Thursday, December 13, 2007


The last decade: Rising of the Phoenix.

A Humble Tribute by Nasir Ali: 


Before we proceed further with the Seventies we would do well to make a passing reference to our previous posts where we learnt how Rafi Sahaab had successfully filled the void that had been created by the Legendary singer, K.L. Saigal and how he changed the face of the Indian filmy music. There we also saw him reaching the zenith of his singing career and how he became the voice of almost all actors - big or small, thereby giving a new dimension to the word “versatility”. If he sang for someone, that person became a star. Our previous posts also mentioned that an excellent playback singer does not rest on his laurels but explores new territories to conquer. And this precisely is what Rafi Sahaab did in the Seventies.

Rafi Sahaab pioneered a new trend of globe- trotting for performance of his live shows, besides performing in Indian cities including the one at Calcutta in February 1980. It is said that no less than 25 times did he give such performances on the stages around the world. As Pyarelal (of the Laxmi-Pyare duo) informs us, Rafi Sahaab was the first singer to go on foreign tours regularly every year – first with his small orchestra and later with a bigger group. In fact this trend began in 1968 when he performed live at Mauritius and where he also sang in the Creole language which is spoken in the areas of the Carribeans, north and east coast of South American, western Africa and the Indian Ocean.   According to one report, Rafi Sahaab went to Trinidad at the height of his popularity in 1966.  He had a great audience.  There in the Request Segment he was so kind and unassuming that he said "If it were even one line he would sing for the person requesting the song."  The audience remembers him not only as the extraordinary singers but also as "Truly a great man." 

In fact, Rafi Sahaab marked his Silver Jubilee by  visiting the U.S., and Canada, and the Fiji Islands and New Zealand in 1974.  His programmes attracted crowds of all kinds, including the young and the old.  It was his personal charisma, his child-like simplicity, his enthusiasm and zeal to deliver his best without regards to personal gain that endeared him to the peoples of the countries where he held his programmes. Yes, of course, when he sang with his divine voice, and without an iota of pride or airs, everyone knew that they were beholding someone uncommon, so uncommon that such personalities are born only after centuries. Thus, apart from his tours in the US, Canada and the UK, Rafi Sahaab successfully conducted his tours in South America and the West Indies; the Middle East including Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Dubai and Abu Dhabi; East Africa, Central Africa, and Mauritius; the Far East including Malaysia, Singapore and Hongkong; the Scandinavian countries including Holland; and of course nearer home in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Rafi Sahaab’s live shows had lots of energy and full money’s worth.

Alluding to the stage shows in modern times, the Filmfare Award winner for playback singing, Abhijeet, was very forthcoming and frank when he stated in a live TV telecast (the RKB Show) that today people in foreign countries pay large sums of money to hear their favourite singers on stage but that many a time the singers just unbashedly lip-synch their own songs before the cheated audience. This is not something new. I do remember that once I happened to watch a so-called live telecast of a very popular playback singer on the Door Darshan in the late Seventies or the Eighty. When I heard him on the TV, I was struck by the fact that he “sang” that number just as had been originally rendered by him for the movie, what with all the intermezzo music. Maybe it was meant to be a joke but it was later found out that he had only lip-synched his own song. Even the "Tenor of all times" Pavarotti was caught in a scandal of lip-synching during the ‘live’ performance on the stage. Besides, today, we also know that current technologies make a singer sound much better than he or she actually is. It has also become a fashion for a singer to mark his territory. This he does by “specializing” himself in a particular genre. Rafi Sahaab was innocent of all these tricks and technologies. Rafi Sahaab performed live in such places as the U.K., the U.S., South America and the Carribeans among others. In 1977 he performed live in many towns and cities of United Kingdom. One such show was held at the St. George’s Hall at Bradford, West Yorkshire. There his melodious voice soared all around, captivating the eager audience. Around that time in the U.K., he also gave an interview to the British Broadcast Corporation about his songs some personal experiences and moods. Rafi Sahaab also visited the Middle East as well as Afghanistan where he performed along with one of the greatest female singers of Afghan community, Jheela.

In his live shows, there were no bevies of beautiful belles, no scantily clad dancers, no Wizcraft-managed stage. Yet, when Rafi Sahaab sang, the audience listened to him as if in a trance, mesmerized and hypnotized. His soft speaking voice transformed into a rainbow of many hues. The audience was captivated by all shades of his vocal styles and varying range besides the pronunciation of lyrics whether he was singing a devotional song (Bhajan) or western type of pop numbers or classical numbers or any other genre. Rafi Sahaab liked singing semi-classicals filmy music in his live shows with a view to propagating Indian music. He used to name the Raga (classical base) of the songs before rendering them. For example, before singing the immortal O DUNIYA KE RAKHWAALE he would say that the song belonged to Raga Darbari. Before singing MADHUBAN MEIN RAADHIKA NAACHE RE he would give the name of the Raga as Hamir. His Raga Malkauns based Bhajan, MANN TADPAT HARI DARSHAN KO AAJ was admired the world over. He sometimes even embellished his popular songs that sounded better than the original recordings. For example, in one of the stanzas of his ever-popular, O DUNIYA KE RAKHWAALE, he renders MAHAL UDAAS AUR GALIYAAN SOONI many times over in different styles with such pathos which brings tears to our eyes. Even the refrain of RAKHWAALE coming at the end of this lamentation he would sing more than the required number of three. Similarly, his ability to hold a note, even at high pitch for a long duration, was uncanny. It has also been noted that in live concerts, while rendering the famous Dosti song: CHAAHUNGA MAIN TUJHE SAANJH SAVERA, he used to hold the high piitched MITWA for a duration which far exceeded that of the original studio recording. He could also churn out 13 different variations of a song on the spur of the moment.

Usually, Rafi Sahaab interspersed his duets with innocent comments. When the accompanying female singer sang: DIL TO YEH MERA SANAM TERA TALABGAAR THA (This Heart of Mine O Beloved was in need of you) he would ask: “Kab Say”? (since when?). In the Teesri Manzil duet, when the female singer continues with the refrain, AA JAA AA AA AJAA ….a trifle longer, Rafi Sahaab modestly butts in saying ITNI JAASTI DER TAK (FOR SUCH A LONG DURATION), i.e. don't tire yourself so! An ardent fan recollects that during the time Rafi Sahaab sang the same song with Usha Timothy in Calcutta, he would deliberately interchange the AAJA AAJA with JAAJAA JAAJAA and also pretend to be out of breath. All this made the crowd go crazy with laughter and happiness - to which the showman Rafi Sahaab would utter: O what has happened to you guys of Calcutta -and then resume singing AAJA AA AA AAJA.... the orchestra then starting all over. Incidentally, it is said that Asha Bhonsle, who had sung the original song with Rafi Sahaab, had found this tune a bit difficult to adjust to but then took it up as a challenge and was ready after ten days of rehearsals.

During the concert, Rafi Sahaab sometimes even used to give the chronology of the song he was about to sing, i.e. whether the song was an old one or relatively new. Such little comments endeared him to the sane and controlled audience. In later years, he began the show normally with BADI DUUR SE AAYE HAIN and other hits. His songs included BEKHUDI MEIN SANAM…, PARDA HAI PARDA HAI, HAMM TO CHALE PARDES, KYA HUA TERA WAADA, O DUNIYA KE RAKHWAALE and Punjabi songs besides other hits. His favourite was SUHAANI RAAT DHAL CHUKI. Some of his other great hits that set the stage on fire were BADAN PE SITAARE LAPETE HUWE, MADHUBAN MEIN RAADHIKA NAACHE RE, CHAUDHVIN KA CHAAND HO, and BAHAARON PHOOL BARSAAO.

In some countries, such as Surinam the official language of which is Dutch but which has a sizeable population of  Indians from Bihar, he even performed for the general public right in the city’s square for their benefit since they could not afford the fees of his concert that had been held there. His AY YAY YA SUKOO SUKOO was a great hit among the people of mixed origin who felt no one could sing like him.  In fact, this song in Surinamese, "Ayyay yaa mi lobe sranang soeko soeko" was sung by Rafi Sahaab with such childlike enthusiasm and energy that it has to be heard to be believed. 

That was not the first time that Rafi Sahaab had opened the flood-gates of his generosity for those who could not afford his live concerts. It is said that in one of the shows in India in the state of Andhra Pradesh, the tickets having been sold out a large crowd was trying to gate-crash. Rafi Sahaab instructed the show organisers to let the people in at his cost. It is a fact that crowd management was a big headache for the local police of the city where Rafi Sahaab had his live shows such as the ones in Calcutta. "Rofi" was really popular in that city so much so that according to an eye-witness account the audience wouldn't allow even Kishore Kumar to come on the stage after Rafi Sahaab's performance. They wanted him to be at No.1, No.2,3 and 4 all rolled into one. (I personally have witnessed how powerful is the mob behaviour of the Calcutta crowd though at a different place). It is said that Rafi Sahaab came back on the stage and started singing ARRE RAFTA RAFTA DEKHO AANKH MERI LADI HAI - a Kishore Kumar number from Kahani Kismet Ki (1973). He sang two lines to pacify the crowd so that they would allow Kishore Kumar to perform too! (On a momentary reflection, this reminds us of Kishore Kumar rendering Rafi Sahaab's on the occasion of the 1981 Filmfare Awards in Bombay. He had won the Filmfare Award for the Thodisi Bewafai number). Lathi charges outside the auditoriums were a regular feature whenever Rafi Sahaab performed.

In 1979 Rafi Sahaab gave a live performance at Toronto, Canada.  According to the fresh knowledge being available, there he met his brother Hameed (not real brother) his Man Friday who was always with him from the beginning of his career in Lahore when he had  put the 13 year old Rafi on the stage to fill in for the Legendary Saigal Saab.  He had also accompanied Rafi Sahaab to Mumbai and remained with him till late the Seventies when he migrated to Canada.  It appears that during the 1979 shows in Toronto, Hameed advised Rafi Sahaab that he too should migrate to Canada to spend the few years of life together.  It seems that he even advised him to stop singing since it was at his behest that Rafi Sahaab had started singing.  We are told that Rafi Sahaab nodded in the affirmative.  Hameed never realised that Rafi Sahaab would keep his promise the way he did.   By next year, Rafi Sahaab had left for his heavenly abode.  Yes, he would be singing no more!  Hameed himself survived many years and died in 2001 and was buried in Toronto itself.    But let's leave this grim picture and come back to Rafi Sahaab's verve, energy, enthusiasm, melody and music. 

Thereafter Rafi Sahaab went to the U.S.A.  One of the fans while watching Rafi Sahaab live in Detroit, Michigan, can never forget the way Rafi Sahaab sang, HAMM TOH CHALE PARDES... To this day, he rues the fact that he was not able to bring his wife to the show for lack of funds. He feels very guilty especially because Rafi Sahaab passed away the next year.

During that tour, Rafi Sahaab's wife had also accompanied him and as luck would have it, he had three days off between two concerts.  These were fruitfully utilized with the family with  a visit to the Disneyland when Shahid Rafi too joined them there.  "It was a very memorable trip," recalls Shahid.  There they were joined by the ace comedian, Mehmood, and his wife. 

Rafi Sahaab also performed in the New York's Madison Square. Soi, one of the organizers recalled:

"Rafi sahib was a saint and a magician on stage. We were sold out and had to go an hour over, because people would not leave. Rafi Sahib said you will lose money in thousands for going over time and I said go back and have fun, we all love you, and I want to listen to you as well. I really cherish the show, because he came here in 1979 and he died in 1980."

The music loving Indian and Pakistani communities in the U.S.A.  and Canada presented Mohammed Rafi with a token of their appreciation of the "Celestial Voice" (see inset) in 1979.

Diehard fans still remember the grand show on the Colombo beach where hundreds of thousands fans saw and heard Rafi Sahaab's live performance. According to one estimate there were at least twelve hundred thousands at his show. Under the baton of Usha Khanna, the music director, Rafi Sahaab began with BA.DI DUUR SE AAYE HAI.N....This show was conducted just three months before the Legend passed away into the Hall of Immortality.

In 1980 itself, he had also performed live at London's Wembley Stadium, where his fans still remember that Rafi Sahaab sang AADMI MUSAAFIR HAI, MAIN JAT YAMLA PAGLA DEEWAANA, TUJH KO PUKAARE MERA PYAAR, KYAA HUWAA TERAA WAADAA, CHAL UR JAARE PANCHHI, BAHAARON PHOOL BARSAAO, PARDA HAI PARDA, O DUNIYA KE RAKHWAALE,  among other songs.
Thus Rafi Sahaab captivated the hearts of millions round the world by the magic of his voice which has become the subject for research by his admirers some of whom consist of the best names in the field of playback singing today.

Apart from his World Tours, Rafi Sahaab also got engrossed with the religious obligation of the Hajj and spiritual duties and contemplations. Therefore, it is sometimes stated that because of Islamic restrictions on music Rafi Sahaab must have decided on giving up his singing career altogether. Without going into the theological aspects, the Muslim community, both now and in the past, are generally agreed in regarding music with disapproval. As Mrs. Bilquis Rafi (d.1998) revealed that she herself was from a very conservative family and didn’t quite like music and that neither did Rafi Sahaab encouraged her to listen to his songs. If we hark back to the past even till as late as the Forties and the Fifties we would know that it was considered a taboo in India to seek a living either as an actor or a musician or singer. Such people were looked down upon in the conservative Indian society. The readers may definitely remember the case of Naushad who at the time of his Nikah had to declare his profession as a “Tailor.” The irony was that the band wallahs outside his house were actually playing the song from his own film.

Again, it is also possible that Rafi Sahaab must have contemplated on the philosophical dimensions of his own song:


Evidently, such contemplations, the question of Right and Wrong, the Hamletian complex whether "To sing or not to sing.." all these must have heavily weighed on Rafi Sahaab's mind after he had performed the Hajj.  Fortunately for us, those days we did not have the so-called Muftis issuing Fatwas every now and then even on trivial issues as we do now. Anyhow, being a family man and a person who was never seduced by Bollywood's lure of lucre, ladies, and parties, Rafi Sahaab continued to spend as much time with his family as he could, pursuing his innocent hobby of flying kites by the day and devoting the early hours of the day to 'Riyaaz'.  In 1972 he was sojourning in his London home. His deliberately remaining away from the recording studios, resulted in a drastic cut-down of his recording sessions. He came back to the recordings at the insistence of his sons. And why not?  His son Shahid feels that a a God-gifted singer like Rafi Sahaab is born only once in a thousand-year. Yes - a thousand-year. No doubt, Rafi Sahaab was posthumously honored with the "Best Singer of the Millenium" Award by Hero Honda and Stardust magazine in Mumbai on Jan 7, 2001  (see inset).

Lata Mangeshkar while offering her 'Sharadhhanjali' (tribute) to Rafi Sahaab when she sang his SUHAANI RAAT DHAL CHUKI and DIL KA BHANWAR KARE PUKAAR aptly quoted Allama Iqbal in his honour:


In the meantime we have also to consider that Rafi Sahaab had also been recording many songs in Indian regional languages such as Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bhojpuri, Avadhi, Telegu, Kannad, Oriya, Bengali including Nazrul Geet, Konkani Cantaras, a few English ones, as well as in Sindhi. He had also recorded an Assamese trend-setter song for Jitu-Tapan, viz., ASOMIR SUTALATA. He was also in the midst of recording Malyalam songs but owing to his untimely demise could not complete the project. One such Malyalam movie was "Atma Raksha." But he did sing a Hindi song SHABAB LOKE ...JAADU HAI MEETHA MEETHAA for a Malayalam movie, Thaliritta Kinnikal, under the baton of  a disciple of Naushad Saab, Jithin Shyam whose identity as a Music Director had become known after Rafi Sahaab had soulfully recorded  songs for him in Arab Ka Sona.   

Rafi Sahaab  also recorded many non-filmi Ghazals, non-filmi Bhajans, non-filmy songs, Shabads and Naatiya Kalaams. Rafi Sahaab could be thus very prolific. He could sing, memorise, and deliver full five songs in a day. And yes, those were not the days when just one line each could be recorded with the help of modern technology. And yet, his adversaries and detractors came out with the theory of "lean period" in his career or his being "overshadowed" by Kishore Kumar. Nothing could be further from truth since it was Rafi Sahaab"s own volition to go on a holiday from the tinsel world of Bollywood to pioneer a new trend of giving live concerts abroad.

Pausing here for a moment let’s examine the case of Rafi Sahaab vis-à-vis Kishore Kumar who had begun his singing career in 1948. Since work was not coming his way, Kishore Da was ready to pack up in 1965 and return to his native Khandwa after the "Padosan" (released 1968) song, KEHNA HAI KEHNA HAI. R.D. Burman who had always nurtured a soft corner for him advised him not to do so. With Teesri Manzil in 1966 RDB became a name to reckon with. But even he had to wait till 1971 for giving his favourite a restart. We noted how with the severe illness of S.D. Burman who was composing music for Aradhana (1969) that opportunity came earlier than expected and RDB gave Kishore Kumar the songs that S.D. Burman had earlier wanted to give Rafi Sahaab. This was one among the many other factors that gave an immense boost to the sagging career of Kishore Kumar. As noted above, by the late Sixties and early Seventies Rafi Sahaab began his globe-trotting and live performances right upto 1980. A very important fact that has also to be taken into consideration is that the Bombay Film Industry was and is still notorious for borrowing huge sums of money from loan sharks who charge exhorbitant rate of interests. (It's only now that the Corporates have stepped in). Therefore, when Rafi Sahaab had shifted to London or was not available for recording, the producers could not wait for ever and therefore music directors had to take whoever was available. Kishore Kumar fitted the bill very nicely what with the rise of R.D. Burman and the phenomena Rajesh Khanna whose golden jubilee hits of Aradhna and Do Raaste in 1969 worked wonders for Kishore Kumar. Then there were so many releases of Dev Anand (who, again, had always preferred Kishore Kumar) starrers right from Mahal (1970) to Des Pardes (1978) and even later movies including Lootmaar (1980). With the later hitching of Asha Bhonsle to RDB bandwagon the coup de grace was complete. All these ensured the rise of Kishore Kumar so much so that even the Thespian Dilip Kumar opted for his voice in Sagina (1974) which had (and who else?) S.D. Burman as the music director. However, once Rafi Sahaab got over his "reluctance" and tried making himself available, the restoration process had begun with the needed fillip of Madan Mohan, and the "Emergency" which we shall be broaching presently.

Otherwise, too, the mammoth myth of Rafi Sahaab's lean phase was amply exposed by a prestigious Indian weekly magazine named SCREEN in one of their publications: "The reduction in Rafi’s visit to the recording studious did not necessarily imply that Rafi was down. And ironically it was the high quantum of Rafi’s song in the pre-Aradhana phase that helped to fuel this myth. In actual fact it was during 1971-76 period that Rafi’s standing almost paralleled Mukesh’s. For Rafi had greater than ever percentage of hits…” The weekly goes on to emphatically state how Rafi Sahaab’s impact gave a permanent place in Bollywood musicals to even smaller composers during that period. It concluded triumphantly: “Rafi and down? Haven’t we heard that titans go down only in history.”

Rafi Sahaab gradually began overtaking Kishore Kumar and by 1980 he had clearly outstripped him in matters of sheer numbers and popularity.

(To continue)


  1. Sir, I just saw your blog accidently and I was very impressed with the articles, some of which I have already gone through. I do not seem to have found your name on www.mohdrafi.com or www.eternalrafi.com so far. Have you visited these sites? I suggest you can send your great articles to the first named website where a lot of discussions take place and with the kind of writing and knowledge that you possess, I am sure you will be the talking point for many days to come. You will find my name there as A.S. Murty and my email id as asmurty2@rediffmail.com I am posting this comment through my gmail account hence "rafimurty". thanks.

  2. Thank you Sir for your kind assessments. Yes, indeed, I do visit mohdrafi.com with my comments from time to time as "Nasir". I also visit eternalrafi.com. Besides, I contribute to www.hamaraforums.com where I am a dedicated member.
    It might appear that this reply is late to your kind comments, but I had just after your comments tried to contact you but there was an auto-reply that you had gone out of station on some sad errand.
    Anyway, thank you once again Mr. A.S. Murty. I appreciate your advice.

  3. Thanks Nasir Sahab and please be in touch with me at rafimurty@gmail.com instead of my rediffmail account which I have stopped using now.