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A Tribute to Muhammad Rafi- The legendary singer

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

The ever smiling Rafi saheb. Once a collection of his sad songs was compiled by a recording company. They needed a photograph of the singer in which he had sad expressions on his face. They however could only find his pictures in which he was displaying his naturally pleasant smile.The recording company had therefore no option but to use a smiling picture of Rafi saheb for their sad songs album! The old city of Lahore has a wall around it. This wall, which was built in the ancient times, but was last reinforced by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in around 1634 AD has twelve ‘darwazas’ or gates. The gate that faces south east is called Bhaati gate. This is the gate that is closest to the shrine of Hazrat Data Gunj Baksh, the sufi saint who used to live here in around 1000 AD.

Bhaati Gate of the walled city of Lahore

Inside Bhaati gate there is a crowded bazaar from which small streets emerge. One of the mohallas here is called Noor Mohalla. This is the birthplace of my father who was born in January 1941. In December 2018, I accompanied my father to visit his ancestral home. We left our car off the road and walked towards the ‘gate’.

There were fruit sellers and daal-chawal stalls on both sides of the road. Inside the gate, the bazaar was full of the traditional Lahori food shops selling popular foods like Halwa puri, Chanay and Nihari. There were the usual meat shops, vegetable and fruit shops. People in front of old houses were sitting on chairs and enjoying a gup shup session and enjoying a smoke and tea. The whole place was giving a carefree air on that pleasingly warm December morning.

Busy market inside Bhaati gate

While walking towards my father’s home, we crossed a street towards the left side of the main bazaar. The board on the street entrance, partly hidden behind lose electricity wires displayed its name, “Mohalla Chumaala”. My father pointed out the street to me and asked, “ Do you know who used to live here?” I expressed my ignorance.

“The legendary playback singer Mohammad Rafi”.

Mohalla Choomala- the street where a young Muhammad Rafi used to live with his family in the 1930s.

I knew that Rafi saheb had moved to somewhere in Lahore with his family from his village Kotla Sultan Singh (a village located north of Amritsar) but had no clue that the place where they settled in was in front of me!

“Wasn’t his father a chef?”

“That is correct. His father had a large family and he could no longer support them living in the village. So he migrated to a bigger city. He used to cook excellent ‘satrangi chawal’ (a rice dish with colourful grains of rice) amongst other mouth watering party foods”, my father said.

“They also used to do barbering services. Even in a bigger city like Lahore, you could not expect to get orders for party catering every day you see. So they had to have a day to day business which would allow him to put food on the table.” My father obviously knew a lot about his favourite singer!

“Did you ever meet him?” I asked.

A stall of Halwa Puri- just outside the street where Rafi saheb used to live

“No, I did not. By the time I was born and grew up a little, he had already left for Bombay. His family was however still here. His brother Shafi, used to cut our hair. He also had a very melodious voice and when he would break into a tune while cutting hair or shaving, people would stop walking and would listen. He was also the chef in my wedding!”

Oh my God! The story was getting interesting.

We had reached my father’s ancestral home. It was a four-story building and was in a reasonable state of repair. The door, old and seasoned was still sturdy. The house was still habituated by a family. We did not think it to be appropriate to visit the house and just took some photographs of the building.

My father in front of the door of the house where he was born. Noor Mohalla inside Bhaati Gate, Lahore

It was quite an experience to see this ancient place with so much of history. The place, clearly had taken a modern twist. The vegetable shop had fresh produce bought from the nearby ‘mundi’ neatly displayed. A young girl dressed in jeans and a qameez with her head covered by a flowery shawl and with iPhone earphones was buying some carrots (probably to make some halwa). Youngsters on motor bikes were carefully negotiating the carts and pedestrians milling on the narrow streets and there were some youngsters playing the ubiquitously played Cricket.

I asked my father if he knew more details about Rafi saheb. We started walking back to our car. My father started narrating the story of the faqir who used to sing,

Khaidan day din chaar O maaiay

Khaidan day din Chaar

On these very streets. Rafi, would be fascinated by his soulful voice and would flawlessly copy him. The faqir was very impressed by the talent of the young lad and blessed him. Rafi was also in the habit of singing while cutting hair (like his brother used to do after him) and a passerby who used to work in All India Radio got impressed by his voice. So he offered him a chance to sing for the radio.

Streets where a young Muhammad Rafi used to play and work as a barber inside Lahore's Bhaati gate

From then, to Rafi taking up music seriously, learning the classical music from maestros like Ustad Barkat Ali Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, then left for Mumbai (then Bombay). After the initial struggles, he managed to get a breakthrough in movies and then he never looked back.

“Which are your favourite songs of Rafi?”, I asked.

Two of the greatest playback singers of Indian film industry. Muhammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar

“I like all his songs!” came the straightforward answer.

A singer of such rare finesse, of such range, of such quality, is obviously not found very often.

We are fortunate to have lived in a time when Mohammad Rafi lived, performed and sang his heart out.

He was naturally talented with the God given voice. He honed his natural talent with utmost dedication and sheer hardwork. A man of natural charm and down to earth personality, he never imposed his modifications on the tune that was given to him by the music directors. He would absorb all of their instructions and would then produce work of exquisite quality.

Khayyam, a notorious hard task master would insist on extensive rehersals and on average 18 retakes! Rafi sahib would dutifully carry on doing the retakes until the hard task master was fully satisfied with the finished product.

Nausahd saheb, who is credited with giving Rafi saheb with his first break (after his friend and mentor Hameed saheb had produced a letter of recommendation that he had gone to Lucknow to obtain from Nausahad's father!) was astonished to note that after the recording of the nationalist song "Hindustan kay hum hain, Hindustan humara" Rafi's feet were bleeding. He , who had just gifted him ten rupees for excellent singing, asked him what had happened to his feet. Rafi saheb sheepishly said that the new shoes that he had been wearing were a bit tight and therefore resulted in the feet bleeding. Nausahd now felt guilty as he had asked him and the chorus singers to march up and down the recording studio so that the sound of marching troops could be generated as this was the scene on which the song was to be filmed.

" So why did you not tell me?" he asked. "Woh ji, hum gaa jo rahay thay!" came back the honest reply!

Nausahad was suly impressed by the professionalism and earmarked the young talented singer for his forthcoming productions.

In his brilliant career spanning a little over 45 years, Naushad Ali gave music for 26 silver jubilees, eight golden jubilees and four diamond jubilee films. His magnum opus remains the 1960 released Mughal e Azam that grossed over 5 Crore rupees, a surprising accomplishment in those years. 1957 Mother India was a little less than that at 4 crore rupees. Muhammad Rafi and his singing were an integral part in all of these commercial hits, a truly remarkable feat.

Muhammad Rafi with musician maestro Naushad Ali

From 40s and 50s, Rafi's stature just rose and rose in the 60s when he became the first choice for all the leading heroes. Listening to him, when I was young, I used to mistakenly believe that the songs recorded by him were sung by different singers. His voice sounds different in different songs. It was after a good few years that I realised that the singer who sang "Parbaton kay paidon par shaam ka basera hay' (film shagoon), 'Abhi na jaao chor kay (Film Hum dono) and Main nay poocha chand say (film Abdullah) were sung by the same person! Of course then I found out that he deliberately used to change his voice for the hero on whom the song was going to be filmed.

A singer of such rare finesse, of such range, of such quality, is obviously not found very often.

We are fortunate to have lived in a time when Mohammad Rafi lived, performed and sang his heart out. Let’s celebrate his rare talent by listening to some of his masterpiece performances.

Although, like my father said, you would like everything that he sang, these six songs won him Indian 'Filmfare' awards.

1953. For film Baiju Bawara (Musician Naushad Ali)

1958. For film Naya Daur (Musician OP Nayyar)

(In 1958, a separate award for 'best playback singer' was introduced).

1960. Chaudhveen Ka chand (Musician Ravi and Poet :Shakeel Badayuni)

1961. Teri pyari pyari Soorat Ko (Musician: Shankar- Jai Kishan. Poet: Hasrat Jaipuri)

1964. Chahoon ga main tujhay saanjh savairay (Musician: Luxmikant-Pyaralal. Poet: Majrooh Sultanpuri)

1966. Baharo phool barsaao (Musician: Shankar- Jai Kishan. Poet: Hasrat Jaipuri)

(In 1967, the award for best playback singer was split between best male and best female singers).

1968. Dil Kay jharokay main (Musician: Shankar- Jai Kishan. Poet: Hasrat Jaipuri)

1977. Kya hua tera waada (Musician RD Burman. Poet : Majrooh Sultanpuri)

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