MOHAMMED RAFI: My Abba — A Memoir shows a warm human being with simple wishes, simple desires

There are stories and stories in our Hindi film industry about how Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi had a long fight over the royalty issue. Then there are stories about Shankar-Jaikishen and Lata, the misunderstandings among them and the like. There are tales of B.R. Chopra and Yash Chopra and their miscommunication with Rafi too.

Amidst all this there are whispers about the damage to the careers of the likes of Suman Kalyanpur, Hemlata and Sudha Malhotra because the leading female playback singers won’t brook any competition!

Of course, most of the allegations can never be proved one way or the other, but that has never dissuaded rumour mills from working overtime. That there have been some wonderful alliances in the film industry, that some of the best heroes attained the heights they did because some music directors and playback singers gave them the best possible songs is not a subject that has aroused much curiosity. At best, people would merely nod in affirmation if you were to tell them that half the credit for Rajesh Khanna’s heady success should be laid at the door of Kishore Kumar or that Shammi Kapoor would not have been

the star he was without Rafi’s vocal chords backing him. Under the circumstances, it was refreshing to see a book that dares to throw light on something almost always ignored: the relationship of music directors and playback singers! Yasmin Khalid Rafi’s Mohammed Rafi: My Abba — A Memoir, translated by Rupa Srikumar and A.K. Srikumar deserves credit for treading the lesser known path.

Yasmin, daughter-in-law of Rafi was privy to a lot of personal moments with the legend, having spent close to eight years under the same roof with him in Mumbai. She makes good use of the proximity to give us an insightful account of Rafi’s unique bond with music director O.P. Nayyar. Now, Nayyar did not really get his due in the industry. Even when people tapped their fingers on their tables and dashboards while listening to his songs, the talk almost inevitably veered to his association with Asha Bhonsle, and how he preferred Asha over Lata.

Yasmin though tells us about his chemistry with Rafi and states, “O.P. Nayyar was the only one in the entire industry with whom Rafi Saheb was really friendly. They both hailed from Lahore and enjoyed each other’s company very much, so much so that their conversation even tended to be laced with invectives.”

For all those who have grown up as fans of Rafi — as did Yasmin — this could be a bit of an eye opener to the legend’s very human side. Not as well documented as Asha’s rapport with Nayyar, but Rafi sang almost all the songs of Nayyar for around 27 years! Only in a stray case here or there, did others, including Mukesh and Kishore Kumar, get a chance to sing under the baton of Nayyar.

Nayyar-Rafi bond is not the only notable inclusion in Yasmin’s lucidly written book. She gives a nice insight into the mindset of Shankar-Jaikishen too by revealing that the famed duo who always used Mukesh as the voice of Raj Kapoor, used Rafi’s voice when they worked for other banners. So much so they used his voice in Barsaat in 1949 and later in Ek Dil Sau Afsaane too. Interestingly, Shankar-Jaikishen used Rafi’s voice for the Kishore Kumar starrer Shararat. Rafi’s song ‘Ajab Hai Dastan Teri Zindagi’ was picturised on Kishore Kumar!

Interestingly, for all those who thought Rafi gave off his best for some heroes and music directors, Yasmin has a revelation. She says, “Abba had his individual style when preparing his songs….when he sat down to practise a song, his hands and feet would keep rhythm to the soft murmur of his voice. The key to the effectiveness of his singing was that he would shoulder the entire responsibility of his songs. Nothing else matters; not who the song was picturized on, whether the music director was a giant or a newcomers, the name of the lyricist, or even the film.”

On such anecdotes and insights is built Yasmin’s Abba. Where she lacks literary flourish, she makes up with her simplicity and honesty. She does not step too close to a hagiography here which is a no mean achievement for somebody who is neither a trained journalist nor a writer by profession. Her Abba comes across not as a giant but a warm human being with simple wishes, simple desires. For instance, Rafi loved to travel abroad. He often said, “I have waited years for this day to come”. As for Rafi fans, this book could not have come a day too soon.