In the early 1940s, my mother (then a toddler) and her family lived in Amritsar. My grandfather used to work in Lahore: he was the sound engineer at the HMV recording studios there. Nana would commute everyday between Amritsar and Lahore, and one day, when he got back home in the evening, he told my Nani, “Today I heard a very young man with a wonderful voice. He will go places.”
My grandfather was the one who recorded the first song sung for cinema by that young man. A few years later, Nana could proudly say that he had heard Mohammed Rafi sing that day in the studio, and that he had recorded the song.
Mohammed Rafi. Rafi of the golden voice, Rafi of whom it was said (by many of his contemporaries) that he had a voice given by God himself. While I love the voices of Hemant and Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar and Talat (and many others of that period), and while I cannot imagine anybody but Hemant singing Tum pukaar lo or anybody but Mukesh singing Woh subaah kabhi toh aayegi… Rafi is special for me. If pushed to the wall and made to name one singer who’s my favourite, I would have to concede that it’s Rafi.
This is why I got pretty excited when I saw Sujata Dev’s Mohammed Rafi: Golden Voice of the Silver Screen (ISBN: 9789380070971; Om Books International; Rs 595; 238 pages). A biography of Rafi? It was worth a try.
And Dev starts off well enough, with a narration of Rafi’s childhood in the village of Kotla Sultan Singh (in Amritsar District), one of the eight children of Hajji Ali Mohammed and his wife, Allah Rakhi. Then known by the pet name ‘Pheeko’, the young Rafi showed a deep interest in music, and was already an accomplished singer by the time his father—who was renowned as a cook—decided to shift to Lahore to improve the family’s financial condition.
From there, Dev traces Rafi’s move to Bombay (accompanied by Hameed, a supportive and loyal friend of one of Rafi’s brothers), against the wishes of Hajji Ali Mohammed. From the chawl which Rafi and Hameed lived in when they first arrived in Bombay, to Rafi’s attempts to break into the world of playback singing—the early years make for interesting reading.
After this initial introduction to Rafi’s personal and professional life, Dev moves on to a more detailed telling of his singing: the composers, the lyricists, the co-singers, and the actors he sang for. This—his career, the songs he sang, the awards he won, the milestones he set, and in the process, the impressions he made on people, are what comprise the bulk of the book.
This—what other people have to say about Rafi—is perhaps the most endearing part of Dev’s book. She has interviewed dozens of people, ranging from Manna Dey and Khayyam to Dilip Kumar, Rishi Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Joy Mukherjee, Suman Kalyanpur, Shamshad Begum and Bhupinder, to Rafi’s own family members; his childhood friends from Kotla Sultan Singh; musicians who worked with him in recording studios; a fan in faraway Kolkata whose paan shop is a veritable shrine to Rafi—and which Rafi made it a point to visit whenever he was in the city.
What emerges from all of these anecdotes (and there are many of them) is a picture of a man as sweet as his voice. A quiet, unassuming, generous man who gave quietly to charity (there’s a very poignant anecdote, for instance, from an impoverished musician who used to receive Rs 200 every month from an anonymous donor to help fund the medication of his seriously ill mother; the donation abruptly stopped in August 1980, and it was only subsequently that the man discovered that the donor had been Rafi—whose death in July 1980 put an end to his philanthropy).
There are many stories like this: of people whom Rafi helped, of unlucky producers whom Rafi did not charge more than a token amount (sometimes nothing at all) if they were in dire straits. Joy Mukherjee, for example, devastated after his home production Humsaaya flopped miserably, was given back the Rs 10,000 Rafi had charged for the songs of the film (considering that Rafi’s Dil ki aawaaz bhi sun is one of the main reasons Humsaaya is remembered today, that’s especially generous).
He comes forth, too, as a man who, in the cut-throat competition of the cinema industry, won almost universal esteem from his peers. There are heart-warming anecdotes of the mutual admiration and respect between Rafi and Manna Dey, and between Rafi and Kishore Kumar. Bhupinder talks of singing his very first film song (Hoke majboor mujhe, from Haqeeqat) and being reassured by Rafi that he would go far; Mahendra Kapoor remembers his early days, when, as a twelve-year old, he journeyed all the way to Rafi’s house to pay his respects to his idol—and ended up finding a mentor.
There are also delightful little bits of trivia about recordings and about songs: the fact, for instance, that Aajkal tere-mere pyaar ke charche har zabaan par had originally been recorded to be lip-synced by Rajendra Kumar in Suraj, and was dropped because Rajendra Kumar said that the song wouldn’t fit the film, the scenario, and his character. Or the fact that Rafi has a whopping 170 songs to his credit that were used as background songs, not lip-synced.
… which brings me to some of the things that irked me about this book. There are far too many errors. Among those ‘background songs’, for instance, Dev lists Raat bhar ka hai mehmaan andhera (Sone ki Chidiya): even a quick check on Youtube will reveal that Balraj Sahni lip-syncs to this song.
Some of what Dev writes may be disputed. For example, she talks of Madhuban mein Radhika naache re as a bhajan; I have never thought it as anything other than a brilliant song accompanying a dancer. She refers to the title song of Rajkumar as ‘romantic’ (if there’s a romance there, it’s of Shammi Kapoor’s character being in love with himself).
There are the outright incorrect statements. That Naiyya teri majhdhaar forms one of the three songs of the Awaara dream sequence. That Naushad was the music director for Pakeezah (and this not a one-off typo, but repeated in a couple of places—poor Ghulam Mohammad finds no mention here). And that ‘the last time Joy Mukherjee was seen lip-syncing to Rafi was for Umeed (1962)’, summarily dismissing pretty much most of Mukherjee’s filmography—after having talked of the songs of Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hoon, Love in Tokyo, Ziddi, etc.
The other major problem with this book is in its structuring. Dev tries to follow a chronological sequence for Rafi’s career, but this isn’t done in an organized way, leading to much confusion. For instance, she decides to deal first with Rafi’s early years, and relates—partly through her own narrative, partly through the memories of those who worked with him in the 40s and 50s—this period. Fair enough; we read about the musicians, the lyricists, etc whom Rafi interacted with during this period. But, some pages down the line, she takes up Rafi’s career in the 60s and 70s, and we read about all those people all over again (besides some more), and a good bit of what one had already read earlier is repeated. Why Rafi’s work with all the musicians, composers, lyricists and actors he collaborated with couldn’t be dealt with in one go, I cannot fathom.
Even otherwise, there are signs of poor structuring. The famous tiff between Rafi and Lata over royalties to singers (Lata was in favour, Rafi against) which led to their not singing together for several years, is explained in a good bit of detail—much after a fleeting reference is made to their not being on talking terms. To someone who doesn’t know about this disagreement, that first reference can be puzzling, because it explains none of the whys and wherefores connected to the episode.
I didn’t much care for the somewhat monotonous description of one song after another, but I suppose when one is writing about a singer, and that too one of the stature of Rafi, that listing of songs is inevitable. It is also inevitable that some songs I would’ve thought impossible to not mention do get omitted.
Plus, didn’t Rafi have any flaws? I would like to think so, but I still find it a little hard to believe that nobody had anything negative to say about the man. (Lata is mentioned as having said some nasty things about Rafi during the period they didn’t work together, but this comes across as being more a reflection of Lata’s peevishness than anything else).
But. The reminiscences, the anecdotes, the abundant photos (which I wish had been printed on better quality paper) make this still a readable enough book. Also, it comes with a free 40 minute DVD, which—while it is basically a much abridged version of the book, is also equally fascinating since one gets to hear a good deal of Rafi, and there are snippets of the interviews Dev conducted as research for the book. There’s Chitragupta’s daughter, for example, talking about a remarkable trait of Rafi’s voice that sets him apart. There’s Shammi, recounting a delightful anecdote surrounding Yeh chaand sa roshan chehra. There are some anecdotes that aren’t in the book.
While there were flaws—some pretty glaring ones, as I mentioned—in this book, I still liked it, and that was mostly because of the anecdotes that people remembering Rafi mentioned. They brought Rafi to life, in a way his songs only hint at.