Comparisons are always odious. This is almost a threadbare saying and when it comes to comparing two magnificent and highly skilled coevals like Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar in cricket and Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar in singing, one tends to get all the more nonplussed for, the difference between the two heavyweights is well-nigh hairline.
To cut the matter short, this debate as to who's better, Rafi or Kishore is interminable as well as never conclusive. By the way, Rafi's 40th death anniversary will be mourned and remembered on July 31 and Kishore Kumar's 91st birthday will be celebrated by his countless fans on August 4.
Having listened to Rafi and Kishore dispassionately and also got a PhD on Rafi from Lahore University, I've come to the conclusion that despite Kishore's natural genius and untrained boundlessness of voice, it was Rafi whose extraordinary singing prowess made him Numero Uno.
Before we get into this non-polemic debate, let me tell you that whereas Rafi was trained by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Feroz Nizami, Jawaharlal Mattoo, Wahid Khan and other past-masters of classical music, Kishore never had a formal training or education in classical singing. His fabulous voice expiated his musical minuses. Rafi's proper training in classical music and grounding in Sur and Taal, certainly gave him an edge over not just Kishore but all the singers before and after.
With due respect to Kishore and his astounding voice, the outspoken Shailendra declared that, 'Maine Rafi ko zehan mein rakh ke ye naghma likha hai; Kishore ke liye bhi Rafi hi gaayenge!' Sacrilegious! Isn't it? But this happened.
Rafi sang for Kishore in film Shararat (1959) on the marquee! It was 'Ajab hai daastaan teri ye zindagi, kabhi hansa diya rula diya kabhi.' Listen to it, Rafi's mesmerizing voice, with simultaneous strains of piano, mandolin and accordion, will spellbind you. Even Kishore accepted the fact that had he sung this number; he'd not have been able to sing like Rafi. That was Kishore's magnanimity.
The point is: Why Shailendra chose Rafi for this song and why also the composers Shankar-Jaikishan conceded so easily. Based on Prathma/Madhyama and Puravriti of a classical raag Peelu, the song demanded the wavy pattern of voice and parallel light modulation.
Rafi had the tailor-made ability to modulate and sing this quasi-classical number in an admirable manner. Kishore, having lacked the nuances of classical base, wasn't deemed fit to sing this song despite lip-synching for it. Musically, Kishore had a flat voice, whereas Rafi had a Rolling Orotund. He didn't have a baritone of Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte or even our own Hemant Kumar. And not having a proverbial baritone, worked in favour of Rafi because a baritone has a flat effect and often unmusical booming impact, but an orotund has a structured echoing.
I'm afraid, Kishore didn't have any of these finer traits of singing in spite of having a very fine voice. One more example is from the film ' Toofan mein pyaar kahaan ' (1966). This will bolster my point. Urdu-Persian scholar and lyricist Prem Dhawan penned a song to be filmed on Ashok Kumar: Itni badi duniya jahaan itna bada mela, magar main kitna akela. Prem Dhawan always preferred Rafi. So did the composer Chitragupt Srivastav. Alas, Rafi had gone for Haj. So, the song was recorded in the voice of Kishore Kumar.
Ashok kumar had a wondrous sense of music. He listened to it and in the presence of his younger brother, he told Dhawan, "Rafi ko Haj se lautne deejiye" (let Rafi return from Haj). Rafi returned and the song was rerecorded in his voice. Come to Poona and listen to this number at FTII's Film Archives, first in Kishore's voice and then in Rafi's controlled timbre. No offence meant, but after listening to this number in Rafi's voice with pathos intermingled and emotions juxtaposed, Kishore's voice sounds quite humdrum and this is not a subjective opinion. Even Kishore felt that he couldn't evoke the emotions through his rendition of this very slow but sublime number.
There's a very hazy public opinion that Rafi was eclipsed by Kishore from 1969 to 1974. Agreed, Rafi had a lull period in the early 70s, yet he was getting songs and was not exactly out of the reckoning. Just listen to Rafi and Kishore's renditions of the same song: Tum bin jaaon kahaan (Pyaar ka mausam, Lyricist: Majrooh Sultanpuri and Composer: Rahul Deb Burman, 1969). The debate is still inconclusive as to who sang it better, Rafi or Kishore? And mind you, it was the juncture when Rafi started slipping from his high pedestal, albeit temporarily.
The same R D, who always preferred Kishore, gave Rafi a song ' Koi aur duniya mein tum-sa haseen hai nahin hai, nahin hai...' (Film: Pyaar ki kahani, Lyricist: Anand Bakshi, 1971, filmed on Amitabh Bacchan!). Rafi started regaining his estranged form after 1975, despite Kishore's palpable presence and even got the Filmfare Award for 'Kya hua tera vaada...' (Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahin in 1977).
Rafi was an extraordinary genius who sang from the heart. His voice had 3As: Accent, Adagietto and Affabile with an added Affettuoso (affectionate and tender) aspect. No singer in the recorded history of mankind has been endowed with all facets of classicalism the way Rafi's gifted voice was imbued with. Just listen to his rare number: Phir woh bhooli-si yaad aayee hai or Jaag dil-e-deewana.
The extreme spectrum of musical and vocal presentation peppered with vivacity, verve and soz (lingering pain, not pathos) in the same breath will enthrall the music lovers. To encapsulate, Rafi was simply matchless and no one could ever hold a candle to the great man.
Kishore was splendid, but an appendage to Rafi. Agreed, likes and dislikes are subjective but in certain cases and individuals, conclusions are always foregone and preordained. Need I say further? You had better decide.