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The Rafi Phenomenon

This article is by Mr. B.Venkatadri from Hyderabad.

While the Rafi Phenomenon is best viewed and understood as a whole and not in its bits and components, one is still tempted to understand the bits and components that make up Mohammed Rafi.

In my view, Rafi can be studied under the following parameters:

  1. Basic, innate voice quality
  2. His ability to modulate that voice
  3. Range of that voice pitch, in terms of very high to very low
  4. His ability to slightly modify his voice from actor to actor
  5. His own improvisations such as a certain dragging of the words, unique utterance of certain words such as “Mohabbat”
  6. His versatility in terms of variety of songs.

Kindly permit me to explain each of the above 6 parameters along with illustrations.

1. Basic, innate voice quality:

Extremely melodious and truly the voice of a handsome hero. I am now 54 and have first heard Rafi when I was 7 or 8 years old. At that time, I did not know the name,”Rafi”, but even at that young age, I instantly fell in love with the voice of that singer, whose name I came to know only much later. Let us take, for example, Dil Ka Bhawar Kare Pukar (Tere Ghar Ke Saamne), Subha na Aayi (Cha Cha Cha). When people hear such songs, even if they do not know who is singing, they are bound to feel that a handsome, good, honest, sincere man is singing! My daughter, who was born one year after his passing away, is as much a fan of his as I am! Indeed, she knows most of his songs.

2. His ability to modulate that voice:

Indeed, this is his USP! Please hear the song “Tu Hindu bane ya na musalman banega” (Dhool Ka Phool). In that, note the way he sings this particular portion ‘Kaphan bechne wale’.You are bound to immediately empathise with him! Or for instance, the way he says and ends ‘Jhuma’ in Yeh Dekh ke dil Jhuma in the song, Deewana Hua Badal” (Kashmir ki Kali). Or for that matter, the different kind of way he sings that bit ‘Tere Julf ke saye me” in the song, ‘Main Pyaar ka Rahi hun’ (Ek Musafir Ek Haseena). There is an unending list of such examples.

In addition, he adopts a controlled, humming voice, at times. For example, ‘Aap Ke Haseen Rukh‘ from Bahare Phir Bhi Aayenge and ‘O Mujhe Dekh kar Aap Ka‘ from Ek Musafir Ek Hasina

3. Range of that voice, in terms of very high to very low:

This is another unique speciality of Rafi saab. He effortlessly goes to peak shrutis and equally can hold on to rock bottom pitches. That is why music directors had vied with each other in utilizing this speciality of Rafi. Naushad was, of course, forerunner in exploiting this aspect of Rafi. Listen to “Meri Kahani bhoolne wale” from Deedar. It has extreme low pitch and ends up at very high pitch. Rafi saab, whenever he sang such songs, made the listeners highly emotional and made their hairs literally rise! Another example with the same effect is “Zindabad Zindabad” from Mughal-e –Azm, though this number operates throughout only in high pitch. Take another example of extreme low pitch and extreme high pitch in the same song :”Yeh Mahalon Yeh thakthon Yeh Khwabon ki duniya” from Pyaasa (SDB). Sure enough, this song also makes you highly emotional and takes you out of this world! Yet another soul-stirring case of very high and low pitches is the song from Shola aur Shabnam(Khayyam), namely, “Jaane Kya Dhoondti Rahti” . There are of course a number of other such songs. Songs under this category cannot be even attempted by Mukesh, Talat or Mannadey, whose voice ranges were very limited.

4. His ability to slightly modify the voice from actor to actor:

He certainly had a flair for varying his voice according to the actor. Listen to ‘Ae Husn Pari Chehra‘ from Aman (especially when he says, ‘Pasand Ho Pasand Ho’) or ‘Main Pyaar Ka Deewana‘ from Ayee Milan Ki Bela; he sounds very much like Rajendra Kumar. Or listen to “Aji Dil Par Hua Aisa Jadoo” from Mr.& Mrs. 55; you can relate to Guru Dutt. Similarly, he had a voice each for Dilip Kumar, Shammi Kumar, Joy Mukherjea, not to forget Johny Walker and Mehmood.

5. His own improvisations/sangats:

Have you noticed the way he says ‘Mohabbat’ in the song, ‘Ehsan tera hoga mujh par’, from Junglee? I mean when he says,’Tumse Mohabbat Hogayi hai’. Did you note the way he says ‘Pareshan’ in one of the antharas of ‘Din Dhal Jaaye” from Guide? Further, when an anthara is repeated twice in any song, he always puts in a different sangat in the repitition. In addition, he has innovated a certain dragging of words from the early 60’s. For example, follow the anthara ‘Mai tumhise…’ in Ae Gulbadan from Professor.

He is also a very stylish singer. Witness ‘Ae Chand Sa Roshan’ from Kashmir ki Kali or ‘Lakhon Hai Nigahon Mein’ from Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon or ‘Hum Jab Chale To’ from Hum Hindustani or ‘Pukarta Chala Hoon Main’ from Mere Sanam or ‘Jawani Aye Mast’ from Tumsa Nahi Dekha.

6. His versatility:

Of course, this quality of his is too well known to be repeated at length. He was the Badshah, whether it was a melancholy, romantic, patriotic, classical, bhangra, folk ,bhajan, stylish/modern, quawali, ghazal or you name it!

Gentlemen, it was, because of the combination of so many unique parameters, that almost all the great MDs of yesteryears have made him their No.1 choice. Besides, that is what makes the likes of SP Balu, Mannadey, Sonu, Jesudas, Ravi, Naushad, Mahendra Kapoor, etc. openly swear by Rafi saab and worship him. His indispensability during the platinum era of Hindi film music can be illustrated by this: When Lata refused to sing with him during early 60’s, even the ardent Lata fans among MD’s had to shed Lata and bring in either Suman Kalyanpur or Asha along with Rafi! Only in 10%-15% of such cases, MD’s had replaced Rafi with Mahendra Kapoor/Mukesh.

In fact, Rafi saab had recorded some excellent songs even with the lesser known MD’s such as Iqbal Quereshi, Babul, C. Arjun., G.S. Kohli, Hansraj Behl, Lachhiram, Ramlal, N.Datta, Lala Asar Sattar,etc., whose Rafi songs I would discuss some other time.

For me, Rafi saab is no less than God. Rafi Saab Amar Rahen!

Author: B.VENKATADRI from Hyderabad
Tel. no.s: 040-23111550; 98490 54863

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9 Blog Comments to “The Rafi Phenomenon”

  1. mohanflora says:

    Manna Dey in the Deccan Herald says:
    Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Talat Mehmood, Hemanta Kumar… all of them had their different styles. They would choose the singer according to the composition. The first choice was always Rafi, he was a great singer, there is no doubt about it. If the song was a little intricate, if there was something special to be sung, they would consider me. And every time I sang a song, I would put my entire whole heart and soul into it, because I had to compete with all these singers.”

    Playing kite with Rafi!

    Manna counts Mohammed Rafi among his good friends. “He was a very good, godfearing, simple person. He never smoked, never chewed paan, never drank. He used to go to work, come back and spend time with his family. I was also that kind of person, so we used to vibe very well with each other. I have been fortunate to have a friend like him.”

    Another common passion that the two great singers shared was kite-flying! “Rafi used to love to fly kites, and so did I. I used to be very good at it. And I used to cut all of Rafi’s kites! He used to ask me, ‘Dada, is there some magic in your kites?’ And I used to say, ‘Shall I tell you something? You don’t know how to fly kites!”

  2. mohanflora says:

    A clip online:”Why is Bollywood short on originality? It has never provided any space to composers, lyricists or musicians. Despite the great Indian classical tradition of experimentation and exploration, those who play instruments in film sangeet are never given room to open up. Flute plays a line. Sitar plays a line. Some other instrument chips in with a four second piece. And then the melody takes over. If one closely hears the orchestration for violins they all have the same cliched ring to it.

    Sometimes originality is stifled by the producer who brings with him the song that must be copied. Very often a composer is hired for the melodies he has in hand which have passed the test abroad. What works in the west will work here is the mantra. There have been exceptions where music directors have sought inspiration from our own roots. But the overall response to the great Indian folk tradition has been weak. Bollywood has ensured that no popular form of music ever evolves. Even the Hindi pop bands which have emerged today are rooted in Bollywood or are inspired by Pakistani sufi-rock bands.

    In the 70s and 80s, critics did not rave about Bollywood music like they do today. Then too there were songs which became big hits. Melodies that an entire nation sang.”
    Taken from

  3. Harvinder says:

    Good analysis of Rafi era by Mr Sagar. Perhaps the gap between Rafi Saheb and all other male singers was so much that Producers and Music Directors could not afford to take much chance. Also Rafi saheb’s voice in 60’s had special magic about it. True some bold Producers like BR Chopra gave chance to MKapoor etc, but still resorted to Rafi for difficult numbers. But Chopra Saheb was always diffrent than the most in his film making also.

  4. Anmol Singh says:

    Dear B.Venkatadri,

    Great Job! Rafi is such a topic to explore that every time one ends up finding some thing new about his voice.

    Carry on the good work.

  5. Nair says:

    Now, in which aspect of singing is Kishore Kumar most proficient at? Yodeling? Oh c’mon it’s insignificant. Then, liveliness? True, but does that make him really special? Or……..? Personally, I feel Kishore Kumar’s “bests at singing” lie in emoting melancholy, obviously, with the right dosage. It is as if he pours emotion into his sad songs. Let’s take “Aye Khuda Har Faisla”. Except very minor tonal changes here and there, the song goes in a very plain manner. Yet, it is packed with the right emotion. How? This is where his artistic elegance comes in. Kishore Kumar becomes one with the song (to put it plainly, “he acts”) and lo! the song has pathos; it flawlessly depicts the state of a helpless human being, who despite his miseries retains faith in the Almighty. Absolutely perfect; save for the fact that the listeners can realize the “laborious” emoting.

  6. Nair says:

    Sometimes actors fail to match with the emotions that the singer supplies. Rajkumar went beyond the melancholy in “Yeh Dunia Yeh Mehfil” (excessive downpour) and Bharat Bhooshan fell a bit towards the gloomier side than what he was supposed to do in “Tum Bin Jaoon Kahan” (an inherent deficiency in cheerfulness). An audio-visual version looks a bit awkward; most of the time the poor singer gets the blame.

  7. Sagar says:

    Dear RAFIANS,

    It is wonderful to hear 85-year-old Manna Dey, himself a singing legend, talk about how honoured India is to have had a singer like Mohammad Rafi. It is nice to hear the much younger Sonu Nigam talk about Rafi — who died in July 1980 — and his heritage. “Not only did I dream of becoming a singer because of Rafisaab,” he told me the other day, “I also feel he was and will always be the giant of the musical scene in India.”

    But it is certainly not a nice thing to hear that Rafi did not get his due in his own country, and that he had to be content with a Padma Shri while his contemporary Lata Mangeshkar was honoured with the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian accolade.

    Even as one factors in the absurdity inherent in giving out awards including the Oscars — Alfred Hitchcock never got one and Martin Scorsese is still waiting for his — one ought to note that Rafi had received his Padma Shri in 1965. Lata received a higher award, the Padma Bhushan, but after four years. She received the Bharat Ratna in 2001. Rafi had long passed into the ages by then.

    Lata is among very few musicians including M S Subbulakshmi who have received the Bharat Ratna. Does that mean other eminent musicians like Ravi Shankar, Balamurali Krishna, Bhimsen Joshi or Bade Ali Ghulam Khan did not win sufficient recognition in India?

    Rafi was a singing meteor of his time. Just a dozen songs from films like Baiju Bawra, Kohinoor and Guide assures him immortality.

    And yet, with virtually every composer and singer worshipping him, especially between 1950 and 1970, he got an undue number of songs to sing and unwittingly hurt the careers of contemporaries like Manna Dey, Talat Mahmood, and to a lesser degree, Hemant Kumar.

    He was overexposed to such an extent that some of his songs, especially in films like Aman (composed by Shankar-Jaikishen) and Palki (composer: Naushad Ali) sounded overstretched and over dramatic. And yet some of the most eminent composers including S D Burman were afraid to tell the producers and the stars, especially Rajendra Kumar, Shammi Kapoor and Dharmendra, that there were other good singers.

    One can count the number of songs Manna Dey sang for Burman; it is another story that those few songs — Poocho Na Kaise in Teri Surat Meri Aanken turned out to be milestones.

    Even when Kishore Kumar became a phenomenon with his songs in Aradhana (1970) and monopolised the musical scene for two decades, Rafi was not sidelined. He sang lovely numbers like Kya Hua Tera Wada and Chura Liya for R D Burman even as Kishore hogged the scene. Producers like Nasir Hussain and Manmohan Desai preferred Rafi to Kishore, and older actors like Dharmendra were in Rafi’s camp.

    I don’t remember ever reading or hearing that Rafi, who was known for his impeccable courtesy and great humanity, felt the least discomfort when Kishore Kumar monopolised the Hindi film music scene.

    As one listens to some of the great singers of that era including Manna Dey, Talat Mahmood and Mukesh, one wonders why they did not get more songs.

    “There were many occasions I thought of using Manna Dey for my songs,” composer Ravi told me two years ago, quickly adding that he was in awe of Rafi’s voice. “But the actors often demanded Rafi.” The few songs Manna Dey sang for Ravi in films like Waqt and Ek Phool Do Maali have become classics.

    One producer to resist the We-must-have-Rafi syndrome was B R Chopra. He gave Mahendra Kapoor a good break in Gumrah and repeated him in many films including Dastaan, which featured Dilip Kumar who was beholden to Rafi.

    Indian film music would perhaps have been richer had composers ranging from Madan Mohan to O P Nayyar to Salil Choudhury to S D Burman shown a stronger independent streak and nourished the singing career of other singers.



  8. unknow1 says:

    Very nice Sir Venkatadri and sir Nair

  9. Nair says:

    Very nice thoughts Mr. Venkatadri. Recently, I heard the song “Kya Rakha hai dhayanam mein”. A careful observer can find more than one emotions in unison in this single line – playfulness, delight, spoof, and devotion. Lacking these feelings in unison, this line will sound an arrogant rejection of tradition. Right? As the song enters its next line, “dholo apne paap sabhi tum ganga ke snaanam mein”, Rafi Sahab blends (not discards) all the forenamed feeling into conviction about and devotion for the holiness of Ganges. The listener for a moment feels “is it so”? This skill is a part of what I mentioned earlier as Rafi’s ability to “enable the listener to recall the lyrics and associate it with a socio-cultural context in which the song is played”. It still puzzles me, from does this man bring all these emotions; it is as if he has a rich emotions box with him. Marvelous!

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