With A Song On His Lips

Few sang as Rafi sang, few touched so many as he did. A mellow, melancholy memoir recalls a master we don’t know.
Mohammed Rafi: My Abba, A Memoir
By Yasmin Khalid Rafi
Tranquebar Press | Pages: 204 | Rs. 250

The first song that ever made me cry was Dilip Kumar singing Toote hue khwabon ne, in Madhumati. Something about the hopelessness of his predicament tugged at my heartstrings, but it was the emotion in the singing that brought on the tears. After Madhumati, Mohammed Rafi, along with Lata Mangeshkar, epitomised music, and as I went back in time to listen to his songs from Baiju Bawra or Basant Bahar, my commitment to film music was sealed. Now, Yasmin Khalid Rafi’s memoir on her father-in-law has me moving from Yahan badla wafa ka, to Tu ganga ki mauj; singing along with the pages of her chronicle of his career and life.

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Yasmin Rafi’s book will strike a chord in every reader, who, like her, thrilled to Hindi film music’s golden era. Yet, unlike most of us for whom the singers were only names, Yasmin would not only marry into her idol’s family but end up being among his favourite bahus. It gave her a ringside view of the legend’s life. Yasmin traces her own life, first as a child growing up in a strict Muslim family in small-town Madhya Pradesh, where she developed a love for film music and listened to it all day on the old Murphy radio. Her favourite singer was of course Rafi, whom she imagined would be a bit older than herself. In a school competition she sang Rafi’s Baar baar din ye aaye and won the first prize. When she did meet her idol, it was as a prospective bahu, and though there was an initial disappointment in his being so much older than his voice, the fact that she would be part of his family naturally made her happy. Despite living with her husband in London, the link with Rafi’s music remained strong. She speaks with candour about the loneliness of living without Binaca Geetmala, and the joy she feels when Rafi visits, occasions when she can listen to him singing.

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Lata suggested that singers should get royalty as a right. Rafi disagreed. The two fell out over this. Rafi’s family disagreed with him.

Though her listing of songs is sometimes overdone and her tracing of Rafi’s career is not exactly linear, the book gives us insights into the life of a great singer who was a very private person. Yasmin tells us that whatever the mood of the song he was asked to sing, Rafi would completely lose himself in it, and not think about the situation or the actor in the film; that he was not just soft-spoken, but spoke little. Yet, whenever he would mount the stage for a performance, a change would come over him. He would become Mohammed Rafi, the famous singer.

Rafi’s love of cars, which he painted in bright colours; his generosity; his love of shows overseas and his soft-voiced rehearsals in the garden are some of the other stories detailed for us. Giving us an insight into what it was to live with a legend, Yasmin writes of a man who wanted nothing more than a home-cooked meal, the company of his family and his music, and accepted the fact that while the world loved his voice, to his wife, Bilquis, he was just her husband.

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Other little-known facts also come to light in the process—such as her maternal uncle, writer Salim Khan, who started his career as an actor and lip-synced Rafi’s songs on screen. Rafi’s disagreement with Lata Mangeshkar is also explained, and for once the family disagrees with their star singer’s stance on the issue of royalties. It centred around the fact that singers get almost no royalty, and Lata was among those who suggested that they should ask this as a right. But Rafi did not agree. His attitude was ‘our job is to sing and we get paid for it, let us not get greedy’. They fell out, each saying they would not sing with the other.

Rafi’s family disagreed with him too, as they felt he, and later they, would be robbed of a sizeable amount of money as royalty. Yasmin deals with the death of her husband Khalid and that of Mohammed Rafi with restraint. Yasmin’s account of the crowds at his funeral, of recording studios being shut for three days in mourning, are touching reminders of what was. A leitmotif of regret runs through the book, of having had and then losing. But by sharing her story and rare photographs, Yasmin has done the singer’s legion of fans a huge favour. She has given the man behind the voice a persona that is as endearing as it is real.

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