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Mohammed Rafi, veteran Indian vocalist, is ranked as one of the greatest and most influential singers in the subcontinent Image Credit: PTI files

Rafi is to playback singing what Shakespeare is to literature, Mozart to music and Da Vinci to painting. Maybe more!

From his childhood days of following a crooning fakir, Mohammad Rafi’s destiny as a singer was chiselled. He knew all he wanted to do in life was sing.

And as if — in Paulo Coelho’s words — the universe was conspiring in helping him achieve his dream, an opportunity presented itself from nowhere.

Music director Shyam Sunder spotted him at a stage show in Lahore where the legendary KL Saigal was to perform.

As the universe kept conspiring, there was a power failure and Saigal refused to sing without a mic. A 13-year old Rafi got a chance to perform and mesmerised everyone — none more than Shyam Sunder.

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Apart from Hindi, Rafi sang some songs in English, Arabic and Persian Image Credit: Gulf News

Sunder gave Rafi his first Punjabi film song in 1941 followed by first Hindi film song in 1944, before the singing prodigy came under Indian cinema’s grand music mogul Naushad Ali’s wing.

Naushad knew he had hit upon a precious stone that he had to finesse into a cameo. In the subsequent years, the Rafi-Naushad combine went on to give a flurry of super melodies, enthralling both masses and classes with their musical mastery and ethereal renditions, mostly picturised on Dilip Kumar.

Madhuban mein Radhika nache, aaj ki raat mere dil ki salami lele and many other gems are a testimony to how easily Rafi captured the gravitas and understated body language of Dilip Kumar.

Madhuban Mein Radhika Nache Re, written by Shakeel Badayuni, and sung by Rafi, is a timeless rendition Youtube

The effortless malleability of Rafi’s vocals was breathtaking. In o dunia ke rakhwalay, he reaches the crescendo and glides smoothly back to where he started from.

Not only was his voice flawless, there was also no human emotion Rafi couldn’t bring alive. His portrayal of Shammi Kapoor’s oomph while the yahoo star was serenading his leading ladies is something only he could do.

His renditions had a role not just in the promotion of actors but that of the movies as well.

What’s the cult classic Pyasa without Rafi’s renditions, under SD’s baton, that are dipped in pathos and capture the soul of the plot! And, as if to make a case for Rafi’s versatility, there is sar jo tera chakraye picturised on Johnny Walker.

A short, eventful, joyous life
Rafi passed away this day -- 31 July -- 1980, following a massive cardiac attack, aged 55. The playback singer’s funeral, attended by more than 10,000 people in Mumbai (then Bombay), was one of the largest processions in the film industry. Considering his immense contribution to the world of cinema, the government of India announced a two-day public mourning.

King of kings

It wasn’t for nothing that SD Burman called him the king of kings among playback singers.

Even masters like C Ramchandra and Salil Chowdhary whose apathy for Rafi was well known accepted that he was by far the best.

Nobody could do justice to the resounding orchestra of Shankar Jaikishan the way Rafi could. Who can forget dil ke jharoke mein tujhko bithakar! The ease with which he owns the high notes is mind-blowing.

Rafi had a very special bond with O.P. Nayyar and the awesome twosome created a magic that will never dull. Who else but Rafi could enliven the ambience of a handsome Dharmendra on piano regaling a coy, smitten Tanuja with the lilting aap ke haseen rukh pe aaj naya noor hai!

When Madan Mohan was offered Laila Majnu (1976), he set two strict conditions: “Rafi will sing all the male numbers and Sahir would write the lyrics.” This when Kishore Kumar reigned supreme and rest, as the cliché` goes, is history.

Rafi teamed up with Sahir regularly under Roshan and Ravi. If Rafi, Sahir and Roshan had done nothing except zindagi bhar nahi bhoolegi wo bars at ki raat, even that would have immortalised the trio.

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Rafi mock-punches boxing champion Muhammad Ali at a meeting in Chicago in 1979 Image Credit: PTI archives

Then there was the Rafi-Ravi-Sahir axis that was prolific and rich. Ye zulf agar khulke bikhar jaye to achha exudes the sensuousness that only a Rafi rendition could ensure.

Laxmikant Pyarelal’s riveting scores like Dosti (1964) wouldn’t have happened without Rafi.

At the peak of RD-Kishore success, Rafi gave many hits for the junior Burman including the award winning kya hua tera wada.

Chal ud ja re panchhi, a number from the 1957 movie Bhabhi, made waves back in the day YouTube

With Rafi, Chitragupt, a forgotten musician, created unforgettable melodies like chal ud ja re panchhi. And there are many others. Jaidev’s Hum Dono remains one of the most complete soundtracks in the history of Indian cinema that you can’t even imagine without Rafi.

Other than a few soulful ghazals and bhajans with Khayyam under whose baton he sang the velvety kahin ek masoom nazuk si ladki in Shankar Hussain (1977), Rafi never got time to do private albums. He would otherwise surely have created another mesmerising body of work beyond film music.

Shabir Hussain is a senior journalist