Remembering Mohammed Rafi on His 35th Death Anniversary
By Rafique S.M. Ahmed
Los Angeles, CA
For many July 31, 1980 was the saddest day in the world when the greatest Muslim singer, Mohammed Rafi, had a massive heart attack and died in Mumbai, India leaving billions of his fans in a state of shock and mourning. He was only 55 years of age and had recorded the last song of his life with the famous music director, Naushad, only a day earlier. Ironically, the lyrics of his last song were 'Tu kahin aas paas hai dost' for the film "Aas Paas".
Luckily, I had the privilege of not only meeting and taking care of Mohammed Rafi, but also interviewing him back stage during his concerts in Los Angeles, California ,in the 1970s. Most of the promoters in Los Angeles at that time were my good friends who used to delegate the most sensitive responsibility to me to take care of all participating artists backstage during concerts.
July 31 this year marked the 35th death anniversary of Mohammed Rafi. As I woke up that day, the ever-
smiling face of a down-to-earth, gentle, extremely humble, and soft-spoken Mohammed Rafi remained constantly in my thoughts . I felt a compelling urge to write about him. Rafi ruled the Bollywood playback singing arena like a king for over 35 years and another 35 years after his death. He is, and will remain, the greatest Indian Bollywood singer of all times. He had the rare combination of humility and greatness which is not to be found anymore. Singers will come and go but there cannot be another Mohammed Rafi. As Lata Mangeshkar, Bollywood singing legend, once said, "Singers like Rafi Sahib are born once in a lifetime."
Mohammed Rafi was born on December 24, 1924 in village Kotla Sultanpur of Amritsar and was the second of six sons born to Haji Ali Mohammed. The family moved to Lahore in 1935 and settled down in Noor Mohalla in Bhatti Gate. Rafi loved singing since early childhood; he was deeply influenced by a beggar and started singing publicly by imitating him on the streets in the neighborhood.
When he was 15, he got a rare opportunity to sing in front of a big crowd. He had gone to listen to his idol, K. L. Saigal, who was scheduled to perform locally in Lahore. Unfortunately, there was a power outage in the auditorium. Saigal refused to sing without the microphone. The auditorium was packed to capacity with people who were going crazy for Saigal. Mohammed Rafi was accompanied by his older brother who requested the organizers to let Rafi sing until the power came back. The organizers agreed to his suggestion and let Mohammed Rafi sing. Rafi gave his first outstanding public performance and kept entertaining the audience until the power supply was restored. Saigal, who also listened to Rafi, was visibly impressed and predicted that he was destined for bigger things in life. The 15-year-old kid got a standing ovation from the audience that included music director Shyam Sunder who was so impressed that he offered and made Mohammed Rafi a playback singer for the first time in the Punjabi movie Gul Baloch released in 1944. Realizing the tremendous opportunities in store for the talented Mohammed Rafi in Mumbai, the family let him move to Mumbai. He moved there for good in 1944 and the rest is history.
Mohammed Rafi learnt classical music from Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan, Pandit Jiwan Lal Mattoo and Firoze Nizami. He used to do riyaz (daily practice) without fail. He proved a versatile singer and became famous for his songs ranging from classical numbers to patriotic taranas, sad lamentations to highly romantic numbers, qawwalis to ghazals and bhajans. He was known for his ability to mould his voice to the persona of the actor, lip-synching the song. Between 1950 and 1970, Rafi was the most sought after singer in the Indian film industry. He received six Filmfare Awards and one National Film Award. In 1967, he was honored with the Padma Shri award by the Government of India.
In 1948, Rafi had received a silver medal from the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, on the first anniversary of the Indian Independence Day. In 1974, Rafi won the Film World magazine Best Singer Award for the song "Teree Galiyon Mein Na Rakhenge Qadam Aaj Ke Baad".
In 2001, Mohammed Rafi was honored with the "Best Singer of the Millennium" award by Hero Honda and Stardust magazine. Rafi won with 70% of the votes.
Mohammed Rafi is primarily noted for his songs in Urdu/Hindi, over which he had a strong command. He sang in other Indian languages including Assamese,Konkani, Bhojpuri, Odia, Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi, Sindhi, Kannada, Gujarati,Telugu, Magahi, and Maithili. Apart from Indian languages, he also sang songs in English, Persian, Spanish, and Dutch.
Rafi adapted his singing style to the changing music styles of different decades. From the classical renditions for music director Naushad in the fifties, to the folk melody-based songs of music director S.D. Burman in the sixties and seventies, from the foot tapping numbers of O.P. Nayyar to the musical scores of Shankar Jaikishan and so many others, he sang all songs with equal elan.
According to Rafi he had sung about 25,000 to 26,000 songs during his singing career.
Mohammed Rafi was a devout Muslim, he never smoked or drank alcohol. A family man, his daily routine would be from home to the recording studio and back to the studio again the next morning. Musical parties were a no-no for him while the early morning hours every day were spent in musical practice.
He loved playing badminton, flying kites, and playing carom with his children.
My interesting observations of Mohammed Rafi backstage mainly were:
- Mohammed Rafi was extremely soft spoken and a very quiet person by nature. I had to initiate all the talking. He did respond to all my questions, but briefly.
- He was extremely cautious about his appearance in public. Whenever he went on the stage, I noticed he took his comb out of his pocket and used to comb his hair which were almost non-existent.
- He used to control the high and low pitch of his singing with his shoulders unlike so many other singers who used their hands for the high or low pitch of their singing.
Mohammed Rafi died at 10:25 PM on 31 July 1980, following a massive heart attack. He was buried in the Juhu Muslim Cemetery. His was one of the largest funeral processions Mumbai had ever witnessed, with over 10,000 people attending. The government of India announced a two-day public holiday in honor of him.
Mohammed Rafi was a very generous and caring person. After Friday prayers every week, he used to hand out a great number of envelopes with cash inside to beggars and other needy people at the mosque. Hundreds of beggars had cried on his death saying, "They became orphans today ."
Mohammed Rafi was nominated a record 21 times for Filmfare Awards and won six:
1. "Chaudhvin Ka Chand Ho" (Chaudhvin Ka Chand Ho - 1960)
2. "Teri Pyaari Pyaari Surat Ko" (Sasural - 1961)
3. "Chahunga Main Tujhe" (Dosti - 1964)
4. "Baharo Phool Barsao" (Suraj - 1966)
5. "Dil Ke Jharoke Mein" (Brahmachari - 1968)
6. "Kya Hua Tera Wada" (Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin - 1977)
Today, 35 years after his death, Rafi still lives in the hearts of his fans bringing them utmost pleasure, peace, happiness and tranquility through the innumerable songs that he had immortalized. May Allah Almighty bless him with Jannat al-Firdaus. Please keep him in your prayers. Thanks!