Even without the title Bharat Ratna, he got humanity's highest accolade. Remembering Mohammed Rafi on the eve of his 30th death anniversary.
Thirty years after the mortal remains of Mohammed Rafi were laid to rest, it is still difficult to believe that the greatest playback singer of all time is no more. Obviously, the absence is hardly discernible as his immortal voice continues to dominate our lives with its pristine purity and magnetic charm. In truth, Rafi magic has actually endured across barriers of caste, creed, colour, gender and international boundaries for over seven decades now by giving voice to every hope, aspiration, triumph and failure of our living world.
So what is it that makes the immortal voice linger in memory forever, without any ebb in popularity?
Perhaps, the reason lies in the fact that till date no singer has been able to enact every nuance of the human heart and mind as effectively and sensitively as Rafi Sahab did. His genius lay not just in the sweetness and range but also the extraordinary ability to portray all shades of human emotion
Noted film critic Raju Bharatan asserts, “Neither Talat, nor Mukesh, nor Kishore, nor Hemant, nor even Manna Dey, could ever take Rafi for granted, since Rafi was Geet Samrat whose dedication and commitment to singing was an art in itself.”
So true, as it was only Rafi's modulation, inflection, throw of voice, musical vision and incomparable versatility that allowed music directors to create three octave compositions; otherwise, most songs would be composed within one-and-a-half octaves.
Manna Dey acknowledges, “Rafi was a genius and the greatest playback singer ever, male or female.” No mean tribute, coming as it does from a classical maestro of high merit. Perhaps the ‘Voice of Humanity' also mesmerises everyone because it communicates with rare feeling, springing from a rare human being's instinctively sincere soul. Dilip Kumar opines, “Rafi was a gentleman to his fingertips; so refined and noble that he never spoke a harsh word and his high pitched notes were strictly confined to his songs.”
No wonder there has never been a malicious report about the humble singer, and not just film colleagues but even ordinary people only have praise for the goodness of the shy, home loving artiste.
Often, flattering eulogies are written for famous people in positions of power and strength, but the ultimate tribute is that which is paid by one's rivals and colleagues. On his death, ghazal maestro Talat Mahmood was inconsolable and cried, “The world needed Rafi more than me. For everyone's sake, I wish Allah had taken my life instead of Rafi.” A greater tribute has never been paid to anyone.
A quiet man, Rafi was a synonym for silent magnanimity. His singing philosophy was “to help every little composer gain a toe-hold in the quicksand of filmdom,” and many small-time composers benefited from his generosity, since “no composer was too small for Rafi.”
Even when he was worth lakhs, Rafi still gave his best, irrespective of whether he was being paid one rupee or 50. Such was his devotion to singing that even on the day of his death, despite suffering chest pain in the morning, he went on practising Bengali bhajans with Manas Mukherjee (Shaan's father) without a complaint though he was fasting for Ramzan.
While there can be many an argument as to who is greater between Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle, none can deny Rafi is miles ahead of every male singer. The late music maestro Jaidev once confided to me that Naushad, S.D. Burman, Ravi and O.P. Nayyar considered Rafi the greatest of all singers — male or female — since he could render everything from devotional bhajans, soulful ghazals, romantic ballads, tragic outpourings, patriotic anthems, clowning acts to classical numbers with effortless ease.
For someone whose popularity has transcended geographical barriers, it's a shame we didn't honour him with the Bharat Ratna for his immense contribution to national integration through music. But despite our folly, God has blessed Rafi Sahab with humanity's highest accolade: being everyone's eternal favourite.