A full three decades after Hindi cinema’s finest male playback singer passed away on July 31, 1980, barely a few minutes, if at all, go by without a Mohammad Rafi song being played somewhere on the radio, television, home music systems, other media or on stage. The evergreen voice from the 40s continues his spell over us even today, from his omnipresent rule in films across over 35 years to the much-downloaded videos of his songs on YouTube and MP3 as well as his presence on Facebook. And let’s not forget the dozens of Rafi-based orchestras that always play to full houses across India!
But let us instead look at an aspect no one has ever highlighted — the fascinating fact that the Padma Shri (though he deserves nothing less than a posthumous Phalke award) Mohammad Rafi has relevance even today. To take just three recent examples, singer KK said that he loved the “Rafi-like vibe” in the antaras of his hit Dil kyun yeh mera in Kites. When you hear Shankar Mahadevan’s version of Dhan dhan dharti re in Raajneeti, you cannot but think that in another era, this song would have been tailor-made for Rafi, so is Aadesh Shrivastava’s self-rendered Mora piya mose bolat naahi from the same film, the number one chartbuster of the year so far, both in music sales and downloads.
Mohammad Rafi had two kinds of followers among singers — those who emulated him in technical and creative aspects (powerful vocal throw, clear diction, genteel singing and the artless modulations) and those who were his mere naqals (imitators), trying to replicate even his voice. The first group comprises of the late Mahendra Kapoor — “Maine Rafi-saab se gandaa bandhwaayaa hai!” (Kapoor recounted how the gandaa, or a band was tied by his ‘guru’ Rafi on his wrist).
Udit Narayan once said — “I always tried to follow his gentle yet forceful style of singing with a saaf-suthra diction” while Sonu Niigaam’s drawing room is adorned with a huge portrait of Rafi, who he considers as his ‘guru’. Sukhwinder Singh and Roopkumar Rathod too have clearly followed the Rafi leitmotif in their singing styles. On the other hand, Rafi’s ‘mimics’ were the creations of nostalgic circumstances. Rafi passed away when he was right at the top of his career. And music directors, led by the then numero uno Laxmikant-Pyarelal, missed him so much that the Rafi-clones who arrived — Shabbir Kumar and later Mohammed Aziz — became their favourite singers, though Anwar, who had come in Rafi’s lifetime, had lost ground because of reported unprofessional behaviour.
So powerful was Rafi’s memory in people’s minds and in the psyche of the industry that in the mid-80s, Shabbir and Aziz (the most skilled singers among the clones) together became even busier than Kishore Kumar! Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s clear number one status made even names like newcomer Anu Malik (a Shankar-Jaikishan and Rafi fan) as well as even Bappi Lahiri and Rajesh Roshan use the Rafi-mimics a lot. This resulted in Kishore-oriented Kalyanji-Anandji and RD Burman losing ground quickly.
Later, especially after Kishore’s death in 1987, even these senior composers tried to use Aziz. At his peak, Aziz even recorded with legends like Chitragupta, Ravi, Naushad, OP Nayyar and Khayyam. In the beginning of the 90s, Aziz was still on top, and more Rafi clones tried to come in, although unsuccessfully, like Mangal Singh (Bahaar Aane Tak), Vipin Sachdeva (Sanam Bewafa), Debashish Dasgupta (Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin) and many more. But after Aashiqui and the onslaught of Nadeem-Shravan, much like after Aradhana in Rafi’s lifetime, the musical trend shifted, for a short while, towards the Kishore Kumar-style, now represented by Kumar Sanu, Abhijeet and later, by Babul Supriyo. Ironically, poor Amit Kumar (Kishore’s son and like his father a great Rafi lover) never made it to the top because he never imitated his father but had his own distinct style!
However, Udit Narayan, who made his first impact in the 1988-1990 phase with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Dil, zoomed past Sanu by 1995, proving once again that the Rafi style was supreme and that anything other than Rafi was acceptable only as a temporary change people’s musical diet.
The Udit reign ended in the early millennium only to give place to Sonu Niigaam, who still a big name in playback singing, even if he is singing selectively. Sonu was earlier made to sing in Rafi’s style (Accha sila diya from Bewafa Sanam, Sandesen aate hain from Border) and made an impact in the market with cover versions of Rafi’s hits on T-Series. But with Yeh dil diwana from Pardes, he broke through with his own style.
Today, although original and novel voices are the preferred norm, we get to see so many songs that could be called a mix of these singers’ styles. Many songs of composers like Pritam, Himesh Reshammiya, Vishal-Shekhar, AR Rahman among others, as well as of currently hot singers like Neeraj Shridhar, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan et al, could as be easily imagined with Rafi’s vocals as much as their present singer’s voices. All this boils down to a single fact — Rafi is relevant even today. His era continues, and with melody poised to come back, he will remain an institution that will inspire singers and composers even as his original melodies continue to rule hearts and touch souls.