing to a very high standard. He bridged the gap between the singer and the actor.

After the era of silent movies was over, mostly those actors who could also sing were given roles in films, eg. K.L. Saigal, Suraiyya, Noorjehan, etc. Then came the tradition of playback singing. Rafi Sahab was aware of the difference between singing for a recording or singing on stage where the singer had a direct relation with the audience and playback singing which was altogether a different game. Here one had to show that the actor is singing, and this had to be portrayed with conviction. The problem here was that every actor’s voice has a different quality, every actor has a different style and a different personality.

How could a singer blend all these to match the actor. Rafi was perhaps the first person who could do this so successfully. He could, with absolute ease, adapt his voice and style to suit the actor on whom the song was being picturized. Thus we hear a great variation in his voice quality when he sings Hum aap ki aankhon mein is dil ko basa lein to (Pyaasa,1957) for Guru Dutt, Gum uthane ke liay mai to jiay jaaonga ( Mere Huzoor,1968) for Jeetendra, Teri chham-chham se, meri dum-dum se, kya rang chhaane  laga hai (Sargam, 1979) for Rishi Kapoor, Nain Lad Jaye Hain To Manwa Ma (Ganga Jamuna, 1961) for a rustic Dilip Kumar. For a suave Dilip Kumar in Aaj ki raat mere dil ki salaami le le (Ram Aur Shyam, 1967), the voice modulation was very different. In fact, if one heard just the song, one could easily guess which actor it had been picturized on. The actor for whom Chhup gaye sare nazare oyi kya baat ho gayi (Do Raaste, 1970) could only be Rajesh Khanna. Such was Rafi’s genius.

It is this rare quality of Rafi and the scale, timbre and tenor of his voice which makes him stand apart from all the other playback singers of Bollywood till date. He had immense control over voice, a fine example of which we see in the climax of the song, O duniya ke rakhwaaley, sun dard bharey mere naale (Baiju Bawra,1952) where he raises his voice to a very high pitch in the repetition of the word ‘rakhwale’. It has been said that this is the highest scale pitch song ever to be recorded. Only a Mohammed Rafi could do this! This song was so tough that his throat was bleeding while he was singing it.

Mohammed Rafi was awarded the Filmfare Award for Best Playback Singer 6 times (he was nominated 19 times). He was also honoured once with the National Film Award. He was conferred the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1967.

Not only was Mohammed Rafi a singer par excellence, he was a wonderful human being too, compassionate and kind. Simplicity was his much-admired trait. One of the qualities that endeared him to all was that he was modest and down to earth. He could not even understand why people were so crazy about his singing.

Surprisingly for a man with a God-gifted voice, he didn’t speak much. He never attended any filmi parties or socialize much preferring to spend time with his family or play his favourite games. He loved to play badminton, carrom and to fly kites. A very religious person, he took no credit for his success, attributing all his achievements to the Almighty. People often debated whether Rafi was a better singer or a better human being. They simply concluded that he was, in fact, not a human being. He was a farishta, an angel!

The last song Rafi Sahab recorded was Shaam phir kyun udaas hai dost for the movie Aas Paas by Producer Director J Om Prakash. It was one day before his end. On the morning of 31 July 1980, Rafi took ill while rehearsing for a Bengali song at home which was to be a tribute to actor Uttam Kumar who had passed away just a few days earlier. It was the 19th day of the holy month of Ramadan that year. Late night, he suffered a massive heart attack and coud not survive. He was 55 years old.

Mohammed Rafi died in 1980 but the singer Mohammed Rafi is not dead. He is immortal. He will continue to mesmerize us with his golden voice. The magic of Rafi will live on.
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Bushra Alvi Razzack is a Delhi-based writer, editor, translator and poet.

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