Mohammed Rafi (December 24, 1924 – July 31, 1980) is probably the most famous Hindi playback singer of yesteryear. He was born at Kotla Sultan Singh village near Amritsar in Punjab, now in Pakistan to a middle class Muslim family. His songs are still listened to all over the world. People from various nations from India to Kenya to UK to West Indies were won over by his sweet warm melodies.
Along with Lata Mangeshkar, he shares the record for having sung the greatest number of songs, approximately 26,000 during his film career spanning 40 years (from 1940 to 1980). Rafi has also sung a large number of songs with Geeta Dutt and Asha Bhonsle.
His songs ranged from classical numbers to patriotic songs, sad lamentations to highly romantic numbers, qawaalis to ghazals and bhajans, and from slow melancholic tunes to fast fun filled songs. He had a strong command of Hindi and Urdu and a powerful range that could accommodate this variety.
He sung for Rajendra Kumar and Jeetendra, the tragedy heroes, Dilip Kumar and Bharat Bhushan, and comedian Johnny Walker. His voice personified the rebellious image of the star, Shammi Kapoor and also gave expression to smaller and younger heroes like Biswajit and Joy Mukherjee. Rafi has also sung for singer-actor Kishore Kumar in a few movies like Raagini, Baaghi Shehzaada, and Shararat. The credit for his singing is usually given as Mohd. Rafi.
At the age of 14, Rafi moved to Lahore and learnt Indian classical music from Ghulam Ali Khan. Rafi started imitating his idol G M Durrani and became a playback singer.
Rafi’s first song was in Punjabi for the film Gul Baloch – it was a duet with the singer Zeenat Begum. The song was ‘Soniye nee, Heeriye nee’, composed by Shyam Sunder. Shyam Sunder was impressed with his voice and gave Rafi seven songs in another film Bazaar. Rafi’s talent was noticed by composer Firoz Nizami, who found him a job at Radio Lahore. Rafi’s first hit song was ‘yaha badla wafa ka’, composed by Firoz Nizami. It earned Rafi great fame. Producer of film ‘Amar Raj’, J B Wadia went looking for him because he wanted only Rafi to sing songs for his film.
Rafi also did brief roles in movies like Laila-Majnu (1945) and Jugnu. In Laila-Majnu, he was seen singing ‘tera jalwa’ as a part of the chorus.
Rafi’s big time came when he met the composer Naushad in Bombay. Rafi’s first song for Naushad was ‘Hindustan ke hum hain’ (We belong to Hindustan) for the film Pehle Aap in 1944. Rafi and Naushad struck a chord. The first hit for the duo was the soundtrack of the superhit movie Anmol Ghadi (1946). Before Rafi, Naushad’s favorite singer was Talat Mahmood. Once Naushad found Talat smoking during a recording. He was annoyed and hired Rafi to sing all the songs of the movie Baiju Bawra. After the partition of India, Rafi and Naushad decided to remain in India. Whenever Naushad required a male voice in the songs composed by him, he would approach Rafi and nobody else. This attitude of Naushad was criticized by many people, but he continued his patronage for Rafi. Naushad used Rafi’s voice for almost actors of that time including Bharat Bhushan and Dilip Kumar.
Soon, Rafi became favorite singer of other composers too, notably O P Nayyar and Sachin Dev Burman. Rafi became voice of Dev Anand with soul-stirring songs composed by S D Burman. Rafi sang songs of all moods for S D Burman, picturized on Dev Anand – the romantic ‘dil ka bhanwar’, the drunk ‘hum bekhudi mein’, the free-spirited ‘khoya khoya chaand’. Rafi and S D Burman teamed up with Dev Anand’s Navketan production house to produce hit tracks in many movies – Kala Bazar (Black Market), Tere Ghar Ke Saamne (In front of your house, Guide among others. S D Burman also got Rafi to sing for Rajesh Khanna in Aradhana and Amitabh Bachchan in Abhimaan. Rafi and S D Burman also produced soulful songs for Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, C.I.D. and Kaagaz ke Phool.
O P Nayyar used Rafi and Asha Bhosale for most of his songs. Together they created beautiful music in the 1950s and 60s. O P Nayyar was once quoted as saying “If there had been no Mohd. Rafi, there would have been no O P Nayyar”. He and Rafi created many songs together including the famous ‘Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan’ (This is Bombay, my dear). O P Nayyar was so impressed with Rafi that he got Rafi to sing for singer-actor Kishore Kumar – ‘Man mora baawara’ for the movie Raagini. The team will be particularly remembered for the songs picturized on Shammi Kapoor. The song ‘Jawaaniyan yeh mast mast’ and the title song ‘Yun to humne lakh hansee dekhe hain, tumsa nahin dekha’ (Although I have seen a lakh beauties, but never saw one like you) of the film Tumsa Nahin Dekha became instant hits. They were followed by hits like ‘Taareef karoon kya uski jisne tumhe banaya’ (How should I praise the one who created you) from Kashmir ki Kali. As the famous ghazal singer Jagjit Singh mentions, “Rafi was extremely versatile and could take on the personality of the Shammit Kapoor or for that matter, any other hero on whom the song was picturized.” Shammi Kapoor himself gives a large credit for his success to Rafi.
Shammi’s image of young, rebellious, carefree man can be attributed to the famous song ‘Yahoo! Chahe koi mujhe junglee kahe, kehne do ji’ (Let people call me wild, I don’t care) sung by Rafi and composed by Shanker Jaikishan. Shanker-Jaikishan also created beautiful songs with Rafi. The team will be remembered for the ones picturized on Rajendra Kumar – ‘Baharon phool barsaao‘ and others. Shanker-Jaikishan also got him to sing ‘Ajab hai yeh dastaan’ from Sharaarat, picturized on Kishore Kumar. k Rafi was composer Ravi ‘s first choice for playback singing. He got Rafi to sing the famous Rock-n-Roll number from the movie China Town ‘Baar Baar Dekho’, picturized on Shammi Kapoor.
Madan Mohan was another composer whose favorite singer was Rafi. They teamed up to produce many superb ghazals including the intoxicating ‘teri aankhon ke siva duniya mein rakha kya hai’ (There’s nothing in the world except your eyes), the sad ‘Yeh duniya yeh mehfil mere kaam ki nahin’ (This world, this party is not of any use to me) and the romantic ‘tum jo mil gaye ho’. Madan Mohan used Rafi’s voice in many films like Chirag and Laila Majnu.
The famous duo of composers Laxmikant – Pyaarelal (“LP”) also used Rafi as their male voice in 1960s and 70s. When LP were new in the industry, Rafi sang for them, although he was the numero uno singer in Bollywood at that time. They got Rafi to sing for their first hit film Paarasmani. Both Rafi and LP won the Filmfare Awards for the song ‘Chahoonga main tujhe shaam savere‘ from the superhit movie Dosti. The song was to be sung by LP’s favorite singer Lata Mangeshkar, but then producer of the film decided to hand over the song to Rafi. LP weren’t amused with the idea. But when the recording was finished, Rafi also became their favorite singer.
Rafi also sang for S D Burman’s son Rahul Dev Burman (“RD”). In fact, the hit songs of RD’s first hit movie Teesri Manzil were all sung by Rafi. They included popular dance numbers like ‘O Haseena’ and ‘aaja aaja’. RD and Rafi also churned out many other hits. However, later, RD’s extreme patronge to Kishore Kumar led to fall of Rafi. With the release of movie Aradhana’s soundtrack in 1969, Kishore replaced Rafi as the top singer of Bollywood. Although Rafi had also sung for the movie, Kishore eclipsed him with ‘roop tera mastana’ and ‘mere sapnon ki rani’. The songs were originally composed by S D Burman, but due to his ill health, R D had recorded them.
In 1965, Rafi was honoured by the Indian Government with the Padma Sri award.
In 1970s, Rafi didn’t sing much. Some say, that he was warned against singing during a Haj pilgrimage. The fact remains that his career was eclipsed by Kishore Kumar. The heroes that Rafi used to sing for were replaced by new superstars – Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan for whom Kishore Kumar used to sing. The old composers were replaced by R D Burman. Although RD used Rafi’s voice for some of his songs, his favorite singer was Kishore Kumar. However, the few songs that Rafi recorded for RD, S D Burman and Madan Mohan during this phase were indeed classics.
Rafi made a comeback as the voice of Rishi Kapoor in the movie Karz. His ‘dard-e-dil, dard-e-jigar’, composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal became a rage among the youngsters.
On the day of July 31, 1980 After composing a song for the movie Aas Paas with LP, Rafi said “Should I leave?”. LP were surprised because Rafi had never said somesthing like this before. While leaving, Rafi said once again “OK. I will leave.” Rafi passed away at 7.30 PM on the same day due to a heart attack.
Rafi had four sons and three daughters. He was a teetotaller, a highly religious and extremely humble person. He was a devout Muslim. Once, when a lesser-known composer Nisar Bazmi (who had migrated from Pakistan) didn’t have enough money to pay him, Rafi charged a fee of one rupee and sang for him. He even helped producers financially. As Laxmikant (of the Laxmikant-Pyarelal duo) once observed – “He always gave without thinking of the returns”. Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar had a major debate over the issue of royalties in 1960s. Rafi believed that once a recording was over and a singer has been paid, he or she should not ask for more. Lata, on the other hand said that singers should be paid royalties for their works, over and above the amount given for the singing. This led to a fall out between them. They refused to sing songs together. At the instance of Nargis, Sanjay Dutt’s mother, they finally made up at a stage concert and sang ‘Dil Pukare’ from the film Jewel thief, composed by S D Burman.
He died after a massive heart attack in 1980. Even after his death, Rafi continues to be the chief inspiration of many younger singers like Sonu Nigam.