Remembering Rafi

Author: Dr.Mandar

The year was 1980. Thirty-first July had just fluttered off the face of the calendar. The time was 3.15 a.m. Actor Shammi Kapoor and his wife were just returning from a religious discourse in Brindavan-temple, when an obviously distressed man stopped them in their tracks and said, “Shammi-saab, aap ki aawaz chali gayi!” (Mr.Shammi Kapoor, you have lost your voice!) Bewildered Shammi realized the significance of that statement a moment later- when that person uttered the next sentence- “Rafi-saab is dead! You have lost your voice!”

Mohammed Rafi was not just Shammi Kapoor’s voice; he was the voice of an entire magical era. A voice which not only sang many exquisite tunes but also launched and shaped the careers of many legendary screen personalities. Born in a small town in Punjab called Sultan Singh Kotla, near Amritsar on December 24, 1924, Mohammed Rafi grew up admiring the thirties- superstar singer K.L.Saigal. A doting, music-loving elder brother Hamid was the real catalyst in young Rafi’s grooming as a singer. Hamid placed Rafi under the tutelage of a noted classical singer Ustad Wahid Khan and also made him a radio-star at the age of thirteen. To the incredulous villagers, Hamidbhai would often boast that his brother would one day even outshine Saigal!

Then somehow managing to get a recommendation letter from composer Naushad’s father, Hamid took Rafi to Mumbai to meet the famous composer. In Naushad’s 1944- soundtrack Pahle Aap, Rafi sang his first film-song Hindostan Ke Hum Hain, Hindostan Hamara Hai. In Naushad’s music, Rafi even got a chance to sing a few lines in Saigal’s song Mere Sapnon Ki Rani Ruhi Ruhi Ruhi from Shahjahan (1946) and again it was Naushad’s Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki in Dulari (1949) which really established Rafi’s singing identity.

Over the next three-and-a half decades Mohammed Rafi went on to become perhaps the most influential male playback singer in Hindi film music. An exceptional range and malleability made Rafi’s voice a dream voice. Soft and mellow in one instant to robust and forceful the next- Rafi could switch gears effortlessly. Add to that his ability to come up with just the right vocal expression and emotion for the screen- character he was singing for and Rafi became the byword in versatility. From Shankar-Jaikishan to Laxmikant-Pyarelal and from O.P.Nayyar to R.D.Burman, Rafi could do perfect justice to any composer’s tune.

A supremely soulful Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki, a coolly carefree Main Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhata Chala Gaya, an intensely lovelorn Yaad Na Jaaye Beete Dinon Ki, a thought-provoking Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye To Kya Hai, a hopelessly romantic Khoya Khoya Chaand, a classically erudite Madhuban Mein Radhika Naache Re, a wild-n-wacky Chahe Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe, a crazily comic Sar Jo Tera Chakraye and a movingly patriotic Kar Chale Hum Fida Jaano Tan Saathiyo– all these diverse songs serve as perfect examples of Rafi’s mind-blowing ability to switch genres with aplomb.

Rafi would pick up the subtle nuances of the screen character and present them through his songs with such unerring precision that you could close your eyes and still identify whether it was Dilip Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar or Johny Walker who was singing the song on the screen. When I was interviewing her, the one and only Lata Mangeshkar had gushed over this unparalleled range of Rafi’s voice and had aptly described it as ‘the gift of God’! How else can you describe such out of this world talent?

Religious, humble and soft-spoken- in private life, Rafi was completely different from his all-conquering singing image. I still remember one of his interviews on BBC and he spoke in such low tones one had to really strain their ears to pick up his answers. In fact, so reticent was he answering questions about his achievements, one could easily doubt his showbiz credentials!

Advent of seventies saw him lose the top throne to Kishore Kumar- the very person for whom he had provided playback in earlier songs like Man Mora Bawra and Ajab Hai Dastan Teri Aye Zindagi. Perhaps overexposure in the sixties where one could just hear his voice everywhere- from heroes to character actors to comedians was the reason for this decline. Even in this down- phase, Rafi could come up with super-hit songs like Chaand Mera Dil, Darde Dil Darde Jigar and Parda hai Parda.

When the cruel clutches of fate snatched him on that fateful thirty-first July twenty-five years ago, Rafi had already left an indelible mark on Indian popular music and a rich legacy of many a memorable song.

The last song sung by Rafi was in the film ‘Aas paas’. The poignant lyrics of that song perfectly echo the sentiments of millions of music-lovers all over the world –

Tere milne ki aas hai dost

Shaam phir kyon udaas hai dost,

Maheki maheki fija yeh kaheti hai

Tu kahin aaspaas hai dost,

Tu kahin aaspaas hai dost !!


Contrary to a popularly quoted figure of 27000 songs, Rafi sang around 5000 songs in his career.

  • Naushad’s compositions in 1952-film Baiju-Bawra really paved way for Rafi’s ascent to the top spot.
  • Tragedy-king Dilip Kumar, Yahoo- rebel Shammi Kapoor, Jubilee-king Rajendra Kumar and comedian Johnny Walker were the actors for whom Rafi sang his most memorable songs. But then every possible actor debuting in sixties- from Joy Mukherji to Jeetendra could lay claim to that distinction!
  • Tu Kahin Aaspaas Hai Dost from Aas Paas was his last recorded song. Fittingly it was composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal- composers who composed the maximum number of songs for Rafi.
  • Even after his death, Rafi- influence never faded away. Latter singers like Anwar, Mohammed Aziz, Suresh Wadkar and Sonu Nigam clearly modeled their voices on the maestro’s voice.