Remembering Mohammed Rafi: The jewel of Indian music
Mohammed Rafi, who passed away on this day 40 years ago, does not deserve Bharat Ratna; the Bharat Ratna deserves him.
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The Bharat Ratna is the highest civilian award of the Republic of India. Instituted on January 2, 1954, the award is conferred in recognition of exceptional service/performance of the highest order, without distinction of race, occupation, position or sex.
Please note the qualifications required – “exceptional service/performance of the highest order”. If Mohammed Rafi does not fit the bill, then that is the biggest disservice that the government, not the people, can do to him. If it were left to popular choice, Rafi would already have received it – perhaps even when he was alive. But these awards are the prerogative of the government. Lata Mangeshkar got it, deservedly. Even Bhupen Hazarika got it. But Rafi being kept out of the hallowed list is a riddle wrapped up in an enigma.
Rafi was way beyond an outstanding singer. He was a good human being. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Consider what he got – a Padmashri – the lowest tier of the civilian awards which four to five persons from the film industry annually get in the normal course. This year, amongst others, Adnan Sami got it. Adnan and Rafi in the same breath? Seriously? Sacrilegious! Rarely does a Colossus walk the earth who rules the minds and hearts of not one but several generations across a subcontinent with an immeasurable contribution by way of joy and upliftment, of inspiration and hope, of contentment and edification through his inimitable craft. And this is what his reward is. It is not that the legacy of Rafi suffers — it is the credibility of the official recognition that gets adversely impacted and exhibits a huge disconnect between the governing and the governed. 50 years later many of the Bharat Ratna Awardees would be forgotten and only find a mention in the textbooks. But Rafi would still be heard in the roadside dhaba, or a remixed version of his songs would be playing in a nightclub, or music clubs would still be singing his songs. And on July 31 and December 24, the media, especially the radio stations, would be all about him. Today, 40 years after his passing, hundreds of programs dedicated to him are being staged. Covid cannot stop the passion of his fans, and Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms have stepped in.
Every fan of Rafi knows his history, his songs, the godliness in his voice, his range and technique, his versatility in singing every genre with equal felicity and impact. There is no value addition one can make to the extensive literature already out there. Go to the website dedicated to him — mohdrafi.com — and see what active and well-informed discussions and facts are there.
But there are certain obvious things that are staring us in the face that we sometimes lose sight of.
I rate the song Kar Chale Hum Fida from Haqeeqat (1964) — a film on the Indo-China War — as THE ultimate patriotic song ever composed. If ever an official laureate were to give for the greatest all-time patriotic anthem, this should be it. Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon is outstanding. But Kar Chale is several notches higher — ask any military person. Madan Mohan’s composition, particularly the martial interludes, instil pride and patriotic fervour, the taar-shehnai which brings up the end of the interludes brings pathos, Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics aptly bring out the sacrifices of our brave hearts, and Rafi’s emotional singing at the high scales brings it all together, moving the nation to acknowledge its debt of gratitude to the soldiers. The song remains relatively underrated and needs to be placed on the top shelf of the pantheon. Nehru would have been moved to more copious tears had he heard it, but he died that year. These days with the tension in the Himalayas and the valour shown by our armed forces and the sacrifices made by them, this song is very apt. “Saans thamti gayi, nabs jamti gayi, phir bhi badhte kadam ko na rukne diya, kat gaye sir humare to kuchh gham nahi, sir Himalaya ka humne na jhukne diya, marte marte raha baankpan sathiyon, ab tumhare hawale watan sathiyon”.
Post the war, when the morale of the nation was low, Rafi sang two non-film songs — Awaaz Do Hum Ek Hain and Watan Ki Abroo Khatre Mein Hai. Mehboob Khan, the well-known film director, filmed these songs on his Mother India (1957) actors Raaj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar and Sunil Dutt, and his Son of India (1962) actor Kamaljit. The Films Division of India would show these songs as part of its newsreel at all film theatres. Khayyam was the music director and Jan Nissar Akhtar and Sahir Ludhianvi were the lyricists, respectively.
There were many other songs of Rafi in the patriotic genre.
In one song, Rafi (like Lata in Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon) managed to draw tears from the eyes of Nehru — many years before Lata did. The song was a private song released in 1948, a few months after Gandhi’s assassination: Suno Suno Ae Duniya Waalon Bapu Ki Ye Amar Kahani.
Gandhi’s death came as a jolt to the nation as well as the film industry. As a mark of tribute, this song was conceived. It required the composing genius of Husnlal Bhagatram, the lyrical brilliance of Rajendra Krishan and the soulful appeal of a young Rafi to make people rededicate themselves to Gandhi’s ideals. Days leading up to and following Independence had seen horrific violence that killed millions and Gandhi himself. The song underscores the futility of the madness which had convulsed the nation. On Independence Day in 1948, Rafi was invited to sing this song at Nehru’s house. The song had such an effect on Nehru that tears rolled down his cheeks! The song reportedly sold a million copies in the first month of its release.
In Jagriti (1954), Rafi sang one of the most inspirational songs to a young nation still finding its feet after Independence: Hum laye hain toofan se kashti nikal ke, is desh ko rakhna mere bachon sambhal ke. Another inspirational song Jahan Daal Daal Pe Sone Ki Chidiya from Sikander-e-Azam (1965) which never fails to stir pride and love for the nation. Rafi sang for Bhagat Singh in Shaheed (1965): Ae Watan Ae Watan Humko Teri Kasam and Sarfaroshi Ki Tammanna.
Rafi immortalised the message of Nehru in his Meri Awaaz Suno from Naunihal (1967): Meri aawaaz suno, pyaar ke raaz suno, maine ek phool jo seene pe sajaa rakhaa tha, uske parde main tumhein dil se lagaa rakhha tha, tha judaa sabse mere ishq ka andaaz suno.
If ever the tenets of secularism, tolerance, peaceful co-existence, and respect for all faiths were to be encapsulated in one song, that would be Tu Hindu Banega Na Musalman Banega from Dhool Ka Phool (1959).
Who hasn’t Rafi sung for? He has sung for most Mughals. Emperor Babar in Babar (1960) — Tum Ek Baar Mohabbat Ka Imtihan To Lo, Emperor Jahangir in Adl-e-Jahangir (1956) — Apna Hi Ghar Lutane Diwana Ja Raha Hai, Noor Jehan (1967) — Aap Jabse Qareeb Aaye Hain, Mughal-e-Azam (1960) — Ae Mohabbat Zindabad, Emperor Shah Jahan in Taj Mahal (1963) — Jo Wada Kiya Hai, Bahadur Shah Zafar in Lal Quila (1960) — Na Kisi Ki Aankh Ka Noor Hoon.
In fact, he didn’t restrict himself to the Mughal rule in India but went across to Baghdad which was under Mughal rule and sang for the son of Rustom-e- Baghdad in Rustom-e-Baghdad (1963) — Chand Jaisa Badan Phool Sa Pairhan. He sang a eulogy for Rana Bhim Singh in Maharani Padmini (1964) — Gir Gaya Sher Babbar.
He sang for Tansen in Sangeet Samrat Tansen (1962) — Deepak Jalao Jyoti Jagao, as well as his rival Baiju Bawra in the movie Baiju Bawra (1952) — Man Tarpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj.
Rafi even sang for a Tatar in Changez Khan (1957) — Mohabbat Zinda Rehti Hai, for a lovelorn subject of Halaku — Changez Khan’s grandson — who was Emperor of Iran in Halaku (1956) — Aaja Ke Intezaar Mein Jaane Ko Hai Bahaar Bhi. He sang for Samson in Samson (1964) — Ek Baat Hai Kehne Ki Aankhon Se. He even sang for Robin Hood in the Adventures of Robin Hood and Bandits (1965) — Mana Mere Haseen Sanam. He sang about the plight of the Jews Yahudi (1958) — Ye duniya ye duniya haye hamari ye duniya.
He has sung for every actor, big and small, extra, comedian, character actor, villain. He has sung for Raj Kapoor, whose ghost voice was Mukesh and sometimes Manna De (all songs of Do Ustad released in 1959). He has even sung for Kishore Kumar – Man Mora Bawra in Raagini (1958) who was the actor in the film. Yodelling is associated in popular mind with Kishore Kumar. But even Rafi has done it Un Se Ripi Tiki Ho Gayi in Agra Road (1957) and Gussa Fuzool Hai in Reporter Raju (1962). He also sang the first rap song in Hindi films — Worli Ka Naka in the movie Do Ustad (1959).
He has sung for labourers, doctors, soldiers, politicians, farmers, rickshawalas, tangawalas, vegetable sellers, magicians, pickpockets, mithai sellers, toy sellers, insurance agents, sellers of magic potions, beggars, mendicants. He sang for Mehmood suffering from rhotacism in Chhote Nawab (1961) — Ilahi tu sun le hamali dua, humein sirf ik aasra hai tela, teli rehmatein raah roshan kale, salamat rahe saya maa baap ka. He has even sung for a barber, a profession from where he started – Mera naam phataphat, mera kaam phataphat, sir mudwalo, bal katalo, katoon ga jhatpat in Shehzaada (1955).
He has sung all genres — nothing was off limits. Romantic, serious, introspective, patriotic, exuberant, bhajans, dance numbers, qawwalis, ghazals and classical songs. The music directors even made him sing songs inspired by foreign songs — Ae Dil Hai Mushkil in CID (1956) based on Oh My Darling Clementine; Sar Jo Tera Chakraye from Pyasa (1957) based on Harry Black and the Tiger; Dekho Abto Kisko Nahin Hai Khabar from Janwar (1965) based on I Want To Hold Your Hand; Kaun Hai Jo Sapnon Mein Aaya in Jhuk Gaya Aasman (1968) based on Marguerita. Rafi made them better than the originals.
He sang in all regional languages. He even sang in English — Although We Hail from Different Lands based on the tune of Baharon Phool Barsao from the movie Suraj (1966) and The She I Love based on the tune of Hum Kale Hain To Kya Hua from Gumnaam (1965). He sang in Creole, Dutch, Sinhalese, Arabic, Persian.
For a singer of such an extraordinary talent, he was remarkably simple. OP Nayyar, who I knew personally, told me that after his tiff with Rafi because the latter had arrived late (he had been held up in a Shankar-Jaikishan recording), resulting in Rafi being banished from his studios for many years, it was Rafi who landed up at his house to make up though OP Nayyar was clearly to blame for his disproportionately severe action. They both embraced and cried. OP Nayyar told me that Rafi was a much bigger person than he or anybody else for that matter. A small-time music director Momin Khan, who I knew in Mumbai, told me that he was present during the recording of Jo Wada Kiya from Taj Mahal (1963). After the recording, Rafi was so happy that he distributed his recording fees to all the musicians and with folded hands asked them to pray (“dua karo”) for the song’s success, which of course it was.
Other music directors also told me about Rafi’s simplicity. Ravi told me that Rafi had broken down during rehearsals of Babul Ki Duyaen in Neel Kamal (1968). Ravi asked Rafi’s brother-in-law Zaheer, his secretary and manager about it. He was told that Rafi’s daughter had recently got married and Rafi got emotional. The paternal emotion came out clearly and so endearingly in the recording.
Usha Khanna was all praise for Rafi's humility when I met her. At the recording of one of the Asha-Rafi duets she was not fully satisfied with one part of the song but was hesitant about telling him. He sensed it and told her, “Usha, tumne humse nahin seekhna. Hamein tumse gaana seekhna hai” (Usha, you don't have to learn from us. We have to learn how to sing from you)
Khayyam told me that Rafi was humility personified and never ceased to be a student of music and was always keen to learn the intricacies of music. Mubarak Begum told me she may never have sung the evergreen duet with Rafi – Mujhko Apne Gale Laga Lo from Humrahi (1963). She recorded the song as a filler, to be dubbed by Lata Mangeshkar later. Music director Jaikishan waited till the last minute for Lata to show up, but she never did. So, Mubarak was retained. But Rafi also played a part in persuading Jaikishan to retain Mubarak to encourage her.
How many singers have film songs dedicated to them? Na fankar tujhsa tere baad aaya, Mohammed Rafi tu bahut yaad aaya sung by Mohammed Aziz appeared in the film Kroadh (1990) sung onscreen by Amitabh Bachchan.
Rafi's song from the film Gumnaam (1965) — Jaan Pehechan Ho — was used on the soundtrack of Ghost World (2001). The song has also been used for Heineken's 2011 The Date commercial.
Rafi was way beyond an outstanding singer. He was a good human being. He was always experimenting, pushing boundaries, exploring new frontiers. He was not afraid of failure and had faith and confidence in his own abilities and hard work. He never let his listeners down. His songs will forever be sung till music exists.
Rafi has ticked all the boxes. He has done whatever needed to be done. Yet he finds himself in the same boat as Hans Raj Hans and Remo Fernandez — both good singers but they can never be members of the same club as Rafi. What more does the government want of Rafi? Rafi does not deserve Bharat Ratna, Bharat Ratna deserves him!