In Memory Of Mohammed Rafi
There has, perhaps, not been a more versatile playback singer in the history of Hindi film music than Mohammed Rafi—a singer for all seasons and reasons, and a voice for almost every actor of his generation, a voice that suited everyone. A totally distinct ‘perfect’. A voice that spelt magic in every song rendered—sad or happy, slow paced or fast, modern or classical. Today’s generation may not have even heard his name humming jumbles of rhyming verse mouthed by his later day clones of Rafi who recorded “4856 film and non-film songs” during his 36-year career as a playback singer. He died in 1980, at a young age of 56. His last rendered song was Shaam phir kyun udaas hai dost for a film, Aas Paas, under the baton of Laxmikant-Pyarelal.
Although he was known to reserve his best for Naushad, in those Carter Road bungalow I met a few times, for me the best Rafi song was Dekhee zamane ki yari bichade sabhi, bichde sabhi, bari bari…Matlab ki duniya hai saree bichde sabhi, bichade sabhi, bari bari… the Kaifi Azmi poem set to music by SD Burman (who used him sparingly) for Guru Dutt’s Pyassa. Someone has observed that “if there are 101 ways of saying ‘I love you’ in a song, Mohammed Rafi knew them all. The awkwardness of puppy love, the friskiness of teen romance, the philosophy of unrequited love and the anguish of heartbreak—he could explore every crevice of ardour. It wasn’t just love; his voice could capture the navrasa of life—a failed poet’s melancholy, a fiery unionist’s vim, a debt-ridden farmer’s despair, really anybody at all. Rafi, whose career spanned nearly four decades, was a singer for every season and every reason.”
Rafi was generally a mild-mannered person who never crossed swords with anyone in Bollywood, though there is the infamous crossing of swords with Lata Mangeshkar. His first playback was in a Punjabi film, Gul Baloch (1941), a duet with Zeenat Begum under music director Shyam Sunder (also Bazaar, 1948) under whose, together with Husanlal Bhagatram (Meena Bazaar, 1949) and Naushad (Dulari, Dillagi and Chandni Raat, all 1949), tutelage he blossomed. His first grand success came in the form of an invite from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to recreate the magic of suno suno ae duniya wallon Bapuji ki Amar Kahani, a Rajinder Krishan song set to music by Husanlal Bhagatram, in his presence. And although Rafi lent his incomparable voice to countless film solos and duets under the baton of almost all the big music directors of his time, he achieved pinnacles with only Naushad (68 duets, 81 solos) and Shankar Jaikishan.
While the 1949 Suhani raat dhal chuki brought him into reckoning with other stalwarts of that time, the major breakthrough came with Baiju Bawra (1952) in which Naushad opted out for him in place of Talat Mahmood. Man tadpat hari darshan to aaj and oh duniya ke rakhwale sun dard bhare mere naale still resonate themselves whenever played on radio and television. And although he sang for almost all the major heroes of his time, his voice seemed to suit most Dilip Kumar’s melancholy numbers as perfectly as the boisterous ones picturised on Shammi Kapoor, especially under Shankar Jaikishan baton. In later years he became to be known as Shammi’s voice.
Look at the range: Insaaf ka mandir hai yeh (Dilip Kumar, Amar—Naushad); Yeh mahalon yeh takhaton yeh taajon ki duniya (Guru Dutt, Khagaz ke Phool—SD Burman), Teri pyari pyari surat ko, and Baharon phool barsaao (Rajendra Kumar, Sasural, Suraj—Shankar Jaikishan), Khoya khoya chand and Kya se kya ho gaya (Dev Anand, Kala Bazaar, Guide—SD Burman), Dil ke jharokhe mein tujh ko bitha kar and Chahay koi mujhe junglee kahe (Shammi Kapoor, Brahmachari, Junglee—Shankar Jaikishan), Mein zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya (Dev Anand, Hum Dono—Jaidev), Zindagi bhar na bhulegi yeh barsaat ki raat (Bharat Bhushan, Barsaat ki Raat—Roshan).
During his distinguished career Mohammed Rafi won five national and six Filmfare best singer awards. He was bestowed with Padma Shri in 1967. There were only two instances when he felt low and down but not out. Once when he had a showdown with Lata Mangeshkar on the question of royalty, and the other when a tornado called Kishore Kumar swept aside all other male singers. Manna Dey elaborates on this phase in his autobiography, Memories Come Alive: When I made my first foray into Mumbai’s film industry, Mohammed Rafi was its blue-eyed boy. His songs touched people’s hearts. With Kishore Kumar’s arrival on the scene, however, Rafi gradually started losing ground. With their pulse on what the audience wanted, most producers clamoured for Kishore.” It was reportedly Naushad, his chief patron, who ultimately succeeded in restoring the singer’s confidence in himself, and his golden voice.
Like many other aspirants, like Talat Mahmood, Mukesh, Madan Mohan, Raj Khosla who finally found their true vocation elsewhere, Mohammed Rafi also aspired to be an actor and did brief roles in movies like Laila-Majnu (1945) and Jugnu. In Laila-Majnu, he was seen singing ‘tera jalwa’ as a part of the chorus. He sang a number of songs for Naushad as part of the chorus, including Mere sapnon ki rani, Roohi Roohi with KL Saigal in Shahjahan (1946). While every Rafi number has been a gem, the following from Naunihal is reminder of his vocal flexibility
Meri awaaz suno, pyar ka raag suno,
Maine ek phool jo dil pe saja rakha tha.
By Suresh Kohli