Mohammed Rafi, Remembering the Indian singing legend on his 40th Death Anniversary

Naveen Zalpuri-

It has been forty years since Rafi sahib left his mortal frame on July 31st, 1980. Not a single day has passed when his golden voice hasn’t enthralled millions of his fans. Rafi has left an unmatched legacy. He pioneered the art of playback singing, singing to perfection for the on-screen character. He innovated and molded his voice to fit into the persona of the artist who was lip-syncing, so much so that the audience would merely listen to the song and guess who the actor was. Often in the same movie, Rafi would employ his uniquely crafted distinct styles for each actor he was singing for. Take Pyaasa, a 1957 classic, Rafi’s vocal tone is different for Guru Dutt (“Yeh Mehlon Yeh Takton Ye Tajo ke Duniya”) from his Johnny Walker voice (“Sar Jo Tera Chakraye”).

Naveen Zalpuri

Even for comedians, a Rafi song for Mehmood would sound like Mehmood singing and strikingly different from the voice he used for Johnny Walker. He extended this art of adding nuances and unique imprints when singing for different composers, as well. One could find subtle variance in Rafi’s voice for Dev Anand songs composed by S D Burman and those done by Shanker Jaikrishen.

Rafi sang for generations of actors, not only actors he provided playback voice to singer-actors as well, Kishore Kumar and G M Durrani being two such artists. Rafi’s body of work encompassed everything that a Hindi feature film had to offer, from light Hindustani classical which he immensely popularized to westernized rock n roll songs and every other genre such as qawalis, nazms, geets, ghazals, shabads, naats, sad, romantic and patriotic songs in between.

Rafi also popularized non-film albums as early as 1954 having collaborated with legendary composer Khayyam on an album “This is Mohammad Rafi ‘’ that had an assortment of the choicest ghazals and bhajans. Rafi’s first non-film super-hit song was Rajinder Krishen written “Suno Suno e Duniya Walo Bapu ke Amar” composed by Husnlal Bhagatram after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.This earned him a silver medal from Pt Jawaharlal Nehru on India’s first Independence Day.

Rafi arrived on the scene in the mid-forties and in 1946 he got an opportunity to sing along a line with his idol K L Saigal, then superstar singer-actor, under Naushad’s baton. As a young boy Rafi had performed with Saigal in the audience. The story goes there was a power failure at a Saigal event in Lahore and young Rafi, then a thirteen-year-old boy got an opportunity to sing on stage without a microphone to keep the restless crowd entertained. Saigal was impressed with boy’s singing and made a prediction, “One day you will become a very celebrated singer”. The prediction came true not too long after and Rafi became the greatest among the singing legends in the Indian subcontinent. Rafi got his first big hit, a duet with melody queen Noor Jahan “Yahan Badla Ka” in Dilip Kumar’s movie Jugnu(1947). Jugnu also featured him in an on-screen appearance for the first time.

Rafi rose to unprecedented heights with the music of Baiju Bawra in 1952 and became the first choice of many leading composers, actors, producers and directors till his untimely death in 1980. Besides Naushad, many music composers across several decades forged partnerships with him, a list that included likes of Shyam Sundar, Husnlal Bhagatram, Shankar Jaikishan, S D Burman, O P Nayyar, Roshan, Ravi, Madan Mohan, Chitragupt, S N Tripathi, Usha Khanna, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Kalyanji Anandiji, R D Burman and all the way to Rajesh Roshan, Ravinder Jain among others, to just name some prominent ones. Composers Rajesh Roshan and Ravinder Jain recorded their first ever song in Rafi’s voice considering it to be a good omen. Rafi would never refuse a song if a small-time producer or music director couldn’t afford his fees, and thus he sang many endearing songs for such movies, sometimes without any fees and other times for a small token payment.

During his childhood years in his village “Kotla Sultan Singh” Rafi would follow a singing mendicant, a “fakir” who would render Punjabi folk songs which Rafi would then reproduce to regale his family and friends.That “fakir” was perhaps his first teacher, “Guru”. Rafi took some classical music lessons from Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan, Pt Jeevan Lal Matto and Firoz Nizami.

Transitioning into the seventies presented somewhat of a challenge to Rafi.

First, the prominent stars and music composers of prior years for whom Rafi was a regular were at the fag end of their active careers, and were relegated to the backseat. Second, a new superstar “Rajesh Khanna’’ had emerged who after initially riding on Rafi’s vocal support insisted on having his favorite Kishore Kumar sing for him and by 1971 almost exclusively switched to Kishore. Third, around the same time, Rafi quit recording for several months after his Haj pilgrimage as he was ill-advised by some people that singing in movies was forbidden in Islam. Fourth, his detractors, vested interests and a section of the media started writing him off and creating a negative narrative around him.

By the time Rafi was persuaded to return to his vocation, he found many plump assignments weren’t coming his way. Ameen Sahini’s Binaca Sangeet Mala, a popular music countdown program, also started keeping popular Rafi songs away from the charts. The year 1971 found many otherwise super-hit Rafi songs missing from the Binaca countdown. On many occasions lesser songs from films were promoted and hyped, while keeping many Rafi songs from the same movies out, one such example is from a 1971 musical “Aap Aaye Bahar Aaye”. A cursory glace in YouTube today will show that a Rafi song “Mujhe Tere Mohabat Ka” from this movie has ten times more views at over a hundred million as opposed to the song “Tum ko bhi to aisa” that was promoted on the music charts back then.

Notwithstanding all this adversity, Rafi’s genius prevailed and he remained the force to reckon with, he kept on recording, adding to his repertoire several classics, Binaca hits and otherwise for many actors and composers, established or new, big or small. Rafi would sometimes be called to record difficult songs that others could not execute.In this phase,he continued to earn few nominations in Filmfare, won a Film World magazine best singer award for a song (Tere Galiyon Mein Na), and then turned the tide wholesale in his favor when Madan Mohan-Jaidev composed musical super-hit Laila Majnu (1976) hit the screens establishing him as young Rishi Kapoor’s voice. Rafi won both Filmfare award and a National award, for a 1977 “Kya Hua Tera Wada” song. Rafi passed away on July 31st, 1980 but continued to dominate the music charts for the next year and half after his demise.The music makers recruited Anwar, Shabbir Kumar and Mohd Aziz in an unsuccessful bid to fill in Rafi’s void. Later day singer Sonu Nigham somewhat carried forward the legacy of Rafi’s voice and style. Rafi’s influence remains unabated while platforms may keep on changing. On any given day one would find thousands of singers and fans on singing apps like Smule attempting Rafi songs.

Rafi’s music knows no barriers and continues to find new fans and admirers. A Rafi song “Jan Pechan Ho” written by Shailendra, composed by Shankar Jaikrishen for a 1965 movie “Gumnam” was reused in the opening credits of 2001 Hollywood movie “Ghost World”. Ever since “Jan Pechan Ho” became quite popular in the West, it featured in the Heineken commercial and every now and then its new adaptations keep on coming up.

Rafi influenced the generation of singers and musicians right from his contemporaries such as Mahender Kapoor to latter-day top singers such as Udit Narayan,S P Balasubramium, and Yesudas just to name a few.

Kishore Kumar, Rafi’s illustrious colleague came up with a piece in a Hindi Publication Madhuri (dated 20th August 1984), stating “Rafi sahib had beautiful flexibility. His singing was never bound by any constraints. By singing diverse compositions from a “Man Tarpat Hari Darshan” to a “Badan pe Sitare” with equal dedication and in his unique style, he proved he does not limit his singing to any particular format. Due to this reason he remained the most popular singer till the end. I myself adopted this quality of Rafi sahib.” Manna Dey, another legendary colleague summed up his class in a few words , “Rafi is an institution, a “gharana” by himself”.

Rafi Sahib was decorated with a “Padma Shri” award in 1967. There has been a consistent appeal by many to honor him with the highest civilian state award in India, the “Bharat Ratna”. In my opinion honoring his legacy with Bharat Ratna posthumously would do justice to his immense and unmatched contribution to the world of music. I hope the Government of India of the day does the needful.


[Photo Courtesy: Retrieved from Google Images, original source album cover from HMV.]