Mohd. Rafi: His Mesmerising Music and His Indisputable Legacy

Mohd. Rafi: His Mesmerising Music and His Indisputable Legacy

 Undoubtedly, Mohammed Rafi is a name that needs no introduction. The legendary playback singer dominated the music industry, owing to his versatility, and was known and loved not only in India, but globally. His oeuvre spanned across a plethora of genres and languages, ranging from fast-paced and energetic songs, sad and wistful compositions sure to tug at heartstrings, romantic ballads of distinct depth, explorations of other musical forms such as qawwalis, ghazals, bhajans among many others.

Today, let us dive into his journey and celebrate how a young ‘Pheeko’ - as his parents affectionately called him - went on to become Ustaad Mohammed Rafi, winning over billions of hearts. 

Often catching himself imitating the songs of a fakir who roamed the local streets, Rafi recognized his bent towards singing fairly young.

He has Four Filmfare Awards, and A National Film Award in his name. He was honoured with Padma Shree by the Central Government in 1967.

Thanks to his versatility, he has recorded songs in a record number of films, not only in Hindi or other Indian regional languages like Punjabi, Bhojpuri, Odia, Bengali, Marathi but in foreign Languages as well, ranging from English to Farsi, Arabic, Dutch.

As per his fans, he recorded over 26000 songs. Sounds too much, No? Still every bit of it is true.

Mohammed Rafi was born on December 24th, 1924, in the quiet, unassuming village of Kotla Sultan Singh - (present-day Amritsar) - in Punjab, to Haji Ali Mohammed and Allaha Rakhi Bai. Thereafter, the family migrated to Lahore, where Rafi began professional training in classical Hindustani music under eminent music maestros like Abdul Wahid Khan, Pandit Jiwan Lal Mattoo, and FerozeAt the tender age of 13, he performed on stage in Lahore, Pakistan, along K.L. Saigal, considered the first superstar of the Indian film industry. In 1944,  with the release of the Punjabi film Gul Baloch, a music director provided Rafi with a chance to sing alongside the marvellous Zeenat Begum, for the song ‘Soniye Nee, Heeriye Nee’, thus giving him his breakthrough in the industry. Later that year, the illustrious All India Radio(Lahore)invited him to sing in their studio.

Rafi was married to his cousin, Bashira Bibi, in his ancestral village. She moved to Lahore during the Indo-Pak Partition, leaving Rafi. After a few years, he was married again, to Bilquis Bano.

In search of better work opportunities, Rafi moved to Bombay in 1944.  Like others initially lost in the big city, Hameed Sahab and he lived in an overcrowded area of Bhendi Bazaar, in a small room on a sharing basis. Through references from poet and lyricist Tanvir Naqvi, he met film producers Abdul Rashid Kirdar, and Mehboob Khan who promised him songs in their upcoming films. But it was Shyam Sunder who gave him his debut opportunity - the chance to hop onto a duet with the distinguished G.M. Durrani for the track  ‘Aji Dil Ho Kaabu Mein To Dildaar Ki Aisi Taisi’ in the film Gaon ki Gori. It was a Rafi’s first song in a Bollywood film, after which his career soared to new heights.

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He soon collaborated with Naushad for ‘Hindustan ke Hum Hain’ for Pehle Aap (directed by A.R. Kardar).

Owing to a topical trend where playback singers featured on-screen during the song’s runtime, Rafi graced the curtains in Laila Majnu(1945) for the song ‘Tera Jalwa Jis ne Dekha’, and in Jugnu(1947) for ‘Who Apni Yaad Dilane Ko’. 

He sang song choruses as well, the most prominent being ‘Mere Sapnon Ki Rani Roohi Roohi’ from Shahjahan, with his old friend and co-singer K.L.Saigal. Anmol Ghadi (1946) had Rafi sing the emotional ‘Tera Khilona Toota Baalak’,

In 1947, the bittersweet year of Indian independence, painful aftershocks of the Indo-Pak separation swept the newly freed country. Forced to choose between two countries he called his own,  Rafi selected India, and permanently moved to Bombay with his family. Noor Jehan, who he sang many duets with throughout his career, moved to Pakistan.

The late 40s established Rafi as a known and respected face in Bollywood, and he started making solo songs by then. Rafi was influenced by G.M. Durrani, whom he considered his idol, and he echoed the latter’s style of singing since his career commenced. They both performed together in a few songs such as ’Humko Hanste Dekh Zamana Jalta Hai’ and ‘Khabar Kisi Ko Nahiin, Woh Kidhar Dekhte’ (Beqasoor, 1950). Another favourite of Rafi’s was K.L. Saigal, who stood by him even before his career began.

Slowly but steadily, he earned a good reputation among music composers, eventually leading to offers for solo songs. 

In 1949, Rafi was given singles by influential music directors such as Naushad (Chandni RaatDillagi and Dulari), Shyam Sunder (Bazaar), and Husnlal Bhagatram (Meena Bazaar).

When the assassination of  Mahatma Gandhi shook the nation, the whole country came together and mourned the loss of an icon. 

Overnight, the talented trio of Husanlal Bhagatram-Rajendra Krishan-Mohammed Rafi recorded the song ‘Suno Suno Ae Duniyawalon, Bapuji Ki Amar Kahani’in his honour. They were also invited to sing at the residence of Jawaharlal Nehru(then PM).

 In the same year, veteran female playback singer Lata Mangeshkar raised a demand for a 5% stake in royalties for playback singers, and she asked for Rafi’s support, as he was no less popular than her. Rafi disagreed, stating that the singer was only liable for the amount agreed with the producer, with no claim over the royalty. This led to an uneasy conflict which was only resolved after music director Jaikishan intervened.

Naushad once quoted that he met Rafi on his father’s suggestion, and his collaborations with the latter were responsible for his establishment among the most effective playback singers of all times. They did a total of 149 recordings together, out of which 81 were solo. Rafi sang all of the songs for the movie Baiju Bawra.

Rafi shared good terms with other producers as well, one of them was S.D. Burman. Together they gave soundtracks for hit films like Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Kala Bazar (1960), Nau Do Gyarah (1957), Kala Pani (1958), Tere Ghar Ke Saamne (1963), Guide (1965).

The Shankar-Jaikishan duo is unforgettable, hailed as the most iconic music directors in Bollywood. And Rafi immortalized his place in the industry,  in step with the melodious beats of Shankar-Jaikishan. A majority of his songs were embedded in films with actors such as Rajendra Kumar and Shammi Kapoor. Rafi won three Filmfare Awards (of his six) for songs with the music-magicians, namely ‘Teree Pyaaree Pyaaree Soorat Ko’, ‘Bahaaron Phool Bursao’ and ‘Dil Ke Jhurokhe Mein’.

Mohd. Rafi: His Mesmerising Music and His Indisputable Legacy 
The fast pace of the superhit song ‘Chaahe Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe’ made it a masterpiece in itself. Only Rafi’s voice and notes could match and do justice to the composition speed and loops of Shankar-Jaikishan on that track. They performed 341 songs together, out of which 216 were solo songs.

In an Interview with BBC in 1977, Rafi openly admitted to the fact that he wept when the song ‘Baabul Ki Duaein Leti Jaa’ from Neel Kamal (1968) was being recorded in the studios. 

The list of music directors Rafi worked with is endless, and he regarded everyone he worked with as his ‘family’. OP Naiyar credits his success to Mohammed Rafi. They ruled the decades of the 50s and 60s.

Mohd. Rafi: His Mesmerising Music and His Indisputable Legacy

They created the song ‘Man Mora Baawara’ for the movie Raagini, starring the legendary Kishore Kumar. O.P. used Rafi and Asha Bhosle vocals for many of Kishore’s songs, as well as other film stars forming the famed trio that created many lauded songs, both nationally and internationally.  The songs were embedded in triumphant movies of the era, such as Naya Daur(1957), Ek Musafir Ek Mahina (1962), and Kashmir Ki Ek Hasina(1962).

Along with music directors, Rafi joined hands with some singers-turned-actors as well, singing duets as well becoming the voice for them. In a first for Bollywood, the star-studded team of music-stars Lata Mangeshkar, her sister Asha Bhonsle, Manna Dey and our own Rafi sahib created the song ‘Humko Tumse Ho Gaya Hai Pyaar Kya Karein’ for the film Amar Akbar Anthony. Mohd. Rafi: His Mesmerising Music and His Indisputable Legacy

Rafi even recorded his own albums in varying languages and genres, over and above his songs in films. He featured in a Konkani album Golden Hits with Lorna Cordeiro. In 1969, he visited Mauritius, where he recorded a couple of tracks in the native language, Creole.

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The 70s marked tough times for Rafi when he developed a serious infection in the throat, putting his career at risk. But with an unfaltering spirit, the few songs that he did record then featured his efforts. His hits during this struggle period are Tum Mujhe Yun Bhula Naa Paoge, from the film Pagla Kahin Ka(1971), Yeh Duniya yeh Mehfil from Heer Ranjha(1970), and the all-time classic Gulaabi Aankhein from The Train (1970), and a few contemporaries.

In his absence, Kishore Kumar’s fame soared to new heights as a playback singer.

Rafi’s stunning comeback won him the award for Best Singer from Film World Magazine for the song ‘Teri Galiyon Mein Na Rakhenge Kadam Aaj Ke Baad’ (Hawas, 1974) composed by Usha Khanna.

In 1976, Rishi Kapoor chose him as his voice for all the songs in the film Laila Majnu, cementing a bond that would last for years - spanning across movies such as Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977) and Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) - to craft tracks that turned out to be legendary hits. 


The song Kya Hua Tera Waada from the movie Hum Kisise Kum Naheen won him the prestigious Filmfare Award, as well as the National Award for best singer. His qawwaali ‘Parda Hai Parda’ from Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) was also nominated for the Filmfare Awards.

Rafi’s hits ruled various radio shows like Vividh Bharati, Binaca Geetmala, and Radio Ceylon, becoming instrumental in the success of these shows. Most of the songs they played were from Pratiggya (1975), Bairaag (1976), Amaanat (1977), Dharam Veer (1977), Apnapan (1977) and Ganga Ki Saugand (1978).

In his last decade, Rafi travelled extensively,  delivering power-packed performances in his stage shows. The most memorable overseas performances by him were at the Royal Albert Hall (1978) and Wembley Conference Center(1980).

The song ‘Shaam Fir Kyo Udaas Hai Dost’ turned out to be the last recording for him, recorded just a few hours before his demise.

With a sudden yet massive cardiac arrest, at 10:25 pm on the night of 31st July 1980, Rafi breathed his last.  An energetic professional and an ardent performer, It was such a huge loss for the industry. Ever since, countless methods and gestures have been employed to pay tribute to this Indian icon. His tomb was created at the Juhu Muslim Cemetry, and around 10 thousand people attended his last rites. The Union Government declared a two-day public holiday as the entire nation mourned over the loss.

Fans of Mohammed Rafi, from all corners of the nation and world, visit his tomb to pay homage all year round, especially on his birth and death anniversaries.

Many singers, both during his time and after him, idolised him, imitating his notes and techniques. Maestros of music such as Mahendra Kapoor, Mohammed Aziz, Shabbir Kumar, and Sonu Nigam were highly influenced by his voice.

An artist, Tasawar Bashir presented a shrine to Mohammed Rafi at Fazeley Street, Birmingham, United Kingdom on 22 September 2007. The busy suburban area of Bandra in  Mumbai has a ‘Mohammed Rafi Chowk’ named as a tribute to Padma Shri Mohammed Rafi.

Sonu Nigam, in association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, released a tape named Rafi Resurrected in 2008. It comprised 16 songs sung by Rafi, but recorded again in Sonu’s vocals. He spent time with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, performing these songs live on stage at the English National Opera (London), Apollo Theatre (Manchester), and prominent others in the UK. 

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Outlook Magazine conducted a survey, where Rafi - along with the Swar Kokila, Lata Mangeshkar - was elected as the most popular playback singer of all times. In the same contest, his song ‘Man Re, Tu Kahe Na Dheer Dhare’ was voted as the most famous song. The second position faced a tie between two Rafi songs, both from the same movie, Guide(1965). These were ‘Tere Mere Sapne Ab Ek Rang Hain’ and ‘Din Dhal Jaye, Hai Raat Na Jaye’. The jury consisted of common people and some renowned faces from the industry.

The legacy that Mohammed Rafi left in his wake is incomparable to any other, and his place in our hearts is irreplaceable. As Lata Mangeshkar once succinctly quoted, “Rafi bhaiya was not only India's greatest playback singer but also a wonderful person. He was one singer whose vocal range could outclass any other singer, whether it was me, Asha, Mannada or Kishore bhaiya.”

Mohd. Rafi: His Mesmerising Music and His Indisputable Legacy


Author Biographical Note: The Author is pursuing Bcom (Hons) from Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi, India. He is working for Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue as an intern. 

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