Mohammad Rafi's 96th birthday: Know what makes the legendary singer great

Today is the 96th birth anniversary of one of the finest voices, Mohammad Rafi. Reams, volumes and screeds have been penned on the greatness of Rafi as a singer and also as a human being. Yet, his relevance remains undiminished and unparalleled. To quote Asha Bhonsale, “Rafi sahab will never be out of fashion.” So very true.

While pursuing a Doctoral degree on the tonal quality of Rafi’s voice at the University of Lahore, I was suggested to study a very rare aspect of his singing: His voice modulation to suit the different actors’ timbre and texture of voice. That’s indeed very interesting. But, it’s imperative to know the background.

Rafi was a classically-trained singer, whose teachers (ustads) were Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Feroz Nizami, Ustad Wahid Khan, among others. So, his already wonderful voice developed a kind of a murki (flexible modulation of voice).

Moreover, Feroz Nizami, Ghulam Mustafa Durrani, Khemchand Prakash and Husnlal-Bhagatram encouraged Rafi to adapt his voice according to the texture of the voice of an actor.

That’s why, when Rafi sings, Nain lad jai hai, you’ve the face of Dilip Kumar before you or when he sings, Chahe koi mujhe jangli kahe, you instantaneously think of Shammi Kapoor and when he serenades Teri aankhon ke siva… Sunil Dutt comes to your mind.

A famous Pakistani song-recordist Sadiq Ali, who worked with Rafi till 1965, told me that Rafi would insist to see the face of the actor he was singing for and after that, he would spend a few minutes with that actor to imbibe his mannerisms and voice.

He did his homework in a ritualistic manner because when you listen to a young Dharmendra sing that soulful Jaane kya dhoondhti rahti hain ye aankhein mujh mein (Film: Shola Aur Shabnam, 1961), you marvel at the deliberately low-pitched and a slightly bashful voice of Rafi complementing Dharmendra’s subdued voice at that time. Dharmendra told me at his Lonavala bungalow that Rafi was not aware of him (Dharmendra) as he was very new having acted in just one film, Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere. So, when Kaifi Azmi, who nibbed the number and Khyaam, who composed, requested Rafi to sing for a shy and new guy from Punjab, Rafi wanted to meet that guy.

He did the same when he needed to sing for Pradeep Kumar. He musically improved upon Pradeep Kumar’s rather flat voice, yet retaining the mildest semi-baritone of a typical Bengali male voice. That’s why, when Pradeep Kumar sings Aaye bahaar banke lubhakar chale gaye (Film: Raj Hath, 1956), you feel as if Pradeep Kumar himself was singing the song.

Rafi spent an entire evening with Pradeep Kumar to have a feel of the actor’s voice. The same Rafi was singing in Ashok Kumar’s linear voice pattern while singing that immortal Itni haseen duniya jahan itna bada mela (Toofan Mein Pyar Kahan, 1966). He observed Ashok Kumar and modulated his voice to sing like him. Such musical gelling or Kinhaaz in Persian musical traditions is something extremely rare.

Rafi’s habit of imbibing the voice and sound bites and processing them into singing through osmosis made him a singer par excellence. Take a bow, maestro on your birthday.

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