Mohammad Rafi’s death marks the end of a great era
By Anwar Enayetullah (published in newspaper DAWN Entertainment on Tuesday, August 5, 1980).
Shared by Mohammed Akber.
On July 31, another bright star from the world of music fell. This time it was on the other side of our border. He had left Lahore when he was in his teens. While his parents and five brothers, all elder to him, continue to live in this part of the world, he spent four decades in Bombay.
And yet he was so dear and close to millions of music lovers in Pakistan that the news of his sudden death was flashed by our media prominently, editorial comments about his greatness appeared in our newspapers and his loss caused a spell of gloom here as much as it did. Wherever music lovers had come under the spell of his songs which reached them via films, on discs and cassettes and also in concerts which used to attract thousands of admirers even in far-off countries. By the time the cruel hand of death struck him at the age of only 55, he had already become a legend in the realm of our light and popular music.
About forty years ago, when Mohammed Rafi had sung his first song for a Punjabi movie which was recorded in Lahore, no one could visualize that one day he would attain enviable fame and fortune. Early in his musical career when he lent his voice to Dilip Kumar in Jugni and sangam, “Yahan Badla Wafa Ka”, even then I do not think his music director had imagined that he was utilizing a voice which would one day be heralded as perhaps the most powerful ever heard in our films. The models in those golden years of our films were great vocalists like K.L.Saigal and Pankaj Mallick who sang their songs on the screen instead of depending on ghost voices. Even Ashok Kumar, Moti Lal and Surendernath and actresses like Sabita Devi used to sing. Rafi appeared at a time when the technique of playback singing had become perfect and really good musical voices were in great demand for most of the heroes of those days were poor singers.
After listening to his songs in Jugnu, some critics who had great faith in Feroze Nizami did feel that perhaps the Maestro had seen some hidden talent in the youngster to allow him to sing his compositions. Later events proved how far-sighted Feroze Nizami was. Soon the popularity of Rafi increased at a speed which surprised even his ardent admirers. And within a few years he began to reign supreme in the musical field in the manner Lata Mangeshkar did.
At the time of his untimely death, he had 34000 songs to his credit. A large number of them had become best-sellers the day they were heard by music lovers. He had sung for almost every great composer of the sub-continent. He was at ease in every genre – “greets”, “ghazals”, “qawwali”, “bhajans”, patriotic songs, “thumris” and even “khayals” which rendered as smoothly as any classical vocalist would do minus the stress on grammer.
Born on December 24, 1924 in Lahore, he was the youngest son in the family of six brothers all of whom were in hair cutting business. In fact his eldest brother, Haji Mohammed Shafi’s hair cutting saloon used to be a favourite spot for many connoisseurs of music like Sajjad Sarwar Niazi who was great admirer of Rafi and that is why he loved to patronize Haji Shafi. Niazi Sahed was trained in the old traditions of music which laid great stress on voice culture. Mohammed Rafi had an enviable, powerful voice with a remarkable range. It could slide on all octaves smoothly. In the earlier days I still remember some film magazines used to make fun of him and ridiculed him calling him “Cheekholai Rafi”. But this aspect of Rafi’s voice appealed to the critical taste of connoisseurs of music like the late Niazi Saheb and Rafique Ghaznavi. That is why as early as fifties, they used to predict that the popularity of the youngster from Lahore would surpass that of every other vocalist in the world of music.
As Rafi matured, his voice developed as resonance which was ideal lead choruses. Coupled with it his bass became deep and vibrant. Naushad had exploited it in Baiju Bawra, shabab and Udan Khatola in which his song, “O Door Ke Musafir” poured out of Rafi in a mood of undisturbed repose. His duet with Asha, “Jadugar Sanwarya” which exploited the range of his voice and also the quality of embellishing it with feelings was composed by another great composer, O.P.Nayyar. Those who have heard S.D.Burman’s fascinating tunes in Kala Bazaar would remember that Rafi’s “Khoya Khoya Chand” had a haunting melody which depended a lot for its appeal on the vocalist’s rendering. Similarly yet another composition of Burman in Kala Pani, “Ham Bekhudi Mein Tumko” or his singing of another unusual music director from Bengal, Salil Chowdhary songs in Madhumati can be cited to justify Rafi’s reputation of a great vocalist with a difference.
Rafi’s appeal lay in the imaginative blend of verve and artistic excellence which imparted a strange reflective mood and made the songs lyrically alluring. Like an ideal playback singer, he would effortlessly impregnate his songs with changing moods and feelings, pathos in one and blithe exuberance of the elixir of life in another. Some others who have this remarkable quality are Ferdausi Begum in Bangladesh and Noorjahan and Mehdi Hassan in Pakistan.
Music directors found his supple and well-modulated voice, including his marvelous breath cycle, very suitable for rendering semi-classical and classical numbers. He had studied only up to the primary class and yet once the mood and the situation of a particular song was explained to him, he could sing expansively and communicate the intimately the desired mood. Those who remember his popular hit “Abhi Na Jaavo Chod Kar” would recall how Rafi had demonstrated that his voice was at once the firm and flexible and how effortlessly he would add different shades to his songs by changing subtly the pitch and volume of his voice.
In the early seventies, a lull had come in his career mainly due to the change in the style of some Indian music directors which began to ape all sorts of Western music and which brought into limelight, once again, the age-less Kishore Kumar. Later Rafi made up his loss by his aptitude to change his style also according to the dictates of time. Thus he was once again utilized by some sensible music directors in films like Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahin, Suhag and Sangam.
Rafi was fortunate to live in a society which gives a lot of more respect, love and affection to its musicians and creative artists than what we do in Pakistan. That is why, I am confident, posterity would also treat him much better than what it was so far done nearer home to our great musicians. What is painful to realize now is that in the sudden death of Rafi, the sub-continent’s world of music has lots a versatile vocalist who, despite his immense fame and popularity, remained a simple human being. May his soul rest in peace!