At University I read a lot of literature in Hindi (and later, Urdu) as part of my maunder through tertiary education. Having grown up in India and spoken a street version of the language since my boyhood days I had a confidence in my ability and understanding of the language that I quickly discovered was over inflated. Watching Hindi movies, reading the occasional comic book and even formal language classes in high school did little to prepare me for the writings of Prem Chand, Harivansh Rai Bachchan or Phanishwarnath Renu. In addition to discovering that there was so little of the language (idiom, grammar, vocabulary) that I knew, reading these great writers confirmed just how isolated my childhood as an American in India had really been. The experience was sobering.
One classroom experience sums up the situation. We were reading aloud a Hindi short story. Our lecturer was a friendly man named Paul, whose knowledge of Hindi came from a purely linguistic interest. His familiarity with the spoken vernacular was virtually nil. I was asked to read half a page of text and explain it back to the class in English. I did so. My accent was strong and true and there were few words I could not sound out, even if I struggled with their meaning. But suddenly I was unable to make sense of one phrase. The character, the story went, ‘walked away singing a rafi song’. I had no idea what that meant. Was rafi an adverb? What did it connote? Was it a derivative of ‘raga’? I confessed to Paul that I didn’t know what ‘rafi’ meant.
“Really? You, of all people,” he said in disbelief. “You surely know Mohammad Rafi. The Hindi singer.”
I grinned but not pleasantly.
“The lines that follow are the lines of one of his most famous songs,” Paul went on. My embarrassment could not have been more acute.
The silver lining in this overcast tale is that I at last knew who Rafi was. Many more years would come and go though before I truly began to appreciate his genius. This time I found myself in Pakistan, as a student of Urdu. Throughout that glorious year of intellectual stimulation I spent many hours in buses and mini-buses (called ‘wagons’) travelling across the country discovering its rich history and culture. Inevitably, at some point in those long journeys the driver would play a cassette or two of Rafi songs: Yeh Duniya Yeh Mehfil, Mujhe Duinya Walon, and Chahe Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe and so on.
Around that time and because of those road trips, isolated remembered sounds from my youth began to coalesce into a unified story. Oh! So Rafi sang all those songs in Pakeezah, Love in Tokyo and Ham Kissi Se Kam Nahin. Oh! I know him!
Now that my feet (my ears, actually) were on firm ground, I turned myself to listening with intent to Ustad Mohammad Rafi.
In previous posts on this blog I have expressed my deep besottedness with Kishore Kumar. You may get the impression that I consider him to be the ultimate in Indian playback singing.
For a long time I did. But in all honesty it is a toss up between Kishore and Rafi. A friend says Kishore is the ‘midday sun’ and Rafi ‘the early morning’ of Hindi film song (with Mukesh being the ‘setting sun’). I can’t argue what that succinct summation and can only suggest that another way to evaluate these two maestros is to consider them as two sides of the same golden coin.
The man in the striped suit
Rafi, of course, preceded Kishore by some years, even though by the early-1970s the younger had eclipsed the senior by most measures. A student of Bade Ghulam Ali Khansahib, Rafi’s journey from province to studio was much more direct and less traumatic than Kishore’s. Rafi exhibited none of the self doubt or eccentricity that distinguished, and seemed, by turns, to drive and torment Kishore. By all accounts he lived a life of a settled Muslim gentleman: loyal and protective of his family, personally pious and so unflamboyant, that were it not for his golden vocal chords, he would have escaped notice almost entirely.
In a city and industry that feasted on gossip and scandal Mohammad Rafi eschewed the naughty headline. Whatever negative publicity came his way was more in the category of professional spats (such as his being dropped by O.P. Nayyar for several years because of his moonlighting with Shankar-Jaikishan) than scandal. No sexual innuendo, public drunkenness or roughhousing for Rafi sahib. When he wasn’t at the studio recording, (which was not often, if we are to take his claim to have recorded between 25-26,000 songs, seriously] he limbered up his fingers for a game of caroms or could be found on the badminton court.
Of course, there was THE ROYALTY ISSUE, as it has been passed down through the years, but even that was a business dispute. And his role in the affair is perhaps the most interesting part of the story. It certainly is the best public demonstration of his essential sharif character. By the early 1960s playback singing, and indeed, almost the entirety of Indian popular song, was the unchallenged domain of Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar. The latter approached Rafi for support in her decidedly bold and progressive demand for a greater share of royalties from their songs. Rafi declined, stating that his agreement was to sing a song and as long as he received the contracted amount his interest had been satisfied. It was the producers and directors who ran the risk of the film being a flop and losing their shirts (and dhotis), not the playback singer. If the film went on to reap millions for the investors, so be it. That was business.
This reveals so much of Rafi’s outlook on life. It was the attitude of a man who valued the straightforward approach. Fairness was determined by sticking to the deal. There is a fundamental humility in Rafi’s response as well. “I’m just a singer; nothing great.” His deference to the big shots with the deep pockets betrays a very traditional, almost village acceptance of social order and place. His stance on the royalty issue, in my opinion, simply adds vibrancy to the burnish of his reputation. A man comfortable at once, with his roots and his present. And a man of principle. Listen to the lyrics of one of the song’s in this collection, Polam Pol, a satirical stab at the cheating that goes on in everyday life and you’ll see where Rafi comes from. “Gane mein nahi pukka gana” (not singing a song properly) is condemned along with mixing water with the milk and lawyers telling lies.
Having said that, let’s not take anything away from Lata’s brave fight. It foreshadowed similar moves by American musicians, especially black ones, who stood up against the record and publishing companies to get a better deal from their art. In the Royalty Issue there was no right or wrong side; just two deeply held and very worthy takes on what makes the world spin on its axis.
Mohammad Rafi’s singing was distinguished by a sense of adventure that belies his at-home-ordinariness. Though he rose to maturity as an artist in the 50s when Hindi film music was based largely in the classical (and later) folk traditions, when the scene changed and composers like Shankar-Jaikishan and Laxmikant-Pyarelal embraced jazz, rock and Latin sound structures into their music Rafi stepped up without missing a beat. Listen to numbers like the aforementioned Polam Pol (1957) and Jan Pehchaan Ho (1965) to be impressed by a voice that is absolutely at ease with the demands of an entirely new way of singing. Rafi’s willingness to embrace the modern racy feel of music that began creeping into Hindi films as early as the late 50s laid the foundation from which Kishore took off in the 70s. Indeed, can we argue that because composers knew they had an artist as sure and masterful as Rafi they themselves pushed their compositions with the assurance that there was someone who could do them justice?
Certainly its hard to imagine Hemant Kumar or Manna Dey stretching themselves sufficiently to get the wild new rock n roll scenes pitch and picture perfect. If Kishore was indeed the bright sun of the 70s, we must thank Rafi for blazing the path that he scampered down so playfully.
Be it ghazal, qawwali, bhajan, lok geet, drunken swoon or lover’s croon Rafi’s ability to sing each not just competently but convincingly and with genuine pleasure is further evidence of this man’s artistic and humanistic greatness. There really was no one quite like him.
For your listening pleasure I’ve put together a double mixtape of some of my favorite Rafi cuts. Classics, underappreciated ones and even a few rarities.
Ok, I’ll shut up now and let you drown in the Wonder That Was Mohammad Rafi.
Track Listing (pt. 1)
01 Maan Mera Ehsaan
02 Aaj ki Raat
03 Chahe Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe
04 Aaz-e-Dil Chedh De
05 Husn Chala Kuchh Aisi Chaal
06 Nain Mila Kar Chain
07 Yeh Mera Prem Patra
08 Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyar Ke Charche
09 Chhahoonga Mein Tujhe
10 Pollam Pol (Laxmi)
11 Khilona Jan Khar
12 Mere Dost Kissa
13 Aaja Re Aa
14 Ye Duniya
15 Toote Huye
16 Mujhe Duniya Walo Sharabi Na Samjho
17 Chalo Dildar Chalo
18 Pukarta Chala Hoon Main
20 Tun Aheen Sahib
Track Listing (pt. 2)
21 Jan Pahechan Ho
22 Dil Deke Dekho
23 Teri Galyon Mein
24 Chura Liya Hai Tum Ne
25 O Duniya Ke Rakhwale
26 Bus ke Dushwar Hai
27 Aap Naraz, Khuda, Khair Kare
28 Gulabi Ankhen
29 Aaye Na Balam
30 Pathar Ke Sanam
31 Baharon Phool Barsaao
32 Chaudhvin Ka Chand
33 Tumsa Nahin Dekha
33 Yeh Duniya Yeh Mehfil
34 Love in Tokyo
36 Kya Hua Tera Wada
37 Jo Wada Kiya Ho Nibhana Padega
38 Ek Dil Ke Tukde Hazar Huye
39 Chal Chal Mere Bhai
40 Chhalake Jaam