Tribute

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).”

Play
‘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.

Play
‘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.

Play
‘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.

Play
‘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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Making two-wheelers less polluting to combat air pollution in India

Innovations focusing on two-wheelers can make a difference in facing the challenges brought about by climate change.

Two-wheelers are the lifeline of urban Asia, where they account for more than half of the vehicles owned in some countries. This trend is amply evident in India, where sales in the sub-category of mopeds alone rose 23% in 2016-17. In fact, one survey estimates that today one in every three Indian households owns a two-wheeler.

What explains the enduring popularity of two-wheelers? In one of the fastest growing economies in the world, two-wheeler ownership is a practical aspiration in small towns and rural areas, and a tactic to deal with choked roads in the bigger cities. Two-wheelers have also allowed more women to commute independently with the advent of gearless scooters and mopeds. Together, these factors have led to phenomenal growth in overall two-wheeler sales, which rose by 27.5% in the past five years, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM). Indeed, the ICE 2016 360 survey says that two-wheelers are used by 37% of metropolitan commuters to reach work, and are owned by half the households in India’s bigger cities and developed rural areas.

Amid this exponential growth, experts have cautioned about two-wheelers’ role in compounding the impact of pollution. Largely ignored in measures to control vehicular pollution, experts say two-wheelers too need to be brought in the ambit of pollution control as they contribute across most factors determining vehicular pollution - engine technology, total number of vehicles, structure and age of vehicles and fuel quality. In fact, in major Indian cities, two-thirds of pollution load is due to two-wheelers. They give out 30% of the particulate matter load, 10 percentage points more than the contribution from cars. Additionally, 75% - 80% of the two-wheelers on the roads in some of the Asian cities have two-stroke engines which are more polluting.

The Bharat Stage (BS) emissions standards are set by the Indian government to regulate pollutants emitted by vehicles fitted with combustion engines. In April 2017, India’s ban of BS III certified vehicles in favour of the higher BS IV emission standards came into effect. By April 2020, India aims to leapfrog to the BS VI standards, being a signatory to Conference of Parties protocol on combating climate change. Over and above the BS VI norms target, the energy department has shown a clear commitment to move to an electric-only future for automobiles by 2030 with the announcement of the FAME scheme (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles in India).

The struggles of on-ground execution, though, remain herculean for automakers who are scrambling to upgrade engine technology in time to meet the deadlines for the next BS norms update. As compliance with BS VI would require changes in the engine system itself, it is being seen as one of the most mammoth R&D projects undertaken by the Indian automotive industry in recent times. Relative to BS IV, BS VI norms mandate a reduction of particulate matter by 82% and of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) by 68%.

Emission control in fuel based two-wheelers can be tackled on several fronts. Amongst post-emission solutions, catalytic converters are highly effective. Catalytic converters transform exhaust emissions into less harmful compounds. They can be especially effective in removing hydrocarbons, nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide from the exhaust.

At the engine level itself, engine oil additives are helpful in reducing emissions. Anti-wear additives, friction modifiers, high performance fuel additives and more lead to better performance, improved combustion and a longer engine life. The improvement in the engine’s efficiency as a result directly correlates to lesser emissions over time. Fuel economy of a vehicle is yet another factor that helps determine emissions. It can be optimised by light weighting, which lessens fuel consumption itself. Light weighting a vehicle by 10 pounds can result in a 10-15-pound reduction of carbon dioxide emissions each year. Polymer systems that can bear a lot of stress have emerged as reliable replacements for metals in automotive construction.

BASF, the pioneer of the first catalytic converter for automobiles, has been at the forefront of developing technology to help automakers comply with advancing emission norms while retaining vehicle performance and cost-efficiency. Its new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility at Mahindra World City near Chennai is equipped to develop a range of catalysts for diverse requirements, from high performance and recreational bikes to economy-oriented basic transportation. BASF also leverages its additives expertise to provide compounded lubricant solutions, such as antioxidants, anti-wear additives and corrosion inhibitors and more. At the manufacturing level, BASF’s R&D in engineered material systems has led to the development of innovative materials that are much lighter than metals, yet just as durable and strong. These can be used to manufacture mirror brackets, intake pipes, step holders, clutch covers, etc.

With innovative solutions on all fronts of automobile production, BASF has been successfully collaborating with various companies in making their vehicles emission compliant in the most cost-effective way. You can read more about BASF’s innovations in two-wheeler emission control here, lubricant solutions here and light weighting solutions here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.