On his 97th birth anniversary, here is to Mohammed Rafi and his two greatest songs

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

Mohammed Rafi, whose 97th birth anniversary falls on December 24, would have been a great master in any era. In his era between 1944 and 1980, he was peerless.

There is a surfeit of choice in his extraordinary oeuvre of reputedly 25,000 songs and any song one chooses represents a slice of his unrivaled genius. That vast body of his work makes it extremely difficult to select a handful of songs where his supreme mastery over the craft of playback singing manifests in all its resplendent glory. To choose just two is a fool’s conceit. I am going to be that fool.

The two songs I have chosen are both from the early 1960s by two master composers, one of whom in my book is the greatest of all time, namely Sachin Dev Burman. And the other, who could often match Burman’s mastery in many ways, was Jaidev.

The fact that the two songs among my all-time great Rafi songs represent moods which are polar opposite neatly do justice to his range.

The first song is from the 1961 film ‘Hum Dono’. It was written by Sahir Ludhianvi, arguably one of Hindi cinema’s three greatest lyricists along with Shailendra and Majrooh Sultanpuri. The song ‘Abhi na jao chhod kar ke dil abhi bhara nahi’ (Don’t leave me yet, For my heart is not content) to me is the finest romantic song of Hindi cinema.

Sahir’s lyrics are both a song and poetry at their best. I can translate the whole song but that might be too much for some of the readers. Let me just translate a couple lines to illustrate their brilliance. The Hindi lines read, “Abhi abhi to aai ho, Bahar ban ke chhai ho, Hawa zara mehek to le, Yeh dil zara behek to le”.

My free translation would be:

“You have only just arrived

And permeated like Spring

Let the air become fragrant a bit

Let the heart become intoxicated a bit”

When words of this quality are set to a marvel of a composition by Jaidev or such lovely words are written to an already composed tune, it is pure magic. Add to that Mohammed Rafi’s enchantingly and teasingly plaintive tone in a voice that was its own sovereign, and you have an all-time masterpiece.

The song was filmed on Dev Anand and Sadhana lending it a touch both worldly and other worldly romance. The aficionados among you would notice how superbly Rafi begins the song with “Abhi na jaao chhod kar”. The lilting opening plea that Anand makes to Sadhana is captivating enough for a lifelong unromantic like to stop in my tracks.

Both Rafi and his duet partner, Asha Bhosle, another master singer, together create a playback masterpiece which enraptures six decades after it was first heard. I defy any other singer to begin a song with such aching gentility as Mohammed Rafi does.

Speaking of beginning a song with an aching gentility, my second all-time great Rafi song. It is from the 1965 classic ‘Guide’, once again featuring Dev Anand for whom Rafi sang some of Hindi cinema’s greatest songs. The Guide song I consider the greatest Hindi movie song is ‘Din dhal jaye haye, Raat na jaye’ (Day passes off but night does not) written by Shailendra, often considered the greatest song writer of Hindi cinema; as someone who purely wrote songs.

In contrast to ‘Abhi na jaao chhod kar”, “Din dhal jaye haye” is a song of melancholy, of a love lost. There is a line in the song that sums up Shailendra’s genius. It goes “Khud se juda aur jag se paraye, Hum dono the saath” (Separated from each other and pariah to the world, We were together). That line in a sense distils the essence of the movie’s theme.

Sachin Dev Burman, who routinely produced masterpieces through his career, managed to give the Guide songs a preternatural depth.

Interestingly, to me, what ‘Guide’ was to Burman’s oeuvre, ‘Hum Dono’ was to Jaidev’s. They both topped their already formidable talents in the two movies respectively.

In many ways, and quite like three other Hindi cinema playback greats in Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle, Mohammed Rafi was a uniquely Indian creation, particularly of the magnificently creative Hindi cinema music and its creators. As far as I can tell, nothing even remotely comparable exists anywhere else in the world. And within that, no one like Mohammed Rafi exists.

As an aside, I have always believed that Mohammed Rafi should have existed as a disembodied voice. His voice did not seem to need a corporeal casing. This may be controversial to some, but his speaking voice as opposed to his singing voice was far less than impressive.