Today: Rediff India Abroad Managing Editor Arthur J Pais argues that Rafi was the most worshipped singer of his time, unwittingly at the expense of singers like Talat Mahmood and Manna Dey's careers.
It is wonderful to hear 85-year-old Manna Dey, himself a singing legend, talk about how honoured India is to have had a singer like Mohammad Rafi. It is nice to hear the much younger Sonu Nigam talk about Rafi -- who died in July 1980 -- and his heritage. "Not only did I dream of becoming a singer because of Rafisaab," he told me the other day, "I also feel he was and will always be the giant of the musical scene in India."
But it is certainly not a nice thing to hear that Rafi did not get his due in his own country, and that he had to be content with a Padma Shri while his contemporary Lata Mangeshkar was honoured with the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian accolade.
Even as one factors in the absurdity inherent in giving out awards including the Oscars -- Alfred Hitchcock never got one and Martin Scorsese is still waiting for his -- one ought to note that Rafi had received his Padma Shri in 1965. Lata received a higher award, the Padma Bhushan, but after four years. She received the Bharat Ratna in 2001. Rafi had long passed into the ages by then.
Lata is among very few musicians including M S Subbulakshmi who have received the Bharat Ratna. Does that mean other eminent musicians like Ravi Shankar, Balamurali Krishna, Bhimsen Joshi or Bade Ali Ghulam Khan did not win sufficient recognition in India?
Rafi was a singing meteor of his time. Just a dozen songs from films like Baiju Bawra, Kohinoor and Guide assures him immortality.
And yet, with virtually every composer and singer worshipping him, especially between 1950 and 1970, he got an undue number of songs to sing and unwittingly hurt the careers of contemporaries like Manna Dey, Talat Mahmood, and to a lesser degree, Hemant Kumar.
He was overexposed to such an extent that some of his songs, especially in films like Aman (composed by Shankar-Jaikishen) and Palki (composer: Naushad Ali) sounded overstretched and over dramatic. And yet some of the most eminent composers including S D Burman were afraid to tell the producers and the stars, especially Rajendra Kumar, Shammi Kapoor and Dharmendra, that there were other good singers.
One can count the number of songs Manna Dey sang for Burman; it is another story that those few songs -- Poocho Na Kaise in Teri Surat Meri Aanken turned out to be milestones.
Even when Kishore Kumar became a phenomenon with his songs in Aradhana (1970) and monopolised the musical scene for two decades, Rafi was not sidelined. He sang lovely numbers like Kya Hua Tera Wada and Chura Liya for R D Burman even as Kishore hogged the scene. Producers like Nasir Hussain and Manmohan Desai preferred Rafi to Kishore, and older actors like Dharmendra were in Rafi's camp.
I don't remember ever reading or hearing that Rafi, who was known for his impeccable courtesy and great humanity, felt the least discomfort when Kishore Kumar monopolised the Hindi film music scene.
As one listens to some of the great singers of that era including Manna Dey, Talat Mahmood and Mukesh, one wonders why they did not get more songs.
"There were many occasions I thought of using Manna Dey for my songs," composer Ravi told me two years ago, quickly adding that he was in awe of Rafi's voice. "But the actors often demanded Rafi." The few songs Manna Dey sang for Ravi in films like Waqt and Ek Phool Do Maali have become classics.
One producer to resist the We-must-have-Rafi syndrome was B R Chopra. He gave Mahendra Kapoor a good break in Gumrah and repeated him in many films including Dastaan, which featured Dilip Kumar who was beholden to Rafi.
Indian film music would perhaps have been richer had composers ranging from Madan Mohan to O P Nayyar to Salil Choudhury to S D Burman shown a stronger independent streak and nourished the singing career of other singers.