You're browsing: Home / Newspapers / A Vacuum Remains

A Vacuum Remains

No one has been able to take Mohammed Rafi’s place in film music. Read Sarwat Ali’s article from Daily Jung-mohanflora.

It has been twenty-six years since the death of Mohammed Rafi, in August of nineteen-eighty, but his songs are still listened to by a large section of music-loving people. He can be considered the most important male vocalist ever to have appeared on the film music horizon. He ruled film singing in the decades of the nineteen-fifties and sixties, and managed to survive in the seventies despite the rapidly-changing musical taste.

Born in a village Kotta Sultansingh in the Punjab, he moved to Lahore and spent the formative period of his life in the city working as a barber in a family enterprise. But his heart lay in music, and he moved in and mixed freely with the music circles, picking up the finer aspects of singing from a number of well known singers and musicians of Lahore. Since the days of Akbar, when Lahore was made capital for more than ten years, it had become a major centre of culture. During the colonial period, too, Lahore retained that distinction, and provided a stream of talent to the emerging cultural centres of Bombay and Calcutta.

The music scene was quite vibrant, and people like Jeevan Lal Mattoo served as connoisseurs and patrons of music in the city. It was in these baithaks and soirees that Mohammed Rafi picked up the finer aspects from Ustads like Abdul Waheed Khan and Chotte Ghulam Ali Khan. Feroz Nizami introduced him to the Radio, in Lahore, before he made his film debut for Shayam Sunder’s Punjabi Film ‘Gul Baloch‘ in nineteen-forty-four. The same year he moved to Bombay and was given a break by Naushad in film ‘Pehle Aap‘.

Film music was the rage when Mohammed Rafi was growing up and most saw a bright future for themselves in this field. Though films had been introduced in the second decade of the twentieth century in India it was actually the talkie that further popularised this already popular new medium, and the main reason for that was the introduction of singing and music. The era of the silent films had driven a wedge between the trinity of drama, dance and music, which had been the characteristic of the performing arts since these were enshrined by Bharat in ‘Natshastra’, probably by the time the Christian calendar began. People thronged the cinema houses for drama and dance, but they went to the theatre to listen to music. But with the introduction of the talkies in nineteen-thirty-one and the release of ‘Alam Ara’ the primal trinity was as if restored. Film music became one of the most popular forms of singing in South Asia.

When film music looked for its first real male singer, it found one in Kundan Lal Saigal who dominated its next fifteen years till his untimely death when barely in his forties. The field was left wide open and a number of singers, like Mukesh, Talaat Mehmood and Muhammed Rafi, rushed in to fill the void. Mohammed Rafi proved to be the most popular because of his greater versatility.

Though he was noticed in ‘Anmol Garhi’ and sang alongside K.L Saigal in ‘Shah Jehan‘, both under the musical direction of Naushad, it was his duet with Noor Jehan in ‘Jugnu‘, composed by Feroz Nizami, that catapulted him as a serious contender to fill the vacant slot of the leading male vocalist. He really arrived as an individual vocalist in ‘Mela‘, where again he sang under the musical direction of Naushad.

Mohammed Rafi had opted to stay in Bombay, a rational decision given the fact that it was the centre of film making in the subcontinent, and he was on the threshold of making his mark. Many, like him, opted for the same and rose to the pinnacles of fame and fortune. As it happened, with the fog of partition lifting and the gloom of migration and killing gradually becoming history, Naushad opted for Rafi to be his male playback singer in the new creative formations that emerged, generally as playback voice to the leading man Dilip Kumar. This lasted through the nineteen-fifties and the better part of the sixties, till the changing trends in music forced new formations.

Shanker Jaikishen opted for Mukesh as the playback singer for Raj Kapoor in the other big formation of the post-independence Indian cinema, but the other music directors left their options open and often selected Mohammed Rafi to lend his voice to leading men like Dev Anand and Guru Dutt.

Mohammed Rafi was trained in the classical tradition, and when film music moved into top gear, with greater input from the enriched musical heritage, Mohammed Rafi had the credentials to be its chief exponent. In ‘Baiju Bawara‘ he demonstrated his virtuosity and range and in ‘Piyasa‘ the evocative power he could bring to the lyrics. Though he did make a partial transition to a more youthful and playful style that demanded a different kind of musical ability, he was too closely wedded to the classical tradition to wander too far from it. As tastes in film music became even more eclectic and inclusive, music directors started to look out for other voices to meet musical requirements.

In the last couple of decades no male singer has emerged to take Mohammed Rafi’s place in films. Though many male voices have appeared and have been introduced, the void created by Mohammed Rafi is still largely vacant. No one has really been able to dominate this field as he did. Times have changed and recording technology has undergone significant transformation as well, displacing the human voice from its predominant position; but even granting all this the musical ability of no one since has been matched Rafi. In film music the greatest asset is versatility and adapting the voice to the requirement of actor and situation. Rafi had this ability and his voice spanned over two generations of actors — Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand followed by Shammi Kapoor, Dhermander, Manooj Kumar and then, in later years, Shashi Kapoor, Amitab Bachan and even Sanjev Kumar.

The greatest advantage of film music was that it was readily available and one did not have to go looking for it. It was a popular form of music, not purist enough to demand specialised attention. It was played every where — from the radio, the wayside hotels, and in khokhas from recording discs which were marketed separately and at reasonable price.

Since music was making a transition from the purist tradition cultivated by individual patrons and the super-virtuosity of master musicians to a more popular level, hemmed in by the limitations of the market and disparate popular expectation, the music composers did a fine job of not letting go of the essentials of their local musical traditions. Mohammed Rafi lived in that phase and, despite innovations and changes, never tinkered with the essentials of the music tradition.

Proclaim your love for Rafi Sahab on twitter

Post your Comment on this Blog

If your comments hit the moderation queue, comments will be moderated within 7 days.

10 Blog Comments to “A Vacuum Remains”

  1. SHAH MURAD says:

    Nice history of Rafi and old all india music

  2. Mahender says:

    Thanks for hosting such informative material about The GEM. I have grown listening to Mohammad Rafi all my childhood days. I still remember, in 1980, when I was about 8 years old, I saw my father in wet was him who pulled me to Mohammad Rafi, and even today when I am in US, I have carried a luggage of CDs of Mohd Rafi Songs…ranging from Jagriti..Hum laaye hai toofan se kishti nikaal ke……John Jaani Janardan…..I’m sure a big bunch of new heroes have lost their careers in Mohd Rafi’s demise..his singing would have made a lot of difference. I can keep writing about Rafi without any end, but just wanted to insert that it is people like Laxmikant Pyarelal and Shankar Jaikishan who were really blessed to be associated with Rafi, as their combination with him produced immortal songs like…Tum mujhe yu bhula na paaoge. I wish for the generations to come Mohammad Rafi lives in the hearts of people across the world.

  3. Raajkumar Akela says:

    you are right Mr. unknown. Everybody compares his/her favourite singer
    with rafi saab as because rafi saab was the final measurement of singing. I remember a time when sridevi was on top. I have seen and read there was hardly an enterview of any star that was complete without a line about this roop ki rani. so this is quite natural. Hights of lands are measured from the depth of sea-bottom.

  4. unknow1 says:

    Sir Nair,
    every one want to compare with his singer with Mohd Rafi(as u said Sir) because they are sure 100% that Mohd rafi is that best,As u said 70% fans of other singer they love Mohd rafi Sir I thank and i am sure about that all other singers fans they know that Mohd rafai is better singer .
    when i am child I liked all songs which was singed for mr bachchan(KK)
    Sir Nair real I can’t understant when some one say that this singer is better than Mohd rafi.

  5. Nair says:

    You are correct Kalyani. If we prepare an exhaustive list of Rafians in an alphabetical order, my name would be somewhere in 6002586255 (since it is “N”, to be followed by 12 alphabets). The irony is that 70 percent fans of other singers are Rafi lovers; his voice is that irresistible. We have seen many Kishore fans, who wrote in this forum, expressing their appreciation for Rafi. Those who can resist his voice – of course, one can find a few in some forums (what do you say Unknow1?) – have their “sanity malfunctioning”.

    May I request our administrator for adding more songs in the juke box?

  6. kalyani says:

    Nair Sir,
    The comments n interactions have become less as many of the Rafians are busy hearing the melody of the MAESTRO . There are innumerable fans outthere and if u look at the Hamara Forums only Rafi sabs site has the maximum visitors.
    Yes I fully agree we should get to listen to more songs,

  7. Nair says:


    The last sentence of my previous blog should be read as “thank you so much for all these”; also, line number 6 as “Numbers of articles along with the quality” and line number 11 as “Or, let me go to the extent of asking that”.


  8. Nair says:

    Rafi Sahab had not left behind a vacuum; his thousands of songs and their sweetness have been pumping air into that vacuum. But I sense emptiness in the blog. It is a paradox. The website has become a kind of source book as well as referencer for any Rafi aficionado. Numbers of articles along the quality, content, and style have a substantial increase, whereas the comments and responses have a sizeable reduction. Should it be taken that visitors are less in number? Or that the new log-in system is scaring? Or, let me go to extent of asking that: is it that now there is any room for debating? Look at the site: the new juke box is something with which one can spend hours in bliss (although a new set of songs would be wonderful); photo album is providing spectacular shades of the life of a legend; videos are simultaneously providing treat to ears as well as eyes. Oh yes! Now, I got it, I mean the reason for the relatively less number of comments – all are enjoying the entertainment provided by our administrator that they hardly get time to write comments. Does it sound like an artificial confidence? Hope it does not. Well, I just wanted say a few words in praise of our administrator.

    Thank you so much all these!


  9. kalyani says:

    dear mohan flora,
    another great article but the vacuum n the void created is going to remain forever.
    well done,

  10. Nair says:

    Nice article. But…..what does the title mean? Please!

    Rafi’s adaptation of voice from actor to actor is quite obvious. Here is a song video where he shows this skill on Shashi Kapoor who is playing double role.

Post your Comment on Facebook

Receive updates in your inbox. Enter your email address:

Other Writeups

Social Collaboration