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The Rafi Mystique

This article is written by Ms. Sajdah. Source: Mr. Binu Nair and Pradeep.S.Kumar.

Mohd RafiThe rains are supposed to bring with it a feeling of joy and renewal. But not for everyone. For some it is time once again to go through that sense of indescribable loss – that refuses to fade away despite the many years that have passed.

The month of July has a special meaning for those who dwell in the music world. For it’s on this day, the 31st of July that Rafi sahab bid goodbye to the world, leaving us with a treasury of his songs as consolation.

Just what is it about his voice and style of singing that we cannot have enough of him is a subject worthy of study – it is an education in itself. Sadly, plenty of hamhanded attempts later, we still are no closer to uncloaking the mystery of Rafi the singer, the man, who ruled unchallenged over the world of popular movie music the years he chose to reign.

This article is not a statistical account of the life and work of that singing genius called Mohd Rafi – there wouldn’t be a true blue Rafi fan who isn’t quite familiar with that. Instead we are going to read about those sterling qualities that made Rafi the numero uno singer of all times.

At the time when Rafi entered movies, the Hindi movie industry was still very raw, and the idea of professional singers doing the singing for the stars was still in its nascent stage. Singing stars were the flavour of the day – Surinder, Karan Dewan, and G.M. Durrani were some of the more popular names. But with the passing on of K.L.Sehgal, it was clear that the era of singing stars was drawing to a close. Movie making was becoming more sophisticated with the help of modern technology, and recording techniques too had vastly improved. It was time for a change.

Mohd Rafi

The next generation of stars needed a singing voice, that they could mime to – and be thus freed from the ordeal of singing for themselves. Singing didn’t come easy for some of the early stars, it was a painful but required part of the job – Ashok Kumar knew that perfectly.

Like I’ve said before, Rafi sahab sounded like no one else. He never needed to. It was a conscious decision, that helped him be noticed. And noticed he was. He was fortunate to have lived in those times, when hard work was more or less rewarded. Or the months of living on chanas and nothing but that, while he sourced work in the music studios of then suburban Bombay would have been just a very unpleasant experience, best forgotten. Word has it that Rafi sahab was paid the handsome sum of Rs. 20 for the lines he rendered in the chorus song “Hindustan Ke Hum Hain Hindustan Hamaara” for the movie Pehle Aap. The only consolation was that G.M. Durrani, a seasoned singer too got the same amount.

To some one who is not born into our cultural diaspora (That’s a sweeping generalization, but it will do for now), it’s difficult somehow to relate to the fact of a singer lending his vocals to an actor and making a wholesome career out of it. A ‘playback’ artiste is a new word in their lexicon, an idea that they have to get used to. So much has been made of the novelty of this. But it’s a less publicized fact that Hollywood too has flirted with this concept – not surprisingly for that genre of movies called musicals. If a studio wasn’t quite satisfied with the singing attempts of a star they would get a professional ‘dubbing artiste’ to do the job. That was what they were called – dubbing artistes. They didn’t get to enjoy fame, that was reserved for the real stars, and they quietly accepted their lot. One example would be Marni Nixon the ghost voice of several Hollywood stars like Margaret O’Brien, Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn. She was denied credit for the use of her voice in the musicals for most of her singing life, only lately was the wrong corrected.

Fortunately it wasn’t so bad here, although the question of royalties was always a dodgy affair. Rafi sahab and Lata Mangeshkar each felt compelled to take opposite views, and a singing embargo was the unfortunate outcome – the royalty issue over which they parted was never quite settled to the complete satisfaction of either. Mercifully they were able to pick up where they had left off, the loss of precious intervening years notwithstanding.

Working his way up from chorus and background songs, to singing for the comic side kick and finally for the lead actor – Rafi did it all. It was a slow and sure battle that finally secured him his rightful throne. Does it even matter which of those early songs proved to be the clincher? Historians might argue with that, let’s leave them to the joy of nitpicking.

I suppose it is only proper in the general interest to mention a few, but it isn’t easy. It isn’t easy at all. Mainly because there are just so many songs worthy of mention ( many of them duets ) – here are a few of my favourite songs of his in no particular order. You’ll probably all have your own.

His early songs are very beautiful, the richness of timbre carefully held in check and yet yearning to break free as in “Bahut Mukhtasar Hain” for Sharbati Ankhen ( ’45 ), composed by Feroze Nizami. There is that same aching sincerity in his voice in “Haye Re Duniya” ( Zeenat ), “Bahut Purdard Hain” ( Birha Ki Raat ), “Todo Todo Dil Ke Taar” ( Amar Raj ), and “Toot Gaya Haaye” ( Maghroor ). Perhaps it was this raw honest appeal that earned him such a loyal and loyal following.

Let’s talk about “Kaam Lenge Aansuon Se” – another of those early songs, what’s striking about it is that combination of honest pure sentiment and those dazzling cascading notes in the second half. If you haven’t listened to it recently or have never heard it before – treat yourself.

The years soon after Independence were devoted by filmmakers to making sure that the sacrifices of our freedom fighters weren’t forgotten by the people. Rafi sahab emerged as the natural choice to sing these patriotic ballads – composers knew that getting Rafi sahab to sing one of their ballads was the easiest route to immortality. This might surprise you but “Suno Suno Aye Duniyawalon Bapu Ki Yeh Amar Kahani’ wasn’t the only patriotic ballad that became popular. There were quite a few others, some lauding Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose and not surprisingly the first PM of India Jawaharlal Nehru.

From a purely academic view here are some of the song titles: “Bharatwalon Bhool Na Jaana Amar Shahidon Ka Afsana”, “Dhanya Dhanya Mata Ke Laal”, “Gandhi Subhash Ke Bina Haye Re Kaun Manaye Diwali”, “Ek Baras Ki Azadi Ka Aao Sab Tyohar Manao”, “Is Waaste Pandrah Agasth Hai Humein Pyara / Azaad Hua Aaj Ke Din Desh Hamara”, and “Jug Jug Jiye Jawahar Lal” – whether it was right and proper that a leader of a free republic should be so praised is not for us to judge. Times were different then, it didn’t smack of sycophancy, or perhaps it was simply the difference in perception. All of these song ballads were hugely popular – regrettably some of them have been declared rare.

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15 Blog Comments to “The Rafi Mystique”

  1. vikky says:

    Well, Rafi saab was a class apart. No doubts! And I fully agree with Irfan saab that after Rafi saab and Kishore Da, Mohd Aziz, who sounded so vibrant (in fact magica!)l was the best. For me post Rafi-Kishore era, Mohd Aziz had been the most all-round, versatile, and gifted singer – and I am including everyone who joined the singing bandwagon post 1980 era – to date.

    Aziz had the range and that something-special in his voice. But, I feel he didn’t get his due – perhaps he joined the industry when the music was not at its best. I am really surprised he is not given any songs nowadays. I imagine some of today’s hits in his voice, and I feel itchy as to why he is not asked to sing all these numbers.

    Music Directors, for God sake, bring back Aziz saab, Wadekar ji, Amit Kumar, and Nitin Mukesh.

    Jai Hind!

  2. M.Zaman says:

    The true voice of rafi sahab’s is the inspiration of joy & love

    when Rafi sahab sang a most sorrow song , we feel so joy. with his only voice

  3. Raja Dixit says:

    Mohammed Rafi is one of the most magnificent singers that India have ever produced

  4. P.Narayanan says:

    Ms Sajdah Sahiba,
    The best article read by me so far and in touched an emotional chord. Kindly write more such articles and also can we all request u to publish these in the print media where many music lovers can read n gain immense knowledge.

  5. Pradeep Kumar says:

    What a wonderful tribute exquisitely written about Mohd Rafi – Ms. Sajdah!

    I have often wondered what it was like for famous hindi film lyricists (Sahir, Shailendra, Majrooh, Shakeel, Rajah Mehdi Ali Khan, Kaifi Azmi, Hasrat Jaipuri, Indivar and several others) and composers (Naushad, Roshan, Shankar Jaikishan, SD Burman, OP Nayyar. Madan Mohan etc.) to take their masterpiece songs to Mohd Rafi and have him sing it back to them and start practice sessions before the recordings. Obviously, there is no doubt in my mind that they were all mind-blown away when they heard the master recite back their poetry and tune. If Rafi required extra time to practice and fine-tune their work, they obliged very willingly fully knowing that in return they would receive the best rendition of their creation. Since very few individuals (currently living and residing in the neighbourhoods of Mumbai and elsewhere) who were involved as musicians, recordists or assistants are willing to open up and discuss those heady days, we the fans will never know the minute details that racked the brains of Naushad, Roshan, Madan Mohan and other famous music directors.

    Just to take this subject matter a bit further, a couple of years ago Kerala Film Music fans were stunned to hear the sudden passing away of ace music director Raveendran due to cancer. MD Raveendran ruled Malayalam Film Music world from 1979 onwards until 2005. A combination of Naushad, OPN, Roshan, Madan Mohan, Illaiyaraja and others all rolled into one – he composed some absolutely everlasting songs for legendary singer Yesudas. Raveendran’s compositions were nearly all raaga based and had extremely complex structures. His penchant was to test the skills of the vocalist to the extreme –and see if the singer could handle the scales, the gamakas, the swaras and all the other intricacies of the tune. As he acquired more film assignments, Raveendran fully utilized Yesudas’s magnificent bass voice and gave him some very difficult tunes, daring that the singer would be unable to reach the scales. Till the last song they recorded together, both the MD and singer tried to outdo each other – and both of them came out very even in their friendly tussles, and ultimately the music lovers were the winners fully enthralled with several delightful compositions. Commenting at the sad demise of his close colleague and friend, Dr. Yesudas commented, “Whenever we recorded our best songs together, Ravi would come to the singer’s booth and tell him – brother, I have created this tune for you only; the musicians are ready, the recordists are ready. You may take this song and fly away like a bird. Soar as high as you want and come back to earth”. Yesudas always obliged and sang some of his best songs for Raveendran.

    The primary reason for Rafi Saab’s songs being immortal and still fresh as if it were just recorded yesterday is the full dedication, practice-till-perfect behavior that he imparted to every assignment that he undertook. I would assume that the MDs, lyricists, musicians and everyone involved in those recordings of yesteryears were fully willing to let the bird soar as high as he wanted….fly freely with abandonment…and then softly land back on mother earth.

  6. Irfan says:

    Thanks Haldarji
    Although this issue is irrevelant but since you have mentioned i would mention I do not consider sonu’s voice to be that much close to Rafisaab,Given his range I think Mohd Aziz was the best clone if you consider totality.This is one reason why he has maybe more than 200+ songs for LP only.,Considering Voice resemblance Anwar was the nearest to Rafisaab.Even if you hear sonu’s songs in the early part of his career,specially his first song ‘Agar aasman tak mere haath jaate’ from Meherbaan he seems to copy Mohd Aziz.The problem was that Aziz used to get nasal at high pitch whereas for sonu you have songs in which he has sung in such hoarse voice ‘Hum tujh ko utha kar le jayege’ -Jab pyar kisi se hota hai’.plus hsis voice seems feminine at times Have you heard his title song for the serial Man mein hai vishwas that is coming on Sony TV’.He has just throated it.Well that is just my personal opinion.Its nothing against Sonu.

  7. P. Haldar says:

    ref post 8:

    Irfan bhai, thanks for sharing the links. I’m sure you know who Tendulkar was named after, so his taste for good music is not surprising.

    I’ve seen Bheja Fry but I can’t remember the actor’s name. He really acted well in the film and sang a few Rafi numbers to impress the producers. I agree with his views on the Rafi-Asha masti. This is my personal bias, but I consider that pair to be one of the very best in terms of duets. I’m not going to say anything more on this topic because there are some knowledgeable people on this forum who don’t even consider Asha to be a great singer.

    Anyway, I just loved the picture with Geeta and Rafi; there was so much chemistry between the two of them in the 50s and early 60s: Udhar tum haseen, Hum apke aankhon mein, Jaane kahan mera jigar gaya ji, Aankhon hi aankhon mein…. Geeta’s voice had Lata’s sweetness and Asha’s oomph. I can understand why OP started ignoring her in the 60s, but for the life of me, I don’t understand why SD didn’t use her more in that period. There’s this lilting duet from Manzil (probably 1960), “Chupke se mile pyase pyase kuchh hum kuchh tum”, but after that, SD started easing her out of the recording room. Granted that she was self-destructing herself with alcohol, but she still had so much left in her even in the 70s (listen to her Avishkar and Anubhav songs).

    Given the buzz around Sonu Nigam nowadays, I recently attended a concert of his. He sang six or seven numbers but half the time he was talking while singing. The other thing I’ve noticed in the new singers is their tendency to alternate between singing and pointing the microphone towards the audience. So the audience is expected to sing half the time! Last time I heard Rafi live, he sang 17 songs, without hardly ever speaking. Last year, when I heard Manna Dey at a concert — he was 84 then — he sang for more than three hours and that too some of the best classical songs in films. And I saw this Sonu Nigam chap trying to mimic “Hari Om, man tadpat” in a video. If you want to sing such songs, you should try to sing them properly with due respect. I don’t know how people can compare Sonu with Rafi.

    Again, thanks for sharing the links.

  8. Irfan says:

    Greetings all rafians
    check this out

    If you are not a fan of Sachin tendulkar by now, this one ought to make you for sure

  9. ATM SALIM says:



  10. javed fazal says:

    Excellent article!

  11. binus2000 says:

    Ms.sajdah is a well informed rafi lover and i love her writings…She
    used to write for shama magazine in urdu before , I suppose..

    Sajdaj ji well done… please keep it up .. and I request is to be in
    touch with the nascent rafi foundation of Mumbai and Sargam magazine
    which is the voice of rafi lovers – around the world.

    binu nair… the rafi foundation.

  12. Anmol Singh says:


  13. mohanflora says:

    Wah Sajdah,Wah!

  14. Nair says:

    Aesthetically-packed recounting of a fecund life, if accounted romantically, by means of one’s aesthetic wits “astheticizes” the aesthetic sensors of the readers’ aesthetic system. The author valuably evaluates the values of a valuable life through value-rich description.


  15. P. Haldar says:

    A simply brilliant article!

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