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Striking the right chord

Article from Tribune India, contributed by Naveen@HF.

No one could have imagined that a small boy, who was a school dropout, would one day rule the Bollywood music scene. Varinder Walia recounts the story of the boy’s transformation from very ordinary ‘Pheeko’ to noted playback singer Mohammad Rafi.

It reads like a fairy tale. A poor boy, called Pheeko, was a barber’s son. He, along with his five older brothers, lived in Kotla Sultan Singh village, near Amritsar. He had no interest in studies.

His father Hajji Ali Mohammad was a much-respected member of the community. At the time of festivals and marriages, he would cook rice in seven colours. Haji Ali Mohammad shifted to Lahore in 1935-36 and his family followed him a few months later.

There was a fakir who went around the village every day begging for alms in the name of Allah. In his melodious voice, he chanted, “Khedan de din char ni maen…” Young Pheeko began to imitate him. This was the beginning of the career of the great singer Mohammad Rafi, who won the hearts of millions with his songs.

The transformation

To many readers, Kotla Sultan Singh village probably does not ring any bell. But for the music lovers who grew up listening to film music from 1940s onwards, this village is a site for pilgrimage. One of the greatest singers of Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi films, Mohammad Rafi, was born on December 24, 1924, in this non-descript village.

His father apprenticed him at his uncle’s hair-cutting salon in Lahore that was the famous film centre in pre-Partition days.

It was a stroke of good luck for Pheeko that a famous music director visited the salon. The director heard Pheeko humming softly. He found his voice a divine gift and asked him to visit his studio.

Rafi’s elder brother, Hamid Rafi, then decided to concentrate his efforts on providing all support needed by his brother to make it big in the music world. Rafi learnt Hindustani Classical music under the guidance of renowned Ustaad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Vahida Khan at a very young age.

Rafi sang thousands of super-hit songs. He started his career in the film industry at the age of 20, with a Punjabi song, “Soniye Hiriye, teri yaad ne bahut sataya” for the movie “Gul Baloch”, which was released on February 28, 1944. He became the most sought-after playback singer around 1948. When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, Rafi sang a song “Suno suno ay duniya walon, Bapu ki yeh amar kahani” written by Rajinder Krishan. The music for this was given by Hunslal Bhagatram and it was a great hit.

Fading memories

Memories of the great music legend Mohammad Rafi, however, seem to be fading away in his own village, as nothing that belonged to him has been preserved. His ancestral house has also not been preserved.

The kutcha house of Rafi was demolished by a farmer to construct his own dwelling. The one-room memorial raised by a memorial society of the village has virtually been converted into a shed for cattle. The village receives a regular traffic of Rafi devotees, especially from across the border. Some pay their respects at the spot where Rafi’s house was located. Others consecrate that spot by taking some soil from there with them. However, they receive a rude shock on learning that the old house does not exist anymore.

Kotla Sultan Singh village is at a distance of about 25 km from Amritsar and falls in Majitha police district. Nothing on the way shows that Mohammad Rafi was from here. Only on the outskirts of the village there is a signboard saying “Mohammad Rafi Marg”. This signboard, too, was put up with great efforts.

As one walks down the village and inquires about Rafi’s ancestral house, one comes across blank faces. However, Anita Devgan and her actor husband Hardip Gill, who belongs to the village, have taken the initiative to organise the first ‘mela’ (festival) in the memory of Mohammad Rafi in the village itself. Anita is also preparing a documentary on the life of Rafi.

Friends forever

Interestingly, Rafi had written his name on the trunk of a mango tree in the village when he was a child. Before leaving for Lahore in 1935-36 with his family, he told the villagers not to cut it because it would remind them of him.

Mohammad Rafi’s childhood friends Kundan Singh (left) and Bakhshish Singh
Mohammad Rafi’s childhood friends Kundan Singh (left) and Bakhshish Singh

Shockingly, this tree has also been cut. His close friend, Luddan (now Mr Kundan Singh Samra), who studied with him till Class IV in the local primary school, says the memories are still fresh in his mind. “How can I forget the days we spent together? I still remember he used to sing so well even when he was very young.” He claims that Rafi’s house was adjoining their house and the two families shared very good relations. However, as Rafi’s family was not financially sound, the father of Rafi started some business in Lahore and later took his entire family along with him.

The Rafi family visited the village only once after leaving this place. It was when Mohammad Rafi got married to his cousin Bashira (n), nick named ‘Majhi’, in 1945 here in the village.

For music lovers of the sub-continent, who seek common roots and heroes, building a Rafi Memorial at Kotla Sultan Singh is now an essential item on their agenda.

Mr Samra said he had met Rafi again in 1954 when the latter had come to Attari. “He took a few of us in his car to watch his programme and throughout the night kept announcing that he belonged to Kotla Sultan Singh village. In 1956, Rafi came to Amritsar for a concert. Some of the villagers went there and met him before the show began. He met them with warmth. Whenever someone from our village went to Mumbai, Rafi would help them in whatever way he could,” he added.

Rafi’s friends, recalling their childhood days, said they would return to their respective homes late in the evening. Deen Mohammad, the paternal uncle of Pheeko, would thrash him for ‘roaming about’. His other childhood friend, Mr Gurbaksh Singh Gill (82), said that Pheeko, thanks to his “carefree nature”, would wander around in the lanes of the village.

One of his old-time friends said, “Before Partition, half the population of the village consisted of Muslims. It was a very well-knit community in which people shared each other’s joys and sorrows and took part in each other’s religious festivals.”

However, Rafi never returned to his birthplace after his marriage. It is believed that he was perturbed over the communal frenzy that swept his village, too, at the time of Partition.

Lollywood’s singer

The Pakistani film industry, of which Lahore is the capital, is called Lollywood. Here, Rafi grew up as a singer.

Before Partition, Lahore was the major film centre, where as early as the 1920s, silent movies were made. D.M. Pancholi was instrumental in the development of Lahore’s film industry. Pancholi’s studio was managed by Diwan Sardari Lal, when he left for Mumbai (then Bombay) in the late 1940s.

The first Pakistani film, “Teri Yaad”, made by Mr Lal, was released in 1948. It did not succeed at the box office, but Lahore retained its importance.

Soulful music

Rafi’s songs are just as popular today as they were during his life time. His voice was so versatile that it suited any mood ranging from the happy to the gloomy. His voice continues to haunt music lovers even today.

Although he worked with different music directors, the one who recognised and exploited his immense talent was Naushad. His first song for Naushad was “Hindustan ke hum hain, Hindustan hai hamara” in the film “Pehle aap”. The duo worked together to give hits such as “Baiju Bawra” and “Mere Mehboob”, to name a few. Rafi’s other fruitful partnership was with SD Burman, and some of their famous hits are “Kagaz ke phool”, “Guide”, “Tere ghar ke samne” and “Pyaasa”.

Rafi sang some of the best songs for heroes under the influence of alcohol like “Din dhal jaaye” in “Guide” (1965) and “Choo lenedo nazuk hothon ko” in “Kajal” (1965), without touching the alcohol himself!

He has left behind a rich legacy of songs. The golden era of the Indian cinema saw him recording about 40,000 songs in several languages.

His love for Punjab and his contribution to Punjabi films is unforgettable. Rafi brought cheers and smiles to millions of his fans through his songs. In his songs like “Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya”, he tried to inspire the dejected and give hope to those who had lost faith in life and God.

On July 31, 1980, a massive heart attack silenced this peerless singer forever. But his divine voice will never fade from this earth. Every year, the Rafi Memorial Society, founded by late photo journalist Jaspal Singh Rana, a great Rafi admirer, holds a concert in Amritsar in Rafi’s memory.

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7 Blog Comments to “Striking the right chord”

  1. Faraz says:

    Suno suno ay duniya walon, Bapu ki yeh amar kahani

  2. Rich says:

    Where can I listen to “Suno suno ay duniya walon, Bapu ki yeh amar kahani”
    ? Please Help Me.

  3. Saqib says:

    Rafi Sahib is no doubt the greatest ever and most beautiful voice ever. from my early childhood I’m fan of Rafi sahib. I visited different parts of world and I always keep Rafi sahib songs with me.

  4. Ali Baluch says:

    Hi Mohd rafi fans,
    O P Nayer and many more they said that mohd rafi was more great as human than a singer human.

  5. Zullfiqar Ali Gill says:

    Rafi Sahib is the Best singer of Universe.His voice is tthe most powerful source of enterteinment and inspiration for me.Song were written and tuned keeping in view his calibre.He was the sheet anchor for those Musicians who would make difficult and classical tunes.He was the first Male singer who breake the magic of female emotions. He was the first voice of male community who expressed male emotions successfully.
    He was,and will be, the only singer who could sing all range of music with equal ease.His art can never me measured.He is “The Matchless’.
    After his death a variety of songs have come to an end.
    I personaly thanks to Raffians who are payin homage the maestro .Iam with you Dear Rafians.

    Zulfiqar Ali Gill (M.B.A.Marketing)

  6. Rakesh Kapoor says:

    Like many, I am also a great fan of Rafi saab. No doubt, his voice had depth, range and heart touching singing style. I listen to his songs at my home, in my car and I carry with me cds loaded with Rafi saabs songs. I would like to request other fans, clubs to send me informations about events being organized in the memory of Rafi Saab.

    Rakesh kapoor,
    New Delhi.

  7. Mohad Rafi jee is great singer on earth and he still on this world he can not leave this world till this world on earth he still alive in the planet ,
    so my friend donot think he is no more in this planet till this planet is here he is with us , his sensational voice will be stay in each of heart who love him never end may God bless him

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