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The Rafi Legacy Lives On

This article was featured on Express India on account of Rafi’s 19th Death Anniversary.

Express India On Rafi’s 19th Death Anniversary. It is exactly 19 years since Mohammad Rafi passed away (July 31, 1980), but his voice continues to haunt us even today. After all, he’s left behind a rich legacy of songs sung by him over 35 years.

Rafi’s voice, ranging from the melancholic to the boisterous, was such that it suited every mood and every occasion in films. His is one voice that has been imitated the most to be called a Rafi clone is actually regarded as a compliment by most newcomers.

Yet, no one has been able to recreate the Rafi magic. Perhaps, no one can. At best, each of these singers has been able to imitate just one aspect of his voice. But nobody possesses the versatility that Rafi did.

He could become the soul of Guru Dutt in songs like Dekhi zamaane ki yaari bichde sabhi bari bari Kagaz Ke Pool, Johnny Walker’s voice in the mischievous Tel maalish Pyaasa or sing the catchy Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan CID.

He could match Shammi Kapoor’s energy and zest in Yahoo Junglee and do a soft, romantic Ehsaan tera hoga mujh par in the same film. He could give character to a legend like Dilip Kumar with Tere husn ki kya taarif karoon Leader as well as do wonders for a mediocre actor like Joy Mukherjee with songs such as Mujhe dekh kar aapka muskurana Ek Musafir Ek Haseena and Champa kali dekho jhuki gayi re Ziddi.

In spite of his success, Rafi remained an extremely quiet and reserved person. Many of his admirers could not fathom how such a low-profile man sounded so flamboyant in some of his songs. His son Shahid recalls, When we asked him whether he had actually sung the ‘yahoo’ number, he just smiled and nodded. We kept asking him, ‘how did you sing this song?’ But he wouldn’t expand on the subject. It was difficult for us to imagine a gentle person like him shouting out that yahoo.”

Perhaps, it was Rafi’s humility and willingness to learn that made him such a great singer. He respected all his music directors, whether they were young or experienced. His contention was you are teaching me a new song, so you are my ustad. If someone could not pay him his fees, he’d still sing for him and treat him the same way.

Rafi was born in a small village called Kotla Sultan Singh near Amritsar in December 1924. His family shifted to Lahore when he was still a baby. A fakir used to come to their locality in Lahore every day and sing. The young Rafi was so fascinated by him that he used to follow him around.

His elder brother Hamid was aware of Rafi’s love for music and encouraged it. In fact, says music director Naushad, A lot of credit for Rafi’s success must go to Hamid who knocked on several doors and tried everything to ensure that his brother got work.’

In Lahore, Rafi started taking music lessons from Ustad Wahid Khan. One day Rafi and Hamid had gone to attend a performance by K L Saigal. But the legendary singer refused to sing since there was a power failure at the venue. Hamid went up to the organiser and asked if his brother could sing to keep the audience quiet.

That was Rafi’s first public performance at the age of 13. As it turned out, the setting was just right for him. Among the audience sat noted composer Shyamsunder who was so impressed that he invited the young Rafi to come to Bombay. Hamid brought him to Bombay without telling their father why they were going. Their mother, however, knew about it and blessed them.

But things were difficult in Bombay. The brothers had very little money. They lived in Bhendi Bazaar and walked every day to the studio in Dadar to meet Shyamsunder. They had filled two pillow cases with chana (gram) and lived off it for days. Finally, they did meet Shyamsunder who, as promised, gave Rafi a song in the Punjabi film Gulbaloch. His second film was a Hindi one, Gaon Ki Gori.

Naushad Ali was one of the first composers to work with Rafi. He narrates an endearing story. When I heard Rafi, I liked his voice and promised him work in future. I was already doing a film called Shahjehan with Saigal. Rafi, who was a fan of Saigal, came to me with a request, that it was his greatest desire to sing with Saigal. I gave him one line in the song Roohi roohi mere sapno ki rani,” recalls Naushad.

The first full song he sang for me was in Anmol Ghadi — it went like Tera khilona toota balak… he adds. Then again he sang for me in Dillagi Is duniya mein aye dilwalon dil ka lagana khel nahin and Tere koonche main armanon ki duniya leke aaya hoon.”

After this, Rafi became very popular and started getting work from other music directors as well. But it was left to Naushad to explore the wide range of Rafi’s voice. The film was Baiju Bawra, the song O duniya ke rakhwale sun dard bhare mere nale. Naushad discovered that in an era when low octave singing was the norm, Rafi had a phenomenal range, and yet, he never sounded out of tune.

Shammi Kapoor acknowledges that Rafi had a lot to do with his success. It was amazing the way Rafisaab adapted himself to what I wanted him to do. I used to be terribly involved with my songs and go for all the recordings. I used to make it clear how I wanted a certain line sung and Rafisaab always responded, says Kapoor.

He cites an instance. I remember when the song Tareef karoon kya uski in Kashmir Ki Kali was being recorded, I wanted the signature line Tareef karoon to be repeated till it reached a crescendo. O P Nayyar, the composer and a friend of mine, objected. He thought it would sound boring. But suddenly, Rafisaab spoke up and said ‘I would like to do it the way the boy wants it because I know what he wants,’ Kapoor remembers.

When the film was released, the song was a big hit. Nayyar hugged Kapoor and congratulated him for his foresight, but the actor maintains it was possible only because Rafisaab had taken the song to such a pitch and had sung each repetition in a different style.

He adds, with a touch of pride, Though Rafisaab sang for all the actors be it Dilip Kumar or Johnny Walker he was especially identified with me. Some songs sungs by him and picturised on Joy Mukherjee and Biswajeet were actually my kind of songs. Baharon phool barsao, Pukarta chala hoon main or Teri pyari pyari surat ko these were my songs, sung in Rafi’s special style for me. I remember when he sang Main gaoon tum so jaao for Brahmachari, I told him how I wanted him to sing one particular line. When he saw the picturisation he came and kissed my hand and said, ‘it’s very beautiful, why didn’t I think of that?’

Lata Mangeshkar, who has sung some of her most beautiful duets with Rafi, says that our songs together are so lovely that it is a pleasure to listen to them over and over again. Some of the memorable songs of the duo are Jeevan mein piya tera saath rahe Goonj Uthi Shehnai, Tum to pyar ho Sehra, Tasveer teri dil mein Maya, Dheere dheere chal Love Marriage, Tujhe jeevan ki dor se Asli Naqli, Chalo dildar chalo Pakeezah, Tere husn ki kya tareef karoon Leader.

According to Shahid, Rafi used to take a great deal of interest in his songs. He always wanted to know who he was singing for. After that, you would hear shades of that person’s voice in his singing this was his special gift, says Shahid.

Indeed, Rafi was special. All those actors he sang for felt a sense of possessiveness for him and acknowledged his contribution to their popularity.

His voice always struck a chord, even when he sang non-film songs such as Paaon padoon tore shyam… For generations to come, there is a repertoire of 35,000 Rafi songs to revel in. His last song was Tu kahin aas paas hai dost for the film, Aas Paas.

Today, in the midst of the cacophony of voices, Rafi’s is the one which stands out, even almost two decades after he’s gone.

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One Comment to “The Rafi Legacy Lives On”

  1. Bonifacius says:

    Great article. I am just sad I dont know how to reply properly, though, since I want to show my appreciation like many other.

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