"Some voices are to remember
And some to perish
But a few voices are so memorable
That one cannot but cherish"
–Anon, quoted by actor Pran Sikand on his friend Mohammed Rafi
July 31 is the 40th anniversary of Mohammed Rafi's au revoir to the world. But the legendary singer still lives in the hearts of countless fans across the world with his fabulous songs.
Out of the 7,405 songs in several Indian languages, Rafi sang 4,334 in Hindi. Nearly 70 Hindi film songs have no official LP records and were never uploaded on YouTube (courtesy, Sumit Paul, Five songs that legendary singer Mohammad Rafi rated as his best, IE, July 31, 2019).
The above-mentioned pieces of information may be called stock information on the great man's singing career. His corpus and canvas of singing, though exceedingly impressive, cannot provide a comprehensive picture if judged by the numbers mentioned above. While researching on Rafi's musicality and pursuing a PhD on his tonal quality from the University of Lahore in 2005, I stumbled upon a number of songs by him which are not officially recorded anywhere! In his thirty-six years of singing career that came to an end in 1980, Rafi sang minimum 12 thousand odd songs in several languages, including Persian (11, lost), Arabic (5, lost) and Turkish (2, lost). Where've those songs gone? It's worthwhile to mention that his secretary Mr Zaheer, who happened to be his brother-in-law, wrote to The Guinness Book of World Records in 1979, informing the committee that Rafi had recorded 26,000 songs odd songs in his career. Rafi didn't know English. He just signed that letter. The Guinness Book didn't accept his claim. So, it's a myth that he sang that many songs. Nonetheless, he certainly sang in the range of 12 to 14 thousand songs altogether, which in itself is a huge number! Alas, many of them are forever lost because nothing worthwhile has been done to find those lost gems.
Sorry to say, we've an atavistic aversion to documentation. Indian history is not documented. Our past records are in a state of disarray. We've never made a conscious attempt at record-keeping and our whole approach has been utterly sluggish and ranks lackadaisical. When HMV, EMI and Polydor were churning out LP records, no official records of songs were maintained. When HMV, Calcutta brought out a tribute to Rafi in the forms of LP records and early cassettes in 1980, there were sixteen ghazals of Raghupati Sahay 'Firaq' Gorakhpuri sung by Rafi. That collection is forever lost. Dr Muhammad Nawaz, an authority on Firaq Gorakhpuri at Allahabad University, told me that Firaq made it a point and also mentioned in his will in 1968 that all his ghazals would ONLY be sung by Rafi and no other singer, not even the legends like Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, Ghulam Abbas, Begum Akhtar et al! Where's Firaq's ghazal with the opening couplet: Mutrib se kaho iss andaaz se gaaye/Har dil ko lage chot-si, har aankh bhar aaye (Please request the singer to sing in such a soulful manner/Every heart can feel and every eye gets teary). It's available in his oeuvre and also on Rekhta, but not as a ghazal sung by Rafi. The fact that Firaq wanted only Rafi to sing his ghazals was mentioned in a tribute to him (Firaq) in now-defunct Sunday magazine in its April 1982 issue. Firaq shuffled off the mortal coil on March 3, 1982. With due respect to other ghazal singers, how they sang Firaq's ghazals despite categorically mentioning in the will that only Rafi would sing is a mystery. Where have Rafi's 741 non-filmi ghazals gone? Even if you fine-search on the internet, you can't find more than 60-odd non-filmi ghazals sung by the maestro. Where's his ghazal: Ae meri jaan-e-tamanna, meri jaan-e-ghazal/Log toofaan utha denge mere saath na chal, penned by Urdu poet Adil Abbas (later incorporated in an incomplete film, Sundari, 1950). Rafi himself told the BBC interviewer in 1978: “Ye ghazal gaayee thi lekin pata nahin kahaan gum ho gayee” (I sang this ghazal but don't know what happened to it).
The same can be said about ghazals of Kunwar Mohinder Singh Bedi Sahar sung by Rafi. Except for 'Ujale se lipte andhere ghanere' and a few others, most of Bedi's ghazals sung by Rafi are not found. To us, Wikipedia and YouTube are gospel truths. But these two 'authentic' sources don't throw even a glimmer of light on Rafi's lost songs. Ravish Siddiqui's ghazal sung by Rafi 'Door jaakar bhi woh hum se, juda na ho sake qasam se' has no trace anywhere. The same deplorable fate befell Ayaz Jhansvi's exquisite ghazal: 'Milte ho sabhi se/Nazarein churate ho humi se.' Rafi sang this ghazal in 1961. Even Radio Ceylon played it! It was one of the favourite ghazals of Pakistani singer Noorjehan.
How many people know that Rafi composed three songs for a film Radha in 1957? Calcutta Radio had its LP records with two songs sung by him: Meri aankhon mein jhaank, jaanam and Tu bata kaise tujhe bhulaaoon. No one knows about the third song. All were written by a poor Urdu poet Fahim Nagpuri, who suddenly disappeared just like Rafi's songs in Radha! No information is available anywhere on these songs. Nor is anyone aware of Fahim Nagpuri. Before that, Rafi sang Ek jaam pila de saaqi, raat abhi hai baaqi (Film: Tere do nain, 1951). I searched for this movie and the song at FTII, Poona and Satyajit Ray Film Institute, Calcutta. But got no clue. The famous Ganjwar sisters, Vimla and Kamini Ganjwar, of Radio Ceylon kept writing to the government and Broadcasting Ministry to retrieve Rafi's innumerable songs, but to no avail.
Even his film songs like Kaise kategi zindagi tere baghair (from an unreleased movie, 1963), Sabhi kuchh lutakar hue hum tumhare (from a Bangla movie Indrani 1958) were dug out of the grave of oblivion by a Persian scholar and music aficionado Dr Zaifa Ashraf in 1981. The songs were there but got interred into the coffin of times just like T S Eliot resuscitated the English metaphysical poet John Donne after 300 years of anonymity.
Frankly speaking, we've not been fair to this legend, about whom an American music critic said, “A humanly impossible voice that embarrasses the vocal range of all singers in human history put together.” Apart from his perfunctory Padma Shri in 1967, he wasn't considered even for Padma Bhushan or Vibhushan, let alone Dada Sahab Phalke or Bharat Ratna.
It's time to find his lost and forgotten songs and get him the recognition he so richly deserved during his lifetime and which still eludes him after four decades.
The writer is an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, civilisations and cultures.