Punjab is the land of great gurus, saints, seers and peers. When we talk about art and culture, the angel of music Mohammed Rafi was born in a small village Kotla Sultan Singh of Amritsar.
The singer of the millennium, Rafi with his rich tonal voice, versatility and crystal clear intonations rendered thousands of unique heart-wrenching songs varied from fast peppy numbers to classical songs, lamenting melodies to highly romantic songs, qawwalis to ghazals and naats to bhajans.
He had so poignantly brought in emotions in his renderings with his exquisite melodious and mellifluous voice for over seven decades. The cultural icon and emissary of Punjab, Mohammed Rafi's vibrant vocal mystique charisma boomed across the universe.
He sang alongside K.L. Saigal in ‘Shah Jehan’, it was his duet with Noor Jehan in ‘Jugnu’ that catapulted him as a serious contender to fill the vacant slot of the leading male vocalist.
In Baiju Bawra, he demonstrated his virtuosity and range and in ‘Pyasa’, the evocative power he could bring to the lyrics. Though he did make a partial transition to a more youthful and playful style as in Junglee, he was too closely wedded to the classical tradition to wander too far from it.
Mohammed Rafi was born to Hajji Ali Mohammed and Allah Rakhi on 24 December, 1924. A faqir used to chant ‘Maaye Ni Khedan De Din Char’ while seeking alms in his locality.The little child, Pheeku (Rafi) enchanted by the melodious tune, used to trail the faqir from a distance. That sowed the seeds of music in him. He grew up in an orthodox household where music and singing was frowned upon. At the age of nine, he moved to Lahore and started working in the family enterprise.
Once Pandit Jiwan Lal Mattoo of Radio Lahore went for a hair cut to the saloon, where Pheeku was singing Waris Shah’s Heer in quintessential Amritsari style.
Impressed by his voice, Jiwan Lal took him under his wings and trained him in classical music and some commonly used Raagas in Punjabi folk music.
Rafi picked up the intricacies of music from some well-known vocalists and instrumentalists like Abdul Waheed Khan and Chotte Ghulam Ali Khan.
Later in life, this casual Radio artist rose to the unprecedented heights in Indian Film Industry to be known as Mohammed Rafi.
Rafi’s singing talent was first recognised on a grander scale in 1937, when he unexpectedly performed at the All-India Exhibition, Lahore. The audience included renowned singer K.L. Saigal, who predicted that Rafi would one day become a great singer.
In 1942, Rafi was introduced to filmdom by music director Shyam Sunder by recording a duet “Pardesi…Sohneya Oye Heeriye Oye” in the voices of Zeenat Begum and Mohammad Rafi for the Punjabi movie ‘Gul Baloch’ (1945). Contrary to common belief, Rafi had rendered two more melodies in this film.
He sang another duet ‘Aa Chann Ve’ with Munawar Sultana under the baton of Lachhi Ram and a chorus ‘Sun Sun Nikki Jehi Gall’ under the music direction of Pt. Amar Nath. His renderings became very popular even before the release of this movie on 23 August, 1946. The rest, as they say, is history.
Rafi then moved to Bombay on invitation of actor-producer Nazeer, who paid him one hundred Rupees and a rail ticket from Lahore to Bombay.
The story of Rafi’s first recording as narrated by Naushad “In order to give a marching effect to the patriotic song ‘Hindustan Ke Hum Hain’ (Pehle Aap-1944), he asked the chorus singers to wear heavy military shoes and sing the song making a rhythmic sound by hitting the booted legs in unison.
After the recording, Rafi’s feet were bleeding but his face was glowing with the joy of having sung his first song in a Hindi movie”. However, some sources claim that Rafi’s first Hindi film song was ‘Jab Dil Ho Kaabu Mein’ (Gaon Ki Gori-1945).
Naushad gave him chances in many films like Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Shahjehan (1946) etc. Rafi gave a cameo performance on ‘Woh Apni Yaad Dilane Ko’ (Jugnu-1947). An icing on the cake was a superhit duet ‘Yahan Badla Wafa Ka’ with Noor Jehan composed by Firoze Nizami and his popularity soared to new heights.
He also appeared on the big screen in films: Laila Majnu (1945), Shahjehan (1946), Samaj Ko Badal Dalo (1947) and Shaheed (1948). Rafi’s earlier singing style was heavily influenced by G.M. Durrani in songs like Ek Dil Ke Tukde Hazar Hue (Pyar Ki Jeet-1948). However, his career really took off with the all-time hit Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki (Dulari-1949).
After the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the team of Husanlal-Bhagatram, Rajendra Krishan and Mohammad Rafi overnight created the moving eulogy 'Suno Suno Ae Duniya Walo'. The year 1949 was the undisputed hinge over which the floodgates of Rafi’s melodies opened.
Rafi was extremely nostalgic about his Punjabi roots. He recorded many Punjabi folk, film songs and Gurbani Shabads etc. After the partition, he devoted equally to playback singing in Hindi and Punjabi movies. He made significant contribution to Punjabi cinema by rendering 262 songs in 105 Punjabi movies.
He recorded five songs in Punjabi film ‘Lachhi’ (1949) under the music direction of Hansraj Behl. His solo 'Jag Wala Mela Yaro' became immensely popular on both sides of the border. His duets with Lata Mangeshkar 'Kaali Kangi Naal' and 'Tumba Vajdae Na' also made to the top of the musical charts. Now, he became the most sought after playback singer in the Punjabi Cinema.
Next year he became busy with Hindi films and gave playback in only three superhit Punjabi movies Bhaiya Ji, Chhai and Madari. His song 'Aji O Munda Moh Leya Taveetan Wala Damdi Da Sakk Malke' (Chhai) caught the fancy of the Punjabi youth and it became a rage throughout the country.
In 1951, he sang three songs under the baton of Sardul Kwatra and his duet with Asha Bhosle 'Tun Peengh Te Main Parchhavan' hit the bull’s eye. Punjab was still reeling under the pain of partition, when his philosophical rendering 'Darh Vatt Zamana Katt Bhale Din Aawange' (Jugni-1953) became a healing touch.
By now, Rafi became a force to reckon with in Hindi Cinema, he found little time for Punjabi movies. However, he made a thunderous come back with 'Jatt Kudiyaan Ton Darda Mara' (Bhangra-1959). In 1960, he gave playback to the dance director Sohan Lal Khanna in the popular bhangra number 'Teri Kanak Di Raakhi Mundiya' (Do Lachhian).
Rafi remained a prolific singer in the next two decades and rendered many hit numbers in films like Heer Syal, Pagri Sambhal Jatta, Billo, Guddi, Walait Pass, Chaudhary Karnail Singh, Geet Bahaaran De, Khedan De Din Char, Pardesi Dhola, Laajo, Sat Saliyan, Dharti Veeran Di, Sapni, Sassi Punnu, Laaiye Tod Nibhaiye, Dupatta, Kankan De Ohle, Dukh Bhanjan Tera Naam, Bhagat Dhanna Jatt, Morni, Guru Manio Granth, Lachhi, Dhyanu Bhagat, Ladlee, Mahi Munda and Sassi Punnu (1983) etc.njabi melodies included ‘Daana-Paani Khich Ke Liaunda’ (Guddi); ‘Ghar Babul Da’ (Chaudhary Karnail Singh); ‘Vekhiya Pishore Vai’ (Pardesi Dhola); ‘Ji Karda Ae Is Duniya Nu’ (Geet Baharaan De); ‘Na Disse Tu’ (Satluj De Kande); ‘Chan De Mathe Daag’ (Dharti Veeran Di); ‘Akhaan De Theekre Wich’ (Sassi Punnu); ‘Jaach Mainu Aa Gayi’ (Shonkan Mele Di); ‘Mitter Pyare Nu’ (Nanak Nam Jahaj Hai); ‘Russ Ke Tu Challi Gaiyon’ (Papi Tarey Anek); ‘Sanu Bukk Naal Paani’ (Ladlee); ‘Eh Mor Kiyon Pailaan’ (Mahi Munda); ‘Na Russ Heere Meriye’ (Chann Pardesi); ‘Laggi Wale’ (Sassi Punnu); ‘Mera Wichhdeya Yaar’ (Sohni Mahiwal) and ‘Matlab Di Eh Duniya’ (Duniya Matlab Di) etc.
Apart from Punjabi film music, Rafi cut many records of Shabads, Naats, non-film and folk songs. A 78 rpm record of two Shabads ‘Har Ko Naam Sada Sukhdai..’ and ‘Jis Sar Upar Tu Swami’ released in 1950s became an all time hit. Rafi had also recorded many Punjabi folk songs like ‘Saadi Russ Gayi Jhanjran Wali Sade Bhaane Rabb Russ Giya..’ and opera ‘Heer Ranjha’ which became very popular.
Hindi film songs with Punjabi lyrics/ wordings like ‘Main Koi Jhoot Boliya’ (Jagte Raho), ‘Le De Saiyyan Orhni‘ (Pavitra Papi), ‘Main Jatt Yamla‘ (Pratigya) and many more have ever remained popular. Mohammed Rafi gave a special twist to such songs to make these popular amongst non Punjabi speaking populace.
Having excelled in playback, Rafi composed music for eight non film songs including four songs written by a Punjabi poet Mohinder Singh Bedi. Rafi’s conversation at home and in private circles was always in the Punjabi accent. Rafi was remorseful at failing to perform live in Lahore as the Indo–China War shattered that dream and he never got a second chance to visit Lahore.
Rafi had established fairly wide base of association with bollywood from the legendary Shyam Sunder to Bappi Lahiri. Rafi revered Naushad as his Guru, mentor and guide while Naushad considered Rafi, God’s gift to film music.
His voice had unique feature of screen adaptability and Rafi could mould his voice to the persona and style of the actor. Rafi did have a special liking for ‘Jatt-Yamla’ Dharmendra, who always openly showered his love on Rafi.
Rafi brought radical change to the Hindi film music by introducing the concept of singing to one and a half “Saptaks” (scales) rather than the usual one Saptak. He possessed such a wide singing range that he could easily sing in three octaves without veering out of control.
From the classical ‘Madhuban Mein Radhika Nachi Re’ to the swinging ‘Aaja Aaja Main Hoon Pyar Tera’, from the soulful ‘Hum Bekhudi Mein’ to the comic ‘Sar Jo Tera Chakraye’, from the philosophical ‘Dekhi Zamane Ki Yaari’ to the frivolous ‘Aiaiya Karoon Main Kya Sukoo Sukoo’, he could sing anything.
Mohammed Rafi, an altruist, was known for charging no fees or just a minuscule amount for singing songs in the films of producers and music directors who could not afford his regular charges. Nissar Bazmi was a small composer in India but became a big name in Pakistan.
When Bazmi was in distress, he approached Rafi to sing ‘Chanda Ka Dil Toot Gaya (Khoj-1953) for the maximum Rs 50 that his producer could afford and Rafi charged Bazmi just the token fee of Rupee one. Rafi charged only Rupees fifty from Pandit Shivram for the chartbuster ‘Daulat Ke Jhoote Nashe Mein’ of a shoestring-budget starrer ‘Oonchi Haveli’ (1955). In the case of Rafi, the tune came first and the money after. Similarly, he obliged S. Mohinder with foot-tapping rhythm of ‘Tera Kaam Hai Jalna Parwaane’ (Papi). Likewise, given the aid of Rafi’s vocals, G.S. Kohli was able to come up in ‘Lambe Haath’. Sapan-Jagmohan got their break in Begaana (Hindi) and Jeejaji (Punjabi) and Rafi extended his helping hand to settle them in Bollywood.
He performed in live concerts at over 30 venues across the globe, reaching out to millions of fans in United States, Canada and U.K. etc. Rafi rendered his last song ‘Tu Kahin Aas Paas Hai Dost” (Aas Paas-1980). He sang approximately 6,000 songs in different Indian languages and many foreign languages like English, Persian, Arabic, Sinhalese, Creole and Dutch etc.
At thirteen, Rafi got married to his cousin Bashiran Biwi and they were blessed with a son Sayeed and a daughter Zakia. However, after a few years, the two got separated. In 1944, he married Bilquis Bano, from whom he had three daughters and three sons. He followed a home-to-recording¬-and-back-home-schedule. He had a funny habit to fly kites, a typical Amritsari trait. He would sulk like a baby if his kites were cut.
He won numerous Awards and accolades, starting with the Silver Medal given by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on the first anniversary of Indian Independence. In 1965, he was decorated with the Padma Shri. He won the coveted National Award for the song 'Kya Hua Tera Wada' (1977). He won Filmfare Award for the Best Male Playback Singer six times.
Rafi suffered a major heart attack and the world of music lost one of its brightest luminaries on 31 July, 1980. Mohammed Rafi still shines like a Polaris on Indian film music horizon. Celebrities have fans, but Rafi had worshippers, even some of them have “Rafi Temples” in their houses.
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