Rafi, the prolific singer and that nondescript village
PUNJAB must be truly proud of its great son Mohammad Rafi, who was born in a non-descript hamlet in a remote rural area of Amritsar district. Starting from a humble and modest beginning, he rose to become the most prolific film playback singer of the movie industry, not only in India, but in the whole world.
The Punjabis should be doubly proud that two of their sons have ruled over film singing for more than half a century. K.L. Saigal was the first Punjabi singing star, who dominated the Indian film industry for a decade and a half from 1933 to 1947. The Indian film industry switched over from silent movies to talkies in 1931, when film “Alam Ara” was made. But ever since actor singer Kundan Lal Saigal started his film career in the eastern metropolis of Calcutta in 1933, he did not look back and went from strength to strength, until death put a sudden end to his brilliant career as a singing leading actor in the dark year of 1947.
When Saigal’s health was deteriorating, Mohammad Rafi was warming up to step into Saigal’s spikes. Mohammad Rafi’s success story is indeed a story of rags to riches. He was born in a village called “Kotla Sultan Singh” near the town of Majitha in the then Punjab’s second largest district of Amritsar. Most of the land in his village was owned by Sikh farmers and the Muslim families were assisting them. The relations between the two communities were mostly cordial and the village was a happy community, unaffected by what was happening in Lahore and Amritsar. Most of the inhabitants had very few desires and aspirations and that precisely led to their contented lifestyle. The children of the village used to play “Chhattapoo”, “Pithoo”, “Kokla Chhapaki” “Gulel and target” as well as hide and seek. Mohammad Rafi’s childhood was not much different from other kids. In addition Mohammad Rafi liked to copy the folk singers in his amateur way.
Mohammad Rafi was always falling in line with most of his villager folks. His education was confined basically to reading and writing in Urdu in Persian script. Cramming up of a little bit of multiplication tables was his other education. In his moments of leisure, he used to carry his family’s and friends’ cattle for grazing in the fields. Intensive cultivation was alien to most of the villagers then and a lot of grassy fields were left untilled for the cattle to graze. As a child Mohammad Rafi always loved to graze cattle. He had heard some local “Mirasis” (Muslims, who’s profession was singing and acting as folk comedians) singing folk songs in semi-classical and other country tunes. He liked this art and his voice was suitable for it. He used to copy the “Mirasis” of his surrounding villages. While grazing cattle he used to sing popular Punjabi folk songs to all and sundry in the village.
Mohammad Rafi was born in 1924 in his ancestral village Kotla Sultan Singh. Radio during those days was in its infancy in Europe and America. India did get some experimental radio in the four metros of Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and New Delhi in 1927. Lahore had a brief stint with amateur radio in 1928. But organized broadcasting came to Punjab in 1936 in the public sector. The newly constructed studio complex opened in Lahore in 1937. Thus up to the age of thirteen, Mohammad Rafi had practically no exposure to radio.
Gramophone (in America phonograph) was already in great demand in the high-end “Bazaars” in the commercial city of Amritsar. Most of the wealthy people had already bought gramophones for their homes. Mohammad Rafi had also heard some music in the “Havelis” (imposing houses of the rich in Punjab) of Majitha and the Bazaars of Amritsar. Born in Amritsar Indu Bala, was the then leading most “Thumri” singer of India and Kamla Jharia was fast becoming the most prolific “Thumri” and “Ghazal” singer of India. These voices could be heard during those days in the music stores of “Hall Bazaar” in Amritsar. Mohammad Rafi certainly had some exposure to this music. His once in a blue moon visits to the historic “Hall Bazaar” always left behind sweet memories. Bhai Chhaila of Patiala was the most popular Punjabi folk singer of that time and Dina Qawwal of Jalandhar was becoming popular. Both these artists had some impact on Rafi. Agha Faiz of Amritsar was a great gramophone singer. Rafi had heard all these voices. Nevertheless he was happy and blissful in the dusty fields of his village. Every one in the village was his friend and none was his foe. What a life he had?
There was no one in his village to initiate Mohammad Rafi into the intricacies of classical music, which was and still is the mother of all music in India. Unaware of his handicap of not learning classical music, Mohammad Rafi kept singing to himself and to his simple village folks. His father wanted to create better living conditions for his family. One fine morning his father decided to leave for Lahore the capital of Punjab about fifty miles away from their village. Like several other Amritsaris, he was a very good cook and Amritsar cooks were in great demand not only in Lahore, but all over Northern India. His father opened a “Dhaba” (a no frills country style eating house) in Lahore. His food was invariably delicious and the customers both locals and outsiders started thronging to it. Well begun is half done, he sent a massage to his son Mohammad Rafi to come over to Lahore. Mohammad Rafi reached Lahore round about in 1941, at the age of seventeen.
His father got Mohammad Rafi a job at a hair-dresser’s saloon. He used to shave the customers’ beards quite slowly but carefully. In order to keep his customers in good humour, while doing cuttings and shavings he used to keep singing some folk and country songs of Punjab. Rafi’s customers seldom took notice of his slowness, rather they enjoyed his music. One day Jiwan Lal Mattoo, the program executive of music at All India Radio Lahore passed by the hair cutting saloon and he faintly heard young Mohammad Rafi’s enchanting voice and he instantly liked its sweetness, range and tonal quality. He stopped and paused for a while and then entered the shop. He asked Mohammad Rafi if he was interested in becoming a radio singer. On hearing this unsolicited offer, Mohammad Rafi jumped in the air in happiness. In the month of March in 1943, Mohammad Rafi appeared in the audition test at the studios of All India Radio Lahore and to his utter surprise he passed the test. Thus from March 1943, Mohammad Rafi became a radio artist. This happened six months prior to the Nightingale of Punjab Surinder Kaur becoming a radio singer. At about the same time in 1943, after hearing his voice on the radio, a newly emerging film music director Shyam Sunder requested Mohammad Rafi to sing a song for his Punjabi film “Gul Baloch”. Mohammad Rafi did full justice to this film song and it opened the gates for his future entry into the field of Bombay’s playback singing.