Magic of Rafi

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Mohammed Rafi (right) with Manna Dey (to his right), Lata Mangeshkar (second from left) and Asha Bhosle rehearsing for a qawwali for the film "Intezar". Photo: The Hindu Archives

An authorised biography of the man who believed in exhibiting the art but concealing the artist behind it and who, above all, was a sensitive and compassionate human being.

WHEN one recalls Mohammed Rafi’s last journey following a massive heart attack, one realises what he meant to the vast multitudes who had never met him, had hardly seen his photographs in those days when singers remained anonymous artists, but who heard his songs almost every day.

When Shammi Kapoor lip-synced to songs in the super-hit films of the 1950s and 1960s, it was Rafi’s voice that took him to viewers’ hearts. When Dilip Kumar’s eyes danced to “ Nain lad jayein”, one knew that Rafi and only Rafi could have given voice to such a complex song. And when he sang “ Babul ki duaein leti ja” in Neelkamal, there was hardly a father who was not moved to tears at the prospect of his daughter leaving for her in-laws’ place.

For some, he was a singer par excellence. For others, a splendid human being, a pious man who refrained from attending parties. For everyone, he was the rock star of life. So, when Rafi breathed his last on July 31, 1980, in Bombay, there was hardly a man in the city who did not turn up for the funeral. Most, as Sujata Dev so beautifully brings out in Mohammed Rafi: Golden Voice of the Silver Screen, wanted to lend him their kandha (shoulder); those who could not come close to the cortege showered petals on the body. People climbed to the roofs of strangers’ houses to get a glimpse of the janaaza (funeral procession) of Rafi, led by his teenage son, Shahid. Some stood at the windows of their houses; shopkeepers reverentially downed their shutters. And when the body finally reached the cemetery, the doors of the graveyard had to be shut from inside to avoid total chaos. Top film stars had to appeal to the people to stay outside, only to be rebuffed by them. The fans loved these film stars. But they loved Rafi more.

After such a show of love and reverence, Rafi was laid to rest at the Santa Cruz qabarastan (cemetery). Today, he rests there no more. The local authorities, pressed for space to bury new bodies, decided, with the approval of Islam, to do away with the tomb of Rafi. It left many of his fans disappointed. Many in the past had taken away little lumps of clay from the grave out of respect—a remarkable gesture, considering the faithful otherwise offer three fistfuls of clay as an offering to the departed. But then Rafi was that kind of a being.

Chance intervention

And to think that but for a chance intervention by his elder brother Mohammed Deen’s friend Abdul Hameed, he would have been trimming men’s hair rather than carving out his own niche in the world of music. It so happened that Rafi, one of six sons born to Allah Rakhi and Haji Ali Mohammed in Kotla Sultan Singh near Amritsar, went to Lahore with Deen, who ran a barber shop in Noor Mohalla. Rafi, then a little boy of not more than 12, used to assist him. Often, he used to hum while at work.

One day, Abdul Hameed heard him and started encouraging the youngster. Finally, he obtained permission from Ali Mohammed to take young Rafi to Bombay so that he could try his hand in the film industry. This small step proved to be a giant leap in the annals of Indian cinema, as Rafi, a Punjabi by birth, mastered the crests and troughs of playback singing and developed a style all his own. He could modulate his voice like nobody else could. No nasal twangs, no yodelling, no monotony. His voice was no prisoner of sorrow, nor dependent on fleeting joy. Rafi’s is a memorable journey, recalled in a remarkably lucid style by Sujata Dev. Like Rafi, she opts for simplicity, and like Rafi, she prefers to give credit where it is due. Like him, she does not shy away from taking a stand on contentious issues.

In the past, when K.L. Saigal or others sang, the songs were usually picturised on them as it was the era of singer-actors. Rafi turned all that upside down. He started keeping in mind the actor for whom he would be singing. He would insist on seeing the hero, his method of dialogue delivery, and his body language. Often, actors were invited to the studios by him. Rafi modulated his voice to suit individual actors. And he raised it to such a fine art that common cinemagoers often thought Shammi Kapoor was a fine singer! A large part of the success of Shammi Kapoor can be attributed to the genius of Rafi and the music composer O.P. Nayyar, who brought out the best in Rafi and Asha Bhosle.

Rafi’s forte lay in exhibiting the art and concealing the artist, as Oscar Wilde advised. It came out beautifully in “ Man tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj”, a bhajan in Baiju Bawra that is a crying advertisement for India’s increasingly endangered pluralism. It was sung by Rafi, penned by Shakeel Badayuni and the music was composed by Naushad. Talking of Naushad, the peerless composer considered himself incomplete after Rafi’s departure. The man who got “ Zindabad zindabad, ae mohabbat zindabad” from Rafi in the epic Mughal-e-Azam shared with his sons: “ Yun to sabhi aate hain duniya mein marne ke liye/maut uski hai jiska duniya kare afsos [Though everyone who comes to this world dies one day, only those for whom the world mourns, achieve glory even in death]. I have seen many great singers miss their notes, but I have never seen Rafi making any mistake….”

His ability to never miss a note shines through in another bhajan, “ O duniya ke rakhwale, sun dard bhare mere naale”. For the song “ Yeh chand sa roshan chehra” in Kashmir ki Kali, Nayyar had given him simple lyrics penned by S.H. Behari; Rafi made the song uniquely his own by adding, “ taaareef karun kya uski….” This little addition was made keeping in mind Shammi Kapoor’s propensity to shake his head and use his limbs to express himself. More than half a decade before Kashmir ki Kali, Rafi’s rendition of “ Ude jab jab zulfe teri” in B.R. Chopra’s Naya Daur had made Dilip Kumar the darling of young men and women. When the film opened in 1957, young men asked their local barbers to give them the Dilip Kumar cut, imagining themselves shaking their mane a la Dilip Kumar to “ Ude jab jab zulfe”. Interestingly, when the film was revived in colour in 2007, youngsters at Delite Diamond cinema, on the cusp of old and new Delhi, could not stop whistling all through the song. Ah, the magic of Rafi.

Wide range

The same Rafi could also modulate his voice beautifully to suit the comedian Johnny Walker. While many people still remember “ Sar jo tera chakrae”, what is not as well known is that he actually sang more than 150 songs for Johnny Walker. This he did in an era when many prominent singers thought it below their station to sing for anybody but the hero of a film.

Beyond music, Rafi was a fine human being, one never short of a word of encouragement or caution. Known to be a director’s singer who delivered what the music director wanted the way he wanted it, Rafi helped shape the music composer Ravi’s career in a unique way. It so happened that Ravi, then a young man aspiring to be a singer, met Rafi at a hotel near the historic Fatehpuri Masjid in Old Delhi. However, in that meeting, Ravi could not muster up the courage to tell Rafi that he wanted to be a singer and, instead, ended up blurting out that he wanted to be a music composer. Rafi assured him of help and promised to sing for him in his first film. He kept his promise with “ Babu Ek Paisa De De”, the best song of their association, of course, being “ Chaudhvin ka Chand ho ya Aftab ho”.

Like the notes of “ Chaudhvin ka Chand”, Sujata Dev’s detailing is immaculate in this book. Authorised by Rafi’s son, Shahid, to write this biography, she has picked the brains of the right people, speaking to those who knew Rafi well, from Shammi Kapoor and Naushad to his neighbour Kersi Lord and Uttam Singh to O.P. Nayyar and Manna Dey. It shows in the anecdotes the book is replete with, and comes to the fore between the lines in the quotes of many interviewees. They say a few lines and leave a lot unsaid, though not unexpressed.

The best example of this is in the section dealing with the well-known controversy involving Lata Mangeshkar and Rafi over the issue of music royalty. Rafi is said to have differed with Lata on asking for a share of the royalty. It was a difference of opinion which saw the two parting ways professionally for five years (1962-67). During that period, Rafi sang more than 300 duets, with many composers preferring to retain him and replace Lata with another female playback singer. While it spoke volumes for Rafi’s worth in the industry, it also gave other female singers a chance to sing with him. A notable beneficiary of this stand-off was Suman Kalyanpur.

Sticking to the truth

Sujata Dev does not shy away from speaking the truth in the Lata-Rafi controversy. When Lata’s name found a place in The Guinness Book of World Records in 1974 for singing “not less than 25,000 songs”, Rafi challenged it. Vishwas Nerukar, a music researcher whom Sujata Dev quotes, points out that Lata sang 5,066 Hindi film songs between 1945 and 1989, far below the figures quoted. Sujata Dev also writes clearly about Lata’s claim that she had a patch-up with Rafi following a written apology from him because of the efforts of the music director Jaikishan. The fact that the claimed patch-up happened in 1967 and Lata’s claim was made in 2012 says it all. Then, as Shahid says in the book, Lata does not back her contention with evidence.

Sujata Dev focusses on some of the lesser-known success stories too. For instance, the case of the much underrated Usha Khanna, the only female composer in the history of Hindi film music. She sang 13 duets with him and worked with him in more than 60 films. Or take the insight into the Rafi-Geeta Dutt combination. We learn that they sang more than 150 songs together.

Or the case of Mubarak Begum, otherwise remembered largely for “ Kabhi Tanhaiyon mein Hamari Yaad ayegi”. She too sang with Rafi in films like Daera, Baghdad and Susheela. Rafi, though, sang the maximum number of songs with Asha Bhosle; at one time, they were singing an average of 43 duets a year! All this is good, in fact, very good. What is not as laudable is the way Sujata Dev weaves together incidents involving several music composers and Rafi. These tend to raise him to demigod status, a pedestal Rafi can do without. For instance, Pyarelal of the Laxmikant-Pyarelal duo recalls an occasion when, in the early 1960s, his father was given Rs.500, then a huge sum, by Rafi to tide him over some difficulties.

Or the depiction of the helping hand he lent Sonik-Omi when they were starting out as independent composers with Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya. Following a difference of opinion over the recording of the famous qawwali “ Raaz ki Baat Keh Dun To”, Rafi gifted him speakers that cost Rs.20,000. This, when he charged only Rs.3,000 per song.

There is another bid to take the biography into the realms of hagiography when she talks of the experiences of those around Rafi. There is an incident recounted by Ravindra Jain, who gave us “ Tota Maina ki Kahani”, with Rafi. Jain discloses that Rafi rehearsed for 14 days for a qawwali in the film Lori. The film was never released. These are not the best-known anecdotes about his life, yet, somehow, one feels they merely add a halo around a very simple man.

Rafi was a sensitive human being and a devout man, and his career was affected when he was told, while on the Hajj pilgrimage, that music is forbidden in Islam. He did sing after that though; in fact, on the day of his passing away, he rehearsed two Bengali songs with composers at home. He was known for his generosity and respected for his humility.

In the ears of millions, his voice still rings; in the hearts of thousands, his generosity still flows. Sujata Dev, for the large part, has done a brave, even a wonderful job of putting together the story of the man who rehearsed patiently, immaculately for each song, and rose to be a genius in an industry where other singers have carved out a career claiming to have sung 27 songs in a day.

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