Tumsa Nahin Dekha
There is one Rafi song for every occasion in our lives. And no one could sing of the joy and pain of love like he did. Hardly surprising then that he remains one of the best-selling singers of all time even 30 years after his death
AVIJIT GHOSH & UTTHARA KUMARI B
TIMES NEWS NETWORK
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 navras 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.
Which is why 30 years after his death — he passed away on July 31, 1980, at the age of 55 — fans arrive from distant corners of the world to visit his grave in Juhu, Mumbai; some even plan Rafi holidays to meet and listen to his songs every year. Which is why nostalgia soirees like ‘Ek Sham Rafi Ke Naam’ continue to provide agreeable employment to hundreds of his clones in cities and small towns across India. Which is why websites dedicated to him are almost like shrines where every article written on him is reverentially posted. And which is why fans are still campaigning to get him the Bharat Ratna.
His fan base is not entirely 40-plus. “Just watch the young performers on TV music talent shows. So many of them opt for Rafi numbers. He is still one of the best-selling singers,” says Najma Merchant, senior consultant with Saregama.
Simply put, Rafi is the most versatile male singer Bollywood has seen. Peppy romantic numbers, tearful melodies, ghazals, bhajans, qawwalis, folk, classical — he could sing all genres, all octaves effortlessly. That’s what helped him become the playback for the biggest stars: Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Bharat Bhushan, Pradeep Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, and Dharmendra among many others.
He also had the special ability to imbibe a star’s style and translate it in a song. Shammi Kapoor recalls: “Once I went abroad and Rafi saab had recorded one in my absence. I came back and heard it; I was astounded. He had captured my ada, my andaaz, my energy. I asked him how he did it. Rafi saab said smilingly: ‘I imagined this is how Shammi would jump or roll or lift his hand or shake a leg or head and sang accordingly.’ And that was exactly how I enacted that song. It was uncanny.”
Music director Pyarelal (the other half of Laxmikant) further illustrates the point. “Just listen to Din dhal jaaye, a Dada Burman composition from Guide. See how he infuses the mood of Dev Anand’s character into the song. That’s what was so special about him,” he says. But that was Rafi: a teetotaller who sounded the perfect drunk in Mujhe duniya walon sharabi na samjho (film: Leader, 1964).
Rafi made his debut as a playback singer in the early 1940s; there’s considerable debate over the song and the film. Some say, his first song — a duet with Zeenat Begum for composer Shyam Sunder — was recorded for the Punjabi film Gul Baloch in 1941 though the movie was released in 1944.
However, in an interview to Star and Style magazine, a few days before his death, the singer had recalled that he first sang for Laila Majnu (1945) for composer Pandit Govindram. “I sang in the chorus for a qawwali. I had even done a bit role in the film,” said the Amritsar-born singer who went on to record in at least 12 languages.
In the same interview, he remembered how his seniors overwhelmed him with their grace: “When I entered the line, there were, of course, popular singers like Saigal saab, G M Durrani and Khan Mastana. Unki khoobi yeh thi janab ki instead of considering me yet another competitor they encouraged me to give my best.”
Through the 1950s and 1960s, Rafi was the top male singer in Hindi films. There is a debate over the number of songs he gave voice to. What is undeniable is that he ruled the charts in the super-hit radio countdown show, Binaca Geet Mala, and often topped the annual show. His numbers — Aye dil hai mushqil (film: CID, 1956), Zara saamne to aao chhaliye (film: Janam Janam Ke Phere, 1957), Teri pyaari pyaari surat ko (film: Sasural, 1962), Baharon phool barsao (film: Suraj, 1966) — were all crowned the year’s most successful songs.
And though the Kishore Kumar tsunami struck Bollywood with Aradhana in 1969 and sent him into near-wilderness for seven years, his comeback with Laila Majnu (1976) and Hum Kissi Se Kum Nahin (1977) was equally stunning.
The success didn’t come easy. Those who worked with him vouch for the singer’s dedication to his craft. Music director Khayyam recalls that during the recording of Jaane kya dhoondti hain (film: Shola Aur Shabnam, 1961), Rafi was running a 102-degree fever. “But he was worried about the producer’s losses and we went ahead with the recording. Despite the fever, nobody could have sung the number any better.” Manna Dey agrees: “He was versatile and dedicated. His singing touched people’s hearts.”
Success could never gnaw into his generosity and humility. Radio presenter Ameen Sayani recalls that when composers Laxmikant-Pyaarelal approached him for a song for their debut film, Chhaila Babu (1967) — although Parasmani (1963) was the first to be released — they confessed that the producer was in no position to pay the singer his actual fees. “Rafi just told him: ‘Go ahead, record the song. We will discuss all that later.’ When the recording was completed, he just returned the remuneration to the composers and said, ‘Please divide it among yourselves. This is your debut film so please accept the money as part of my good wishes,’” says Sayani.
Writing for The Illustrated Weekly’s August 2, 1993 issue, senior journalist Raju Bharatan recalled a similar incident. In 1953, Nissar Baazmi, then a little-known composer who later became famous in Pakistan, approached Rafi for a melody he had composed for a C-grade film, Khoj. “Rafi charged Baazmi just a token Re 1 to produce the memorable Radio Ceylon hit, Chanda ka dil toot gaya. What a compelling sense of expression Rafi brought to this tune of a struggling composer,” wrote Bharatan.
Adds Pyaarelal: “He displayed similar generosity to many composers. Not only as a singer but also as a human being, there was only one Rafi.”
Sayani, who compèred dozens of Rafi shows, also reveals a little-known facet of the singer: his sense of justice and equality. “Rafi saab would fly economy class with the rest of the troupe rather than sit alone in the executive class. And he would also insist on being put up in the same hotel as the rest of us,” says the well-known radio host.
Rafi was also a very accommodating singer. Mubarak Begum who sang the hit duet Mujhko apne gale laga lo (film: Hamrahi, 1963) says Rafi respected both his juniors and seniors. “We had to record the song Devta tum ho (film: Daera, 1953). I couldn’t match his pitch and requested him to lower it. He readily obliged.”
Rafi was known for his warm heart and generous impulses. Friends recall how he made for a great host and served friends the finest yakhni pulao and mutton korma. He could also be childlike. He would be dejected every time he lost a kite duel with neighbour Manna Dey. Says Dey, “One day, we met in a studio. Rafi walked up to me and asked: ‘Manna da, aap roz meri patang ko kaat rahen hain. Kya raaz hai?’ I told him: ‘Dekho Rafi miyan, tumhe patang udaani nahin aati. I am a professional’.” The anecdotes are endless. And even three decades after he passed away, they are narrated with warmth for the singer who was also a perfect gentleman. The singer may have gone but, as long as lovers serenade their sweethearts with Bollywood songs, Rafi will be forever.
Many singers created a career recreating Rafi’s voice and style
Anwar | Delivered a couple of hits such as Humse ka bhool hui (film: Janta Hawaldar, 1979) and Mausam mausam lovely mausam (film: Thodi Si Bewafai, 1980)
Shabbir Kumar | Rose to prominence after Rafi’s death. Delivered major hits in films such as Betaab (1983), Coolie (1983) and Pyaar Jhukta Nahin (1985). Made a comeback with the recent Housefull (2010) hit, I don't know what to do
Mohd Aziz | My name is Lakhan (film: Ram Lakhan, 1989) and Imli ka boota (film: Saudagar, 1991) are two of the many hits sung by this Rafi clone from Kolkata
Jaspal Singh | Had some chartbusters in Rajshri hits, Geet Gaata Chal (1975) and Saawan Ko Aane Do (1979)
Sonu Nigam | The latest and the most talented from the Rafi school. Has sung a bunch of superhit tracks in films such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Saathiya (2002), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Main Hoon Na (2004), Om Shanti Om (2007)
MAN OF HONOUR
Rafi won six Filmfare Awards. Here are the songs that made them happen:
Chaudhvin ka chand ho
Teri pyaari pyaari surat ko
Chahunga main tujhe saanjh savere
Baharon phool barsao
Dil ke jharokhe mein
Kya hua tera wada
Khayyam, music director | Jaane kya dhoondti rehti hain (film: Shola aur Shabnam, 1961)
Manna Dey, singer | Tum jo mil gaye ho (film: Hanste Zakhm, 1973)
Dharmendra, actor | Jane kya dhoondti rehti hain (film: Shola aur Shabnam, 1961)
Mubarak Begum, singer | Mujhko apne gale lagalo (film: Hamrahi, 1963)
Shammi Kapoor, actor | ‘It’s very difficult to pick one favourite song’
FOR HIS FANS, HE IS THE SINGING GOD
Binu Nair, Rafi Foundation, Mumbai | ‘This is an umbrella organisation of Rafi admirers. We are fighting to save Rafi saab’s grave as there is a move to shift it for want of space.’
BG Raj, president, Baar Baar Rafi, Bangalore | ‘The name of our group indicates how passionate we are about Rafi and his songs. The association was born on August 17, 2008. We have over 500 members and entry is free.’
A S Murty, Rafi Foundation, Hyderabad | ‘The organisation was born in 2007. Members’ mobile caller tunes have Rafi songs. We have launched a campaign to bestow the Bharat Ratna on Rafi.’
N R Padmanabhan, Rafi Foundation,
Hyderabad | ‘Chaahe koi mujhe junglee kahe… the energy, the exuberance of such songs. I’m still waiting for someone to sing these like Rafi. I know it will be an interminable wait.’
P Narayanan, member, Baar Baar Rafi | ‘I got hooked to his magical voice at the age of eight. The most memorable days of life are when I heard him live in Mumbai.’
ToI Crest edition 25 July 2010