Even if belatedly, music lovers have now appealed to the government to honour Mohammed Rafi with the Bharat Ratna posthumously. A singer par excellence and a paragon of humility and piety, Rafi strode the musical landscape like a meteor, enchanting generations of music lovers and transcending geographical borders. The melody and vocals Mohd Rafi created, crafted and pioneered during his reign have withstood the test of Time. The mellifluous vocals rise like a glorious tide, caressing the soul with songs for every mood and occasion.
Mohammed Rafi has sung them all, with grace and unsurpassable elan – be it ghazals, bhajans, classicals, soft romantic numbers, bhangra, sad songs, duets, nazms, and high-pitched fast numbers
THE EARLY YEARS
Mohd. Rafi was born to Haji Ali Mohammed and Allah Rakhi in Kotla Sultan Singh village, a town near Amritsar on December 24, 1924. A disciplinarian father disapproved of Rafi’s passion for singing but the child had the blessings of his mother, according to Rafi’s youngest son Shahid Rafi, now in the business of garment exports in Mumbai.
The story goes that as a young boy, Rafi used to hear a fakir passing by the house, ektara in hand, singing to glory. The young lad would follow the fakir, sit with him under a tree and hear him to his heart’s content. This mendicant was the first to plant the singing bug in young Rafi’s mind. The ubiquitous radio too played its part, Rafi being glued to it when not attending primary school. At 14, Rafi’s family moved to Lahore for good, where he discreetly trained under Ustad Barkat Ali Khan.
Music composer Shyam Sunder, impressed by the lad’s voice, gave Rafi his first break – a duet – in Gul Baloch. The song ‘Soniyo ni heeriyo ni teri yaad ne sataaya…’, was recorded in 1942 in Lahore and thus became his first recorded song. Composer Feroze Nizami duly got for young Rafi his first job – through Radio Lahore in 1943. Thereafter, along with elder brother Hamid (who helped Rafi get major singing assignments in the early struggling days) Rafi reached Mumbai.
The brothers took up a ten-by-ten-feet room in the crowded downtown Bhendi Bazar area. Probably, to make ends meet Rafi also faced the camera in two movies, but his heart was set on singing. Long hours of early morning riyaaz mainly at the Chowpatty sea-face followed. As destiny would ordain, Shyam Sunder was now in Mumbai and again provided an opportunity to Rafi – who got to sing a duet with GM Durrani, ‘Aji dil ho qaabu mein to dildar ki aisi taisi…’, for Gaon Ki Gori, which became Rafi’s first recorded song in a Hindi film. Rafi’s stars were looking up now. National recognition soon came from the runaway hit, composed by Firoz Nizami, ‘Yahaan badla wafa ka…’ with Noorjehan, then reigning queen of Hindi playback singing for Jugnu. Many other popular songs followed and music composers were now convinced of Rafi’s phenomenal voice range.
In 1948, after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the team of Husanlal Bhagatram-Rajendra Krishan-Rafi had overnight created the immortal song ‘Suno suno ae duniyawalon, Bapuji ki amar kahani…’, which became a national rage. Mohd Rafi became a household name.
It was perhaps Baiju Bawra (1952) that brought real fame to Rafi and riches never even dreamt ever by this God-fearing lad who was on his way to becoming India’s topmost singer. ‘Man tadpat Hari darshan ko…’, ‘O’ duniya ke rakhwale…’, ‘Tu Ganga ki mauj…’ all became chartbusters. It heralded the era of the Naushad-Shakeel-Rafi team the musical works of which later reflected young India’s dream of a ‘secular and noble’ India.
THE SINGER AND THE MAN:
The then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru while viewing Baiju Bawra, enquired about the singer of the devotional songs from his secretary. When the PM was told it was a singer by the name of Mohd. Rafi, he was invited to dinner with the PM himself. Rafi was duly honoured and hugged for his singing feat by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. He was all of 28 years then and thus started the annual visit to the PM’s house and the tradition of singing for Prime Minister Nehru and several dignitaries.
Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishan, O.P. Nayyar, C.Ramachandra, Hemant Kumar and Ravi now began composing great numbers suited to Rafi’s vocal range. Rafi’s clear rendition, perfect sur and bhaav, unparallelled expression and impeccable diction placed him way above the other singers of his time.
However, despite fame and adulation, Rafi’s life and routine remained unaltered. The recording room-to-home itinerary never changed. No film parties, no vices, retiring at 9 pm and doing riyaaz from 4 to 7 in the morning were some strict norms laid by the maestro for himself. The only ‘luxuries’ Rafi indulged in and looked forward to were sports like carrom, badminton and flying kites along with family members and close friends.
Rafi became quite adept in singing in languages like Marathi, Kannada, Konkani, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati and English. He would rehearse for days before each recording – driving perfection into the numbers.
When Aradhana happened (and Kishore came in due to the advent of R.D.Burman as its associate music director and later hit centerstage), a section of music composers wasted little time in prophesizing the end of the road for Rafi and his salability as a playback singer. This hurt the gentle Rafi no end. Believing this to some extent, he thought of retiring and settling down with his sons in London. But Naushad, Rafi’s mentor and friend, urged Rafi to stay on and not run away from the scene as – he had considerable talent to face the heat of the times.
At this stage, composer duo Laxmikant-Pyarelal was in top creative form and not getting typecast in a specific musical mould like R.D. Burman. LP also did not forget Rafi’s huge role in their success in Parasmani, Dosti and many other films and his support when they were making their transition from assistants to music composers.
In due course, Rafi regained his confidence and once again was on top reckoning form with hit numbers from films like Amar Akbar Anthony, Hum Kisise Kum Naheen, Sargam and many others.
A teetotaler and family man to the core, Rafi is the shining example of a singer who lit the way and blazed the trail for numerous aspiring singers from Mahendra Kapoor to Anwar and Shabbir Kumar down to Sonu Nigam. Mahendra Kapoor was his disciple and both shared a guru-shishya relationship till the very end.
Rafi came from a family where humility was equated with worshipping the divine. He had a lovable nature, no enemies and perennial humility.
Help would often go to artistes fallen on bad times – without the world knowing of it. He sang more for the song than for the money – the money would come later or never from struggling producers – but satisfaction always arrived at his doorstep. He would often waive his singing fees from debutant composers with no resources – charging one rupee as a token for a song. If he liked a song he would waive his fees too, citing his satisfaction as his payment. Rafi was content with the remuneration he received for his recordings. He did not chase money like some other artistes of the day.
THE LIMITED HONOURS
Did the Indian government give due recognition to Mohd Rafi, asked a Bangladesh journalist in www.mohdrafi.com, a website dedicated to the legend. The Padma Shri was conferred on Rafi and a nondescript tiny marquee with the sign “Mohammed Rafi Chowk” stands on Mumbai’s arterial SV Road in Bandra, the suburb in which he lived. But Rafi’s biggest award perhaps is the place that he has carved in people’s heart in many corners of the world.
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