When the nation listened to the song Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki, Na Jane Tum Kab Aaogi, people were struck by the freshness in the voice. It was very distinct and different from the nasal twang popularised by K.L.Saigal. By the end of 1940s, an era was ending in Hindi Cinema. Partition made some irreversible changes to the film industry. The singing superstar Nur Jehan left for Lahore. The popularity of playback singing made the ability to sing redundant for an actor and specialists rose in the field. Perhaps the biggest blow was the tragic death of Kundan Lal Saigal in 1947, an icon who inspired an entire generation of singers. A huge vacuum had been created in the musical arena of Bombay cinema. A fresh breed of singers was waiting to take over.
Introduced by Husanlal Bhagatram, Mohammed Rafi was singing small pieces for many songs. Naushad spotted his talent and gave him the big break in Dulari (1948) in which he sang Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki. The song and the singer became runaway hits. In the same year, Naushad gave Lata a big hit in Andaz. Mukesh and Kishore Kumar had already entered the arena. The actors who entered the industry around this time were not singing anymore for their movies. Once while recording a song for Aan (1951), Talat Mahmood supposedly riled Naushad by smoking before him in the recording studio. Naushad replaced Talat with Rafi. In 1952, Prakash Pictures’ Baiju Bawra was released and became one of the biggest musical blockbusters of all time, running for 100 weeks in Bombay with each and every song rocking the charts of Binaca Geetmala, the musical countdown show on Radio Ceylon. Rafi became a sensation and became a force to reckon with thereafter. In a tribute to the Catholicism of India’s culture, the bhajan Man Tadpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj of Baiju Bawra was a creation of three Muslims. It was written by Shakeel Badayuni, composed by Naushad and sung by Mohammed Rafi.
Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand soon rose as the star trio who dominated the industry in the 1950s and 60s. Mukesh and Manna Dey became the voices of Raj Kapoor and Rafi sang most of the songs of Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. This match could also be attributed to the fact that Naushad and S.D.Burman, who composed most of the songs for Dilip and Dev respectively, were Rafi loyalists.
There is no doubt about the fact that Rafi’s voice was not range bound. His voice was not bound by emotions, octaves, style or trends. If he glided over the silken notes of Chaudvin ka Chand, he could also sing the rustic Nain lad jaihe (Gunga Jumna). On one hand he could evoke patriotism in Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Sathiyon (Haqeeqat) and at the same time he would do rock and roll numbers like Aaja aaja Main hoon pyaar tera (Teesri Manzil). If he could bring out refined classicism in Madhuban mein radhika nache re (Kohinoor), he could also sing something completely crazy like Chahe koi mujhe junglee kahe (Junglee)! He could be melancholic with Din dhal jaye (Guide) and he could go over the top with Hum Ko tum pe pyar aaya (Jab Jab Phool Khile)! His voice rang out from temples, homes and night clubs with the same vigour.
He was the melancholy of Dilip Kumar, the romance of Dev Anand, the madness of Shammi Kapoor, the poetry of Bharat Bhushan, the melodrama of Rajendra Kumar, the youth of Dharmendra, the drama of Raj Kumar and the teenage charm of Rishi Kapoor all rolled into one. Once when Shammi Kapoor asked him how he managed to pull off all his songs with a tinge of craziness without having seen the scenes, Rafi replied “I simply imagine how you will be leaping around if this song is to be picturised and try to bring in your energy”. It is hard to imagine Shammi Kapoor sans his songs today and harder to imagine them without the energy lent to Shammi by Rafi.
In an industry rife with politics, Mohammed Rafi stayed afloat and aloof, with success kissing his feet. He did have a strong issue with Lata Mageshkar in the mid sixties over a royalty issue and stopped singing with her for a while. But popular demand made them reconcile once again and they sang for S.D.Burman in Jewel Thief.
Rafi shared the strongest rapport with Naushad. When Naushad related the tune of Madhuban Mein Radhika Nache Re to him, he was so impressed that he sang the song for a token payment of Re. 1. Such instances were rarer than the rarest in an industry where most of the singers created nightmares for the music directors for their payments. Many people owe Rafi’s success to Mukesh, Talat and Kishore Kumar dabbling with acting during the 1950s, hence not being focussed on their music. But the fact remained that if there was any person who could be a counterweight to Lata in the music industry by all means, it was Rafi. Whether he realised this or not, is a different question.
In 1968, while recording the songs of Aradhana, S.D.Burma fell sick. His son and the assistant music director of Aradhana R.D.Burman decided to get the songs recorded by Kishore Kumar instead of Rafi. Kishore Kumar had sung many songs for S.D.Burman and he shared a strong rapport with R.D. S.D.Burman survived the battle but Rafi started losing his plane. Aradhana saw a break through the roof success across India and ran mainly on the basis of its melodrama and music. Just as Baiju Bawra made Rafi a front runner in the industry, Aradhana made Kishore Kumar a singing sensation. Besides, the lead hero Rajesh Khanna was declared a superstar and the singer who sang for the superstar of the day always ruled the charts.
Rafi knew this too well as the heroes for whom he sang like Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Raj Kumar and Dev Anand were sliding out, making way to the likes of Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan. Besides, Kishore’s voice was a perfect match for these actors. Rafi’s voice remained in demand and he kept coming out with many hits in the seventies. Even R.D.Burman used his voice effectively for movies like Caravan and Yaadon Ki Baraat.
In 1980, Rafi passed away, leaving the musical world shocked by his exit. Hordes poured into the streets of Bombay to bid him farewell. A voice which entertained and lit up a million lives for more than three decades was no more.
If Lata and Asha made a new trend in singing, which is followed till today, the same can be said of Rafi. He brought in the style of soft-voiced singing. Be it Udit Narayan or Sonu Nigam, all seem to be falling along the legacy set by Rafi. Thirty years after his death, his fans still cannot accept that he is no more, for he is very much alive, still lighting their lives every day. One of his own songs perhaps speaks volumes for what he meant for us ‘Jab Kabhi bhi sunoge geet mere, Tum mujhe yoon bhula na paaoge’.
(This article was published in The New Sunday Express)