Mohammed Rafi, one of India’s greatest playback singers, was born on December 24, 1924, at Kotla Sultan Singh, a village in Punjab near present-day Amritsar.
His father, Hajji Ali Mohammad, moved to Lahore in the 1920s. A family friend recognized Rafi’s singing talent and supported him. Eventually Rafi went to Bombay in 1944.
Rafi, who learnt classical music from stalwarts such as Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan, sang in public for the first time in Lahore when he was 13.
He made his debut as a playback singer in the Punjabi film ‘Gul Baloch’. He was also invited by All India Radio to sing.
In an interview to Star & Style magazine in 1980, said to be his last before he died, Rafi recalled how he had moved to Bombay: “Nasir Khan, one of the top producer-actors at that time, spotted me and offered to take me to Bombay and groom me as a singer in films. Khan saab had asked my father for his permission. My father had refused the offer point blank since he frowned upon the very idea of my taking up singing in films as a career…When Nasir Khan persisted with the offer my elder brother convinced my Abaajaan to let me go to Bombay. With great reluctance my dad agreed to my pursuing a career as a singer in films.”
In Bombay the poet Tanvir Naqvi introduced the young Rafi to film producers such as Mehboob Khan. Rafi made his Hindi film debut with the song “Aji Dil Ho Aaabu Mein…” in the film ‘Gaon Ki Gori’. His songs of the 1940s included “Tera Jalwa Jis Ne Dekha”, “Mere Sapnon Ki Rani, Roohi Roohi”, “Tera Khilona Toota Balak” and “Yahan Badla Wafa Ka”, most of them duets. After Partition Rafi decided to stay in India and brought his family to Bombay.
Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru awarded Rafi a silver medal in 1948.
In the next decade the talents of Dilip Kumar, Naushad, Rafi and Shakil Badayuni became “a rare kind of musical combination”, according to N. Divakar. “The ’50s saw great movies such as …‘Uran Katola’, ‘Dulari’, ‘Son of India,’, ‘Kohinoor’, ‘Dil Diya Dard Liya’, ‘Mother India’ and so on,” Divakar wrote in The Hindu in 2007. “Apart from being great hits, these movies had some of the best songs that the Indian film industry has produced. Rafi had a role to play in all of them. The devotional songs of ‘Baiju Bawra’ were not only melodies, but were the symbol of India’s pluralistic culture, with the combination of Rafi-Naushad-Shakil behind those evergreen hits.”
Rafi was influenced by the legendary singers K.L Saigal and G.M. Durrani. In the 1980 interview he said: “When I entered the line, there were, of course, popular singers like Saigal Saab, G.M. Durrani and Khan Mastan...Instead of considering me as yet another competitor they encouraged me to give my best. In fact I remember the first time I met Saigal Saab at Lahore where he had come to give a concert on the stage. The mike had failed at the last minute. While it was being set right, I was asked to keep the audience engaged by singing a couple of songs. I was only 15 then…Saigal Saab blessed me that day and predicted that a day would come when I would be a sought-after singer.”
Rafi worked with all the leading music directors of his time.
He sang 149 songs for Naushad including songs from the 1952 film ‘Baiju Bawra’ (such as “O duniya ke rakhwale”). With S.D. Burman he worked in movies like ‘Pyaasa’ (1957), ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’ (1959), ‘Guide’ (1965), ‘Aradhana’ (1969) and ‘Abhimaan’ (1973).
One of Rafi’s most successful partnerships was with Shankar Jaikishan, with the pair coming up with hit numbers like “Teri Pyari Pyari Soorat Ko” and “Baharon Phool Barsao”. Together they produced hits like “Yahoo! Chahe Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe” and worked in many films such as ‘Junglee’, ‘Suraj’, ‘Brahmachari’, ‘An Evening in Paris’, ‘Love in Tokyo’ and ‘Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai’. Music directors O.P. Nayyar and Laxmikant-Pyarelal also teamed up with Rafi in several films in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the early 1970s, Kishore Kumar overshadowed Rafi but not for long. Rafi won the Filmfare Award and National Award in 1977 for the song “Kya Hua Tera Wada”. He died on July 31 1980 after suffering a heart attack. It was the end of an era in more ways than one. As a profile on Rafi in Outlook magazine noted: “Along with Kishore Kumar and Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi was one of the most popular male playback singers from the ’50s to the ’70s. He was regarded as the most proficient and versatile of the three, equally at ease with a purely classical song (“Man Tadpat Hari Darshan”) as with light numbers (“Chakke Pe Chakka, Chakke Pe Gadi”). In between, he could also perfectly render a romantic song like “Hum Bekhudi Mein Tumko Pukare Chale Gaye”.
Also on this day:
1923 — Satyananda Saraswati, yoga teacher and spiritual guru, was born
1956 — Anil Kapoor, Bollywood actor and producer, was born
1973 — Periyar, leader of Dravidian Movement, passed away
1988 — Piyush Chawla, Indian cricketer, was born