Every Time You Listen to Mohammed Rafi, You Realise He Belongs Everywhere, to Everyone

Music

Every Time You Listen to Mohammed Rafi, You Realise He Belongs Everywhere, to Everyone

Illustration: Arati Gujar

I was not even born when Mohammed Rafi passed away in 1980. Yet growing up in a family inclined toward music, Rafi songs were a background score of my childhood. My earliest memories include my mother softly humming “Teri aakhon ke siwa duniya mein rakha kya hai” as she worked her way around in the kitchen. The delectable aroma of our Sunday lunch was always accompanied by the faint strains of Rafi songs – a permanent feature of most Sunday radio shows those days – filtering through my father’s old trusted Philips radio.

In a lot of ways, nothing has changed. Years later, as I get down to my writing, our house is filled with a familiar aroma of my mother’s cooking with a playlist of Rafi songs playing in the background. The Philips radio is of course a relic of the past. But despite the digital revolution this country and our house has undergone, Rafi seems to be eternal, his voice echoing today through the speakers of our latest musical gadget with the same heartwarming melody as he did from my father’s tiny speakers. 

Such was the influence of Rafi on the musical consciousness of the country that he did not even need to be present in a room to be a part of the discussion. Other singers did that job for him. For instance, Sonu Nigam made a name for himself in the early days of his career by singing Rafi songs and for a remarkably similar singing style that made everyone in the ’80s and ’90s nostalgic for a musical era that was long gone. Nigam was hardly a pioneer of this trend of being inspired by Rafi. Before him, there was a Shabbir Kumar, Mohammed Aziz, and Mahendra Kapoor, all of whom based their respective singing careers almost entirely on their uncanny ability to imitate Rafi’s style.

The delectable aroma of our Sunday lunch was always accompanied by the faint strains of Rafi songs.

Back in the ’90s, I remember the cassettes of Nigam’s “Tribute to Mohammed Rafi” being a permanent fixture in most taxis in Mumbai. In some parts of the country, they still are, albeit as CDs and pendrives. Even though Nigam moved on from Rafi, most of the country clearly didn’t. As recently as 2018, there were scores of young, aspiring singers on YouTube who continue to start or embellish their fledgling musical career with a cover of a Rafi song – usually the drug of choice is “Gulaabi Aankhein”. Today, most established veterans and current singing heartthrobs including Arijit Singh and Atif Aslam have at least one massively popular Rafi cover to their credit. 

Legacy is an easy idea to abuse, but for a single singer to have clones and dedicated cover artists spanning across generations speaks volumes about the kind of musical influence he wields on the popular consciousness. If there were to be a physical manifestation of what “being timeless” looks like, Rafi would be it.

I vividly remember that as kids, none of our antakshari sessions were complete without at least a dozen Rafi songs. I can’t count the number of times I have sung “Akele akele kahan ja rahe ho” – off-tune of course – every time someone left me behind while stepping out or scream-singing “Kya hua tera vaada?” just to annoy someone who may have broken a promise. Frivolous as these examples may sound, they are merely illustrative of the extent to which Rafi is embedded in our daily lives. 

Rafi’s enduring popularity is a testament to the sheer range of the songs credited to him.

In that sense, Rafi’s enduring popularity is a testament to the sheer range of the songs credited to him. Songs that fit all occasions, songs that defy the ideas of time and place and generations, songs that get us irrespective of who we are. There are few break-up songs that match the raw anger in “Mere dushman tu meri dosti ko tadpe”, the rather modern sultriness of “Tum jo mil gaye ho”, the soft romance of “Pukarta chala hoon main” or just the generally unsettling in justice of “Choo lene do nazuk hothon ko”. Rafi was known for his ability to effortlessly morph his voice to suit the frivolity of emotions. It’s not for nothing that a classically trained singer whose finesse glorified complex compositions like “Man tadpat hari darshan ko” had absolutely no problem turning into a Yahoo-screaming maniac to complement Shammi Kapoor’s on-screen energy. 

A couple of years ago, I was visiting a small Himachal town. As we entered into the town’s only café, a large Bob Marley poster greeted us along with a kind of silence only the solitude of mountains are able to afford. We requested the owner, a frail local man, to play some music. Somewhere from within his kitchen, Rafi started crooning a familiar melody. Later that night, when we sat around the bonfire, a backpacking stranger we met on the way, started playing his playlist. In between the predictable drifters’ songs featuring usual suspects like Prateek Kuhad and Eddie Vedder was a surprising inclusion – the famous Rafi classic “Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya”. 

What was more surprising than finding Rafi in a lonely Marley-inspired café or a predictably hippie playlist was how seamlessly he fit there. There’s no better way to sum up his enduring appeal to boomers and millennials alike: Every time you listen to Rafi, he seems to find a way to belong everywhere. And to everyone.

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