How Rafi-Naushad combination shaped Hindi film music

Way back in 1949, a 25-year-old young man went to meet music composer Naushad Ali. He looked disenchanted and upset. “Bambai mein mera man nahin lag raha hai. Main Punjab laut raha hoon. Wahaan raagon pe munhasir tarane gaoonga “ (I’ve had enough of Bombay. I’m going back to Punjab to sing raag-based compositions), said the young man although he was already becoming popular. “Aap chand roz rukiye. Main aapke liye vaise tarane banaoonga” (Please wait for a few days. I’ll compose such songs for you), assured Naushad and soon composed a raag-based song for that disillusioned young man. As they say, the rest is history.

That young singer was the legendary Muhammad Rafi, and the song that catapulted him to early greatness: Suhani raat dhal chuki, na jaane tum kab aaoge (film: Dulari, 1949, lyricist: Shakeel Badayuni). The great film critic Bunny Reuben later wrote in the now-defunct film magazine, Star & Style, “But for Naushad, Hindi film music would certainly have lost Rafi.” 

The duo of arguably the finest music composer and the best ever male singer transformed film music and lent respectability to playback singing. Rafi was born on December 24, Naushad Ali on December 25.

Many people are of the opinion that Rafi became Rafi because Naushad mentored him and never lost faith in his astounding singing abilities. Even when Rafi started to have self-doubts in the early 70s because of Kishore Kumar’s meteoric rise, Naushad didn’t give up on him. Raju Bharatan has written poignantly on how Naushad would keep hammering it into Rafi’s wounded psyche that he was still unparalleled. Readers may be aware that Naushad never used Kishore’s voice.

It’s interesting to note that Rafi’s heart was never in film music, which he considered to be below-par and purely commercial. Trained by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Jeevanlal Mattoo, Firoz Nizami, Abdul Wahid Khan, among others, Rafi wanted to become a classical singer rather than a playback singer. It was Naushad who exhorted Rafi to sing classical songs for films. Film critic Fahim Malik wrote in the Urdu magazine ‘Shama’ in 1984 that Naushad egged Shakeel Badayuni on to pen lyrics keeping Rafi in mind. That’s the reason the trio of Shakeel, Naushad and Rafi swept listeners off their feet.

Rafi had a natural octave of simultaneous crescendo and de-crescendo. He could effortlessly carry his voice through the seven notes and sub-notes with perfect musical lilts and tilts. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan wrote to Naushad to create compositions, that would enable his protégé to showcase the magnificent range of his voice. Naushad, in association with Shakeel, created ‘Oh duniya ke rakhwale, sun dard bhare mere naale’ (Baiju Bawra, 1952) for Rafi and immortalised it. The concluding alaapi (parting note): ‘Rakhwale....... Rakhwale’ was Naushad’s idea to display the magic of Rafi’s range and class.

Naushad Ali had an edge over all his contemporary great musicians like S D Burman, Chitragupt Shrivastav, Salil Chaudhury, Ravishankar Sharma, Madan Mohan, Muhammad Zahoor Khayyam Hashmi, Shankar-Jaikishan among others. While they were all every inch a composer, Naushad was an exceptionally good shayar (Urdu poet) as well. So, his fabulous compositions were coupled with his own refined poetic sensibilities and that came to the fore when he made Rafi sing: ‘Koi sagar dil ko bahlata nahin...’ (Dil diya, dard liya, 1966) or ‘Aaj purani raahon se, koi mujhe aawaaz na de’ (Aadmi, lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni, 1968). It must be mentioned that the numbers penned by Shakeel had a stanza each written by Naushad! 

In an interview to BBC’s Yawar Abbas after the demise of Rafi in 1980, Naushad said that no one could fully explore the boundless range of Rafi’s voice. It was Naushad’s humility that he never accepted the fact that only he had used Rafi’s voice to the optimum and even made him sing murkis (quick vocal turns and twists) for ‘Nain lad jai hai toh manwa ma kasak hoi be kari’ (Ganga-Jamuna, lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni, 1961).

Rafi was a Punjabi-Muslim, born in Kotla Sultan Singh, Amritsar district. His mother tongue was Punjabi, not Urdu. In fact, his very first recorded song was a Punjabi number for the film ‘Gul Baloch’ (1944). So, his Punjabi interfered with Urdu when he began to sing Hindi-Urdu songs in Bombay. Naushad, who hailed from Lucknow, again came to Rafi’s rescue and honed his Urdu diction. Rafi, in turn, taught Naushad Punjabi!

A perfectionist to the core, Naushad was the only composer in the history of Hindi film music who dared to tell Rafi that he needed the exact rendition of the composition from the singer and would make him sing until he felt satisfied. He made Rafi record ‘Chale aaj tum jahaan se, hui zindagi...’ (Udan-Khatola, lyrics: Shakeel, 1954) seven times to get the supreme outcome of raag Bhim Palasi. Aware of the fantastic wavy pattern of Rafi’s voice, Naushad composed Khumar Barabankvi’s ‘Dil ki mahfil saji hai, chale aaiye...’ (Saaz aur aawaaz, 1966). Just listen to the lilting number picturised on Joy Mukherjee and you can feel the wave-like ups and downs throughout this unforgettable number.

Himself a very good pianist, Naushad composed a pianissimo only keeping in mind Rafi’s versatility. It was ‘Aaj ki raat mere, dil ki salami lele...’ (Ram aur Shyam, 1967). Filmed on Dilip Kumar, Naushad knew that both Dilip Kumar and Rafi could play the piano with consummate ease. Just like Rafi, Naushad also delved into the character’s persona and created a composition.

Both Rafi and Naushad were great observers and believed in naghmai jazbiyat (musical assimilation). The countless listeners, fans and admirers of the great Muhammad Rafi should forever be thankful to Naushad sahab for not letting Rafi sahab leave Bombay in 1949. Hindi film music would have been conspicuously poorer had Rafi left for pristine classical music. You may be aware that twice, Rafi decided to stop singing when someone told him during Haj that singing was haram (prohibited) in Islam. On both occasions, it was Naushad who made him return to singing. 

Lastly, Naushad composed music for only 67 films, but in those he immortalised both Rafi and himself. 

(One of the writer’s two PhDs was on ‘Rafi ki Aawaaz Mein Naghmai Baareeqiyaan (The musical nuances of Rafi’s voice) written in Urdu, at the University of Lahore) 

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