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.