If there’s one name you need to know in Bollywood it’s that of Mohammed Rafi. He was the undisputed king of the playback singers and an eternal icon of Hindi cinema. Rafi’s rich voice has been on the soundtrack of the lives of a billion Indians for over 70 years. It would be difficult to overestimate the place he holds in popular culture and the warmth with which he is remembered.
His reputation was one of an extraordinary talent combined with a remarkably kind and humble temperament. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rafi avoided scandal and had a stable, fruitful career, securing his position as a Bollywood legend.
Mohammed Rafi recorded around 7,500 songs in his 36-year career as a Bollywood playback artist. He had one of the best-loved voices in the industry and is remembered as one of the most versatile singers of Hindi cinema. He won six Filmfare awards and received the Padma Shri (the fourth highest honour from the Indian government) in 1967.
Mohammed Rafi’s early career
Mohammed Rafi was born on 24th December 1924 in the Punjab, India. The family moved to Lahore (now Pakistan) in 1935 and Rafi began lessons with the noted teacher of Indian classical singing, Abdul Wahid Khan. He made his debut as a playback singer in the 1944 Punjabi film, Gul Baloch. That same year Rafi moved to Mumbai and recorded his first songs for Hindi cinema, including Hindustan Ke Hum Hain written by Naushad.
The Golden Age of Hindi Cinema
Rafi soon secured his position as ‘king of the playback singers’. During the 1950s and 60s Rafi worked with the great Bollywood composers including S.D. Burman, Ravi and Laxmikant-Pyarelal. He provided the singing voice for the leading actors of the time and quickly became a household name. Rafi received his first Filmfare award in 1960 for the title song of the film Chaudhvin Ka Chand Ho, composed by Ravi. This Urdu language film was directed by Mohammed Saadiq and starred Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman.
Later Career and Legacy
By the 1970s, Rafi’s output reduced but he continued to record and received many awards. He toured the world extensively, including appearing to a full house at the Royal Albert Hall (London) in 1978.
Mohammed Rafi died on the 30th July 1980 after suffering a massive heart attack. He was only 55. The Indian government announced a two day holiday in his honour. Manna Dey, probably the only male playback singer who came close to Rafi in reputation, honoured his friend, “Rafi and I could sing everything, and he was such a gentleman. He was a better singer than me, and I will say this – that no one came even close to him! He deserved everything he got. We had a great understanding and it was never about one-upmanship”
Tu kahin aas paas hai dost was the final song he recorded, only hours before his death. It was written by Laxmikant-Pyarelal for the 1981 film Aas Paas directed by J. Om Prakash.