It’s been thirty-three years since one of the greatest singers of all time passed on, after decades of bringing music to the ears of millions the world over, including so many of his diehard fans in Guyana. And since I pride myself as being one of the foremost devotees of this vocal legend and a ranking member of his unique, worldwide fan club, I consider myself duty-bound to impart to all music lovers, especially my fellow Guyanese devotees, my feelings on this, the thirty-third anniversary of that historic induction into immortality: The July 31, 1980 passing of the late, great, Padma Shree Mohamed Rafi.
I recall vividly that pivotal moment, in August 1964, when I devoted myself with reckless abandon to the captivating sounds of Rafi, the Melody King of India. On a Saturday afternoon, at the 1.30 matinee, I saw the movie, Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon, at the Roopmahal Cinema, and what a pleasant surprise and treat it proved for me, then a skeptic regarding Bollywood movies and music. I was totally mesmerized by the delicious blend of the voice of Mohamed Rafi and the music of O P Nayyar. It was an instant conversion. Suriname radio at the time used to feature all the latest Bollywood songs, and the repeat airing of the songs from this movie just drove me giddy with excitement.
Mohamed Rafi toured Guyana once, in 1965. I distinctly recall that, as he descended the steps of the aircraft at Timehri, the welcoming group surged forward in an attempt to lift him shoulder high, in a true Guyanese display of hospitality. But right before they reached the bottom of the stairs, Rafi began a speech, and they all stopped in their tracks to listen. Even his talking was like music! He said that in his many worldwide tours, he had been greeted by much larger crowds, but that the welcome he was then receiving from the relatively small group was the warmest and most memorable for him, and that he would cherish it as long as he lived. Many at the time, including myself, surmised that this statement was meant just to appease the crowd. But some eight years later I came to realize how sincere Mohamed Rafi was when he uttered those few words on the tarmac at Timehri Airport in 1965. In the mid-1970s, while living in Canada, I came across a brochure announcing a Rafi performance at a Toronto arena. Among other things, the brochure contained excerpts from an interview with Mohamed Rafi. One question posed was: In all your travels performing around the world, which to you was the most memorable? Without hesitation, Rafi responded, “Guyana in 1965,” and proceeded to describe the hospitality of Guyanese, and how he was greeted, both at the airport and at the many venues across the country. Needless to say I, the diehard Rafi aficionado and a Guyanese, was just overwhelmed with emotion at learning that my country occupied such a special spot in Rafi’s heart.
His vocal prowess enabled Rafi to perform any song for any occasion, from the heart-wrenching sentimental (Haay Re Insaan Ki Majburiyaan – Ghunghat), to devotional (Hari Ka Dhyaan Lagaa Man Meraa – non-film, Oh Duniyaa Ke Rakhwaalay – Baiju Bhawra), to happy-go-lucky, rock ‘n roll (Jaan Pehchaan Ho – Gumnaam), to classical (Madhuban Men Raadhikaa – Kohinoor) – you name it, he could do it, and he had the capacity to soar to notes very few mortals could. Also, as a Bollywood playback singer, he had that unique ability to style his vocal delivery to suit almost any actor, as, for example, the late Shammi Kapoor would have agreed.
Some of the great melodies from Rafi’s vast repertoire of songs include Oh Duniyaa Kay Rakhwaalay, Suhani Raat Dhal Chukee, Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho, Chahoonga Main Tujhay, Chaudivi Ka Chand, Suno Suno Ai Duniyaa Waalon Bapuji Ki Amar Kahaanee, Baharon Phool Barsaao, Madhuban Men Raadhikaa, Ehsaan Tera Hogaa Mujhpar, and Jo Unki Tamanna, quite a few of which won Filmfare and other awards. His most prestigious honour was that of Padma Shree, conferred on him by the Indian government and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
One aspect of Rafi’s singing that may surprise most of us was something that was always associated with his singing buddy, Keshore Kumar – yodelling. But Rafi was also adept at yodelling and, in fact, did it in some of the older songs, including Hello Sweety Seventeen (duet with Asha Bhosle) and Oh Chale Ho Kahaan, to name a few.
On July 31, 1980, after a session with music director, Laximikant-Pyarelall (LK), involving the composition of a song, Shaam Phir Kyon Udaas Hai Dost, for the movie Aaspaas, Rafi, who was always one of the last to leave a studio, surprised LK by asking to leave early. As he was leaving, he uttered, in Urdu, the words, “OK, I will leave.” Later that night, he did leave us, succumbing to a massive heart attack at home. He was 55.
The passing of Mohamed Rafi brought to an end an era unparalleled in the annals of Indian music. His funeral procession, fit for a king, was one of the largest ever in Mumbai. Befittingly, two public holidays were declared in his honour. His name lives on and his voice continues to thrill and comfort us all, including, I know, his countless fans in Guyana.