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This article is written by Mr. Unni Menon.

Timeless . One word that encapsulates the singing of Mohd. Rafi.

By the time he succumbed to a heart attack on the last day of July in 1980, Rafi had bestowed upon the music world a treasure-trove of great songs rendered over a span of 36 years, that continues to influence Hindi film music ever after.

He embarked upon his singing career in the 40’s, a generation which bore the imprint of the musical styles of composers R. C. Boral and Pankaj Mullick, of singers K. L. Saigal and Noor Jehan. Gradually he emerged from the sedate and heavily-articulated musical expression of that era to evolve and develop a distinct singing style that bespoke a new sophistication in vocal renderings. It was a style that would not merely keep pace with, but virtually shape the direction of music styles and compositions in later decades. If Rajkumari was the original and the earliest “play-back singer” per se – as distinct from “singing stars” – Mohd. Rafi was the first male vocal artiste to raise film singing to the level of respectability among classicists, then elevate it to the extent of mass hysteria.

Mohd. Rafi came to popular consciousness in the closing years of a passing decade. In 1948, he gave vocal expression to the pall of grief cast upon a heart-broken nation after the shocking assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. In subsequent days Rafi’s voice was heard in all parts of India, when radio stations repeatedly broadcast the privately recorded “Bapu Ki Amar Kahani”. In 1949 he had his first brush with fame, with the popularity of “Yahan Badla Wafa Ka”, a duet with Noor Jehan for the film “DULARI”, under the baton of the redoubtable composer Naushad.

Any assessment of Rafi’s prowess would be deficient without due recognition of the undisputed merits of his contemporaries. During the early 50’s, Mohd. Rafi was considered just one among several talented and promising singers of the time. On the distaff side, Lata Mangeshkar had already established her primacy. But there was no undisputed numero uno among male singers. Several male artistes contended for recording contracts, each with a distinctive voice and style. The hark-back to the Saigal days was mirrored in the renditions by Mukesh. The tragic-hero roles portrayed by the acting-supremo Dilip Kumar found apt expression in the melancholic tones of Talat Mahmood. Steeped in classical tradition was Manna Dey, whereas Hemant Kumar brought with him the musical wealth of Bengal.

But eventually Mohd. Rafi managed to break away from the pack to sprint ahead unchallenged. The key to his success? That each of his contemporaries possessed a distinctive singing style – undoubtedly a strong point, but also a restricting factor. Whereas Rafi had no such hindrance. He could span the gamut of several styles, yet impart his special touch with feeling and melody and range in a uniquely gifted and appealing voice. No wonder that any write-up about Mohd. Rafi will invariably mention his amazing versatility.

By the time young Mohd. Rafi moved from Lahore to Bombay, he had acquired a modest amount of grooming in classical music. But it was more than adequate to meet the demands of singing for films. It can only be surmised that he possessed a thirst for popular success . It has been suggested that his initial musical training was intended for a career as a classical singer. But somewhere along the line, he deviated towards ghazal-singing, with recordings at the radio station in Lahore. Followed by the transition to Bombay, the film-capital of India, to venture into the avenue of film music.

Perhaps Rafi was fortunate in the early termination of his classical training. Film music called for just this much of classical material and no more! While film composers professed great admiration for classical vocalists, they had no place in the recording room for those doyens. As a tribe, music directors like to call the shots, to create and vary and experiment. In film songs, the tune was all-important, the raag served merely as a coat-hanger. Music Directors were loath to contend with “ gharanas ” and notoriously impatient with structured renditions. To the point that Naushad discouraged Shamshad Begum from taking classical lessons, out of concern that the “ soz” in her voice would be lost.

Ironically, Mohd. Rafi’s major breakthrough came about in a movie that celebrated classical music: “BAIJU BAWRA”. The songs of this hit 1952 movie became the rage of the nation. It was the spring-board to success and fame. Mohd. Rafi had arrived! From that juncture, there was no looking back. Thereafter, for close to two decades, Rafi strode like a colossus over the landscape of Hindi film music, leaving his indelible footprints upon the history of Indian (not merely Hindi) film music. Prominent film personalities publicly introduced him, in the presence of his counterparts, as the “shahenshah” among playback singers.

It would be no exaggeration to say that as a singer, Mohd. Rafi had little or no limitations. During the 50’s, as a style prevalent in those days, several songs ended with the same line or word repeated thrice at high notes, each higher than the previous, culminating with the third and final note at the top of the scale. Amazingly, in live concerts, this singer would take it to a fourth level, at an even higher pitch! But what was more remarkable was his ability to switch effortlessly from high-pitch to low and vice-versa. Similarly, his ability to hold a note, even at high pitch for a long duration, was uncanny. In live concert, the duration for which he held the high note for the word “mitua” in the song “Chahunga Mein Tujhe” (DOSTI) far exceeded that in the studio recording. The same voice could sing in soft hushed notes or drop to low bass. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the voice was its innate romanticism. Yet, it could adapt to convey myriad moods & emotions: love, despair, devotion, patriotism, bitterness, boisterous, cajoling, pleading, teasing, intoxication, etc. Every mood imaginable has been conveyed in the voice of Mohd. Rafi. He could move you to tears. He could also make you want to dance!

Mohd. Rafi was fortuitous in being at the right place at the right time. In any other era he would still have been a great singer. But in all likelihood he would not have had the benefit of receiving so many good compositions to render. Any assessment of a singer has to take into account a vital element, viz. the invaluable contributions of the ‘song-makers’. It has been said that, as compared to Noor Jehan, Lata Mangeshkar had the advantage of being offered songs by composers from numerous musical traditions, from Maharashtra and from Bengal, from the Punjab and the South. In similar vein, Mohd. Rafi peaked as a singer at a time when gifted lyricists and inspired music-composers converged in a planetary confluence seemingly dictated by the Gods of Music.

Music maestros Naushad, S. D. Burman, Madan Mohan, Roshan, Ravi, Khayyam, Shankar-Jaikishen, Kalyanji-Anandji, Lakshmikant-Pyarelal, etc. weaved glorious tunes set to the eloquent verses conjured up by inspired lyricists of the calibre of Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra, etc.

It was the voice of Mohd. Rafi that hauntingly reflected the dark despair of Guru Dutt in “KAAGHAZ KE PHOOL” singing “Bichhde Sabhi Baari Baari”.

Futility found soulful expression in Rafi’s voice with “Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye To Kya Hai” in “PYAASA”, also picturized on Guru Dutt.

The soft, poetic mannerisms of Bharat Bhooshan were immortalized by Rafi with monsoon magic in “Barsaat Ki Raat”, the same actor for whom he had sung poignant devotionals in “BAIJU BAWRA”.

Ranging from rustic bumptiousness in “GANGA JUMNA” to broken dreams in “MADHUMATI” to intoxication in “LEADER”, Dilip Kumar portrayed them all in the voice of Rafi.

A pensive Dev Anand gave a rave performance acting out Rafi’s mellifluous “Chale Gaye Hum” in “KAALA PAANI”. Only to be seen later in “KALA BAZAAR”, cavorting gaily to the lines of “Khoya Khoya Chaand”.

As for Shammi Kapoor, his name is synonymous with that of Mohd. Rafi. The rumbustious title song from “JUNGLEE” was a precursor to many such bouncy numbers, with soft tunes like “Ehsan Tera Hoga” (from the same film) and “Is Rang Badalti Duniya Mein” (RAJKUMAR) serving as counterpoints. Mention “Dil Deke Dekho” and “Tumsa Nahin Dekha” — is it the film you are talking about or the song? Shammi and Rafi jelled as no actor and singer ever have.

Except perhaps, Johnny Walker and Mohd. Rafi, with PYAASA’s “Tel Maalish” song as their motif piece.

Mundane actors were transformed with Rafi’s voice to liven their performances. Whether it be Pradeep Kumar with “Sau Baar Janam Lenge” (USTADON KE USTAD) or Biswajeet with “Pukarta Chala Hoon Main” (MERE SANAM), or Joy Mukherjee with “Aanchal Mein Saja Lena Kaliyan” (PHIR WOHI DIL LAYA HOON).

He has sung for virtually every leading man, from Sanjeev Kumar to Dharminder to Jeetendra. Even for Rajesh Khanna in his debut movie. For that matter, Mohd. Rafi had even been the voice for “the voice of Rajesh Khanna”!

In the early Fifties, an unlikely hero, Jagdeep, lypsynced to Rafi’s memorable “Chal Ud Ja Re Panchhi” in “BHABHI”, and in the Seventies Rafi lent his voice to an insignificant artiste in “APNAPAN” with the catchy “Aadmi Musafir Hai”, just as he did with “Deewane hain deewanon ko” for “lyricist turned extra” Gulshan Bawra in “Zanjeer” — just as he sang for innumerable songs picturized on various minor artistes in numerous movies.

The list of songs, scenes, actors seem endless………..the one common factor is THAT VOICE.

Twenty-four years have passed since Mohd. Rafi’s demise. But every day his voice is heard. In all parts of the world. Wherever there are music fans from the sub-continent. Wherever there are fans of Hindi Film Music. For legions of his fans, his voice is ‘audible ‘, even when no recorded device is played. For them it springs from the heart.

“Dil ka soona saaz, tarana dhoondega
Mujhko mere baad, zamana dhoondga…”

For many it is a fond memory of a man, of a voice, of songs they grew up with and became part of their lives. For many others, it is a more recent discovery, one that propels them to seek more of his works. For many of them, it is an ongoing quest to find more of his songs, songs they have or have not heard before, to track down “rares” both from his early days as well as from his less-productive later years. They believe that Mohd. Rafi has left musical milestones in each and every one of 36 years.

Music Director Naushad narrated that Mohd. Rafi had turned despondent towards the last years of his life. As a professional of long standing in the rough and tumble of a heartless industry, Rafi would have been well aware of the fickleness of fortune, of the tenuousness of loyalty, of the transcient nature of popularity. Yet, when generational changes came about, when the winds of popularity shifted course, the man in him must have been taken aback. For he was no less a singer in the 80’s than he was in the preceding decades. Only that popular tastes had changed. What Naushad narrated as the words of Mohd. Rafi are ominously reminiscent of the lines of one of his golden greats, “Duniya na bhaaye mohey, ab tho bula le charnon mein, charnon mein” (BASANT BAHAR).

Given a choice, Rafi’s last wish wish might well have been: “Aakhri geet mohabbat ka suna loon to chaloon…” (from NEELA AKASH)

Tomes are written about famous human beings. Biographers scramble to document greatness. Yet there is no lengthy detailed biography of Mohd. Rafi. What little we know about him comes from fragments of information derived from brief interviews with film industry personalities, particularly music directors and fellow-artistes. And what emerges is piquant: he was as much an outsider as he was part of the film industry . He shunned movieland parties, skipped “mahurats” and infrequently attended premieres. By all reported accounts, he was as well-liked a human being as he was admired as a singer. Invariably there is mention of his simplicity and his humility and his courtesy and his punctuality and his strong religious nature.

The life of Mohd. Rafi must present a dilemma for would-be biographers! How much can one write about a man who “went to work” in the morning and returned home to his family in the evening? What colourful narrative can one pen about a man who spoke softly, eyes looking down. A man whose humble response to ardent adulation was to raise his head and gaze heavenwards, to say, “Yeh Sab Khuda Ka Den Hai ”.

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10 Blog Comments to “MOHD. RAFI — A REMINISCENCE”

  1. shammi says:

    What a beautiful write up Menonji, and a great tribute to the legend of all legends. I agree writing about a man who has so much talent and versatality such as Mohd Rafi is just so difficult because where do you start and where does one finish? I am one of his millions of fans whose desires to see the great man in person or in concert never was fulfilled but I don’t think a single day goes by without listening to his songs. There will never be anyone who can fill the void he left behind.

  2. Bijay Khaitan says:

    I am a great admirer of Mohammad Rafi as a singer right from my childhood. According to me, he is the greatest singer of this century. The beauty of Rafi saab is that he can sing all types of songs with equal ease and comfort. His song “Duniya ke Rakhwale” and “Dekhi Jamane ki yaari” is par excellence. No other singer can sing these two songs as beautifully as Rafi saab has sung. His voice is very clear and does not develop any strain even while singing very high pitched songs like “Duniya ke Rakhwale” . He can modulate his voice superbly to suit the personality of actors. Sad songs sung by him touch the very core of heart. Gazhals like “Mai kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon” and “Is dil se teri yaad bhulai nahin jaati” are superb. No other Gazhal singer can sing these songs better than him. He was equally good in singing classical songs. Just listen to numbers like “Madhuban mein Radhika Naachi Re” and “Ajhun na aye balma saawan beeta jaye”. It is very sad that he has not been awarded “Bharat Ratna” by the government of India. He deserves it.

  3. himanshu tiwari says:

    hi1 i love mohd. rafi very much.all i can say is just as the speed of a particle can never exceed the speed of light,no one can reach the level of mohd. rafi!he is the greatest…..

  4. Nadeem says:

    Shabbir saab may i have ur email address plz my email address is

  5. binus2000 says:

    Shabbir Ji : according to few rafi saab sang 11 songs for Kishore Kumar
    and 31 songs for raj kapoor…
    can any one give the list for our benefit.

    binu nair.

  6. Shabbir says:

    Rafi even lent his voice to Kishore Kumar in two films
    i) Shararat = “Ajab hai dastaan teri yeh zindagi”

    ii) Ragini – “Man Mora Bawra Nis Din Gaye Geet Milan Kay”

  7. i am arabic muslem male from libyan jamahiriya….50ys old now.
    i start loving mohd rafi as a singer when i was just child..i was recording his songs from the was very hard case for me..i was buying batterys for my recording machine every day..i us to listen to this voice all the time…that is why some peopls talk about me as (( crazy))
    mohamed rafi is the best singer in the world..ever never..and hi will be.
    hi is the voice wich make me good man..good thinkings..hi make me love this world mor and mor . his voice show me the wrigh way..the other peauty face for the life….i wish meet him always in my dreams..
    hi died put his voice still a live ..not for dieng.

  8. Nazeer Khan says:

    Its a pleasure reading and knowing about Rafi Saahab, We have a great respect for him, the way he sung songs, his Aalaap, his Sargam, his classy touch is just inexplicable in words… Infact, I’m trying for Dil ka soona Saaz from Ek Naari Do Roop but unfortunately unable to get… please write me the site if possible…

  9. It is wonderful to read this article. Really said very rightly in honour of Great Mohd. Rafi Sahib, all time great singer. I have great respect, praise for him as well as his singing style. I don’t think any other male singer can be compared with him in terms of quality of singing and voice as well.
    Somehow, Mr. Sonu Nigam is emerging a very good singer to reach on top presently but not high enough to touch him. I’m in search of some songs sung by great Rafi Sahib in live concert but failed to get any response.

  10. Bonifacius says:

    Great article. I am just sad I dont know how to reply properly, though, since I want to show my appreciation like many other.

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