On the 90th birth anniversary of the legendary playback singer Mohammed Rafi on December 24, the inseparable connection between him and Lahore is still unknown to many. This city nourished Rafi in his adolescence before he entered Bollywood in 1944. Its rich musical tradition facilitated his entry into cinema where he was destined to become an eminent singer within a few years and become an incredible success story.
Young Rafi sang Waris Shah’s songs in quintessential Amritsari fashion
In the 1940s All India Radio Lahore’s Pundit Jiwan Lal Mattoo picked Rafi from a salon run by his brother, Mohammed Deen. Young Rafi sang Waris Shah’s songs in quintessential Amritsari fashion while working as a barber alongside his older brother. Mattoo heard him and decided to motivate the boy to sing for a career. In a few years Rafi was a regular at AIR Lahore, and a singing sensation.
Born on 24 December, 1924 to Haji Mohammed Ali and Allahrakhi Bai in British India’s Kotla Sultan Singh village near present-day Amritsar, Rafi was the second of six brothers and two sisters. Everybody noticed his inimitable singing ability in Lahore’s Noor Mohalla, Bhaati Gate, where he often imitated fakirs’ chants.
After Mattoo introduced him to radio, he taught him Raag Shastra and Punjabi folk raagas Pahaadi, Bhairavi, Basant and Malhaar which distinguished Lahore’s musical tradition. Hindustani classical vocalist, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan of Patiala Gharananourished him in his early years while Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan of Kirana Gharana taught him the nuances of classical music.
He also took music lessons from AIR Lahore program producer, Feroze Nizami who too joined Bollywood later and witnessed the outstanding success of his meritorious student. When Nizami died on November 15, 1975 in Lahore, Rafi was at the zenith of success in Bombay.
Rafi’s first duet playback singing break came with Zeenat Begum in Shyam Sundar’s Punjabi movie Gul Baloch (1941). In Hindi cinema, Rafi’s first duet singing break came with G.M Durrani, composed by Shyam Sunder for Gaon Ki Gori (1945), marking the beginning of an unstoppable singing career of four decades.
Thirty-two years after Rafi’s death, his daughter-in-law Yasmin Khalid Rafi has written a 190-page biography of the legendary singer, titled Mohammed Rafi: My Abba – A Memoir to bring firsthand glimpses of his life and work to wider audiences. She talks of his disciplinarian lifestyle, punctuality and sincerity, narrating Rafi in his struggling days: “Without a single penny in his pocket he wandered from one studio to the other for trials. Often upon reaching at studios he would be told to visit the following day. He slept at the nearest railway stations, ate roasted grams to fill his stomach and followed railway tracks to walk to his destination during the days of his struggle.”
Rafi developed a rapport with musician Naushad from the time of A.R. Kardar’s movie Pehle Aap (1944), forging a legendary partnership spanning many brilliant songs. In the meanwhile Husnalal–Bhagatram and Rafi’s Meena Bazaar (1950) attained outstanding success. Before pairing with Naushad, Rafi sang duets with Noor Jehan for Mehboob Khan’s Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Jugnu (1947). K.L Saigal and G.M. Durrani gave him the opportunity to sing for Beqasoor (1950). Rafi experimented with different singing styles throughout his career (1944 to 1980) to create new and versatile ways of singing Indian classics, ghazals, thumris, qawwalis, bhajana, patriotic numbers and lamentations. In western music and romantic numbers he evolved a new singing concept, always moulding his voice to assure the best lip synching.
Yasmin recounts in the biography that an evening in 1937 in Lahore metamorphosed him. Someone pushed him on the stage to perform with musical stalwarts when the electricity went off. Maestros Kundan Lal Saigal and Zohra Bai Ambalewali were annoyed by the disruption. Rafi came to the rescue by singing in pitch darkness without the aid of a mic or speaker, and sang till there was pin drop silence among the audience. It prophesied the start of the singer’s road to stardom from Lahore to Bombay.
His Lahrao tiranga Lahrao fired up the audience so much he ended up singing another 25 minutes
Another interesting anecdote in the biography is that of Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru inviting Rafi to sing for three minutes on India’s Independence Day (15 August 1947) at Red Fort, Delhi. His Lahrao tiranga lahrao fired up the audience so much he ended up singing another 25 minutes to calm down the restless crowd.
The Indian Government honored him with the Padma Shri in 1967. Six Filmfare Awards and one National Film Award also came later.
Today’s generation admires Rafi’s Hindi songs but his songs in Assamese; Konkani; Bhojpuri; Oriya; Punjabi; Bengali; Marathi; Sindhi; Kannada; Gujarati; Telugu; Maghi and Maithili were equally popular. His Persian, Spanish and Dutch songs attained global recognition, and even his English album Pop Hits is still popular. He appeared onscreen with legendary Dilip Kumar in a scene, besides smaller roles in Samaj Ko Badal Dalo (1970), Jugnu (1973) and Laila Majnu (1979).
Rafi was so saddened at Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 that he teamed up with Husanlal, Bhagatram and Rajendra Krishan to compose a song overnight – Suno suno ae dunya waalo bapu ji ki amar kahaani – to project the country’s grim mood.
For the song Babul ki Duaen Leti Ja he literally wept to create the desired emotional appeal
Rafi’s association with musician Ravi for Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) brought him his first Filmfare Award. The Indian Government bestowed upon him the National Award for Neel Kamal (1968) for the song Babul ki Duaen Leti Ja for which he literally wept to create the desired emotional appeal.
Rafi died of a heart attack on 31st July, 1980 in Bombay hours after singing Shaam Phir Kyun Udaas Hai Dost for Aas Paas (released 1981), composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal.
In 2007, artist Tasawar Bashir unveiled a shrine for Mohammed Rafi in Birmingham, UK in an attempt to earn him sainthood status. People continuously appeal to the Indian Government to honor Rafi Bharat Ratna at least posthumously, but that hasn’t happened so far. His son Shahid Rafi started Mohammed Rafi Academy in Mumbai in 2010 after converting his home Rafi Mansion into a music academy on the 30th anniversary of the singer’s death. Seven Hindi movies have been dedicated to Rafi’s life so far.
Rafi was to perform in Pakistan in 1962 but the Indo-China War shattered that dream
Yasmin narrates Rafi’s remorse at failing to perform live in Lahore—a city where he spent his childhood. Rafi was to perform in Pakistan in 1962 but the Indo–China War shattered that dream, and he never got a second chance to visit Lahore. She narrates that on Thursdays Rafi regularly visited Kharkhari Pir’s shrine near Hazrat Dataganj Bakhsh’s shrine in Lahore.
Lahore still remembers the son of the soil, Rafi who died three and half decades ago, but remains alive in the hearts of the people of this city and worldwide.