Mohammad Rafi (December 24, 1924 – July 31, 1980) is considered to be one of the greatest Indian male playback singer of all time. He was awarded the National Film Award, Best Singer Award, six Filmfare Awards and the Best Singer of the Millennium award. In 1967, he was honoured with the Padma Shri award by the Government of India. His singing career spanned about 35 years, and he is noted for his ability to sing songs of different moods and varieties: his songs ranged from classical numbers to patriotic songs, sad lamentations to highly romantic numbers, qawwalis to ghazals and bhajans. He is best known for romantic and duet songs, which he playback sings with the technique to mould the voice according to characters of the actor on the screen.
Rafi is primarily noted for his songs in Hindi-Urdu, over which he had a strong command. He also sang in other Indian languages including Konkani, Bhojpuri, Oriya, Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi, Sindhi, Kannada, Gujarati, Telugu, Maghi, Maithili and Assamese . He also recorded a few songs in foreign languages such as English, Persian, Spanish and Dutch. From available figures, Rafi sang 4,516 Hindi film songs, 112 non-Hindi film songs, and 328 private (non-film) songs from 1945 to 1980.
Mohammed Rafi was the second youngest of six brothers. His father, Hajji Ali Mohammad and family lived in Kotla Sultan Singh, a village near Amritsar in Punjab (British India). Rafi, whose nickname was Pheeko, began singing by imitating the chants of a fakir in his village. Rafi’s father moved to Lahore in the 1920s where he ran a men’s salon in Noor Mohalla in Bhatti Gate Lahore. His elder brother, Mohammad Deen, had a friend, Abdul Hameed, (future brother-in-law), who spotted the talent in Rafi in Lahore and encouraged him to sing. Abdul Hameed later convinced the family elders to let Rafi move to Mumbai and he accompanied him in 1944.
Rafi learnt classical music from Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan, Pandit Jiwanlal Matto and Firoze Nizami. His first public performance came at the age of 13, when he sang in Lahore featuring K. L. Saigal. In 1941, Rafi, under Shyam Sunder, made his debut in Lahore as a playback singer in the duet “Soniye Nee, Heeriye Nee” with Zeenat Begum in the Punjabi film Gul Baloch (the film was released in 1944).In that same year, Rafi was invited by All India Radio Lahore station to sing for them. He made his professional debut in the Shyam Sunder-directed 1941 Punjabi film Gul Baloch and the earliest debut in Mumbai film was Gaon Ki Gori in 1945.
In 1944, Rafi moved to Bombay. He and Hameed Sahab rented a ten-by-ten-feet room in the crowded downtown Bhendi Bazar area. During this time, poet Tanvir Naqvi introduced him to film producers including Abdur Rashid Kardar, Mehboob Khan and actor-director Nazeer. Shyam Sunder was in Mumbai and provided the opportunity to Rafi to sing a duet with GM Durrani, ‘Aji dil ho qaabu mein to dildar ki aisi taisi…’, for Gaon Ki Gori, which became Rafi’s first recorded song in a Hindi film. Other songs followed. Rafi also had brief roles in movies like Laila-Majnu (1945) and Jugnu. In Laila-Majnu, he sang Tera Jalwa as a part of the chorus.
Rafi’s first song with Naushad was “Hindustan Ke Hum Hain” with Shyam Kumar, Alauddin and others, from A. R. Kardar’s Pehle Aap (1944). Around the same time, Rafi recorded another song for the 1945 film Gaon Ki Gori, “Aji Dil Ho Kaaboo Mein”. He considered this song his first Hindi language song.
Rafi also appeared in two movies. In 1945, Rafi appeared on the screen for the song “Tera Jalwa Jis Ne Dekha” in the film Laila Majnu. He sang a number of songs for Naushad as part of the chorus, including “Mere Sapnon Ki Rani, Roohi Roohi” with K. L. Saigal from the film Shahjahan (1946). Rafi sang “Tera Khilona Toota Balak” from Mehboob Khan’s Anmol Ghadi (1946) and a duet with Noor Jehan in the 1947 film Jugnu, “Yahan Badla Wafa Ka”.
In 1949, Rafi was given solo songs by music directors such as Naushad, (Chandni Raat, Dillagi and Dulari) Shyam Sunder (Bazaar) and Husnalal Bhagatram (Meena Bazaar).
Rafi was influenced by the singers of that time like K. L Saigal and, most notably, by G. M. Durrani – on whose style he based his singing. He sung with his idol in some of the songs such as “Humko Hanste Dekh Zamana Jalta Hai” (Hum Sab Chor Hain, 1956) and “Khabar Kisi Ko Nahiin, Woh Kidhar Dekhte” (Beqasoor, 1950).
Rafi’s first marriage ended when his wife refused to live in India and moved to Lahore following the death of both her parents during the riots during the Partition of India. Rafi however decided to stay back in India and had the rest of his family flown to Bombay where he was staying.
In 1948, after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the team of Husanlal Bhagatram-Rajendra Krishan-Rafi had overnight created the song “Suno Suno Ae Duniyawalon, Bapuji Ki Amar Kahani”. He was invited by the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to sing at the latter’s house. In 1948, Rafi received a silver medal from Nehru on the Indian Independence Day.
In his early career, Rafi associated with many contemporary music directors, most notably Naushad. In the late 1950s and 1960s, he worked with other composers of the era such as O. P. Nayyar, Shankar Jaikishan, S.D. Burman and Roshan.
As per Naushad, Rafi came to him with a letter of recommendation from Naushad’s father. Rafi’s first song for Naushad was “Hindustan Ke Hum Hain” (“We belong to Hindustan”) for the film Pehle Aap in 1944. The first song for the duo was the soundtrack of the movie Anmol Ghadi (1946). Before Rafi, Naushad’s favorite singer was Talat Mahmood. Once Naushad found Talat smoking during a recording. He was annoyed and hired Rafi to sing all the songs of the movie Baiju Bawra.
Rafi’s association with Naushad helped the former establish himself as one of the most prominent playback singers in Hindi Cinema. Songs from Baiju Bawra (1952) like “O duniya ke rakhwale” and “Man tarpat hari darshan ko aaj” furthered Rafi’s credentials. Rafi ended up singing a total of 149 songs (81 of them solo) for Naushad.
In the 1960 film Mughal-E-Azam, Mohammed Rafi sang the song “Ae Mohabbat Zindabad”, composed by Naushad, with a chorus of 100 singers.
S. D. Burman patronized Rafi as the singing voice of Dev Anand and Guru Dutt. Rafi worked with Burman in movies like Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Tere Ghar Ke Samne (1963), Guide (1965), Aradhana (1969), and Abhimaan (1973). S. D. Burman was also another music director besides Naushad who used Rafi prolifically to sing for most of his songs.
Rafi and Shankar Jaikishan was a partnership in the Hindi film industry. Under Shankar-Jaikishan, Rafi produced some of his songs for actors like Shammi Kapoor and Rajendra Kumar. Out of six Filmfare awards, Rafi won three for S-J songs, viz., “Teri Pyari Pyari Soorat Ko”, “Baharon Phool Barsao”, and “Dil Ke Jharokhe Mein”. The song “Yahoo! Chahe Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe” was sung by Rafi, only to be matched a fast-paced orchestra and a composition by Shankar Jaikishan. S-J made Rafi give playback for Kishore Kumar in the film Shararat (“Ajab hai daastan teri yeh zindagi”). Rafi sang a total of 341 numbers (216 solo) for Shankar-Jaikishan. Among the films of this combination, are Basant Bahar, Professor, Junglee, Suraj, Brahmachari, An Evening in Paris, Dil Tera Deewana, Yakeen, Prince, Love in Tokyo, Beti Bete, Dil Ek Mandir, Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, Gaban and Jab Pyar Kisi Se Hota Hai.
Rafi got his first Filmfare Award for the title song of Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960), composed by Ravi. He got National Award for the song “Babul Ki Duaen Leti Ja” from the film Neel Kamal (1968), also composed by Ravi. Rafi actually wept during the recording of this song. He, himself, admitted this in his interview to BBC in 1977.
Ravi and Rafi produced several other songs, in the films China Town (1962), Kaajal (1965), and Do Badan (1966).
Madan Mohan was another composer whose favorite singer was Rafi. Rafi’s first solo with Madan Mohan in Ankhen (1950), “Hum Ishq Mein Barbad Hain Barbad Rahenge”. They teamed up to produce many songs including “Teri Aankhon Ke Siva”, “Yeh Duniya Yeh Mehfil” and “Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho”.
Rafi and O. P. Nayyar created music in the 1950s and 1960s. O. P. Nayyar was once quoted as saying “If there had been no Mohd. Rafi, there would have been no O. P. Nayyar”. He and Rafi created many songs together including “Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan”. He got Rafi to sing for singer-actor Kishore Kumar – “Man Mora Baawara” for the movie Raagini. Later, Rafi sang for Kishore Kumar in movies such as Baaghi, Shehzaada and Shararat. O. P. Nayyar used Rafi and Asha Bhosle for most of his songs. The team created many songs in early 1950s and 1960s for movies such as Naya Daur (1957), Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957), and Kashmir Ki Kali (1964). Rafi sang a total of 197 numbers (56 solo) for Nayyar. The song “Jawaaniyan yeh mast mast” and the title song “Yun to humne lakh hansee dekhe hain, tumsa nahin dekha” of the film Tumsa Nahin Dekha. They were followed by songs like “Taareef karoon kya uski jisne tumhe banaya” from Kashmir ki Kali.
Rafi and OP had a fallout during the recording for movie “Sawan ki Ghata”, as disclosed by OP during one of his interviews.
The composer duo Laxmikant-Pyarelal (L-P) also patronized Rafi as one of their singers, right from their very first film, Parasmani (1963). Both Rafi and L-P won the Filmfare Awards for the song “Chahoonga Main Tujhe Saanjh Savere” from Dosti (1964). Rafi rendered the maximum number of songs for the music director duo Laxmikant-Pyarelal: a total of 369 numbers (186 solo) for L-P.
Once, when composer Nisar Bazmi (who had migrated to Pakistan) didn’t have enough money to pay him, Rafi charged a fee of one rupee and sang for him. He also helped producers financially. As Laxmikant (of the Laxmikant-Pyarelal duo) once observed – “He always gave without thinking of the returns”.
Between 1950 and 1970, Rafi was the most sought after singer in Bollywood. He sang for many male stars in Hindi films. In 1965, he was honoured by the Government of India with the Padma Sri award. Rafi recorded two Hindi songs in English on 7″ release in 1968. He also sang a song in Creole while on his visit to Mauritius in the late 1960s. Rafi recorded two English albums as well. One of them is Pop Hits.
Rafi associated with several of his contemporaries, singing duets with them and sometimes for them (as in case of Kishore Kumar who was also an actor). Rafi sang the maximum number of duets with Asha Bhonsle (female), Manna Dey (male) and Lata Mangeshkar (female). For the song “Man mora bawra” in the film Ragini, Kishore Kumar requested Rafi to sing this song for him because this song was a semi classical and Kishore Kumar said that “Rafi Sahab can sing this song better than me”. Rafi sang the song. The song “Ajab Hay Dastan Teri Aey Zindagi” was first given to Kishore Kumar to sing and he sung the first half ofantara but in the second half, he faced some trouble and after many retakes, he was unable to give the effect that Shankar Jaikishan wanted, and finally the song was given to Rafi to sing. In the song “Humko Tumse Ho Gaya Hai Pyaar Kya Karein” (Amar, Akbar, Anthony), Mohd Rafi sang with Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh – all in one song. This was probably the only time that all of them rendered their voices for one song.
Rafi sang several hit songs in Chris Perry’s Konkani album Golden Hits with Lorna Cordeiro.
In 1962-1963, the popular female playback singer Lata Mangeshkar raised the issue of playback singers’ share in the royalties. Recognizing Rafi’s position as the leading male playback singer, she wanted him to back her in demanding a half-share from the 5 percent song royalty that the film’s producer conceded to select composers. Lata’s contention was that, there was no way producers and music directors could deny this singing duo, one-half share in that 5 percent song royalty to the composer. Rafi’s stated that his claim on the filmmaker ended with his being paid his agreed fee for the song. After that, if the film proved a hit, the filmmaker was welcome to keep the Gramco (HMV) royalty he earned from it. If the film did not prove to be a hit, argued Rafi, that he had already been paid the same fees for his song; so later the situation is resolved. Lata viewed his stand as a stumbling block on the royalty issue and this subsequently led to differences between the two. During the recording of “Tasveer Teri Dil Mein” (Maya, 1961), Lata argued with Rafi over a certain passage of the song. Rafi felt belittled, as music director Salil Chowdhury sided with Lata. The situation worsened when Lata Mangeshkar declared that she would no longer sing with Rafi. Rafi stated that he was only so keen to sing with Lata as she was with him. Later, at the insistence of S. D. Burman, the two decided to reconcile and sing duets.
In early 1970s, Rafi recorded fewer songs At the same period Kishore Kumar’s popularity increased due to the songs he sang for the film Aradhana. The music for Aradhana was composed by S. D. Burman, and he had used Rafi as the male playback voice for the first two recorded duets, “Baaghon Mein Bahaar Hai” and “Gunguna Rahen Hain Bhanwre”. After these two recordings, S. D. Burman fell ill and his son and assistant, R. D. Burman, took over the recordings. R. D. Burman got Kishore Kumar to sing the solos “Roop Tera Mastana” and “Mere Sapnon Ki Rani”.
During 1971-1973, Rafi’s musical output decreased; however, he did sing several songs. Some of Rafi’s songs of the early 1970s were with music directors like Laxmikant Pyarelal, Madan Mohan, R. D. Burman and S. D. Burman. These include “Tum mujhe Yun Bhula na Paoge” (a signature song of Rafi in 1971) from Pagla Kahin Ka, “Yeh Duniya Yeh Mehfil” from Heer Ranjha (1970), “Jhilmil Sitaron ka” from Jeevan Mrityu (a duet with Lata Mangeshkar, 1970), “Gulabi Aankhen” from The Train (1970), “Yeh Jo Chilman Hain” and “Itna to Yaad Hain Mujhe” from Mehboob Ki Mehndi (1971), “Mera mann tera pyasa” Gambler, “Chalo Dildar Chalo” from 1972 released Pakeezah, “Chura Liya Hain Tumne” from Yaadon Ki Baarat (a duet with Asha Bhosle, 1973), “Na tu Zameen Ke liye” from 1973 released Dilip Kumar movie Dastan, “Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho” from Hanste Zakhm (1973), “teri bindiya re”, from Abhimaan (1973) and “Aaj mausam bada beimaan hai” from Loafer (1973).
Rafi made a comeback as a leading singer in 1974. In 1974, he won the Film World magazine Best Singer Award for the song “Teree Galiyon Mein Na Rakhenge Qadam Aaj Ke Baad” (Hawas, 1974) composed by Usha Khanna.
In 1977, he won both Filmfare Award and the National Award for the song “Kya Hua Tera Wada” from the movie Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin, composed by R. D. Burman. Rafi sang for Rishi Kapoor in films like Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Sargam (1979) and Karz (1980). The qawwali “Pardah Hai Pardah” from Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) was a superhit. Rafi’s notable renderings in the late 1970s and early 1980s include Bairaag (1976), Laila Majnu (1976), Apnapan (1978), Suhaag (1979), Qurbani, Dostana (1980), The Burning Train (1980), Naseeb (1981), Abdullah (1980), Shaan (1980), Asha (1980), Aap To Aise Na The (1980), Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai (1982).
In December 1979, Rafi recorded six songs for the Hindi remake of Dilip Sen’s Bengali superhit Sorry Madam; unfortunately the film was never completed due to a personal tragedy in Dilip Sen’s life. These songs, written by Kafeel Aazar and composed by Chitragupta, were released digitally in December 2009 by the label Silk Road under the title “The Last Songs”. The physical album was released only in India by Universal.
On Thursday, 31 July 1980, Rafi died at 10:50 p.m., following a heart attack. His last song was “Shaam phir kyun udaas hai dost” (Aas Paas), which he had recorded with Laxmikant-Pyarelal few hours before his death.
Rafi was buried at the Juhu Muslim cemetery. It was one of the biggest funeral processions Mumbai had ever witnessed, with over 10,000 people attending.