Mohammed Rafi: A willingness to submit his soul to music

By Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

If India sang only in two voices, they would be Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar’s. While Mangeshkar has become one of the most celebrated symbols of the Indian nationhood, Rafi remains somewhat eclipsed notwithstanding his preternatural talent as a playback singer.

That may have something to do with his death at the relatively young age of 56 in 1980. However, as a singer who straddled an astonishingly eclectic range of songs Rafi’s mystic keeps rejuvenating despite the passage of decades. Notwithstanding his early passing on July 31, 1980, by the time of his death Rafi had already been installed as the first among equals in the pantheon Indian playback singing. With 7,000 songs to his credit in a career spanning over four decades Rafi’s range has been so wide that there is not a mood that he did not capture with unparalleled brilliance.

Raju Korti

Although there has been a fair amount of chronicling of Rafi’s life and career, a new book titled “Mohammed Rafi: God’s Own Voice”* by Raju Korti and Dhirendra Jain brings a special scholarly weight of the authors to bear on the subject. Korti, a veteran Mumbai-based journalist and editor as well as a professor of engineering, has been a passionate follower of Rafi’s career for more than four decades. Over the years, he has frequently engaged with a virtual who’s who of Hindi cinema music on what propelled Rafi’s craft. With a vast amount of research accumulated with him and his co-author, including a good many number of detailed conversations with the grandees of Hindi cinema music, Korti’s book offers a remarkable perspective of someone who by any measure was a world-class singer.

In a written interview Korti, who happens to be a friend of mine, answered questions. Excerpts:

• Your book is perhaps the first such comprehensive account of someone who is a national treasure. How hard was it to piece together a cohesive narrative in an industry notorious for not preserving anything worthwhile?

A: It took me almost four months to put the biography in black and white. As a fan, I had been closely monitoring Rafi as a person and professional since 1962. In my school days, which was long before I met him, I would make it a point to read and hear every minute thing about him, not necessarily believing everything. The consolidation came after meeting the person and many people in the music industry. Thereafter, it was just a matter of stitching those details together. The easiest part was to write about the man since most of it boiled down to his humility and magnanimity. I agree the film industry is not known to have preserved anything worthwhile but in case of Rafi, his charisma has endured like no one else’s has. The trickiest part was to make sure that no aspect of his professional career was left out. I avoided getting into needless details because that would have made the narrative repetitive. Yet, I don’t believe I have done full justice to the theme because I keep hearing new stories and anecdotes about him regularly. Some come from believable quarters, some from unverifiable quarters. I suppose that is bound to happen when someone has died more than 35 years back but his popularity, if anything, keeps multiplying by the day.

• How did you go about gathering aspects of Rafi’s personal life which underscore his vague reputation as an utterly humble and kind man?

A: I started gathering aspects of Rafi’s life since early sixties, much before I went on to become a professional journalist. First as a music lover and then as a journalist, I was able to collect authentic details from a lot of people including Naushad, Ravi, Shankar-Jaikishen , Jaidev, Salil Choudhury, O P Nayyar, Usha Khanna, RD Burman, Usha Timothy, Manna Dey, Mukesh, Kishore, Talat to name a few. Of course some of the people I have mentioned are lost in the footprints of time but I also spoke to the people who were close to them. I also have in my possession video and audio clips of many of them which I collected painstakingly for 35-40 years.

• One gets the sense that although Rafi ruled the commercially defined film world, he himself lacked the instinct to go for the kill. How do you think he reconciled the two?

A: From my research I have deduced that Rafi didn’t have to go for the kill. He was supremely confident of his craft. Even a cursory look at his career will show that he grafted his way to the top through hard work and exceptional talent. No one lasts in a fickle industry for four decades by fluke – that too at a time when all his contemporaries were no pushovers. Of course, success didn’t come to him overnight. It was some time before he made it to national consciousness. In the forties, he had Talat Mehmood and Mukesh to reckon with. Interestingly, they came after Rafi but were better acknowledged in the forties. Although he never said it, I believe Rafi knew he was the best. Commercial success followed.

• The title of the book “God’s Own Voice” in a way suggests that there may not be much room for a critical appraisal of the man. Was that your apprehension?

A: The title is metaphorical. The book makes no comparison of Rafi with other singers. I could have done that by I didn’t want to ruffle feathers. In any case I didn’t have to. It is a success story that says everything on its own steam. But I do admit that comparisons, though odious, become inevitable especially when the race involves the best. The question of apprehension didn’t arise. There was no one critical in his/her appraisal of the man. Even as a fan, I was objective enough to be matter-of-fact in some of the chapters.

• How do you critically approach a singer whose genius is so universally acknowledged?

A: I agree that people tend to exaggerate about a person who they hero-worship. I met some people who have great admiration for Rafi but believe he was the greatest salesman of the century. That is charitable or uncharitable depending on how you look at it. Of course, he had an ego but he never allowed it to cloud his professional commitments. It was his willingness to submit his soul to music and his peers that made him stand out. That is the reason why you will find very little in his criticism.

How do you explain Mohammad Rafi’s ever rejuvenating popularity three and half decades after his death?

A: True talent never dies. In Rafi’s case, it came without an expiry date. Two generations have gone after his death, yet, new singers have to sing his songs to make their mark. Let’s see if any other person manages to be as popular more than three decades after his/her death. We all tend to glorify people after their death but to me the amazing aspect here is if anything, Rafi’s popularity keeps multiplying by the day.

• Although there are many registers in male voices in India, Rafi’s feels like the archetypal, defining one. It is as if his was the voice against which all else should be tested. Why do you think that is?

A: To say that his voice was archetypal is not enough. It was complete, equipped to take on all the notes. His versatility was beyond compare. Many people believe that his voice was his ultimate blessing. And it was tinged with the magic guaranteed to get the heart-strings. Perhaps that is why he became a benchmark. There was near unanimity on other singers during his time being good too but they didn’t have the multi-dimensional merit of Rafi. This is, of course, my personal opinion.

• Why do you think Rafi’s voice has traveled so well despite the passage of decades? It is a voice that never feels dated.

A: You answered your own question. His voice is ageless. Just imagine, he died at a young age of 56. But of those, 44 belonged to a stupendous career. I think there are only a handful of examples where one man has dominated a profession this long.

• Is it your sense that Rafi did not just sing songs with all his craft and artistry but, in fact, became a sort of voice actor who got to the very essence of the words, mood and nuance?

A: Initial pages of the book talk precisely about that. In the profession he was in, merely a good voice was not enough. It was his ability to mold it and make it compatible from heroes and zeroes that gave him a universal appeal. They always talk of his voice sitting pretty on all actors, but at the end of the day, it was a Rafi song. Music directors were convinced that his voice would do justice to all songs, any genre. They also conceded that his ability to tap the exact mood of the song was phenomenal. He let his voice do all the talking and didn’t have the necessity to indulge in petty maneuverings to run down or edge past his peers.

• It is extraordinarily rare that when you hear a singer you can tell their quintessential humanity. Rafi was one of those rare names whose singing alone would tell you that he was even a better human being. Did you during your research get that sense?

A: Yes, it was evident from the conversations I had with the people named in the book (also those not named). There are no two opinions that his voice had certain humility to it even when he sang the frothy and zany ones. His singing elevated the song manifold. As a person he was grounded but his song went to the skies in every sense.

• In terms of gathering a diversity of views what were your biggest challenge?

A: In case of Rafi there was almost no diversity of views. Whatever they were, I have mentioned them all in the book. While writing, I have kept my personal fancies aside and tried to portray the picture of a man as he was universally known and also from the prism of few of his detractors. It is the inability of his detractors to prove their point that makes their views as prejudiced. To that extent, let me be honest in admitting that there might be very few things not mentioned in the books of that fans don’t know. It is more of a personal chronicler than a biography. I have only compiled those and pieced them together.

• In at least one review I read that attribution of some of Rafi’s quotes is not entirely verifiable. How do you counter a view like that?

A: We must understand that Rafi died 36 years back. A lot many people are not on the scene anymore. Many of the interviews that I have done happened in the late 70s and later. There was no system of recording interviews at that time. Seniors often told us that good journalists write from good memory without misquoting anybody or cooking up quotes. As a journalist I interviewed and spoke informally to many people from the music fraternity. Not one was contradicted or claimed that I had cooked up my stories. I know of many stories and anecdotes that are not entirely verifiable. Your better instincts tell you which are cooked up or exaggerated. If verifiability is the only yardstick, you cannot write a book at all. There has to be certain dependability on people speaking the truth or being privy to something. If you see, the attributions are not inconsistent with the narrative. Rafi himself was a man of few words. He would, as many journalists say, make a bad copy because his answers would be usually monosyllabic. He never spoke about controversies or ill about his contemporaries. Besides, there are people who did not want to be named for reasons I can only guess. Unverifiable attributions do not necessarily mean they cannot be the truth. Even the people I have quoted are no more. One can always say “what is the authenticity of this?” I can only say that let anyone prove something to the contrary.

• Rafi had worthy male contemporaries, in particular Manna Dey. There are those who might argue that Dey was classically more sound than Rafi although Dey himself has frequently rated Rafi far above himself. How did you approach themes like that?

A: I spoke to Manna Dey twice for more than two hours in 1985-86. In my book I have quoted some composers who believed that Manna was classically better trained. But the singer himself admitted to me how, from day one, Rafi was better than him. If what I wrote was not authentic, there are any number of video clips on YouTube where he says it in flesh and blood. Manna was vocal but a few others were not so vocal. That is even if you make peace with the fact that one singer would normally always concede the other as a better one out of sheer grace, but don’t forget the competition was stiff and the stakes were high even in those days.

• Do you think that a phenomenon like Rafi, or for that matter some of his male and female contemporaries, may no longer be possible given the evolution of Hindi cinema as well as technology?

A: My personal opinion is that time has gone. The fifties and sixties are still considered as the golden era of music. Technological advances have killed the craft of singing. And what can you expect with revenge and fighting as themes of today’s films? Naushad would often tell me that Hindustani music was forever and the golden period would come back later than sooner. I disagreed with him and knew he was speaking out of hopeless optimism.

• Is it possible now to have a voice that pretty much defines the nation?

A: May be, but I don’t think so.

(* Hardcover: 364 pages, Publisher: Niyogi Books (March 8, 2016), Language:English, ISBN-10: 9385285165, ISBN-13: 978-9385285165)