It is exactly 19 years since Mohammad Rafi
passed away (July 31, 1980), but his voice
continues to haunt us even today. After all, he's
left behind a rich legacy -- of songs sung by him
over 35 years.
Rafi's voice, ranging from the melancholic to the
boisterous, was such that it suited every mood
and every occasion in films. His is one voice that has been imitated the
most: to be called a Rafi clone is actually regarded as a compliment by
Yet, no one has been able to recreate the Rafi magic. Perhaps, no one
can. At best, each of these singers has been able to imitate just one
aspect of his voice. But nobody possesses the versatility that Rafi did.
He could become the soul of Guru Dutt in songs like Dekhi zamaane ki
yaari bichde sabhi bari bari (Kagaz Ke Pool), Johnny Walker's voice
in the mischievous Tel maalish (Pyaasa) or sing the catchy Yeh hai
Bombay meri jaan (CID ).
He could match Shammi Kapoor's energy and zest in Yahoo (Junglee)
and do a soft, romantic Ehsaan tera hoga mujh par in the same film.
He could give character to a legend like Dilip Kumar with Tere husn ki
kya taarif karoon (Leader) as well as do wonders for a mediocre
actor like Joy Mukherjee with songs such as Mujhe dekh kar aapka
muskurana (Ek Musafir Ek Haseena) and Champa kali dekho jhuki
gayi re (Ziddi).
In spite of his success, Rafi remained an extremely quiet and reserved
person. Many of his admirers could not fathom how such a low-profile
man sounded so flamboyant in some of his songs. His son Shahid
recalls, "When we asked him whether he had actually sung the 'yahoo'
number, he just smiled and nodded. We kept asking him, 'how did you
sing this song?' But he wouldn't expand on the subject. It was difficult
for us to imagine a gentle person like him shouting out that yahoo."
Perhaps, it was Rafi's humility and willingness to learn that made him
such a great singer. He respected all his music directors, whether they
were young or experienced. His contention was: you are teaching me a
new song, so you are my ustad. If someone could not pay him his fees,
he'd still sing for him and treat him the same way.
Rafi was born in a small village called Kotla Sultan Singh near Amritsar
in December 1924. His family shifted to Lahore when he was still a
baby. A fakir used to come to their locality in Lahore every day and
sing. The young Rafi was so fascinated by him that he used to follow
His elder brother Hamid was aware of Rafi's love for music and
encouraged it. "In fact," says music director Naushad, "A lot of credit
for Rafi's success must go to Hamid who knocked on several doors and
tried everything to ensure that his brother got work.''
In Lahore, Rafi started taking music lessons from Ustad Wahid Khan.
One day Rafi and Hamid had gone to attend a performance by K L
Saigal. But the legendary singer refused to sing since there was a power
failure at the venue. Hamid went up to the organiser and asked if his
brother could sing to keep the audience quiet.
That was Rafi's first public performance -- at the age of 13. As it turned
out, the setting was just right for him. Among the audience sat noted
composer Shyamsunder who was so impressed that he invited the
young Rafi to come to Bombay. Hamid brought him to Bombay without
telling their father why they were going. Their mother, however, knew
about it and blessed them.
But things were difficult in Bombay. The brothers had very little money.
They lived in Bhendi Bazaar and walked every day to the studio in
Dadar to meet Shyamsunder. They had filled two pillow cases with
chana (gram) and lived off it for days. Finally, they did meet
Shyamsunder who, as promised, gave Rafi a song in the Punjabi film
Gulbaloch. His second film was a Hindi one, Gaon Ki Gori.
Naushad Ali was one of the first composers to work with Rafi. He
narrates an endearing story. "When I heard Rafi, I liked his voice and
promised him work in future. I was already doing a film called
Shahjehan with Saigal. Rafi, who was a fan of Saigal, came to me with
a request: that it was his greatest desire to sing with Saigal. I gave him
one line in the song Roohi roohi mere sapno ki rani," recalls Naushad.
"The first full song he sang for me was in Anmol Ghadi -- it went like
Tera khilona toota balak..." he adds. "Then again he sang for me in
Dillagi: Is duniya mein aye dilwalon dil ka lagana khel nahin and
Tere koonche main armanon ki duniya leke aaya hoon."
After this, Rafi became very popular and
started getting work from other music
directors as well. But it was left to Naushad
to explore the wide range of Rafi's voice. The
film was Baiju Bawra, the song O duniya ke
rakhwale sun dard bhare mere nale.
Naushad discovered that in an era when low octave singing was the
norm, Rafi had a phenomenal range, and yet, he never sounded out of
Shammi Kapoor acknowledges that Rafi had a lot to do with his
success. "It was amazing the way Rafisaab adapted himself to what I
wanted him to do. I used to be terribly involved with my songs and go
for all the recordings. I used to make it clear how I wanted a certain line
sung and Rafisaab always responded," says Kapoor.
He cites an instance. "I remember when the song Tareef karoon kya
uski (in Kashmir Ki Kali) was being recorded, I wanted the signature
line Tareef karoon to be repeated till it reached a crescendo. O P
Nayyar, the composer and a friend of mine, objected. He thought it
would sound boring. But suddenly, Rafisaab spoke up and said 'I
would like to do it the way the boy wants it because I know what he
wants,' " Kapoor remembers.
When the film was released, the song was a big hit. Nayyar hugged
Kapoor and congratulated him for his foresight, but the actor maintains
"it was possible only because Rafisaab had taken the song to such a
pitch and had sung each repetition in a different style."
He adds, with a touch of pride, "Though Rafisaab sang for all the actors
-- be it Dilip Kumar or Johnny Walker -- he was especially identified
with me. Some songs sungs by him and picturised on Joy Mukherjee
and Biswajeet were actually my kind of songs. Baharon phool barsao,
Pukarta chala hoon main or Teri pyari pyari surat ko -- these were
my songs, sung in Rafi's special style for me. I remember when he sang
Main gaoon tum so jaao for Brahmachari, I told him how I wanted
him to sing one particular line. When he saw the picturisation he came
and kissed my hand and said, 'it's very beautiful, why didn't I think of
Lata Mangeshkar, who has sung some of her most beautiful duets with
Rafi, says that "our songs together are so lovely that it is a pleasure to
listen to them over and over again." Some of the memorable songs of
the duo are Jeevan mein piya tera saath rahe (Goonj Uthi Shehnai),
Tum to pyar ho (Sehra), Tasveer teri dil mein (Maya), Dheere
dheere chal (Love Marriage), Tujhe jeevan ki dor se (Asli Naqli),
Chalo dildar chalo (Pakeezah), Tere husn ki kya tareef karoon
According to Shahid, Rafi used to take a great deal of interest in his
songs. "He always wanted to know who he was singing for. After that,
you would hear shades of that person's voice in his singing -- this was
his special gift," says Shahid.
Indeed, Rafi was special. All those actors he sang for felt a sense of
possessiveness for him and acknowledged his contribution to their
His voice always struck a chord, even when he sang non-film songs
such as Paaon padoon tore shyam... For generations to come, there is
a repertoire of 35,000 Rafi songs to revel in. His last song was Tu
kahin aas paas hai dost for the film, Aas Paas.
Today, in the midst of the cacophony of voices, Rafi's is the one which
stands out, even almost two decades after he's gone.