Rafi the Artist: Always and Ever
By Ronny Noor
And what is art? The prayer, the music, and the song of the human soul. – Ivan Bunin
The singer of the millennium Mohammed Rafi has been entertaining his audience for over sixty years now, since the 1940s. His popularity has not diminished a bit even decades after his demise in 1980. Even those who were born long after his passing seem to be enthralled by his voice. This does not happen by chance or by luck. This does not happen magically, either. There are genuine reasons why Rafi still shines like a Polaris on our musical horizon. His versatility, of course, is one reason, which has been well documented. The tragedy king Dilip Kumar states that Rafi sang with so much emotion that it lightened the burden on the actor during song sequences. His fellow actor Shammi Kapoor echoes that sentiment, revealing that Rafi could always capture Shammi’s style, his grace, his energy, imagining how he would “jump or roll or lift his hand or shake a leg.”
Rafi would put his heart and soul into any song he was given, according to the music director Naushad, whether it was a ghazal, a bhajan, a qawwali, a soft solo, or a boisterous number. Vocalists with whom he sang memorable duets are even more appreciative of him, the Bharat ratna Lata Mangeshkar maintaining that his vocal range could outclass any other singer’s, and the gifted Manna Dey admitting that no singer ever came close to Rafi.
It is not only those who were associated with Rafi professionally but also others who have studied his music testify to his deftness. Usha Rao, for example, has shown in a perceptive essay, “Versatility, Thy Name is Mohammed Rafi,” how the singer could evoke complex and multi-layered emotions in his songs and imitate a toper’s ways of enunciating the words although in real life he was a teetotaler. Avijit Ghosh and Utthara Kumari even claim in “The Unforgettable Rafi” that if “there are 101 ways of saying ‘I love you’ in a song, Mohammed Rafi knew them all.” But it wasn’t just love, they maintain; Rafi’s voice could also “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.”
Still, according to the Roman poet Horace – who maintains that the purpose of art is not only to entertain but also to educate – Rafi would remain an entertainer like most other singers, albeit a versatile one, if not for other qualities that set him apart and make him an artist, an artist to the tips of his fingers, which speak for his longevity and enduring popularity in an era of shifting musical style and taste.
All music lovers know that Rafi’s repertoire is voluminous, so voluminous in fact that he has a plethora of songs for every person and every occasion, and we all, whether young or old, can relate to them. Countless parents, for instance, celebrate their children’s birthdays every year and display their deep affection for them playing his soulful music among cakes and candles, friends and relatives, wishing their little darlings, the ones that are “prettier than flowers” and “dearer than all others”:
The blue sky is filled with stars
May you live for as many years
As there are stars in that blue sky
Year after year they listen to that doting voice under garlands of balloons and flowers and it takes root in them before they grow up to be adolescents with the first blush of love stirring in their hearts, love that unfurls like a bird of paradise in all its glory for a beautiful smile or a sonorous voice but does not cross the lips. That is when they turn to that warm voice again, the voice that is ingrained in them. And he does not disappoint. He guides them through the urbane thespian Dev Anand going around the block in the misty evening, singing for a glimpse of his beloved in the mellow glow of the street lights:
Where are you, tell me, in this intoxicating night
My passionate heart will not listen to reason
Oh my passionate heart will not know peace
See, the mischievous surroundings
Beautiful sights everywhere
Everything is wrapped in the cloud of my sighs
Spare my heart, my love, where are you
This poignant serenade is so irresistible for the glamorous Nutan that she flings open the door and appears in the upstairs balcony flashing an alluring smile. And we all can relate to that picture because of our own experiences or those of our friends, especially if we have grown up in the city. When the tender wave of this melody washes over a schoolgirl, tugging at her heartstrings, how can she not follow in Nutan’s romantic footsteps? The next day she arrives for a tryst with her suitor in the blossoming park, to hear him lay bare his heart, beseeching again and again:
I wish to test my fate
I wish to make you mine
Just give me a token of love
I wish to forget everything else
These words that seem very commonplace become a mellifluous incantation in Rafi’s voice, the sensuous inflection when he sings “I wish to forget everything else” toward the end of the song is simply mesmerizing for a girl, leaving no doubt about the veracity of his declaration and the fervor of his love. That was Rafi’s quality as a singer. He was like an alchemist who could turn any run-of-the-mill words into an enchanting melody. And this voice deepens in the middle of the night, turning more seductive, more infectious when he sings almost in a half-whisper, his heart fluttering like a besotted lover’s, as we stare at Saira Banu’s enticing curves on the celluloid screen revealed through the pellucid gown, the voluptuous diva slipping into Rajendra Kumar’s fond arms, sitting on the edge of the bed with her glossy hair framing her ravishing face:
What sort of night is tonight
For I can’t sleep
My sweetheart, come sit by my side
For I can’t sleep . . .
If it’s dark, let it be
You’re a picture of the moonbeam
The light is shy of you
For you are so radiant
That’s exactly how we seduced and still seduce our lovers, taking a cue from Rafi, because his voice inspires ardor, passion, fueling the fire of fervor to its highest intensity, the acme of ecstasy. He is our great master when it comes to courting and loving. He has made us more poetic as suitors and more romantic as lovers. Thus, according to Horace’s view, the entertainer Rafi became an artist, the maestro to whom we all turn to learn.
But his contribution to us does not end there. He also taught us about life in many of his songs, even while he was infusing humor into the character of Johnny Walker, blending with that quintessential screen wit who crooned for us the following ditty laced with a trifle Charley Chaplin theatricality with a top hat and a cane:
My heart, don’t be afraid of this world . . .
Put out the fire with fire
Enjoy the melodious song
Who knows what the season will bring tomorrow
This tune primarily about the temporality of life is nothing new in its philosophy. Centuries ago Omar Khayyam said that this world is a caravansary, urging us all:
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend.
But Rafi’s song goes beyond that in its subtle message. It exhorts us to be strong in our hearts so we will not be afraid of the world. Only then can we live life to the fullest, which, of course, is possible if we live in harmony with our fellow humans, instead of wasting it in conflict for wealth or power, nationality or religion, often cutting short our own precious lives or those of others. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “As long as our civilization is essentially one of property, of fences, or exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions. Our riches will make us sick; there will be bitterness in our laughter, and our wine will burn our mouth. Only that good profits which we can taste with all doors open, and which serves all men.”
This very sentiment is found in Rafi when he sang about us, that whether we are Gujarati or Marathi, Tamilian or Rajasthani, we are all united in our ancestry:
Ganga is my mother’s name
Father’s name is Himalaya
And he implored all those offspring:
You will not be a Hindu, nor will you be a Muslim
A human progeny you are, you will be a human
These words reverberate like a clarion call from the rugged peaks of the Hindu Kush to the sandy beaches of Cox’s Bazaar and beyond. And this adjuration is very telling, very educational, in an age when innocent people are blown to bits or hacked to pieces, when brothers are set on fire after being doused with gasoline, and when sisters become victims of gang rape; in a word, when our very dignity as human beings is torn to shreds. We are sacrificing our humanity, our cardinal virtue, at the altar of social constructs like nationality, region, religion, caste, or political party. We fail to realize that if we can be good humans, which Rafi exhorted us to be first and foremost, then we can be good Punjabi or Bengali, Hindu or Muslim, Brahmin or Dalit, or conservative or progressive.
We must understand that we should not corrupt our nature for anyone’s sake, as the great Sanskrit poet Valmiki realized so acutely, because none other than ourselves will be responsible for our crimes, not even our families. Corrupt people are in fact Godless, said the Roman philosopher Boethius, for the essence of God can only be found in the good. And the thirteenth-century Persian poet Saadi went so far as to claim that we do not even deserve to be called human if we cause suffering for others or tolerate it:
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you do not retain.
So our goal in life should be to rise above social constructs, as Rafi sang so fervently. For those skeptics who do not believe this is achievable, he lifted up his voice in a bhajan that flowed from the devotional pen of that wonderful poet Shakeel Badayuni:
I long to see Lord Vishnu today
Without you everything is going wrong
I’m praying to you, keep my shame . . .
Without your teaching, where can I seek knowledge
Give your blessings, Lord Vishnu, I’ll sing your praises
You are the king of all educators
The one with the flute, do not let down my hopes
The taker of pains, do not leave me
Grant me your presence today, I beg you
Beginning reverently like the prayer of a true devotee’s, Rafi’s sublime voice gradually rises as the song progresses, soaring without a slip toward its climactic crescendo, sweeping us off to some ethereal Elysium where all is nothing but bliss. What it means metaphorically is that our fervent longing can lead any heartfelt wish to fruition, even the glimpse of the Almighty. If that spiritual fulfillment is possible, then our earthly aspiration to live in harmony with our fellow humans is certainly attainable, if we are earnest about it. Thus by educating his listeners, Rafi has done a great deal of good. The English poet John Keats said that for an artist like him there was no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good for the world. And Lord knows Rafi has done plenty of good for us. He has made life enjoyable for some, tolerable for others. He has made us better as individuals, stronger as human beings. Liberating us from the narrow bounds of social constructs, he tried his best to make society more tolerant, more livable for us. That is why many of his admirers wish that he could come back from the dead to sing for them again. To be honest, however, he may be physically gone but he has left behind his songs into which he poured his soul for us all, young and old. And when we truly listen to his voice, our souls meet with his, and we become, in Tennyson’s words, “One equal temper of heroic hearts.”
Rafi not only taught us about the importance of being good through his songs, he also set examples for us by practicing goodness, following the revered sage Guru Nanak’s dictum that realization of truth is higher than all else; higher still is truthful living. Yes, he lived truthfully, always treating people with respect and lending them a helping hand. He not only sang without remuneration or just for a token fee of one rupee for producers who were too poor to pay him but also helped those down on luck outside the music industry. Anecdotes of his generosity abound, with the composer Pyaarelal and the radio personality Ameen Sayani recalling various examples. When he had to fly for a live show, Sayani says, Rafi would sit in the economy class with the rest of the troupe rather than alone in the executive class, and stay in the same hotel with them. Binu Nair of the Rafi Foundation relates how Rafi was once moved by a liftman’s poverty and gave him his entire fee of 10,000 rupees for a song to help the liftman pay for his daughter’s wedding. This is what the French novelist Albert Camus meant when he said in his Nobel Prize speech that the sympathy of the artist lies with the victim, the suffering humanity.
Thus, Rafi was not only a versatile singer and a peerless entertainer but also a consummate artist in a league of his own, not to be emulated, not to be duplicated. Hence his music has survived the test of time despite the change in style and taste in the musical world now and, I believe, will do so in the future. The message in his songs is both momentous and perennial and more relevant today than ever before in an increasingly globalized world. This is evident in the adulation of his countless admirers all over the globe who celebrate his birthday on the 24th of December and observe his death anniversary on the 31st of July. We all may not be as extraordinary as he was both as an artist and as a human being but as long as we treat our fellow humans with respect regardless of their nationality, religion, language, caste, or political affiliations, and try to alleviate their suffering by lending a helping hand as he did, we can also do some good for the world in our small ways, being “One equal temper of heroic hearts.” That will be the greatest tribute we can pay him.