For a new song, the little boy walked with the dervish to the end of the village. Though the boy was only nine, returning back he sang the whole lyrics to the villagers who were always charmed by his talent. This became an everyday event for the villagers of Kotla Sultaan Singh in Punjab province under British India.

Mohammad Rafi on postage stamp
Mohammad Rafi on postage stamp; Image source:

Later, that nine-year-old boy recorded almost 5000 songs in eleven languages. The boy was none other than one of the legends; perhaps the best playback singer ever, Mohammad Rafi. This article is a tribute to this legendry artist.

Beginning of Journey

His brother’s friend Hamid whom Mohammad Rafi considered as his mentor and brother took him to the tutors like Ustaad Bade Ghulam Ali, Waheed Khan, and Pandit Jivan Laal Mattu.

When he was 14, he went to a concert where then famous singer K.L Saigal would perform. Not only today, load shedding was a great problem in those days too but for Rafi, it was a blessing in disguise.

The first playback singer of India
Mohammad Rafi, the first playback singer of India; Image source:

Because of electricity shut off, Saigal didn’t open up the show so organizers put Rafi on the stage. He received an overwhelming response from the audience. Music director Shyam Sundar was among the audience who anticipated the success of playback singing in India through the voice of Rafi. In the early days of Indian cinema when playback was not introduced actors had to sing their own lyrics. Rafi was called upon to gave his first take as a playback singer in a Punjabi song.

Then in the film Jugnoo (1947) he sang another song but after the death of Great Leader Mahatma Gandhi, he sang a song named Suno Suno Duniye Ke Logo Baapu Ke Ye Amar Kahani (O the people of the world, let us hear the immortal story of our baapu(Gandhi)). The song became super hit and Pandit Neheru medaled him for this song. Since then his golden journey started and so did the journey of playback singing in Hindi cinema.

Character Singer Rafi

Character singer is a different term especially we see this term in playback singing. It means singing according to the role of the artist who is going to be seen on the screen. Rafi did a great job there and he was considered as the best character singer in the Hindi film industry.

Mohammad Rafi at recording
Mohammad Rafi at recording; Image source:

Johny Walker was a renowned comedian of Hindi film industry. In the film Pyaasa Walker was portrayed in a song Sar Jo Tera Chakraye where he was doing oil massage on the head, the song was shot as a comic song and Rafi was the singer. So Rafi changed his romantic voice and add something different in a way so that it sounds funnier to the audience.

Another incident happened with actor Shammi Kapoor, the brother of Raj Kapoor and grandfather of Ranbir Kapoor. One day Shammi Kapoor was not there in the studio when Rafi was recording one of his songs. Rafi also didn’t know the fact. The music director acknowledged him that Shammi is the actor in the film and because of some reason, he will not be there in the studio. So Rafi completed the song keeping in mind how Shammi would play it on the screen. After recording when Shammi listened to the song he was so moved that he asked Rafi, “Rafi Sahab, how could you sing so beautifully?” I felt myself right there as if I was singing the song”.

There are so many incidents where Rafi changed his tone to sing tragic songs portrayed by Dilip Kumar at the same time singing romantic tracks for Shammi Kapoor according to the actor’s character and the situation in the film.

Rafi (L) with Kishore
Mohammad Rafi (L) with Kishore; Image source:

Lesser Known Facts

Rafi once claimed his name to be in the list of Guinness book of world records for recording the highest number of songs- 28 thousand in his career. But later, for lack of proof on papers, it was not accepted and found the number of songs was not more than 5000.

Rafi’s funeral was held on a rainy day and approximately ten thousand people attended his funeral. The funeral was recorded and it was used in a film released later.

He sang in Bengali too. Nazrul geeti (songs of Kazi Nazrul) is one of the toughest sections of classical music and Mohammad Rafi did proper justice to those songs too. He sang the very famous, Alga Koro Go Khopaar Badhon. Later this song has been covered so many times but none could do proper justice to it as it was done by Rafi.

Awards and Recognition

He got twelve film fare nominations for best playback singing and won six of them. He was awarded the silver lotus award in National Film Award for the song Kiya Hua Tera Wada from the film Hum Kisisse Kam Nehi (1977). He was also honored with Padma Shri in 1967.

Actors like Dilip Kumar and Shammi Kapoor have always praised his contribution to the Hindi film industry. He was great inspirations for singers like Kishore Kumar to Sonu Nigam and many more. The master of playback singing died on 31st of July in 1980 at the age of only 55. On his departure Shammi Kapoor said-

My voice is no more

Author: Md. Imran
Student, University of Dhaka

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