New Delhi: It has been 40 years since Mohammad Rafi passed away, but his mellifluous voice continues to resonate in the hearts of music lovers.
India has been blessed with many great artistes, but Rafi stands out for the sheer range of emotions his voice could exhibit effortlessly — happiness, pain, sorrows, excitement, and of course, love.
Rafi had once mentioned that in his childhood, songs sung by fakirs passing through the streets had had a profound effect on him — and that’s probably exactly the effect his own voice has had on generations of music enthusiasts, and even the actors, singers and musicians he worked with.
The actor’s singer
Rafi was the rare artiste whose career had no peaks or troughs — from the 1940s until his death, he was always at the top of the industry, singing for prominent stars like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Guru Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Shammi Kapoor. His range knew no bounds either — from heavily classical numbers to peppy dance numbers, he did it all.
Having made it big in the film industry at a time when singer-actors like K.L. Saigal and Noorjehan were giving way to professional playback singers, one of Rafi’s most striking qualities was his ability to modulate his voice according to the actor and his mannerisms — so much so that in some cases it gave the impression that the actor himself was singing.
Prominent examples of this include Abhi na jao chhod kar for Dev Anand in Hum Dono, Dil mein chhupakar pyaar for Dilip Kumar in Aan, any number of songs for Guru Dutt in the melancholy Pyaasa, or Aap ke haseen rukh for Dharmendra in Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi.
But probably the most unforgettable partnership was Rafi and Shammi Kapoor. The raw energy of Shammi was fuelled by Rafi’s voice, be it the famous cry of ‘yahoo’ in Junglee, the peppy club numbers from An Evening in Paris or Teesri Manzil or the romance and heartbreak of Kashmir Ki Kali.
Qawwalis, ghazals, devotional songs — you name it, and Rafi aced it. Case in point, Mann tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj from Baiju Bawra.
Composers and colleagues’ favourite
Over the course of his career, Rafi worked with every composer worth his salt — Naushad, S.D. Burman, Shankar-Jaikishan, O.P. Nayyar, Madan Mohan, Roshan, Kalyanji-Anandji, R.D. Burman and dozens of others — but his most prolific partnership was with the duo Laxmikant-Pyarelal.
But a key moment in the music industry occurred when Rafi and his most frequent collaborator Lata Mangeshkar, over the issue of song royalties. Lata wanted singers to earn part of the loyalty and wanted Rafi’s support, but he refused, leading to differences that made them not sing with each other. This helped give a break to newer singers like Mahendra Kapoor and Suman Kalyanpur. Lata and Rafi finally reconciled five years later at the behest of Madan Mohan.
Lata once said of Rafi: “There were no scruples in his mind. He was just taciturn.”
She had also said: “He was a man of God. There were no airs about him. He would neither eat paan, nor chew betel nuts nor drink alcohol. There has neither been a voice like him nor will there be one in a hundred years.”
Manna Dey, one of Rafi’s great contemporaries, called him “a versatile singer”, who could do “what we could not do”.
Mahendra Kapoor, who was close to Rafi, called him a “great human being”.
Rafi was nominated for the Filmfare Award 21 times, winning six times. He won the National Award for Kya hua tera vaada from the film Hum Kisi Se Kum Naheen.
India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru had honoured him on Independence Day in 1948 for his song on Mahatma Gandhi, Suno suno ae duniya waalon Bapu ki amar kahani.
The Government of India also honoured him with the Padma Shri in 1967.
When Rafi quit singing
Writing in the Urdu magazine Shama, Rafi had revealed that after going for the Haj pilgrimage for the first time, he had decided to leave the film industry and chant the name of Allah for the rest of his life. People attributed this to a lack of work opportunities, but that, Rafi said, wasn’t the truth.
Finally, he was brought back to the film world by composer Naushad.
“Naushad sahab told me my voice was the property of the people, and I had no right to steal that property. And so, I started singing again,” Rafi wrote.
On 31 July 1980, Rafi passed away due to a heart attack. Thousands of people lined the streets of Bombay (now Mumbai) to catch a final glimpse of him.
It was raining heavily that day, leading to people remarking that the sky was also crying.
Lata had said of his death: “An era of music has come to an end today.”
Dilip Kumar, meanwhile, said in Urdu: “Humaare baad is mehfil mein afsaane bayaan honge/bahaarein humko dhundhengi, na jaane hum kahan honge (after me, stories will be told in this gathering/the season of spring will search for me, but who knows where I will be).”
But in his death and the 40 years thereafter, Rafi fans remember him by the lines he once immortalised:
Tum mujhe yun bhula na paaoge/Jab kabhi bhi sunoge geet mere/Sang sang tum bhi gungunaoge…
(You won’t be able to forget me/Whenever you hear my songs/You will hum along).