The other day, after a long gap of 16 years, I met someone who used to teach me in college. I never knew back then that he was a Mohammad Rafi aficionado; and now, chatting with him about Dusted Off, I got a request: do a Rafi post.
So, as a sort of gurudakshina, here it is: a Rafi post. And since I cannot even begin to think of trying to narrow down my favourite Rafi songs to just ten (or even a hundred), I’m taking the easy way out. Rafi, in ten moods. Ten songs that showcase the breathtaking versatility of this man and his voice. There will always be dozens of other Rafi songs out there that reflect the same emotions behind these songs, but these are my favourites. And, in keeping with the rules I always set for myself, they’re all from the 50’s and 60’s, from films I’ve seen.
Cynical: Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye (Pyaasa, 1957): This is one of those songs that never fail to give me gooseflesh. Sahir Ludhianvi’s bitter lyrics of a material world and S D Burman’s superb music are of course important elements, but it is Rafi’s voice that lifts Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye into a realm of its own. He drawls and caresses over the first few stanzas in a voice that is very reminiscent of Guru Dutt’s, and then—in the finale—soars up into a crescendo that expresses the cynicism of the disillusioned poet perfectly. What a song.
Devotional: Man tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj (Baiju Bawra, 1952): Much has been made of the fact that the three people involved in the making of this superb bhajan—the lyricist (Shakeel Badayuni), the music director (Naushad) and the singer (Rafi)—were all Muslims. For me, the greatest beauty of this song is in the way Rafi sings it: fervent, emotional, yet very controlled, and a stunning example of Rafi’s expertise as a classical singer.
Incidentally, this isn’t just a hymn; it’s also a song in appreciation of a much-loved guru. Man tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj means “Today my heart trembles for a glimpse of Hari”—and Hari can mean not just God, but is also an allusion to Baiju Bawra’s guru, Swami Haridas. And of course the later verse, beginning with “Bin guru gyaan kahaan se paaoon” (“Without a guru, where will I gain knowledge?”) bears it out.
Exuberant: Duniya paagal hai ya phir main deewaana (Shagird, 1967): At the other end of the spectrum from Man tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj is this: a wild, madcap song at an engagement party, deriding love and marriage. An infectious, energetic song to which Rafi does full justice: he seems to be enjoying himself in every syllable! And how on earth does Rafi manage to fit his voice perfectly into the voice of whichever actor he’s singing playback for? He’s as much Joy Mukherji as he is Guru Dutt or Bharatbhushan or Shammi Kapoor or Johnny Walker or a dozen other men.
Patriotic: Yeh desh hai veer jawaanon ka (Naya Daur, 1957): And not just patriotic, but folksy too. Singing along with Balbir, Rafi makes this paean to his homeland a boisterous, earthy song. It brims with pride for one’s country, and also with the joy of life itself.
Romantic: Deewaana hua baadal (Kashmir ki Kali, 1964): I think romantic, and this song, sung by Rafi along with Asha Bhonsle, always comes to mind. There’s something so gloriously ‘soft focus’ about it all—and I don’t mean just the picturisation (which admittedly is superb, featuring as it does two of my favourite stars and in my favourite setting, Kashmir in the spring). The music is soothingly soft, the lyrics are lovely, and Rafi’s voice is pure velvet.
Comic: Jangal mein mor naacha (Madhumati, 1958): Mohammad Rafi and Johnny Walker make the ultimate comic jodi—and Rafi sounds so exactly Johnny Walker, I tend to forget this isn’t Johnny Walker singing! They have dozens of superb and very funny songs together—Johnny on screen, Rafi playback—but this one’s my favourite. With that slightly drunken (well, maybe not slightly) slurring and the very Johnny Walkerish exaggerated diction, Rafi makes this anti-temperance song a masterpiece.
Melancholic: Dekhi zamaane ki yaari (Kaagaz ke Phool, 1959): You don’t need to have seen Kaagaz ke Phool to understand the utter tragedy the film depicts—this song is enough. Like Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye, it’s cynical, but here the cynicism is overpowered by the complete hopelessness, the all-encompassing sorrow of the song. Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics of course are very powerful, but Rafi’s voice—now slow, burdened with misery; now soaring high in a desperate attempt to break free of that sorrow—is matchless.
Seductive: Aaja re aa zara aa (Love in Tokyo, 1966): Somehow, all the come-hither songs in classic Hindi cinema (Raat akeli hai, Aaiye meherbaan, Yeh hai reshmi zulfon ka andhera, etc) seem to have been sung by women—with this notable exception. And take it from me, as a woman: Rafi sizzles in this one. That intimate low-voiced singing, that hint of aching longing: absolutely, completely come-hither.
Philosophical: Man re tu kaahe na dheer dhare (Chitralekha, 1964): Yes, there are tons of philosophical, introspective and pensive Rafi songs out there (Dosti had more than its fair share), but I have a soft spot for this one. Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics—an attempt to reconcile a wounded heart to an unrequited love—are beautiful, as is Roshan’s music, but this song’s greatest attraction for me is Rafi’s complete and seemingly effortless command over his voice, which reigns over the relatively subdued instrumental music. Simply superb.
Empathetic: Tukde hain mere dil ke (Mere Sanam, 1965): This could have been just another part-love, part-sympathy song if it hadn’t been for Rafi’s voice—so full of feeling, so deeply sensitive, that it makes Tukde hain mere dil ke ae yaar tere aansoo (“Your tears, my love, are pieces of my heart”) the ultimate plea—an anguished appeal to be allowed to share in the sorrow of a loved one. A song that I feel is more of a love song than hundreds of others sung onscreen, simply because it throbs with a love and an empathy far deeper than any sung in sunny gardens.
The more I hear of Rafi’s voice, I more I am convinced that any praise of him is inadequate. Sigh. Too, too good.