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June - July 2005


The Legend called Rafi

by Nikhil Gajendragadkar

The most prolific and versatile singer of our times, Mohammad Rafi left this mortal world 25 years ago on July 31st. Nikhil Gajendragadkar takes a look at his life and qualities which made him immortal.

There is a story about this legendary person. In a small town of Punjab, a Fakir was very popular because of his beautiful songs. After a few days, the Fakir left, but his songs lingered in the town. A young boy was singing those songs, better than the Fakir. Young Mohammed soon became popular among the villagers.

Not by chance, nor by accident, Mohammed Rafi became a singer. One can easily say that he was destined to be a singer. But it was a combination of talent, willpower and hard work, which made him one of the greatest singers of all time.

Mohammed Rafi was born in a well-to-do farmer family. At very early age Rafi displayed his inclination towards music and singing. Fortunately for Rafi and for us, who love him; his father and elder brother encouraged him. He was sent to Amritsar and then to Mogalpura. His brothers looked after him. Considering the time, we must admit that Rafi’s father was very generous and broad minded to allow his son to turn to music.

And Rafi learned music, from gurus; none other than Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Waheed Khan, Pt. Jaswantlal Mattoo and Pheroz Nizami. This training in traditional ‘Kirana Gharana’ and rigourous exercise (Riyaaz) helped him becoming a complete singer. The classical base of his singing enriched his singing quality. Pheroz Nizami was at once an ‘Ustad’ (who is an expert in music and teaches his deciples) and a music director too. He joined All India Radio, Lahore station as a music director and immediately summoned his favourite disciple, Rafi, to Lahore. Rafi was now getting 15 rupees per song. A young boy from a small town like Kotlasultansingh became a famous ‘Radio Star’, that was enough for Rafi.

Soon Pheroz Nizami was transferred to Delhi Radio station and Rafi too came to Delhi. Here, his remuneration was increased to Rs. 20 per song. This was a big raise in early 40’s. This was the period when Lahore based Hindi Film Industry was flourishing. Because of Nizami, Rafi came into contact with a great music director, Shyam Sunder. He took Rafi with him to Lahore. ‘Gul Baloch’ is the first film of Rafi, as a playback singer. Rafi rendered two solos and a duet with Zeenat Begum, for this film.

Jobless in Mumbai
As Mumbai (then Bombay) was the centre of the hub, Rafi arrived in Mumbai in early 1943. This was the time when K. L. Saigal was the king of the Hindi Filmdom. Surendra, Ashok Kumar, Motilal, nearly every hero was singer, they had to sing. As for playback G. M. Durrani, Khan Mastana (Rafi’s idol), Arun Kumar, Shyam Kumar, Talat Mehmood and Manna Dey were there. Young Mohammed Rafi was just nobody. He knocked doors of all the film studios, but met with no success.

Rafi managed to get a note from Naushad’s father, went up to Naushad Saab, asking for some work. Naushad told him to sing. Rafi sang something, Naushad liked it. But what Rafi could get was a part in a chorus. To create the effect of marching of soldiers, all singers were asked to wear heavy shoes, and beat them on the floor, so after that recording Rafi got disappointment and sore feet. ‘43’ & ‘44’ saw Rafi struggling to get some work, a good break. He was still, more or less a chorus singer.

In 1944 Rafi got an assignment from Shyam Sunder, it was a song for ‘Gaon ki Gori’, a hit film of the period. He sang duet in ‘Zeenat’, with Noorjehan, the reigning queen of filmworld. Then his mentor, Pheroz Nizam gave him a chance in ‘Jugnu’, again with Noorjehan. The song ‘Yahan Badla Wafa Ka’ became an instant hit. ‘Laila Majnu’ (1945, music Pt. Govindram) was also a hit film, which had his songs.

By early, ‘46, music directors started recognising Rafi as a singer who was able to sing solos, duets, chorus, i.e. all types of songs. He got quite a good number of assignments, but misfortune still haunted him. Many of the films which started or completed in 1946, saw light of the day either in 1947 or even in 1948. The reason was communal riots. Studios were shut; theaters could hold only two shows. Of course records of ‘Anmol Ghadi’, ‘Safar’ were in the market by the end of ‘46 and were fast becoming popular.

Though Rafi’s voice, rather than the name, was gaining popularity, music directors like Naushad were not ready to use Rafi’s voice for a hero. In ‘Mela’ Dilip Kumar sings in Mukesh’s voice. Rafi’s voice was used for beggar’s or Fakir’s character, or for a side hero. In ‘Mela’, Rafi had only title song ‘Yeh Zindagi Ke Mele’ which was picturised on a beggar. Even in ‘Andaz’ choicest tunes were ‘reserved’ for Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh. The other hero of the film Raj Kapoor sang in Rafi’s voice.

After independence, ‘Watan ki raah mein, watan ke naujawan shaheed ho’ (shaheed) and ‘Suno suno ye Bapooji ki Amar Kahani’ created waves in the nation and Rafi was a name on everybody’s lips. Yet, Rafi had to wait for a few years more. Because, even then Talat Mehmood, and Mukesh were on the top. Hemant Kumar and Manna Dey were on second position. Only Rafi’s workload increased, his songs could be heard more frequently. But when ‘Baiju Bawara’ was released, it turned the fortunes for Rafi. Lady luck finally smiled on him.

Prior to the release of ‘Baiju Bawara’ producers were not confident about Rafi, so in the pre release publicity, Ustad Amir Khan and Pt. D.V. Paluskar’s name got more weightage, but people loved Rafi’s songs. ‘O duniya ke rakhawale’ and ‘Tu Ganga ki mauj mein’ were favourites of a layman. Soon after, Rafi’s face was printed on the posters as ‘Baiju’s voice’!
After this there was no looking back for Rafi. A king had emerged.

The Complete Singer
How can one describe Rafi’s voice? It was like crystal clear water; add any colour, pleasure and happiness is guaranteed. His voice was like a big serene lake, even smallest of variation in a musical note, minute nuance of meaning and emotion, would reflect in it. A listener can easily identify his/her emotions and feelings with those expressed by Rafi.

Was his clear voice the only reason, which made him so popular with music directors, actors, producers, and the audience alike? No. he had other qualities, important musical qualities. One has to remember, when Rafi entered the film world, Talat, Mukesh were on the forefront, besides Durrani and Khan Mastana etc. but as Rafi displayed his ability to sing any kind of song with amazing ease, film people started taking note of him.

Rafi’s contemporaries and in way competitors had some kind of limitation. Talat Mehmood was favourite of all music directors. Talat had velvety voice and perfect diction, but he lacks in range and flexibility. Deep tone of Mukesh’s voice reminds us of K. L. Saigal, his tones filled Saigal void to an extent. But Mukesh had problem with ‘Sur’ and ‘range’.

Manna Dey had perfect ‘Sur’, quite an O. K. range, but his voice is not fit for ‘Gazhal’ or any other urdu songs, because his diction had Bengali accent. Kishor Kumar is perhaps the most natural and relaxed singer, but nobody accepted him to sing ‘classicle’ based songs. Composer-singer Hemant Kumar or ‘Hemant da’ had enchanting resonance but his voice was too linear and incapable of taking and expressing little nuances (i. e. Shruti or Micronotes as in our Classical music)

Which is the First?
It is widely believed that ‘Gul Baloch’ is Rafi’s first film as playback singer. Rafi himself has maintained that claim on many occaision. Another opinion is ‘Gaon Ki Gori’ is his first film. Music director of both the films was Shyam Sunder, and both were released in 1945. Another film historian claims that ‘Pahle Aap’, a film by Kardar production, was the first film of Rafi which has a duet with Shyam Kumar. This film was released in 1944. So whether it was Naushad (Pahle Aap) or Shyam Sunder, who discovered Rafi? Information about Rafi’s work during 1943 to 1945 is very blurred, and it is very difficult to obtain authentic information

Considering this background, Rafi stands out overwhelmingly unique. He had perfect round voice, excellent throw of words, impeccable diction, tremendous range and virtuosity; and unique resonance which came through like a ring of a silver Rupee coin. Rafi’s voice had a caressing softness, - ‘Akele Akele Kahan ja rahe ho’ (An Evening in Paris), perfect diction - ‘Rang aur noor ki baraat kise’ (Gazhal), range - ‘O Duniake Rakhwale’ (Baiju Bawara), verve - ‘Bar Bar dekho’ (China Town) or ‘Dekhiye Sahibon woh Koi... (Teesari Manzil) Sur and flexibility - ‘Mere Mehboob tuze’ (Mere Mehboob), resonance - ‘Chaudhavi Ka Chand Ho’ (Chaudhavi ka Chand) all these and many other qualities any music composer would desire.

Mohammed Rafi, besides Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsale was the only singer who threw challenge to music directors. They could compose freely, because he was able to do full justice to their composition. He could sing with feeling and emotion. His voice could move easily in all three octaves, in very high pitch also he never lost a ‘note’ or ‘sur’.

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