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Sunday, September 9, 2007

...Of Me And The Greatest Singer In The World

Pavarotti died last week,aged 71."Big Luciano" was the greatest living singer in the world,they said.A gentle giant,the "Man OfThe High Cs" had delighted audiences around the world with his operatic feats.They called him the liberator of the opera,Caruso for the masses,the greatest singer you'll ever hear..

The greatest singer I'll ever hear ??

Can't agree with that one.I have heard a greater singer,but only one...

Roy Orbison....close.
Billie Holiday....hmm.
Elvis Presley....near.
Mehdi Hasan....almost there.
Dylan...no,serously ?

Nope,it isn't one of these spellbinding crooners,it's a barber's son from the Punjab,and his name is Rafi.

Mohammad Rafi,to be precise.The greatest singer I've ever heard,and ever expect to hear for that matter.

The first time I heard him ??

Can't remember,probably waaay back when God was stuffing my oversized soul (if you can call it that) in a body (a very loose way of describing it) three sizes too small.For as long as I can remember,Rafi's been the ONE SINGER for me.As I sit here listening to him,faint memories appear.Me singing "Chaudhvin Ka Chand" as I come out of the loo and the whole family gaping at this towsled,nine year old Son of Belial,their minds filled with the thoughts of the horrible excesses to come.Sixth grade,school bus,kids laughing themselves silly as I try to do a "Shammi Kapoor Shake",singing "Baar Baar Dekho".

Everywhere,in my house,in the orange groves back in Sargodha,in hospitals,on deathbeds,in my hostels(as my long-suffering dorm mates can testify),I've had Rafi songs on my lips.What is it about this man,short,slightly dumpy,bowlegged and balding,that's ruled my mind for ages and ages...

Well,for one thing,it's the person behind the voice.

Born in 1924 to a barber in Amritsar,he was discovered singing,as the apocryphal story goes,while cutting hair in front of Government College Lahore.Whatever the truth may be,he was one helluva discovery.From his debut in 1946,Jugnu I think it was,or Anmol Ghari maybe,he was immediately noticed.As the forties rolled on to the fifties,he slowly gained clout in a very competitive field of Playback singers.There are six giants in the field of male Playback singing in the golden days of Indian cinema;Talat Mehmood,Rafi,Hemant Kumar,Mukesh,Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey,each one a giant.As the decade started,it was Mukesh and Talat who ruled the roost.But by it's end Rafi had supplanted them,and was the undisputed King.

The sixties were HIS DECADE,with each and every film having at least two or three of his songs.The gems produced in this ten year span are impossible to count,each one better than the last.An innumerable number of music directors,actors and film makers got their breaks because of him.From O.P Nayyar's surprisingly modern scores to Naushad's towering classical compositions.From Shankar-Jaikishan's orchestral odysseys to Salil Chowdary's unbelievably complex tunes,Rafi's voice graced them all.Then there were the leading men,Shammi Kapoor,Dilip Kumar,Bharat Bhushan,Manoj Kumar,you can only think of them singing in Rafi's voice if singing at all.Even Raj Kapoor and Amitabh Bacchan,for whom the voices of Mukesh and Kishore Kumar respectively seemed tailor-made,have a couple of Rafi songs picturized on them,and his voice fits them perfectly.

As the sixties ended,a number of factors lead to a sharp decrease in Rafi's songs.The older heroes had aged,the music had changed,Kishore Kumar had found his element(and what element that was!).And there was a Hajj pilgrimage where he was told against singing so he went off to London for a rather long sabbatical.Whatever the reason,Rafi gradually faded from the scene,singing an occasional tune,until 1976.That was when he returned,his voice unravaged by the absence,instead,possessing a sharpness that hadn't been there before.There were new,younger leading men,the music was just right and the hits started flowing again.With songs like "Kya Hua Tera Waada","Chaand Mera Dil" and "Dard-e-Dil",he took India by storm yet again.And just as the comeback was kicking into high gear,he died.A massive heart attack and the great voice was silenced at the rather young age of 56.

As a person,well... Simple,pure-hearted,always with a smile on his face.Talking with a gentle rustic accent,this shy family man was almost too nice to survive in the cut-throat world of Indian cinema...

Rare Interview

The voice now.

How can one man sound drunk,giggly,heartbroken,sly,indifferent,pleading,appeasing,humble,proud and God-knows-what,almost at will ? That's what he did,over and over.With a voice in turns like a slow moving majestic glacier,a rowdy bar-night,a sharp sword point and a hundred other things.I once heard somebody describe is as "honey slowly flowing on the edge of a knife".The low notes,where an average singer's voice gets lost in his underthingies,Rafi just effortlessly glided past.And on the high notes,well that's a whole different story.

There's this story about the recording session for "O Duniya Ke Rakhwaale",the notoriously difficult Naushad masterpiece from "Baiju Bawra".It has some pretty high notes in some very unconvenient places,and in the end is the big lollalpaloosa.A long C-note that would give any singer a rupture that would put to an end any hopes he might have had about raising children (recurring topic,ain't it Dr. Freud?).The story goes that when Rafi hit that final note,Naushad had to put a hand to Rafi's throat for fear he might injure it.

And here's the truly amazing part,I've seen performances of that,and many other songs (god bless youtube!).There's Rafi,Sherwani-clad,holding the lyrics in his left hand,a smile on his face,singing almost effortlessly.And when the high-notes come,the only indication of their presence is a raising of the eyebrows,and that is all.Amazing,truly amazing.Hope I can put up a couple of links on youtube,judge for yourself.

Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki

O Duniya Ke Rakhwaale

Madhuban Main Radhika Naache Re

The most important thing in singing,besides a voice,(not such a simple thing,as Simon Cowell will gladly tell you),is Range.And range was Rafi's middle name.From ghazals,riding songs,Beatles 'inspired' guitar ditties,Elvis style rockers,classical compositions to the truly haunting free verse pieces in Guru Dutt's Pyaasa,he sang them all.And with such elan that it takes your breath away...

Now I'm not a singer,not unless warbling in front of your class on a Coke high counts as singing,but Rafi songs are my forte.They take it out of you,i know.But the pleasure of singing,and better still,singing along is one I would not trade for anything.Sometimes,when my throat's in a good mood and it's been at least three weeks since my last bout of Pharyngits,I can sing a Rafi song like it should be sung.And that's all it takes to make my day....

Song Of The Week,"(Most Likely)You'll Go Your Way,Bob Dylan remix by Mark Ronson.
Movie Of The Week,"The Departed"
Book Of The Week,"On The Road",Jack Kerouac.

1 comment:

  1. my tryst wid oldies started wid kishore n ends with kishore.. but salute to rafi no doubt melodious voice [:)]