Had the man lived, he would have turned 89 today. As it turned out, he died at the relatively young age of 56. Hell, today I myself am a full six years older than he was when he died.
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Back in the 60’s, when melody really reigned as queen in Hindi cinema, playback singers each had their own niche strengths, around which they built their repertoires. The velvet voiced Talat was the ghazal maestro. The nasal vocals of Mukesh were best suited for pathos. The classically trained Manna Dey dominated the semi classical genre. Kishore was little more than a yodeller who sang the occasional breezy number for Dev Anand. Mahendra Kapoor, when he wasn’t singing those loud patriotic numbers for Manoj Kumar, was basically the poor man’s Rafi.
Why, even the females had their roles clearly cut out – while Lata crooned for the heroines, the more seductive Asha was earmarked for the vamps.
An aside here. It was Talat who indirectly set up my craze for crossword puzzles. When I was barely ten, a crossword in the Sunday ToI (Children’s Section) caught my eye. It was a Bollywood based crossword meant for kids. One of the `Down’ clues was `Singer going up the way he comes down (5)’. The answer, of course, was TALAT, which being a palindrome read the same way up or down! And I was hooked - man, this is so cool!
The only true blue `all rounder’ we had in those glory days was Rafi – the Gary Sobers of playback singing! And his greatness lay in the ease with which he could outdo each of the specialists in their own genre. He sang ghazals better than Talat, he out pathos-ed Mukesh, and clearly matched Manna Dey’s classical virtuosity raag for raag. As for Kishore, since Rafi also provided playback for Kishore the star, that was a no brainer to begin with!
Before diehard fans of these legends go up in arms, allow me to elaborate.
I remember a mellow evening at Jhansi, when we were discussing - over drinks, naturally - the merits and demerits of the Mukesh versus Rafi `sad songs’ argument. Col Mishra was a total Mukesh bhakt, and would have none of my `Rafi-is-the-greatest’ argument. “Ok, sir – the proof of the pudding” I argued, “is in the eating”! I slipped the vinyl LP (those were the vinyl days) out of its jacket. It was an SD Burman record, and had `Bandini’ on one side and `Meri Surat Teri Aankhein’ on the reverse.
I first played Mukesh’s `O jaane wale ho sake toh laut ke aana’ from `Bandini’. Now this is one of Mukesh’s best, and would take some beating. After Col Mishra was done swooning, I flipped the record over. “Now, sir – listen to real pathos” I told him, and played `Tere bin soone nayan hamare’, which is easily the most heart-rending outpouring of a torturous soul wringing in anguish. The songs spoke, or rather sang for themselves.
Manna Dey was, of course, formally trained in Hindustani classical music, so when the two got together to sing a raag based duet for Uday Shankar’s dance epic `Kalpana’ (1960), Manna Dey was expected to totally walk all over Rafi. The song `Tu hai mera prem devta’ remains a classical gem, and each of the singers performed superbly - but once the recording was over, Dey shook his head ruefully. “For all my classical training, where do I get a voice like his?” he bemoaned.
Much the same thing happened when Talat and Rafi got together to sing `Gham ki andheri raat mein’ from `Sushila’ (1966). The silken vocals of Talat render the pathos so beautifully (Dard hai sari zindagi, jiska koi sila nahin), and when he tapers off his anguish, Rafi simply takes off in his positive note (Subah zarooooor aayegi, subah ka intezaar kar).
The Kishore-Rafi debate is no debate actually - when you consider that Rafi has actually, on more than one occasion provided playback for Kishore! I mean, can you imagine Lata providing playback for Noor Jehan? Of course Lata did provide payback for Suraiya, which is why nobody talks on any Lata-Suraiya debate.
The fact that Kishore dominated the 70’s is more of an accident – Dada Burman falling ill half way through `Aradhana’ , handing the mantle over to his less accomplished son RD. This was after he had already recorded two duets with Rafi (I still believe the best song form Aradhana is not Roop tera mastana or Mere sapnon ki rani but the Rafi-Lata duet Gunguna rahe hain bhawrein). This, combined with the phenomenal rise of Rajesh Khanna, laid Rafi low post Aradhana in 1969.
But there is no doubt that this man who had no formal education, this humble, God fearing Muslim was actually the voice of God. Proof? The best bhajans, in or out of movies, have been sung by Rafi – just listen to him sing `Hari Oooom’ the alaap of the mesmerising `Man tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj’ from `Baiju Bawra’ (1952). Even an agnostic like me turns believer!
Born on 24th December 1924, Mohammed Rafi would have turned 89 today. He now belongs to the ages. Happy Birthday, Rafi saab!