Friday, September 25, 2009


A Humble Tribute to the Greatest Playback Singer of all times – by Nasir.

In order to appreciate the genius of the Indian Legendary Singer, Mohammed Rafi, a very brief survey of the Indian Cinema during the Nineteen Forties becomes imperative. Regional cinema is out of the purview.

Dada Saheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra (1913) was the first silent movie in India, with no synchronised sounds or dialogues. Some of the well-known actors of the time were Patience Cooper, Ruby Myers (Sulochna), and Renee Smith (Sita Devi), Zubeida, Fatima Begum, Master Vithal, Master Nisar, and Prithviraj Kapoor. Improvements in technology and the synchronisation of the sound with the pictures, heralded the end of the silent-movie era. Alam Ara, the first “talkie” film in India, was released in Mumbai’s Majestic Cinema in 1931. Its producer, Ardeshir M. Irani is therefore considered to be the father of the “talkie” film. Zubeida was the leading lady. It had the first song of the Indian cinema, DE DE KHUDA KE NAAM PAR, by W.M. Khan who acted as a faqir. It was recorded live, accompanied with a Tabla and a Harmonium. The arrival of sound had serious implications for the entire generation of film-makers, technicians and artists who could not adapt themselves to the new system. Many studios closed down. Now only those actors or actresses could be employed in films who, besides their acting talent, could also deliver dialogues and sing many songs. The Anglo-Indians were the worst hit as they could not speak fluent Urdu or Hindi. Many actors of the silent era lost their job since they could not sing.

There was no playback system. Direct recording meant that the actors had to act as well as sing. The many retakes would leave them dead tired to do either the singing or the acting as desired, with the mircrophones being hidden with great imagination from the camera. Not to speak of the perspiration and the repeated dabbing of the make-up on the singing artiste who had to even sing louder to reach the overhead mike without being able to hear the orchestra fully. At times, the microphone, the instrumentalists and the camera had to follow the walking singer.

During the silvern age of the Nineteen Thirties, the Bombay Talkies, Prabhat, Wadia Movietone, and New Theatres ruled supreme. These Houses employed the artistes mainly on a monthly salary. Some of the reputed names of the talkie-films were Devika Rani, Shobhana Samarth, Leela Chitnis, Durga Khote, Shanta Apte, Sadhna Bose, Padma Devi and Kananbala, as well as Ashok Kumar, P.C. Barua, Prithviraj Kapoor and others. It was also the era of the “Fearless” Nadia who performed daring stunts in Homi Wadia’s movie. Her name became synonymous with her role in Hunterwali which is remembered to this day.

With the dawn of Saigal era (1932-1947) new techniques evolved that could allow the actors to just mimic the off-camera song that had already been recorded in the voice of the playback singer. Even here, the songs used to be played on the loudspeakers for the actors to mimic the songs. These songs could also be broadcast on the radio and also made into flat discs called “records” whose production, by 1931, was in the hands of a a single record company, EMI.

It was R.C. Boral (d.1981), a stalwart of the New Theatres at Calcutta, who had introduced the first playback singing for a movie called Dhoop Chhaaon (Bhagyachakra in Bengali version) in 1935. Punkaj Mallick, his colleague and an all-round figure, had earlier made his debut as Music Director in Yahudi ki Ladki (1933) and introduced the use of western instruments such as piano and accordion in songs and also introduced the background musical score to enhance the action, the mood and the tempo of the film scenes, just as Naushad was to mix the clarinet, the flute and other musical instruments and improve the background music. The Thirties could boast of many fine movies that included Shantaram’s Amrit Manthan (1934), Bombay Talkies’ Achhut Kanya (1936), Mehboob Khan’s Ek Hi Rasta and Aurat (1939), and Minerva Movietone’s Pukar (1939). It was also the time when there were many gramophone stars. A 1938-movie was even named Gramophone Singer (Music Anil Biswas) which had K.L. Saigal.

By 1940, many gramophone stars who could not make it to the film music as playback singers soon lost their standing in the music world. In the Forties, some memorable films were made such as Shantaram’s Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani, K.A. Abbas’s Dharti Ke Lal, Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, Uday Shankar’s Kalpana, Mehboob Khan’s Roti, Wadia’s Court Dancer, Sohrab Modi’s Sikandar and Prithvi Vallabh, Raj Kapoor’s Aag and Barsaat, and Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya and Bharat Milap.

Mumbai had the lineup of highly professional music directors such as Shyam Sunder, Khemchand Prakash, Timir Baran, R.C. Boral, Datta Kogaonkar, Husnlal-Bhagatram, Sajjad, Naushad, Ghulam Haider, Hansraj Behl, Khursheed Anwar, Vinod and Anil Biswas. It was usual for the orchestras to be on the exclusive payroll of the individual music director. Mumbai had replaced Calcutta as the leading film city of India and had become the base of composite culture where a new amalgam of music was born.

Naushad Ali of Lucknow, who had made his debut in Prem Nagar in 1940, brought the fusion of Hindustani music and the classical ragas and introduced many innovations in his musical compositions and system of recording. If Ghulam Haider had the opportunity of introducing Baby Noor Jahan in Gul-e-Bakavli a Punjabi movie of 1939, as Baby Noor Jahan, and later in 1941 as a playback singer in Pancholi Art Pictures’ super-hit, Khanzanchi, Naushad too, made the 13-year old Suraiya playback in his second movie, Sharda, for the heroine Mehtab. Pandit Amarnath had discovered Zeenat Begum of the Gul Baloch fame (S.Mohinder). Around this time, Mukesh and Habib Tabani (Habib Wali Mohammed) won the audition test meant for aspiring singers. It was for Meena Kumari to appreciate the Ghazals of Habib and play them on Radio Ceylon, thus making Habib a celebrity in the mid-forties. Around 1941, Ghulam Haider “changed the complexion of the Indian film music” especially with the stretching and breaking of the lyrics to enhance the beauty and the weight of the rhythm and giving peculiar charm to his musical compositions. He introduced the Dholak and other instruments in films. Ghulam Haider employed ‘Taals’ (beats) very prominently in his films, including Khazanchi (1941), Khandan (1942), Zameendar (1942) and Poonji (1943).

The playback singing in the movies gained ground and by the mid-forties it became predominant. According to Naushad, initially, in the early forties, a single mike was meant to be used by singers as well as the musicians who used to take turn coming to the mike and doing their bits. Besides, the mike called “Fedler Tone” needed the heat of the fire before it could function. No sound-proof recording studios existed. Recordings were done in the parks at the dead of night so that there was no disturbance or echo.

As before, music, songs and dance, became an integral part of Indian films, as they also pushed the film-story ahead and could portray the inmost emotions of the performers who could now not be bothered about singing their songs on-screen. The songs could either make or break a movie. The genres of romantic songs, patriotic numbers, the sad songs or laments, devotional songs, the ghazals and the qawwalis were recorded, once the scenes were finalised in most of the cases. The fragrance of folk songs came from the soils of Rajasthan, Bombay Province (i.e. Gujarat, Saurashtra, Kutch, and Maharashtra), and the United Province (U.P.). All this and the Rabindra Sangeet of Bengal, found their way to the home of the common man through films and gramophone records and through the radio stations as and when they came to be established. New technology also made it possible to have the songs released before the movies, which in fact worked as an ad. New talents in the fields of music, singing, acting, and producing and directing movies came to the fore, impacting on the socio-culture of the indigenous population that extended from the Hindukush mountains to the Brahmaputra river and beyond so that a time came when the heroine could sing, MERE PIYA GAYE RANGOON WAHAAN SE KIYA HAI TELEPHOON... Yes, Rangoon, where Indians formed half of the city’s population.

At least till 1942 the singing actors held on to their own since there was a dearth of the playback singers. Ashok Kumar used to sing his own songs with heroines such as Devika Rani, Leela Chitnis, etc., in early career. Some of his famous songs are: MAI.N BAN KI CHI.DIYA sung along with Devika Rani(Achut Kanya -1936), CHAL CHAL RE NAUJAWAAN (Bandhan – 1940), NAA JAANE KIDHAR AAJ MEREE NAAV CHALI RE (Jhoola – 1941), and his songs with Leela Chitnis in the same movie; BOLO HAR HAR MAHADEV ALLAHO AKBAR (Chal Chal Re Naujawan – 1941) to name just a few. Many times there used to be different versions of the same song: one in the film by the actor, and on the record it used to be the playback singer as happened in the case of Ashok Kumar in Kismet when Anil Biswas made Arun Kumar playback for him.

Some of the singers of the decade between the Nineteen Thirties to the ‘Forties were: K.L. Saigal, Pankaj Mullick, R.C. Boral, Pahadi Sanyal, Ashok Kumar, K.C. Dey (Manna Dey’s uncle), Mumtaz Ali (Mehmood’s father), Arun Kumar, Ahmed Dilawar, Bashir Qawwaal, Master Parshuram, S.N. Tripathy, Balwant Singh, Minu the Mystic, R.C Pal, Vishnupant Pagnis, Kantilal, Master Suresh, Govindrao Tembe, Akbar Khan Peshawari, Eruch Tarapore, Utpal Sen, Rafiq Ghaznavi who was also a composer, Ashraf Khan the actor-singer, Pradeep who continued to sing and write lyrics for at least three decades thereafter. Some other singers were: Kamla Jharia, Indubala, Shanta Apte, Gauhar Sultana, Umrao Zia Begum, Saraswati Rane, Hameeda Banu, Kaushalya, Rehmat Banu, Zeenat Begum, Bina Chowdhary and Munawwar Sultana. Filmy ghazals were popularised by Ameerbai Karnataki, Zohrabai Ambalewali, Kajjan, Jaddanbai, Goharbai and K.L. Saigal. Non-filmi ghazals were rendered by Akhtaribai Faizabadi (Begum Akhtar), Jankibai, Kamla Jharia and Malika Pukhraj.

Some other singers who were mainly in the Forties and whose songs were commonly heard in the Fifties were G.M.Durrani, Surendra, Shyam Kumar, Jagmohan, Khan Mastana, Zohrabai Ambalewali, Amirbai Karnatki, Noor Jahan, Suraiya, Raj Kumari, Shamshad Begum, Shanta Apte, Meena Kapoor, S.D. Batish, Lalita Dewulkar, and Surinder Kaur.

Coming to the contemporaries of Mohammed Rafi, we have Talat Mehmood, who had popularised light ghazals and was known for his “velvety or silken voice.” Manna Dey was known for his “manly” voice and great classical background and the ability to take down the musical notations. Mukesh who belonged to the Saigal School was excellent in low tones; Kishore Kumar was an actor who could sing. C. Ramchandra was the music director who could sing. Hemant Kumar, who had been singing since 1937 in Bengal, was known for his heavy-moulded and sonorous voice. He too was a musician. C.H. Atma who had deep voice like Saigal’s made his debut in 1945. These were the stiffest male competition that Mohammed Rafi had to face and overcome. The others who would keep him company would be Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Geeta Dutt, Sudha Malhotra, Suman Kalyanpur, and a few others.




  1. Hi Nasir ji

    Excellent article. Waiting for the next parts.

    Best Regards

  2. Oh parage ji,

    Thanks for dropping by to encourage me. I really appreciate it.

    Warm Regards,