Rafi Sahab was born on 24th December 1924 in Kotla Sultansingh village in Punjab, near Amritsar. Although music
was not a part of his family background, there is no doubt that he was born with a gift for music in his heart. His father certainly did not look favourably upon his singing. Rafi Sahab's elder brother Mohammed Deen had a barber shop when Rafi Sahab was still a young lad, and he spent many of his childhood days in his brothers barber shop. One day, when Rafi Sahab was about seven years of age, his brother noticed him following a fakir who was walking the streets singing while playing on his Ektara (a one-stringed instrument). Ignoring the regular reprimands of his parents, the young boy continued to follow the fakir to his abode - a huge tree - on a regular basis. Then one day, some of the patrons at the barber shop heard him sing the songs of the fakir with such perfect sur (pitch) that they immediately recognised the immense musical gift that the boy possessed, and were convinced that this young genius-in-the-making was destined for greater things in life. The elders, and the patrons, then used to regularly ask the young Mohammed Rafi to visit the barber shop and sing for them, for he had a truly sureely awaaz. Rafi Sahab had picked up the rudiments of music from a fakir while already possessing a God-gifted voice.
When Rafi Sahab, at a tender age of about fifteen decided to become a singer, his father, a village landlord, was dead against the idea. His brother, Mohammed Deen, though, having recognised that this young boy had a God-given talent which he simply could not see go to waste, decided to help his little brother realise his dreams, for the young Mohammed Rafi ejoyed nothing as much as he did to sing all day long. When a was barely seventeen years old, and sang his first playback song for a Punjabi film, 'Gul Baloch' under the music direction of the late Shyam Sunder in 1941, Rafi Sahab was illiterate and had to commit the words to memory before he could go before the microphone. When it came to remembering any melody though, there never was a problem. The young genius in the making needed only to hear a melody once to not only commit it to memory, but also suggest improvements to the tune. Following the popularity of his Punjabi song, Rafi Sahab took the final big step in his life and ventured off to Bombay to realise his dreams of making singing his career. In 1942 he arrived in Bombay to sing, again under the music direction of Shyam Sunder for the movie 'Gaon ki Gauri'.
After this successful debut in Bombay, Rafi Sahab approached the renowned music director Naushad, confiding in him his admiration for the great Kundan Lal. Saigal, and how his ambition was to sing with Saigal Sahab. Naushad did not disappoint him, giving him two lines (Ruhi Ruhi Mere Sapnon ki Rani) with K.L Saigal for a song in the movie 'Shahjehan'. Although Rafi Sahab had several 'hit' songs during these early years, he never-the-less had tough competition from respected singers like Manna Dey, Talat Mahmood, Hemant Kumar and Mukesh. The real recognition for Rafi Sahab, though, which never saw him looking back again, was his incomparable effort for his songs in 'Baiju Bawra' under the music direction of Naushad Sahab. O Duniya ke Rakhwale (which you're listening to right now) together with 'Man Tarpat Hari Darshan' left Rafi Sahab in a league all of his own. He continued over the years to lend his magnificent golden voice to such great music directors as Sachin Dev Burman, C. Ramachandra, Roshan, Shankar-Jaikishen, Madan Mohan, O.P. Nayyar, Kalyanji-Aanadji, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Jaidev, Salil Chowdhury, Ravindra Jain, Iqbal Qureshi, Usha Khanna, Ravi, Chitragupta and Rahul Dev Burman, to name a few.
'Bapu ki Amar Kahani', a poignant song dedicated to the Mahatma Gandhi, recorded just a month after Gandhi-ji's assassination in January of 1948, had Nehru-ji shedding tears at the emotion in Rafi Sahab's voice. Rafi Sahab sang over 26,000 songs in all the national languages of India in his fourty year career. He was the master of all forms of songs - he could sing ghazals, qawwalis and bhajans with the same ease and greatness. There came a time in the sixties when Rafi Sahab was the permanent voice of Shammi Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Dev Anand, Dharmendra, Shashi Kapoor and Raj Kumar. In fact, Shammi Kapoor's films were mainly popular because of the songs, which were sung by Rafi Sahab in a very distinct style. Rafi Sahab's voice personified the rebellious image of 'Yahoo' star, Shammi Kapoor ; made Rajendra Kumar a 'Jubilee Star' and Jeetendra a 'Jumping Jack'.
The great Rafi Sahab even sang for singer-actor Kishore Kumar in movies such as Raagini, Baaghi, Shehzaada and Shararat. In 1965 he was honoured with the Padma Shree, a coveted award of which any Indian citizen would justly be proud. In 1977, Rafi Sahab received the 'Rajat Kamal' award from then Indian State President, Sri Sanjiva Reddy at the 25th National Film Festival Awards. Humble, unostentatious and soft spoken, and yet a giant among musicians, he was a man of tremendous integrity and very often sang without charging a fee for struggling music directors. Words cannot do justice to comprehend what this artist was about. Alas, there is no substitute today to listening to his voice. His style truly reflected the man's character. The purity of his voice reflected the purity of his ideals and his mind. He was not affected by his greatness and material values never superceded human and social ethics for this spiritual and unassuming maestro.
Rafi Sahab received his training from prominent classical Ustads like Abdul Wahid Khan, Pandit Jiwanlal Matto, Ghulam Ali Khan and Firoz Nizami - all doyens and devotees of music.
Rafi Sahab scaled heights of fame and popularity that no other Indian singer ever has or ever will with his haunting melodies that enchanted lovers of music all over the world. He had an unblemished illustrious career and retained an untarnished and highly dignified reputation in an industry which at times is more known for its vices than the good it produces. Humble in the extreme, soft spoken, a gentleman like no other and an embodiment of refinement, he was deeply religious and in a rare interview with Abu Parker in 1979 in Cape Town, South Africa, Rafi Sahab declared that he held all religions in high esteem. He went on to say that he believed that we are all separate seeds that bloom into one single flower. A veritable king at heart, he was a true friend of the poor, ensuring that he regularly paid his zakaat (charity).
Rafi Sahab was the sort of genius who appears once in a life-time ; unique, his golden voice continues to flow like essence drawn from several jewels, a constellation which enriches, in a mystical way, the firmanent of music, the spiritual peak of eternal silence and of the celestial world that listens to itself through the voice of cherubic Mohammed Rafi, the immortal singer who is interpreter of that very sublime silence.
Not only the nation, but Indians the world over were stunned on 31st July 1980 when Rafi Sahab left this world to indulge the heavens with his silky voice. His 'last journey' commenced from 'Rafi Villa' in Bandra on that sad and wet day as tears from heaven fell on earth, but The Voice never left us. To his ardent fans Rafi Sahab will always be immortal, for The Voice will always remain with us.
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