The singer of the millennium, Mohammed Rafi with his rich tonal voice, versatility and crystal-clear intonations rendered thousands of unique songs. His repertoire ranges from heart-wrenching ballads to fast peppy numbers to classical songs, lamenting melodies to highly romantic songs, qawwalis to ghazals and bhajans to patriotic songs. He had poignantly brought in a range of emotions in his renderings with his exquisite melodious and mellifluous voice for over seven decades. Saraswati’s abode was in his sublime, divine voice. Rafi still shines like a Polaris on the Indian film music horizon. Celebrities have fans, but Rafi had worshippers; some even have ‘Rafi Temples’ in their houses.
Rafi sang alongside K.L. Saigal in Shah Jehan (1946). It was his duet with Noor Jehan in Jugnu (1947) that catapulted him as a new star in the playback galaxy, particularly the song Yahan badla wafaka. In Baiju Bawra (1952), he demonstrated his virtuosity and range, while in Pyaasa (1957), he showed the evocative power he could bring to the lyrics. Though he did make a partial transition to a more youthful and playful style as in Junglee (1961), he was too closely wedded to the classical tradition to wander too far from it.
Mohammed Rafi was born to Hajji Ali Mohammed and Allah Rakhi on 24th December, 1924 in Kotla Sultan Singh (Amritsar). He had five brothers and two sisters. A fakir used to chant songs while seeking alms in his locality. The little child Rafi, mesmerised by the melodious tune, used to trail the fakir from a distance. That sowed in him the seeds of melody. Rafi grew up in an orthodox household where music and singing were frowned upon. Despite this, his interest in music bloomed.
At the age of nine, Rafi moved to Lahore and started working in the family enterprise around Bhatti Gate, Lahore. Once Pandit Jiwan Lal Mattoo went for a haircut to the saloon, where a new helper Pheeku (Rafi) was singing Waris Shah’s Heer in his own Amritsari style. Impressed by his voice, Jiwan Lal invited him to Radio Lahore for an audition, which Rafi cleared with ease. Pandit JiwanLal trained young Rafi in classical music and some commonly used raagas in Punjabi folk music. Rafi picked up the intricacies of music from well-known vocalists and instrumentalists like Abdul Waheed Khan and Chote Ghulam Ali Khan. Later in life, this casual radio artist rose to unprecedented heights in the Indian film industry, to become renowned as Mohammed Rafi.
Rafi’s singing talent was first recognised on a larger scale in 1937, when he unexpectedly performed at the All-India Exhibition, Lahore. The audience included renowned singer K.L. Saigal, who predicted that Rafi would one day become a great singer. This new singing sensation was introduced to filmdom by music director Shyam Sunder. In 1942, Shyam Sunder recorded a duet Pardesi…sohneya oye heeriye oye in the voices of Zeenat Begum and Mohammad Rafi for the Punjabi film Gul Baloch (1945). In this film, Rafi sang another duet Aachannve with Munawar Sultana under the baton of Lachhi Ram and a chorus Sun sunnikki jehi gall under the music direction of Pt. Amar Nath. Rafi’s songs became very popular even before the release of Gul Baloch on 23rd August, 1946. The rest is history.
Rafi moved to Bombay on the invitation of actor-producer Nazeer, who paid him Rs.100 along with a rail ticket from Lahore to Bombay. The story of Rafi’s first recording as narrated by Naushad reveals that in order to give a marching effect to the patriotic song Hindustan Ke Hum Hain (Pehle Aap, 1944), he asked the chorus singers to don military heavy shoes. While singing the song they were to make a rhythmic sound by hitting their booted legs in unison. After the recording, Rafi’s feet were bleeding but his face was glowing with the joy of singing his first song in a Hindi film. However, some say that Rafi’s first Hindi film song was Jab dil ho kaabumein (Gaon Ki Gori, 1945) under the baton of Shyam Sunder.
Naushad gave him more chances in Anmol Ghadi (1946), Shah Jehan (1946) and more. Rafi gave a cameo performance in Woh Apni Yaad Dilane Ko (Jugnu, 1947). An icing on the cake was a superhit duet Yahan badla wafa ka with Noor Jehan composed by Firoze Nizami and his popularity soared. He also appeared on the big screen in films: Laila Majnu (1945), Shah Jehan (1946), Samaj Ko Badal Dalo (1947) and Shaheed (1948). After the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the team of Husanlal-Bhagatram, Rajendra Krishan and Mohammad Rafi overnight created the moving eulogy,Suno suno ae duniya walo.
Rafi’s earlier singing style was heavily influenced by G.M.Durrani in songs like Ek dil ke tukde hazar hue (Pyar Ki Jeet, 1948). However, his career really took off with the all-time hit Suhani raat dhal chuki (Dulari, 1949). The year 1949 was when the floodgates of Mohammed Rafi’s melodies opened. However, it took Rafi much of the 1950s to establish his superiority over the rest of the competitors. During the decade of 1960s, Rafi ruled as the undisputed king of playback singing till the early 70s when Kishore Kumar took over.
Rafi had established a fairly wide base of association with music directors ranging from the legendary Shyam Sunder to Bappi Lahiri. He sang a maximum of 369 songs for Laxmikant Pyarelal followed by Shankar Jaikishan (367 songs) and Chitragupt (261 songs). The equation between Mohammed Rafi and Naushad was on a different plane. Rafi revered Naushad as his guru, mentor and guide while Naushad considered Rafi, God’s gift to film music. In 1951, Naushad switched over to Rafi as playback singer for Dilip Kumar in Deedar (1951) and Mehboob Khan told Dilip Kumar, "This is your voice”. Naushad continued with the Rafi-Dilip combo in Aan (1952), Amar (1954), Udan Khatola (1955), Kohinoor (1960), Ganga Jumna (1961), Leader (1964), Aadmi (1968), Dil Diya Dard Liya (1966) and Sunghursh (1968).
A proof of Rafi’s immense versatility lies in him singing around 203 songs for O P Nayyar, whose musical style was very different from Naushad’s classicism. Some of their notable songs are Yeh hain Bombay meri jaan (C.I.D, 1956), Chupne wale saamne aa (Tumsa Nahin Dekha, 1957), (Phagun, 1958), Yeh chandsa roshan chehra (Kashmir Ki Kali, 1964), Pukarta chala hoon main (Mere Sanam, 1965) and Aapke hasin rukh pe aaj naya noor hai (Baharen Phir Bhi Ayengi, 1966). He even had Rafi sing for Kishore Kumar in Raagini (1958). Unfortunately, they had a falling out during the recording of Sawan Ki Ghata (1966) after which they did not work together for three years.
His work with S D Burman is also significant. Rafi first sang for S D Burman in Do Bhai (1947) with the song Duniya mein meri aaj andhera. Post the 1957 success of Pyaasa¸ their partnership truly bloomed to produce some unforgettable classics. Songs like Hum bekhudi mein (Kala Pani, 1958), Dekhi zamaane ki yaari (Kagaz Ke Phool, 1959), Khoya Khoya Chand (Kala Pani, 1960) and Din dhal jaye (Guide, 1965) bear testament to the towering standards of their work.
His classical roots meant his voice fit Madan Mohan’s compositions perfectly. In his debut as a composer in Ankhen (1950), he gave Rafi the song Hum ishq mein barbaad hain. Their collaboration continued to bear fruit with compositions like Basti basti parbat parbat (Railway Platform, 1955),Kar chale hum fida jaan tan saathiyo (Haqeeqat, 1964), Main nigaahein tere chehare se hataaun kaise (Aap Ki Parchhaiyan, 1964), Teri aankhon ke siva (Chirag, 1969) and Tum jo mil gaye ho (Hanste Zakhm, 1973). During the post-Aradhana years, as the industry was being dominated by Kishore Kumar, Madan Mohan still recorded all the songs for the male lead in Rafi’s voice in films like Hanste Zakhm and Laila Majnu (1976).
Another composer with whom Rafi gave innumerable gems was Ravi. Ravi was particularly adept at composing ghazals, and together they delivered some unforgettable ones, as well as other kinds of songs. Songs like Woh aaj apni mehfil mein aaye hue hain (Mehndi, 1958), Chaudhvi ka chand ho ya aftaab ho (Chaudhvin Ka Chand, 1960), Zindagi ke safar mein akele the (Nartaki, 1963), Raha gardhishon mein (Do Badan, 1966), Kal chaman tha aaj ek sehra hua (Khandaan, 1965) and many more still enchant music lovers.
His voice had a unique feature of screen adaptability. Rafi could mould his voice to the persona and style of the actor. Come Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, or Dev Anand, Rafi was a vocal match for any hero, big or small. While the Rafi-Dilip and Rafi-Dev combos undeniably scaled greater heights, there was more... Rafi could capture Shammi Kapoor’s style, grace, energy, imagining how he would jump or roll or lift his hand. He sang the maximum songs for Shammi Kapoor – 180, no less. Rafi even gave playback for actor-singer Kishore Kumar in films like Raagini (1958), Shararat (1959) and Bhagam Bhag (1958).
Rafi brought radical change to the Hindi film music by introducing the concept of singing to one and a half “Saptaks” (scales) rather than the usual one Saptak. He possessed such a wide singing range that he could easily sing in three octaves without veering out of control. From the classical Madhuban mein radhi kanachi re to the swinging Aaja aaja main hoon pyar tera, from the soulful Hum bekhudi mein to the comic Sarjo tera chakraye, from the philosophical Dekhi zamane ki yaari to the frivolous Ai ai ya karoon main kya sukoo sukoo, he could sing anything.
Rafi never hesitated to sing with lesser known singers like Balbir, Aarti Mukherjee, Madhubala Zaveri and Krishna Kalle. He had sung with veterans like Rajkumari, Zohrabai, Hameeda Bano, Lalita Deulkar and many others. He sang with major singers like Asha Bhosle (806 songs),Lata Mangeshkar (344 songs), Shamshad Begum (160 songs), Suman Kalyanpur (141 songs) as well as with other well-known names like Geeta Dutt, Mubarak Begum, Sudha Malhotra, Usha Mangeshkar and more.
Mohammed Rafi, an altruist, was known for charging no fees or just a minuscule amount for singing songs in the films of producers and music directors who could not afford his regular charges. When composer Nisar Bazmi didn't have enough money to pay him for the song Chanda ka dil toot gaya (Khoj, 1953), Rafi charged a token fee of Re.1 only. Rafi charged Pandit Shivram only Rs.50 for the chartbuster Daulat ke jhoote nashe mein as the film Oonchi Haveli (1955) was being made on a shoestring budget. In the case of Rafi, the tune came first and the money later. But for the instinctually generous way in which Rafi adjusted his charges for the small composers like Iqbal Qureshi, Sonik-Omi and Prem Dhawan, we would have not got nuggets like Subahnaaaye (Cha Cha Cha, 1964), Dono ne kiya tha pyar (Mahua, 1969) and Teri duniya se hoke majboor chala (Pavitra Papi, 1970).
Rafi was the king of romantic songs. His songs fit all occasions, defying the barriers of time and place and generations. His voice suited any genre of music be it a moving ghazal Aap ke pehloo mein, a plaintive bhajan O duniya ke rakhawale, or a wild and whacky composition Chahe koi mujhe junglee kahe. He was known for his ability to effortlessly morph his voice to suit the emotion. A classically trained singer whose finesse glorified complex compositions like Man tadpat hari darshan ko (Baiju Bawra, 1952) he had absolutely no problem in giving a vigorously lively performance to complement Shammi Kapoor’s on-screen energy. The vigour Rafi displayed in songs in films like Junglee (1961), Rajkumar (1964), Janwar (1965), Teesri Manzil (1966), Prince (1969) and more, left listeners gasping for breath literally.
Rafi was extremely nostalgic about his Punjabi roots. He recorded many Punjabi folk, film songs and Gurbani Shabads. He made a significant contribution to Punjabi cinema by rendering 287 songs in 105 Punjabi films. In 1942, after making his debut as playback singer in the Lahore made Punjabi film, Gul Baloch (1945), he sang two more songs - a duet Aachannve with Munawar Sultana and a chorus Sun-sun nikkijehi gall in this film. After a gap of seven years, he rendered five songs in the Punjabi film Lachhi (1949) under the music direction of Hansraj Behl. His solo Jag wala mela yaaro became immensely popular on both sides of the border. His duets with Lata Mangeshkar Kaali kanginaal and Tum bavaj daena also made it to the musical charts. Rafi became the most sought-after playback singer in the Punjabi cinema.
In 1950, he lent his voice in three Punjabi films - Bhaiya Ji, Chhai and Madari, rendering some of the popular songs like Ke bada liyanchhagayian (BhaiyaJi); O munda mohle ya taveetan wala, Dil tutt gaye (Chhai) etc. In Posti (1951), Rafi sang three numbers and his duet with Asha BhosleTun peenghte main parchhavan tere naal became an all-time hit. In Jugni (1953), his philosophical rendering of Darhvatt zamana katt bhale din aawange soothed the Partition wounds. After singing four songs in Ashtalli (1954), he was off the Punjabi screen again for five years. He made a thunderous comeback with Chitte dand hasno nahiyo rehnde, Rab nakare and the Bhangra number Jatt kudiyaan ton darda mara in Bhangra (1959). In Do Lachhian (1960), all his five songs - Ik pind do lachhian, Asaan keetiae, Saari umraan de and two bhangra numbers including Teri kanak di raakhi mundiya topped the musical albums.
Rafi gave a number of melodies in films like Heer Syal (1960), Pagri Sambhal Jatta (1960), Yamla Jatt (1960), Billo, Guddi, Jatti (1961), Jeeja Ji, Walait Pass, Chaudhary Karnail Singh, Dhol Jani, Khedan De Din Char,Pardesi Dhola (1962), Laajo (1963),Pind Di Kuri (1963),Chambe Di Kali (1965), Dharti Veeran Di, Sapni, Sassi Punnu (1965), Laaiye Tod Nibhaiye,Dupatta,Kankan De Ohle (1971), Dukh Bhanjan Tera Naam (1974), Bhagat Dhanna Jatt (1974), Morni (1975), Guru Manio Granth, Lachhi (1977), Premi Gangaram (1978), Dhyanu Bhagat, Ladlee (1978), Mahi Munda and Sassi Punnu (1983).
His repertoire of Punjabi melodies included Daan apa ani khichke liaunda (Guddi); Gharbabul da (Chaudhary Karnail Singh); Vekhiya pishorevai (Pardesi Dhola); Ji kardaae is duniya nu (Geet Baharaan De); Na dissetu (Satluj De Kande); Chan de mathe daag (Dharti Veeran Di); Akhaande theekrewich(Sassi Punnu); Jaach mainu aagai (Shonkan Mele Di); Mitterpyare nu (Nanak Nam Jahaj Hai); Russke tu challi gayiyon (Papi Tarey Anek); Sanu bukk naal paani (Ladlee); Eh morkiyonpailaan (Mahi Munda); Na russ heere meriye (Chann Pardesi); Laggi wale (Sassi Punnu); Mera wichh deya yaar (Sohni Mahiwal) and Matlabdi eh duniya (Duniya Matlab Di) etc.
Even as Mohammed Rafi ruled the 60s, Aradhana (1969) and the Rajesh Khanna wave saw him displaced by Kishore Kumar as the top male playback singer. With more Western disco-style electronic music taking over, his dominance waned.He did manage to make a comeback though. According to Raju Bharatan, it was his old mentor Naushad who helped him regain his confidence as a singer. The comeback began in full swing with Teri galiyon mein (Hawas, 1974) composed by Usha Khanna. He continued this success with the musical Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin (1977). Rafi rendered his last song Tu kahin aas paas hai dost (Aas Paas, 1980) under the baton of Laxmikant-Pyarelal.
He performed in live concerts at over 30 venues across the globe, reaching out to millions of fans in the United States, UK, Canada, Africa, West Indies, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, Malaysia, Fiji, New Zealand and Netherland. He sang approximately 6,000 songs in different Indian languages including Hindi, Punjabi, Assamese, Bhojpuri, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, Magahi, Maithili, Oriya, Sindhi, Tamil and Telugu. Apart from Indian languages, he also sang in many foreign languages like English, Persian, Arabic, Sinhalese, Creole and Dutch etc.
At 13, Rafi got married to his cousin Bashiran Biwi and they were blessed with a son Saeed and a daughter Zakia. However, after a few years, the two separated. In 1944, he married Bilquis Bano, with whom he had three daughters and three sons. Whether it was a game of carom or a round of badminton, he always ensured he made time for his loved ones. Kite-flying was one of his favourite pastimes and he was known to sulk like a baby if his kites were cut.
Rafi won numerous awards and accolades, starting with the Silver Medal given by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on the first anniversary of Indian Independence. In 1965, he was decorated with the Padma Shri by the Government of India. In 1977, he won both the Filmfare Award and the coveted National Award for the song Kya Hua Tera Wada. He won the Filmfare Award for the Best Male Playback Singer six times: Chaudvin Ka Chand Ho (Chaudvin Ka Chand, 1961);Teri Pyari Pyari Surat Ko (Sasural, 1961); Chahunga Main Tujhe (Dosti, 1964), Baharon Phool Barsao (Suraj, 1966) and Dil Ke Jharokhe Mein (Brahmachari, 1968). In 2001, he was posthumously awarded the Best Singer of the Millennium Award by Hero Honda and Stardust.
On the fateful morning of his demise, Rafi rehearsed for the Kaali Pooja album (Bengali) and around noon, he suffered a major heart attack. The world of music lost one of its brightest luminaries, Mohammed Rafi on 31st July, 1980.His songs are the fragrance that will live on forever.
Below is a translated excerpt written by his daughter-in-law Yasmin Khalid Rafi:
Father had his own peculiar style of rehearsing to sing as well. After the rehearsal had finished, he would sit by himself, moving his hands and feet to his own soft vocalizing. The secret to the immense success of his songs was simple- he carried the entire song on his capable shoulders. He had no care for anything else- whom the song would be picturised on, whether the composer was reputed or a newcomer, who the lyricist was, and what film it would be used in hardly mattered to him. His only concern was to sing the song to the best of his abilities. Once, while speaking of his process for preparation, he said, “The music director cannot instruct you beyond a certain point. What comes into play is your own experience, your dedication to your craft, and the work you put into the song. I have often worked with composers whose tunes are weak, who do not even have proper diction. For melodies like this, I have to work harder than complex compositions.” Every song he sang, he transformed; he never left the space for a melody to be improved further.
It is not a stretch to say all of father’s (abba’s) songs were wonderful. One would be hard pressed to find any fault, even in thousands of songs. But Khalid and I preferred his duet and mixed songs ourselves. Both of us believed that father (abba) shone in these. We would be dumbstruck by his power, particularly in songs where he appeared at the very end, like Hum intezaar karenge tere qayamat tak (Asha Bhonsle, Mohammed Rafi, Bahu Begum), Dil todne waale tujhe dil dhoond raha hai (Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Son of India), Matwaali aankhon waale, o albele dil waale (Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Chhote Nawab), Ye ladka hai allah, kaisa hai deewana (Asha Bhonsle, Mohammed Rafi, Hum Kisise Kum Nahin), Yaadon ki baaraat nikli hai (Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, Yaadon Ki Baaraat), Bane chaahe dushman zamaana humara (Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, Dostana), Dilruba dil pe tu sitam kiyejaa, kiyejaa (Asha Bhonsle, Mohammed Rafi, Rajkumar) and Apni khushiyan tujhko de dun, tere aansoon le lun (Amit Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, Aapke Diwana). These films were released in 1980. When Khalid and I heard the cassettes of these films, we were bowled over. Khalid immediately called father (abba) in Mumbai and exclaimed, “Dad, you have done wonders! Your voice and style, out of this world. You seem to be ageing in reverse!” Father (abba) usually had the same response to all such effusive praise. He would laugh it off with, “Just pray for your father”. Any praise would fall short when talking about him. I must have heard his songs a million times, but I still feel like going back to them. Would anyone today be able to sing songs like these? Not a question, but a musing, perhaps.
Rafi sang the song Shadaab leke in the film Thaliritta Kinakkal (1980) whcih remains the only Malayalam film he sang for.
Rai, Yasmin Khalid. Mohammed Rafi: Hamare Abba-Kuchh Yaadein, Bangalore: Tranquebar Press, 2012