Rafi, the versatile genius
Had he still been around, he would have turned 88 on Christmas Eve. But at 56, on July 31, 1980, Mohd. Rafi was felled by a massive heart attack.
Recalling the day, his son, Shahid Rafi, had told me that his abba (father) had been rehearsing for a Bengali song when the pain began. Unwilling to trouble the music director, he waited till everyone was satisfied before saying, “Ab dard bardasht nahin hota hai (the pain is unbearable).”
He was rushed to a hospital. He never returned home or to the studios again. His last song was for Aas Paas (1980), recorded for Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Shaam phir kyun udaas hai dost. Ironically prophetic.
Fifteen years later, Shahid has come to terms with the untimely end. “It was destined. Death comes knocking on every door, and no matter how hard you try, you have to let go,” he says philosophically, choosing to remember his father as a Santa Claus who would return from concert tours abroad laden with toys and chocolates for his six children.
Shahid had planned to release a biography by Sujata Dev, and authorised by him, on December 24. But November end, his sister-in-law Yasmin Khalid Rafi came out with a 295-page memoir, Mohd. Rafi: My Abba. “So, I’ve pushed the release to February-March,” says Shahid. “Yasmin’s book is more about her interactions with her father-in-law, while my biography will focus on Rafi, the singer, tracing his journey from his arrival in Mumbai in 1944, to his last day.”
Rafi was the fourth of six brothers whose future was determined when he started imitating the chants of a fakir visiting his village, Kotla Sultan Singh. He learnt classical music from Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan, Pt Jiwan Lal Mattoo and Firoze Nizami and, at 13, boldly stepped upon stage to pacify a restless crowd.
“It happened in Lahore at a function starring K L Saigal. I don’t remember exactly what happened — either Saigal was late to arrive or the electricity went off, but the crowd was getting restless. That’s when Rafi saab, who had never sung at public functions before, took the mike. Within minutes, everyone was mesmerised,” narrates actor-producer-director-writer Manoj Kumar.
Bharat’s image as an evergreen patriot owes a lot to Rafi’s unforgettable gems, from Shaheed’s (1965) Aye watan and O mera rang de basanti chola to Upkar’s (1967) Gulabi raat and Kranti’s (1981) Channa jor garam. He also sang some haunting melodies like Jaane chaman shola badan (Gumnaam, 1965), and the star’s favourite, Raha gardishon mein hardam, mera ishq ka sitara (Do Badan, 1966). “Like me, he was from Lahore too, and when two Lahoris sit together, everything from their language to their perceptions on life, match, binding them in a crowd of a 100,” smiles Manoj Kumar.
For him, Rafi was a gentleman and a student of music to the end. “He sang two songs for my Shirdi Ke Sai Baba (1977), Sainath tere hazaaron haath and Sai baba bolo, when I introduced him to Anuradha Paudwal and Anup Jalota who sang Sai Baba bolo with him and Jani Babu, he was all smiles and encouragement for the newcomers, with none of the competitive envy and insecurity common amongst others,” recalls the star.
For Shahid, his abba was a simple, god-fearing man who described his success as “uparwale ki den” and always told them “Kabhi sar utha kar nahin chalna (Never walk with your head held high), you never known when a stone will come flying and you’ll fall.” The philosopher-guide, however, was also a child at heart whose joy was watching his kids play in the garden where he’d relax on returning home every evening. Growing up, Shahid was fascinated with guns and thrilled when his father gifted him an air gun for which no licence was needed. Rafi told him to handle it with care.
“But my mother didn’t trust us with the dangerous toy and kept it with her, letting us play with it only occasionally, on the terrace, with a cardboard figure for target practice,” he smiles.
A gentle man getting his son an air gun, the contradiction is there even in his songs. The versatile genius, he could switch gears from a soft Manoj Kumar to a rebellious Shammi Kapoor without a hitch. He contributed majorly to the metamorphosis of Shamsher Raj Kapoor to Shammi Kapoor, who careened down the snow slopes to the Junglee war cry, Yahoo! Crawling on all fours, Shammi crooned to Sadhana, Woh dekho mujhse rooth kar meri jaan ja rahi hai (Rajkumar, 1964), praised Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) Sharmila Tagore with Yeh chand sa roshan chehra and shook a leg with Helen to the tunes of Aaja aaja mein hoon pyaar tera (Teesri Manzil, 1966). And when Rafi died, Shammi Kapoor admitted he had “lost his voice”.
Today, Shahid’s caller tune is another Shammi Kapoor number from Pagla Kahin Ka (1970), Tum mujhe yun bhula na paoge, Jab kabhi bhi sunoge geet mere, Sang sang tum bhi gungunaoge. He says, “My father has been gone 22 years, but still hasn’t been forgotten.”