Mohammed Rafi was one of the greatest playback singers in South Asian history, representing a pivotal figure in the evolution of Indian and Pakistani music. His romantic melodies remain favorites among international audiences over fifty years after his death and he continues to be recognized as one of India’s foremost composers.
Rafi was first discovered when he mimicked the music being played by an accordion player at a movie theater for 20 rupees, sending him on his way to a long career in singing. He soon became known for his melodious voice and distinct style adding lyrics from Urdu poetry or Hindi language films.
About Mohammed Rafi
Born in 1912 into a poor family in Punjab, Mohammed Rafi was a child prodigy. His father was a friend of the legendary singer Naseem Khan (1906-1975), and Rafi became his student at the age of 12. In his first song tape, “Naam Tera Aankhon Mein”, he recited poetry written by Naseem Khan himself while being accompanied by Naseem on Indian musical instruments, creating an early musical hybrid that later would be termed as qawwali. Later, mentors such as playback singer Ghulam Ali would add to his repertoire of ghazals (poetry using Urdu and Persian).
Life of Rafi
Mohammed Rafi was born in Peshawar, British India, on November 15, 1912. Since there were no schools to attend in his town and his family’s poverty meant that there was not much to eat at home due to illnesses.
He left for Bombay in the 1920s with relatives of Naseem Khan who worked at a seaside hotel where he spent nearly ten years as a waiter. The money he earned allowed him to be able to buy “duff” or flour used for making bread and pay a modest amount of rent each month so they could stay together as a family.
Mohammed Rafi would receive his primary education in Bombay, where he learned the Sindhi dialect of the local language, Marathi. When he was around fourteen years old, his father died and Rafi’s mother became a mother to other children in her household.
During this time Rafi worked as a tea boy and waiter at movie theaters until he was discovered by Mohammed Shafi (1904-1984) one day while singing at a theater.
Shafi taught Rafi music theory as well as the basics of Hindustani classical music, specifically the Sarangi, which required him to learn how to play Indian string instruments like the Sarangi and sitar or tabla drums such as the tabla (drum).
His personal life
Though a simple and modest man, Mohammed Rafi traveled across India to different cities and villages. He never had a steady job or girlfriend but continued to sing for the love of it. After his mother’s death from tuberculosis in 1942, he married his wife on a whim and the two would have five children together. All of them lived with him for several years until Rafi separated from his wife who left with one of their children (Noorjahan Bano) in 1953.
Rafi later reconciled with Bano in 1956 and the two shared custody of four other children who remained at home until Rafi’s death.
Mohammed Rafi’s first major break came when Mohammed Shafi, who was a music director in Bombay, introduced him to composer Kalyanji Virji Shah (1908-1980) with whom he would work for most of his career. His breakthrough came when he sang the song “Kya Hua Tera Wada” (“What’s Happened O Your Oath”) from the movie Jwar Bhata in 1943. Rafi had sung portions of the lyrics but had difficulty writing out more than a few lines. Kalyanji is said to have finished writing out the entire song for Rafi before giving him the sheet music and telling him to go home and practice it.
Early career in Mumbai
When Rafi joined Mohammed Shafi in Mumbai as a singer, he worked as a waiter at the Nizam’s Court Hotel until his name was on a singing list in 1945. He then worked as a waiter at the Taj Mahal Hotel and sang at various private parties and movie theaters there.
Rafi’s first major break came when Mohammed Shafi, who was a music director in Bombay, introduced him to composer Kalyanji Virji Shah (1908-1980) with whom he would work for most of his career. His breakthrough came when he sang the song “Kya Hua Tera Wada” (“What’s Happened O Your Oath”) from the movie Jwar Bhata in 1943.
Recording career in the 1950s and 1960s
Work with Naushad
In 1947, Naushad decided to record some of his own compositions and thus invited Mohammed Rafi to his studio. The two would work together while they also recorded together in 1948 with the song “Yeh Dil Aashiqan” from Jugnu (1949).
The following year he recorded another Naushad song. “Mera Yaar Na Hona” for the film Naya Daur (1949). He started transcribing his own songs in 1951 and wrote many of them himself. He would become known for sentimental love ballads and folk-influenced melodies that often incorporate qawwali style elements.
Work with S. D. Burman
In 1954, Rafi returned to Mohammed Shafi in Bombay and recorded an album of his own compositions as well as songs by Naushad, Kalyanji and others.
In 1955 he went to Nesu Nandlal Talreja at M S D Studio for a recording session that would result in two albums of his own compositions. The first was titled “Mera Yeh Ishq Nahin Hain” and the second “Haq Rahe Hai Re”.
Work with Shankar–Jaikishan
In 1956, Mohammed Rafi sang “Bairi Piya” (“My Bare Feet”) for Naushad. He then went on to work with Shankar-Jaikishan as they performed with the singer at a live concert in Delhi.
Work with Husanlal Bhagatram
Rafi started working with Husanlal in Bombay. And recorded over thirty songs before going on his first tour of the Soviet Union. And singing at two shows each day for five days.
After his return, he met Mohammed Rafi again. And worked with the composer over several months from 1957 to 1958 on many songs. Some of which were never released or were forgotten until recently.
The early 1970s
In 1971 Mohammed Rafi started to record with Mukesh and they sang in twelve different languages. In the same year, he met with Kalyanji again at the age of 50. And would record several songs for the movie Aan Milo Sajna (1974) that including “Chalte Chalte”.
He recorded with Asha Bhosle for the first time. As he helped her sing her composition, “Hai Apna Dil Tum Humko” in 1973. This was followed by a recording session in Jaipur. That produced twenty-five songs many of which were written by Majrooh Sultanpuri.
In 1976, Rafi recorded with a young singer named Amit Kumar for the movie Yaadon Ki Baraat (1976). The two hit it off and went on to record several songs together until Rafi’s death.
Rafi also came out of retirement in 1980 to record the song “Piya Tu Ab To Aaja”. For the movie Dil-E-Nadan (1981) which became his last major hit.
He was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after this last recording session. And spent his final days living as a recluse in Mumbai.
Guinness World Records controversy
In 2006, Rafi’s song “Tu Wah Wah” was chosen for inclusion in a new compilation album. Based on the recognition of music from around the world. The album was supposed to be sold worldwide and would include musical material from all over the world. After Rafi’s death, an Indian newspaper contacted Guinness World Records. To confirm that Rafi had recorded more than 50 unique songs before his death. And thus could be included on this album. Despite this information being available at the time of recording. Guinness World Records refused to include him saying no recordings were found by them. After a public uproar, they retracted their statement and included his record.
Mohammed Rafi was one of the most successful playback singers in the history of Indian film music. And his songs have been sung by many other singers.
He was a major influence on Lata Mangeshkar, an artist who he would frequently collaborate with, especially during the 1960s.
His work has been sampled by many musicians. Including Talvin Singh, Wyclef Jean, Merlyn, and Madan Pal for whom he also sang. Rafi’s work is known for its romantic theme. And its social commentary has earned him the nickname Prince of Romance.
In 2008 a stamp commemorating Rafi’s 100th birth anniversary was released in India.
Awards and honor
In 1961 Mohammed Rafi received the GS Bhargava Gold Medal by the Gramophone Company of India.
In 1966 he was awarded a Padma Bhushan. And in 1998 he became an Officier of the Légion d’honneur by the Government of France. Rafi’s songs have been covered by numerous other singers over his lifetime. Including Jaya Bachchan, Kumar Sanu, Shreya Ghoshal, Alisha Chinai, and many others.