Sunday, September 27, 2009


A Humble Tribute to the Greatest Playback Singer of All Times - by Nasir.

Looking outside of India, the use of atomic bombs by the USA in August 1945 over Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan no doubt forced the surrender of the Imperial Japanese forces, but the devastating power of the bombs and the resulting annihilation and long-term suffering of the survivors also shocked the world, leading to the protests for abolition of nuclear weapons ever since. Many movies were produced on the subject and in recent memory one Indian movie Aman (1967) comes to my mind.

In India, by 1946, winds of change were blowing more and more with the coming years. The two-nation theory was gaining ground and there was a general unrest in the Indian populace at the prospect of the division of the country. Worst Communal riots broke out in Calcutta and this spilled over to other regions of Bengal and Bihar and to some extent in other provinces too.

Sometimes, when the law and order situations prevailed, the theatres had to be closed down. I remember my parents telling me that once they were in the midst of watching Mehboob Khan’s Anmol Ghadi at the Minerva Theatre in Mumbai when the Management stopped the screening and asked everyone in the hall to go home as communal riots had broken out in Mumbai. It was with great difficulty that my parents reached home alive at the nearby Nana Chowk and so must have others who stayed alive. It was not the kind of Calcutta communal riots fortunately. So such unfortunate things used to happen then.

The theatres or rather the “Talkies” which exhibited hundreds of movies were one place where all people irrespective of the castes, creeds, and communities could sit together as one family and enjoy the movie. The themes of the movie were such which portrayed the social problems that affected one and all, irrespective of the religion of the community. Just as the blood of all the communities is red, even of the so-called ‘blue-blood’ aristocracy and nobility. The filmy themes dealt with poverty, child marriage, widow re-marriage, women’s emancipation, patriotism, evils of usury, palace intrigues, chieftan’s revolts, some war movies, cruelty of step-mothers, family values and ideals - which were common to every one. It appears that Indian movies were the great catalyst in restoring normalcy and keeping the people together.

Before 1946 the cutting of records was in the hands of a single company, EMI Ltd. This Company was incorporated as the Gramophone Co. (India) Ltd., in 1946. There were subsequent name changes too, the last being in the year 2000 when the name was changed to Saregama India Ltd. But it is the brand name HMV (His Master’s Voice) that the old timers are nostalgic about. Anyway, during the early years when playback singing was beginning to make waves, the names of the playback singers were not mentioned but the names of the character of the movies were mentioned on the gramophone records. Still worse, while the names of the female singers were mentioned, Rafi’s name was not mentioned. Therefore, Rafi Sahaab never got the credit for many of his early songs. Since before then, all along, the actors had themselves been rendering their voice for the songs, the actors did not relish the idea of making the cine-goer believe that they were just lip-synching the song which had been playbacked by another person behind the screen. The old films did not list the playback singers even in their credit titles of the movie. Thus many songs of Rafi Sahaab were lost, especially during the conversion from the old 78RPM records to the newer versions, as and when they came into vogue. Generally, the original soundtrack of the movies and the masters of the 78RPM records were also destroyed to reuse for newer songs. Needless to say, the selection being subjective, many Gems of Rafi Sahaab’s songs were lost – some of which were found only in private collections. It is also known that disinterested members of family throw away the old records once the avid collector of the family ceases to exist. Akbar Shah, who came from the line of avid record collectors, during his collection spree came to the Kabaadi (Junk) Market of Hyderabad and found a record which he thought no longer existed. It was the song of Mohammed Rafi where he had soulfully rendered SABAK RAZA KA DE GAYE KARBALA WAALE which was from a 1954 flick, Shaan-e-Haatham. If such could be the state of the songs of the Fifties, what must have happened to those of the Forties?

On the positive note, the Hindi film production which had dropped to 74 in 1945, shot up to 156 in 1946.

It was in 1946 that Geeta Roy made her debut in Bhakta Prahlad under Hanuman Prasad and later became famous with Do Bhai (1947) under S.D. Burman who had made his Hindi musical debut with Shikari in 1946. Geeta Roy had the looks more of a film heroine than that of a playback singer. Her first song with Mohammed Rafi was recorded in 1946 and it was a patriotic song: JAI HIND, JAI HIND, JAI HIND, YEH HIND KI KAHAANIYAAN. Accompanying them was Beena Pani and chorus. Chetan Anand's Neecha Nagar is exhibited at the Cannes Film Festival. Meena Kumar bagged her first role as an adult person after a score of baby roles. Kishore Kumar made his first appearance as an actor in Shikari. Meena Kapoor made her debut in Eight Days which had music by S.D. Burman. Music Director Sudhir Phadke, too, made his appearance in his first Hindi movie, Gokul. Chitragupt came out as an independent music director in Lady Robinhood. Ram Ganguli, an assistant of R.C. Boral, made his musical debut with Maharana Pratap. Hansraj Behl too came into his own after assisting Khemchand Prakash, Rashid Atre, and Pandit Gobindram. He made his musical debut in Pujari in which Baby Madhubala had a song to sing. Lata Mangeshkar appeared in Jeevan Yatra and also sang a solo under the baton of Vasant Desai. As far as actors were concerned, Dev Anand, Rehman, and Rehana made their debut appearances in Hum Ek Hain which was directed by the debutant P.L. Santoshi. Abhi Bhattacharya acted in a Hindi film for the first time. This movie was Milan which starred Dilip Kumar. Neecha Nagar lauched the careers of Chetan Anand, Kamini Kaushal and others. Dharti Ke Lal, directed by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, won critical acclaim at home and abroad. K.L. Saigal’s Umar Khayam was released. This was his second film with Suraiya. His third film with Suraiya, Parwana(1947) would be his last.

The visually-challenged musician and singer, K.C. Dey was an unparalleled singer who after earning great fame as actor, singer and composer in the Thirties, had shifted to Mumbai in 1942 till his final return to Calcutta in 1946. Once, aided by his protégé, Manna Dey, K.C. Dey had composed a song for a movie called Justice. When the composition was ready, K.C. Dey instructed Manna Dey to let Rafi know that the tune was ready for him to sing. Manna Dey was flabbergasted. Rafi had worked as a chorus singer under him when he was the Assistant Music Director. How could this be? Manna Dey frankly recounts in his interview with Kavita Chibber that he felt very hurt at that time.

He asked his uncle: “’Why can’t I sing it?’

My uncle said ‘No you can’t! Only he can sing this.’

I swallowed my pride and fetched him and then after he finished recording, I realised that indeed, I couldn’t have sung it as well as he did.” (Italics mine).

This great singer has always been a frank admirer of Rafi Sahaab as many of his interviews show. As late as his interview in the Kolkata's Times of India of October 4, 2009 he stated that he trusted his uncle's judgment, and knew that Rafi deserved those songs. "Rafi was a better singer than me. He gave birth to a unique style," he said categorically.

First it was K.L. Saigal, and now here was another great singer, K.C. Dey of MANN KEE ANKHEN KHOL BABA (Dhoop Chhaon) fame who, on the strength of his inner eye, put a stamp of approval on the tremendous potentials of Rafi Sahaab! Many years later, the illustrious S.D. Burman, who was a chela of K.C. Dey, would use the same ploy with Manna Dey and pass on the song to Rafi Sahaab.  As Manna Da himself  revealed: "Often after rehearsing a song for days with me, Dada would tell me 'Now that you know the song well guide Rafi to sing the song!"

Similarly, there is an incident which does not belong to the Forties but mentioning it here is a must in order to complete the links of the Bengali chain. That link in the chain is R.C. Boral. He was a stalwart of the New Theatres, and the one who discovered and shaped the voice of K.L. Saigal and the one who had introduced the playback singing in 1935. To state it briefly, this Dada Saheb Phalke Award Winner, would come face to face with Mohammed Rafi many years later for recording of a Bengali Kirtan which the former had composed. He thought that if he were not satisfied with Rafi, he could always have any of the well-known Bengal singers sing the Kirtan for him. Rafi Sahaab had always been conscientious about his work. He asked R.C. Boral’s permission for a short prayer. After offering his ‘Namaaz’ in one corner of the recording-room, he came to the mike to render the Kirtan. The result of the rendition of the Kirtan was so perfect that R.C. Boral was wonder-struck at the genius of this non-Bengali singer.

It was after Rafi Sahaab had passed away in 1980 that R.C. Boral paid a glowing tribute to him in an AIR programme at Calcutta, narrating that wonderful experience. If he had not told us of this amazing contribution of Rafi Sahaab at that time, we would never have known, for the very next year (1981) R.C. Boral, the Father of Indian Music, too passed away. For the records, R.C. Boral had utilized Rafi Sahaab in the three movies of the early Fifties: Mahaprabhu Chaitanya and Dard-e-Dil (1953) and in Swami Vivekanand in 1955 which is not our subject-matter here.



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