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On Mohammed Rafi’s 36th death anniversary, the question lingers: How did he sing so effortlessly?

We are still waiting for the definitive study of the timeless songs he sang.

In an interview some years before his death, the fine playback singer Manna Dey made a candid admission. He said that he never felt bad when music composers preferred Mohammed Rafi ahead of him for a song. Dey’s explanation was simple. “Rafi sa’a’b bahut hi versatile singer thay (Rafi was a very versatile singer),” he said. In a glowing one-line assessment of his illustrious peer, Dey remarked, “Rafi sa’ab jo kar saktey hain, woh hum nahin kar saktey (What Rafi could do, nobody else could).”

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‘Dekhi zamaane ki yaari’ from ‘Pyaasa’ (1957).

It’s been 36 years since Rafi passed away on July 31, 1980, several years too early for a man who was only 55. His impact on Hindi cinema and his contributions to the Hindi film song cannot be outlined in a few hundred or thousand words. The tragedy is that there has been no serious attempt to detail Rafi’s legacy or exhaustively explain the “jo kar saktey hain” part of Dey’s remark in reference to Rafi. The magic of his voice is celebrated, even venerated, but hasn’t yet been scrutinised microscopically.

Thus when the singer Shailendra Singh says, “That feeling, his effortless singing is almost impossible to match,” we are left with the complex, mystifying task of interpreting “that feeling” and the “effortless” nature of Rafi’s singing.

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‘Tootey huey khwaabon ne’ from ‘Madhumati’ (1958).

But try we must. Because Rafi was truly versatile, lending his voice to so many actors. He sang for Raj Kapoor and then for the actor’s son, Rishi Kapoor. Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra, Jeetendra and Amitabh Bachchan all had songs sung by Rafi. He sang for superstars, character actors, comedians and for the great Kishore Kumar, too. A decade ago, when Outlook magazine conducted a poll of the 20 Best Hindi Film Songs Ever, it was a Rafi song (the timeless Mann re tu kaahe na dheer dhare) that took pole position. In a list compiled by taking into account ten favourite songs of each jury member, with eminent names such as Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Khayyam, Kavita Krishnamurthy and Sonu Nigam among the jury, Rafi’s name featured among three of the top four songs.

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‘Mann re tu kaahe na dheer dhare’ from ‘Chitralekha’ (1964).

It is not enough, however, to put Rafi’s genius down to the fact that he sang for so many people. He always conveyed the right mood, the right emotion, the right andaaz for each song. Here was a man who had an uncanny knack for embellishing each melody with the correct harqat, the perfect murki and the right intonation. He understood the little nuances of diction, the sukshma bhed of each tune and then executed them flawlessly. As the Guyanese character Chabilall says in praise of Rafi in Rahul Bhattacharya’s wonderful novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care, “Hear how he play with the syllable. He make ten from one. Now that is feeling.”

A big part of Rafi’s skill can also be put down to his lineage. Born in Kotla Sultan Singh in Punjab, Rafi spent his early years in Lahore before coming to Bombay. The exposure to the syncretic Punjabi-Lahori cultures from his early years must have played a big part in helping Rafi get his enunciation right while singing in an industry with its fair share of composers from the North-Western part of undivided-India (OP Nayyar, Husnlal-Bhagatram, Vinod, Khayyam) and almost all the great poet-lyricists also hailing from the northern part of the country.

Just as an example, consider the track from 1958’s Howrah Bridge, Dil mera loot liya and how Rafi pronounces ‘rang’ in the song’s opening line – Gora raang chunariya kaali motiyaan – in a distinct Punjabi way (sings it as ‘raang’) to keep pace with the similar nature of the song. But for the same Mehmood, he also sang the opening line of Humey kaaley hain (Gumnaam, 1965), with a clear Hyderabadi accent, to match the actor’s syntax before the song begins.

As such, Rafi also helped the film song transition from the musical culture of the 1950s to the ’60s. Hindi film song enthusiasts and critics tend to look back at this 20-year period as a single epoch. But the nature of the Hindi film song in the ’50s is operatic. Contrastingly, in the ’60s, the Hindi film song becomes much more spectacular, vibrant and performative. And it is Rafi who serves as a bridge between these two distinct periods, singing the rather melancholic, Huey hum jinke liye barbaad from Deedaar (1951) to the very rock-n-roll Jaan pehchaan ho from Gumnaam.

Rafi and his wife Bilquis. Photo courtesy Sujata Dev’s ‘Mohammed Rafi’.
Rafi and his wife Bilquis. Photo courtesy Sujata Dev’s ‘Mohammed Rafi’.

Herein lies another remarkable facet to Rafi’s playback skills. His songs spanned a vast range of musical genres, from qawwaalis to bhajans, nazms to folk songs, tunes heavy on classical ragas to tracks that had that dash of madness in them. He sang heart-wrenching Urdu ghazals without any accompanying instrumentation, but he could also leave you in buoyant spirits with his rendition of a quintessential OP Nayyar up-tempo song. He sang lullabies (Main gaaoon tum so jao), songs to get the festival spirit going (Govinda aala re), numbers that ushered in a rush of patriotism (Hum laaye hain toofan se) and ballads that left one misty-eyed (Tootey huey khwaabon ne). Through all this, he sang for composers across four decades – from the likes of Shyam Sundar (the composer who gave Rafi his first Hindi film song in Gaon Ki Gori, 1945) to Ravindra Jain; for SD and RD Burman; from Naushad to Laxmikant-Pyarelal to Bappi Lahiri. He sang alongside Shamshad Begum, but he also sang with Anuradha Paudwal.

More than anything else, it was Rafi’s singing for Shammi Kapoor that best highlighted his superlative talent. Compared to Kapoor’s extravagant, outgoing personality, Rafi was the old-fashioned, god-fearing man. Where Kapoor came to be known as the Rebel Star, Rafi was the Sufi, the monk who came to the world of Hindi playback singing. He was the anti-Shammi. But there he was singing hit after song for Shammi as the actor went club-hopping, graced the skies from a helicopter and got all Elvis Presley on us. As Rauf Ahmed notes in his book Shammi Kapoor: The Game Changer, “The flamboyance that Mohammed Rafi acquired while singing for Shammi Kapoor belied the pious, conservative man that he had been in his private life.” In other words, the man naturally suited to sing, Mann tarpat hari darshan ko aaj, was also singing the hysterical Chaahey koi mujhe junglee kahey for the actor. Rafi’s brilliance lay in navigating the inherent contradiction between playback artiste and star persona. His mellifluous voice exuded an extra manic energy for the dancing hero. He was the sheep who donned on the wolf’s hide for Kapoor.

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‘Baar baar dekho’ from ‘China Town’ (1962).

And yet there is no proper analysis of Rafi’s oeuvre, a careful technical study of the songs he sang or an examination of how a certain secular, cosmopolitan culture was perpetuated by his success. It’s not that Rafi doesn’t have his legion of admirers. Javed Akhtar said he was what “Michelangelo is to sculpture”. He inspired many playback singers, including the likes of Mahendra Kapoor and Sonu Nigam But the simplicity of the man perhaps gets in the way of describing his greatness. The Rafi story lacks glamour. In an industry where controversy comes courting, Rafi played truant, all through he personified humility. As the writer Salim Khan once told me, any compliment directed towards Rafi would be deflected by the singer with his hands pointing to the heavens, acknowledging the Almighty’s grace on him.

Rafi left all too soon. He was perhaps prescient of the music that came out of the industry in the ’80s. His soothing voice alone may have lent a whole lot of nazaaqat to the garish numbers composed in that period. Because nobody held a note better and wafted through it. Because he sang rock-n-roll with such zing. Because despite being a teetotaler, he has, arguably, the finest liquor songs in Hindi cinema. Because as Chabilall says, “When Rafi sing a dance song, you dance. When he sing a sad song, you cry. When he sing a love song, woman get fever. Rafi get inside of you, he become you an you become him.”

Akshay Manwani is the author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (HarperCollins Publishers India 2013). His next book on the cinema of writer-director-producer, Nasir Husain, will be published by HarperCollins India in October 2016. He tweets at @AkshayManwani.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.