New and Old Ghazals: Mohammad Rafi



In 1976 things were not so cheery in India.

Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule was at its apogee. Sycophancy and sloganeering were the order of the day. Political dissent was forbidden. And, the general unruliness of life as lived in India was frowned upon.


Of course, that has nothing to do with this record. Except in an indirect way. That no matter what politicians and dynasts do to try to cling to power, they all ultimately end up in the dustbin of history.

12 months later, in 1977, Indira was tossed out of office when she very injudiciously believed her own press releases and called a general election. So much for ‘More Work. Less Talk’ and mass sterilization campaigns!

What remains and will always remain is truth. As expressed in art. As expressed in music. As expressed in these eight massive ghazals which are brought to a soulful life by the inimitable Shri Mohammad Rafi.

Rafi sahib, like all the great play back singers of his generation, loved the opportunity to ‘stretch’ himself by getting away from film music.   Films made him his millions but as an artist there is a limit to how many variations on a theme you can credibly sing.

I have a number of records of non-filmi music by Lata, Asha and Rafi which I consider to be among their finest. Without the contraints and pressures to deliver to a specific formula for a specific scene in a specific film by a specific music director, you can sense the freedom and joy in their voices.

On this record Rafi renders on Side 1 four ghazals by contemporary poets such as Sudarshan Faakir and Shamim Jaipuri.   Faakir’s lyrics in particular are ones I’ve admired for many years.   Ek Hi Baat Zamane ki Kitabon Mein Nahin, (The One Thing that Will Not be Found in the books of history) the last track on Side 1, seems especially appropriate to the spirit of 1976. All the things that will not be written in this books of history.

 jo gam-e-dost me nasha hai sharabo me nahi 

(The buzz from wine can not be compared to the intoxication of friends’ sorrow)

That line can be read as a boozer’s lament, but also as a comment on the profound tragedy of lost friendships, something that divisive period of Indian history delivered in spades.

Side 2 is a quartet of classic ghazals from some of the greatest Indian poets, including Ghalib, Mir and Dagh Dehlvi. All of them are wonderful. Taj Ahmed Khan the music arranger has done an outstanding job making sure to give Rafi’s voice just the instrumental and rhythmic support it needs to shine. My favorite is the opening track on Side 2

Haae Mehman Kahan Yeh Gham-e-Jaana Hoga which is full of blue notes and mournful glissandos.

The record is a treasure. I am grateful to Balkar Bains of Queensland for his gift.


rafi ghazal front

rafi ghazal back


Track Listing:

01 Falsafe Ishq Mein Pesh Aaye Sawalon ki Tarah [Sudarshan Faakir]

02 Talkhi-e-Mae Mein Zara Talkhi-e-Dil Bhi Gholen [Krishen Adeeb]

03 Kitni Rahat Hai Dil Toot Jane ke Baad [Shamim Jaipuri]

04 Ek Hi Baat Zamane ki Kitabon Mein Nahin [Sudarshan Faakir]

05 Haae Mehman Kahan Yeh Gham-e-Jaana Hoga [Dagh Dehlvi]

06 Diya Yeh Dil Agar Usko Bashar Hai Kya Kahiye [Mirza Ghalib]

07 Dil ke Baat Kahi Nahin Jati [Mir Taqi Mir]

08 Na Shauq-e-vasl-ka Dawa [Ameer Minai]


In Fond Rememberance: Mohammad Rafi

Two Mohammads

Two Mohammads

Thirty five years ago today one of the greatest and most loved voices in the world of singing was taken from us.  Mohammad Rafi will always be valued as a singer and human being of sublime qualities.

Type  ‘remembering Mohammad Rafi’ into Google and you’ll find a large number of recollections of India’s greatest playback singer.    Here on this link you’ll find the album pictured below. It is a memorial issue released soon after his passing in 1980. And in the typically earnest and reverential tone employed by ‘Actors with Gravitas’ you will be treated to a spoken biography of his life (in chaste Urdu) interspersed with some of Rafi’s Greatest Hits.


Mod Rafi front 557 Mohd Rafi back 558

The Wonder That Was: Mohammad Rafi (Links restored)

Mohammad Rafi

Mohammad Rafi

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

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.

genius of rafi 1

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

19 Qad-o-Gaysoo

20 Tun Aheen Sahib


genius of rafi v 2

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


From the Archives: Mohammad Rafi

Another look back to December 2011 from the archives


Jhulelal, Sindhi Community Diety

Mohammad Rafi was one of the holy trinity of Indian playback singers that genuinely formed the soundtrack to India’s first thirty years of Independence. From the late 40’s to the late 70’s Rafi’s voice along with those of Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar filled not only every cinema but bounced off every narrow gali, blasted from every café and barbershop and wedding celebration across India. And beyond, to Russia, the Middle East and Africa.

 imgres-3Born near Amritsar but raised in Lahore Rafi was an improbable superstar. His family was not a traditional musical one and though he began singing publicly at a young age it was not until he moved to Bombay in the early 1940s that he received training from some of the greats of Indian khayal including Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. But what he lacked in pedigree he made up for in capability.  His first film work was in 1944. Four years later he was invited by the first PM of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, to sing at his home.

From then on film work increased with Rafi recording thousands of songs for the Bollywood musical directors. Some, such as O.P Nayyar, Naushad and Shankar-Jaikishan used Rafi almost exclusively at various stages in their own glorious careers.

I’ve posted some of Rafi sahib’s film work before and more will come. But tonight’s post is a record of devotional and spiritual music sung in Sindhi.  As such it is a delightful detour away from the filmi world with which he is almost always associated. 

The lyrics of these songs comes from some of Sindh’s great folk and mystical poets: Bulleh Shah, Shah Latif and Dharamdas. The music is composed by one of Sindh’s most beloved patriots Dr Ram Panjwani. He’s pictured on the front of the album with Rafi.

DADA-RAM-PANJWANIPanjwani was born in Larkana, the same district that was the stomping ground of Pakistan’s great Bhutto political dynasty.  At Independence he, with hundreds of thousands other Hindu Sindhis, fled to India.  Pajwani (who was a writer, musician and activist) became a great organiser of the displaced Sindhis in Bombay and across India. To assist him he used the Sindhis’ community god, Jhulelal as a cultural touchstone to give them hope and solace in their ‘exile’.

The (very crudely paraphrased) story of Jhulelal is a tale of deux–ex-machina.  In the early days of Muslim penetration of India the Hindu residents of Thatta in Sindh had the misfortune of being ruled by a Muslim ruler, Mirkshah, who was aggressive about converting the local population….by force if necessary.  Given 40 days to agree to abandon their faith and convert to Islam, the people of Thatta beseeched their gods for a way out. On the 40th day a local woman became pregnant and eventually gave birth to a boy child. From the infant’s mouth flowed the Indus River and on the river riding a fish was an old man with a long beard.

The child/man was able to convince the Mirkshah’s vizier that he was indeed a spiritual being and eventually when confronted with Jhulelal’s powers Mirkshah himself relented and let the people keep their Hindu faith. 

When Jhulelal, also known as Uderolal, died Muslims insisted upon erecting a mini ‘kaba’ in his honor. The Hindus insisted upon a temple. Fighting ensued. Suddenly from on high a voice was heard, “ Behold! You shall make my shrine acceptable to both Hindus and Muslims. Let one face be a temple and the other a dargah (Sufi shrine).”

The story is rich with Sindhi syncretic thinking. Indeed, the vast countryside of what is now Pakistan was for centuries the home of a highly syncretic culture and religious practice. Sufi poetry is appreciated by Hindu Sindhis as much as Muslims and Jhulelal is so revered by Sindhis of all persuasions, the phrase “Jhulelal beera hee paar” is a standard greeting between Sindhis wherever they are in the world.

And of especial interest to the Washerman’s Dog is the frequent reference to Jhulelal in that great Sufi qawwali Dama Dam Mast Qalandar.

So it is with great pleasure tonight I post Hindu and Muslim spirituals from Sindh sung by a Muslim set to music composed by a Hindu who revered the tolerant diety of Sindh who wanted his resting place to be half Hindu half Muslim.

The Wonder That Was Sindh! 

rafi sindhi front Rafi in Sindhi back 1393 

            Track Listing:

01 Kahdi Karyan Mahmani (Sachal)

02 Badal Aaaya Bahar Miyan (Bhojal)

03 Jeko Sabhai Siyaka Satte (Roshan)

04 Hee Aashikan Ja Insaf (Dharmdas)

05 Tu Aheen Sahib (Sachal)

06 Dardan Ji Mari (Shah)

07 Kiya Janey Dum Koi (Bulleh Shah)

08 Kalangi Wara Lal (Ram)

Just a Harmonium Player: Naushad



We regularly speak of Bollywood music as if it was a single sort of thing.  Far too often, the phrase is a coded reference for the big-name playback singers, Saigal, Lata, Noor Jehan, Rafi and Mukesh.  And in the popular imagination (certainly in my own naïve one) the beautiful hits of Bombay’s Golden Era have (wrongly) become almost exclusively associated with the singers who brought them to life for the actors and scenes on screen.


But before Rafi or Lata or Shamshad Begum got to the studio the song had been conceived, composed, scored and lyrics written by others.  These men (sadly few women have found space in this particular arena) were known as the Music Directors and as far as the film producers were concerned they were as important, if not more so, than the playback singers. Their names came up in the credits before the singers and usually in bigger letters.  The Music Directors had their favourite poets and writers whom they tapped for lyrics to match the melodies. Indeed, by the 1950s, after the first generation of Indian talkies had passed, several composer-writer teams emerged who worked exclusively together: Shankar-Jaikishan, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Kalyanji-Anandji being the most popular.


Today we tell the story of Naushad Ali, one of the truly great men not just of Hindi cinema but of Indian popular culture.  Though not the first important composer of film music–Ghulam Haider,  Pankaj Mullick and others composed the first great music of South Asian film–Naushad is regarded as standing head and shoulders above his peers during the peak of his creative life.


A Muslim boy from Lucknow, Naushad had a family that did not support his love of music. To find relief he ran away to the local equivalent of the circus, the nautanki. A popular form of travelling folk theatre that mixed bawdy song, folk tales and religious guidance, nautanki was until the near total domination of culture by cinema, village India’s main form of entertainment.


During this informal apprenticeship, he honed his skills on the harmonium (which he also repaired for additional income) and other instruments.  During his time in Lucknow he watched small teams of musicians compose the ‘soundtrack’ to silent films at the Royal Theatre an experience that proved invaluable to the development of his own career as a composer. The musicians would watch the film through, talking to themselves and making notes about what instruments and sounds would work in which scene. Then when the audience came in they would play their ideas live as the reels rolled!


The young Naushad set up his own company, the Windsor Entertainers (he liked the ring of the English name) and after some formal training with a local maestro was confident enough to hang out his shingle as a composer.  But Lucknow was an inhospitable place to make a career given his family’s opposition. So, like so many others seeking Lady Fortune’s hand, he made his way to Bombay.


It was not easy. He slept on the streets for months, composing music that was rejected by the studios or that failed to make an impression on the public. He earned little more than Rs.50 a month. Yet, he managed to compose for nearly a dozen films and even had the backing of the successful composer Khemchand Prakash but the ‘hit’ eluded him.  In 1944 the Lady smiled.  With the film Rattan Naushad’s music for the songs Akhiyan Milake and Milke bicchad gayi akhiyan smashed through.  He now charged Rs25,000 a film!  The film had cost just Rs. 75,000 to make but the record of the music itself grossed Rs. 3 million! And this is time when record players and recorded music was accessible to the very  thinnest slice of Indians.


Naushad Ali, the harmonium repair man from Lucknow, was now a star.  But when he returned home to get married, he was unable to tell his father and uncles that the music blasting from the loudspeakers was in fact his handiwork.


Naushad’s music is steeped in Hindustani classical traditions; many of his great hits are based on ragas.  His years as a travelling musician had taken him all across the plains of northern India where his acute ear had picked up folk rhythms and melodies. Like his Lahori peer, Ghulam Haider, he filled his music with these folk elements, giving his music its distinctive feel.  And though he was steeped in the traditions of north Indian music he was not averse to experimenting with western instruments. It is to Naushad that credit is given for introducing the accordion and clarinet to Hindi film music.


Naushad and Rafi

Naushad and Rafi

Naushad not only had an ear for a good folky riff but was an outstanding assessor of talent. His ‘discovery’ of the singer Suraiyya in the 1940s shot her to fame.  And though he worked with everyone from Ameerbai, Shamshad Begum and Noor Jehan, his most memorable work was reserved for the voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi, who were launched to the dizzy heights of all India fame on the back of Naushad’s music.


The number of iconic films Naushad scored is staggering: Mother India, Mughal-e-Azam, Baiju Bawra, Andaaz, Deedar, Ganga Jumna to name just a few.  The massive success of Baiju Bawra marked the pinnacle of his folk-music phase, henceforth, his music would be known for its elegant and rich classical undertone and nuances.


The Age of Naushad stretches from 1944-1960 a sixteen-year period when no one could come close to his accomplishments. Yet as the 60s brought new sensibilities and a fresh generation of composer willing and eager to introduce western dance, baila, jazz and even rock music into the mix, Naushad was increasingly marginalised.  And though his star faded and was completely extinguished in 2006, his reputation and contribution to the development of what we now all refer to as Bollywood music is universally acknowledged and praised.


Enjoy this slice of early Bollywood music from the masterful Naushad.

 Naushad Naushad_0001

            Track Listing;