Celebration of Love, à la Mohammed Rafi
By Ronny Noor
You could never forget me
Yes, you could never forget me
Whenever you listen to my song
You will always hum along.
– Hasrat Jaipuri
There does not seem to be a four-letter word that is dearer to the human heart than love. It is the most potent force that inspires us to action. Lanka was set ablaze for it and the Taj Mahal was built for it. That is why it resonates most from the pens of great poets to the pages of great books. Although it is often confused with lust, true love is not about sensual feelings, as the celluloid diva Mumtaz teaches her screen partner Sanjay Khan in the movie Upasana. It is about what the title of the movie indicates, devotion, or literally, sitting near God or getting close to a deity. It may sound simple but it is of great philosophical depth. We need to go back to the beginning of spiritual history in order to grasp its essence. According to Mumtaz, there is no difference between one’s love for a deity or one’s love for a person. This is evident in what Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita: “Only by love can men see me, and know me, and come unto me.” Hence, the great Persian poet Saadi exhorts us in Gulistan:
It is not meritorious to amass the
win One Heart if you can.
But how do we win that heart, the heart of a deity? We win it by loving our fellow humans, as Krishna suggests, because, in the spirit of the Gita, the grace of God is the reward of the love of humans. However, love for another person almost always poses a great challenge because the longed-for soul is like a coveted rose that is surrounded by thorns like nationality, race, religion, status, or wealth with which we have superficially shackled ourselves. That is why Saadi cautions us:
Treasure and snake, rose and thorn, sorrow
and joy are joined together.
The result is the legends of Radha-Krishna, Laila-Majnu, Heer-Ranjha, Romeo-Juliet, and countless others around the globe. That is the reason why most songs are about love and the bard of the millennium Mohammed Rafi sang thousands of them that tug at our hearts. He captured love in all its shades, from the Jumping Jack Jeetendra’s romp in the open fields in Farz to the lovesick Dev Anand’s lonely nights with a distressed heart in Guide. And, of course, he celebrated love in duets because love can be celebrated best together, some of which will be addressed here, beginning with the duet with Lata Mangeshkar in Upasana, as mentioned above, where Mumtaz sings about love being transcendental:
The flower’s fragrance
The breeze’s appearance
Have you ever seen . . .
You’ve seen the body
But the soul’s shape
Have you ever seen . . .
Love is not a desire
It is a devotion
Thus, true love opens the inner eye to see what the naked eye cannot, transcending the superficial to help us perceive ordinary things in an extraordinary way. It is boundless as in Khandan, where Nutan considers her farmer husband Sunil Dutt her “temple” and her “idol” despite him being physically challenged, his right side having been paralyzed in an accident. Even in abject hardship, when the ground cakes and the crops wither in intense heat, their love does not wane, as is often the case in a libidinous city life where far less distress could strain a relationship. On the contrary, they celebrate their bond in the open, singing in the pristine, idyllic environment surrounded by wheat fields, Sunil Dutt limping with his disabled hand held close to his bosom and Nutan dancing like a country belle in her colorful garb of ghagra choli, the dupatta billowing in the wind. Their jollity spills into the air in Rafi and Asha’s enchanting melody, the husband praying to the dark clouds in the sky to provide a trifle shade, a soothing relief from the stifling heat, and the wife urging the birds not to devour the crops while they are still green:
Our crops are burning in the heat
O clouds in the blue sky
Give us some shade
Go away, you frisky birds
The crops aren’t ripe yet
Eat them when they’re ready
Such heartfelt love resides not only in the simple hamlets of the farmers but also in the majestic palaces of the emperors where the lovers’ path is decked with flowers, as seen in Taj Mahal, a movie about the courtly romance of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved Mumtaz, which has been captured in a remarkably touching manner in the following melody:
The promise that you made
Has to be kept
If the world or God stops
You must still come . . .
As long as the moon shines
As long as the stars shine
The promises that you made
Shall not be broken
Yes, the king of the world who promised his beloved that he would build a unique monument in memory of their love kept his word by raising the most iconic marble mausoleum in honor of that supernal beauty, before whom even the moon hid its face. And true to his promise, too, he was united with her in death as in life when he was laid beside her remains after his demise. That’s the death-defying love the two lovers sang about in the above song, rendered so deftly by Rafi and Lata that its wistful melody touches our very soul, moves our very spirit, making us wonder if love could be felt more deeply.
But it can be, when it comes to the melody monarch Rafi. We feel the profundity of pathos in his voice when he sings in Shola Aur Shabnam about love being an abiding bond, a bond of a lifetime, a bond that can create a heaven on earth:
We will win in the end
Let the game not be abandoned
Bond of love, bond of life
Let not the bond of life break
Where the sky meets with the earth
Come, let us go there
You for me, me for you
Let us reject this world
Far from here
Let’s create a paradise of love
That this world may not rob
Bond of love, bond of life
It is one of the most poignant, most touching songs he ever sang, the last word in the opening stanza completely synchronizing with the single note produced by gently pressing the piano key before the music picks up. The romantic setting has been enhanced by Dharmendra singing at the piano and Tarla Mehta turning off the lights one by one, joining him in the middle of the song in the faint glow of a single light bulb as childhood memories well up. This soulful melody transports us to some Xanadu of love as every word sinks in, the cadence seeping into our hearts, making it, true to the lyrics, simply a paradisiacal experience of placidity and tranquility.
So it is understandable why countless listeners want to leave this world listening to this song because it creates a mood that transcends the physical world to penetrate our souls. The music director Ravi was so right when he said that you can hear all other great singers with your ears, but you need to hear Rafi with your heart. Yes, life can be sweet even in pain if it can be sung in such a manner because every note Rafi sang sprang “from his very life,” to use Rabi Tagore’s words. As there was true love in his heart, that devotional love that Mumtaz sings about in Upasana, he felt in the marrow of his bones what poured out of his lips. That is why he could celebrate love with such fervor, his voice suffused with passion and verve, making his songs a truly sublime experience for us all. It is evident in many bhajans he sang, especially in the one below penned by Rajinder Krishan:
Whether you’re a king or a beggar
The end will be the same
You live on the alms of others
Why don’t you look inside you
You looked up to the shining skin
And did not bother to clean your heart
He sent forth essentially a similar message to his listeners intoning a famous hamd composed by the legendary Bengali poet Nazrul Islam:
The prophet who gave up to man
The rights of man . . .
Who wore for humanity’s sake
The mantle of poverty
Who wiped out all distinctions
Between the prince and the pauper
This is what religion truly is: love for one’s fellow humans. It is indeed a good deed through which we reach God, or the symbol of goodness, in whatever name we call it. In the ancient Vedic religion, the religion of the Aryans, this symbol of goodness was represented by Indra. Vishnu, as well as his avatar Krishna, came to represent that symbol later in Hinduism. The Persian prophet Zarathustra had the same philosophical view when he came up with the idea of monotheism – from which religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were derived – because his Ahura Mazda, later called Ormazd, was the representative of the good principle. Therefore, philosophically speaking, Zarathustra’s Ormazd is no different from Indra or Vishnu. No wonder Mahatma Gandhi famously claimed that God had no religion. What he meant was that God did not belong to any particular organized religion because He is simply the symbol of goodness in all religions that are the product of moral forces, a reason for which the eminent sage Ramakrishna maintained that all religions were in essence the same. They are about goodness, or good deeds. And love is the best of all good deeds. Hence, even Buddha, who did not believe in a deity or, rather, did not ascribe a name to the symbol of goodness, exhorted people “to cultivate good” and considered love one of the four immeasurables or Brahma Viharas. This love, of course, is about doing good to others, not lust, which, according to the Dhammapada, has a short taste and causes pain, as T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock realizes so keenly later in life. Such love can be found in great souls like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who candidly declared: “Let me feel that I am to be a lover. I am to see to it that the world is better for me.” Yes, Rafi tried to make the world a better place for us all through his love songs, which he sang with such exuberance, with such joy that only true love can give us. He could do so because his heart was pure; it was devotional. And if we all follow in his footsteps, in other words, if we all become lovers like him, then, according to the transcendentalist Emerson, “every calamity will be dissolved in the universal sunshine.” That is why Rafi celebrated love in the most memorable way, proclaiming to the world at large in the classic movie Mughal-E-Azam to protest against the inhuman decision of an otherwise humane Emperor Akbar, Shah Jahan’s grandfather, who stood in the way of his heir’s love for the court dancer Anarkali, depriving the future Emperor Jahangir a union with his beloved:
You’re found in temples and mosques and in all faiths
It is you alone in the notes of the flute and in the azaan
Only by your existence does religion reside on this earth
Long live! Long live! Oh, long live, Love!
That is exactly what the screen diva Mumtaz means by love in Upasana, which Rafi sang about time and time again like a prayer. Love à la Rafi transcends the superficial shackles of nationality, race, religion, status, or wealth to celebrate the unity of all humans. Thus, liberating ourselves from such self-inflicted manacles through love, we rise to the best in us and, by rising to the best, we rise to God. That is the reason why we hum along whenever we hear Rafi’s love songs for they sing about our deepest desire, the desire to seek harmony with all, human and God.