Saturday, August 3, 2013

Mohammed Rafi - My Abba - A Memoir

Mohammed Rafi My Abba - a Memoir, by Yasmin Khalid Rafi

One-line review: a daughter-in-law's honest and loving tribute to a legend.
Short review: That Mohd Rafi was a genius at his craft is well-known. That he was also a genuinely good human in an industry known for its cut-throat and back-stabbing competition is what makes him an awe-inspiring legend, even thirty three years after his death. This book collects together his daughter-in-law's reminiscences of Mohd Rafi - her idol, her father-in-law, interspersed with her life before and after marriage, in Indore and later in London. A brief index of songs referenced in the book and twelve pages of black-and-white photographs add to the appeal of this short book.
Long review: While Mohd Rafi  was successful and recognized, the extent to which he influenced playback singing can be seen in the way almost every male playback singer in the last thirty years has tried to emulate him, with varying degrees of success - Mahendra Kapoor in the 1950 and 60s, Suresh Wadekar in the 1970s and beyond, Mohd Aziz, Shabbir Kumar, Anwar, and S.P. Balasubramaniam in the 1980s, Udit Narayan in the 1990s, Sonu Nigam in the last decade and a half - the list is long. His contemporaries, like Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar, acknowledged the sheer mastery over playback singing that Mohd Rafi had. Even the legendary Lata Mangeshkar, with whom he sang the most duets, felt threatened by Mohd Rafi's success in the 1960s - this somewhat sordid saga is recounted by Raju Bharatan in his book, "Lata Mangeshkar: A Biography" - published in 1994. But while there is no doubting Mohd Rafi's prowess in playback singing, what has turned his life into the stuff of legends has been his character - a gem of a human being who did not seem to have a crooked bone in his body.
The book reveals personal facets of Mohd Rafi the person that may not be known to even some diehard fans of his that are brought to life in this book, "Mohammed Rafi - My Abba - A Memoior", written by his daughter-in-law Yasmin Khalid Rafi, and translated from Hindi by Rupa Srikumar and A.P. Srikumar. The book released in Hindi and English late last year, and was launched by Amitabh Bachchan, who recounted an incident in Siliguri in 1977 where the sudden delay of some artistes had put the Shashi Kapoor - the organizer of the show, in a fix and Mohd Rafi obliged by getting off the plane to return do the show for a second day.

Mohd Rafi was a simple man - a "foodie" who would "not eat anything prior to the performance" but "as soon he finished with the show" "would have this irrepressible urge to eat"! His taste in food was however simple. The author recounts an anecdote when Rafi had come to Coventry in the UK for a performance, and grumbled to his son Khalid, "Yaar, one hasn't had a decent meal in the past two-three days." So great was his craving for good Indian food that they sneaked back to London where "Dolly" - Yasmin - quickly prepared "dal and rice, friend poppadums and fish fingers and made an onion and tomato side-salad with coriander and green chili chutney"- and they were back in Coventry before six o'clock for the performance!

Simple though he was, he was not beyond a sense of humour. Once when in the lift of the building 'Seabird' where they lived, Mohd Rafi heard from his wife that that Rekha the acress lived in the same building, and  remarked to his son, "In that case, you'd better not sing this song in this building, right? 'Rekha o rekha, jabse tumhe dekha, khaana peena sona dushwar ho gaya (Adhikar)', or else you're going to get into trouble." Simple however did not mean that he did not have a taste for some of the finer things in life, like expensive watches and cars - and got an expensive Audi got from England and about which he was "excited as a child." He even got his "Fiat car painted parrot green, then bright orange and finally bright blue."

The book however begins on a particularly poignant note - Mohd Rafi's death. In particular, it is painful to read about this man who had suffered a heart attack and yet had to climb the stairs at National Hospital because the lift was out of service. An ECG confirmed that he had suffered a heart attack and was shifted to Bombay Hospital which had the facilities to treat him. But by the time he reached Bombay Hospital, seven hours had passed from the time he first suffered the heart-attack. At ten twenty-five p.m. on July 31, 1980, Mohd Rafi breathed his last - not yet fifty-five years of age. It is somewhat fateful that all three of Hindi music's most famous playback singers - Mohd Rafi, Mukesh, and Kishore Kumar - died before the age of sixty, all three of heart attacks, and all three while still active in playback singing.

On the professional front, two incidents throw light on matters I hadn't quite understood. The first is composer Khaiyyaam's rather sparing use of Mohd Rafi in the 1970s. Admittedly, it was Kishore Kumar who was the number one singer that decade. In Shola Aur Shabnam, Mohd Rafi has rendered the haunting song, "jaane kya dhoondti rahti hain", composed by Khayyam. Khayyaam however is reported by Raju Bharatan to have complained that he had to work ceaselessly with Rafi who struggled to get the song right. For the most versatile singer that Hindi movies have seen this seems rather incongruous. Till you read the reason for the falling out between the singer and the composer.
"In the mid sixties Khayyam did not have many films to do. Those days he wanted to organize a 'Khayyam Nite' with Rafi Saheb. Based on his own experience, Rafi Saheb advised him, 'You must first establish your work and name, before you hold a stage performance. That is when you will benefit.' Khayyam did not take kindly to this advice. He replied, 'Do you think I am a lesser light than Shankar-Jaikishan, Ravi or Roshan? So, Rafi Saheb has become conceited. Now I will give the place of Rafi to Mahendra Kapoor.' For almost seven to eight years after this episode, Khayyam did not work with Abba." [page 61]
The second incident concerns the composer duo of Kalyanji Anandji, who also were very sparing in their use of Mohd Rafi in the 1970s.
"In the sixties, when Rafi Saheb was doing regular 'musical nights' with Shankar-Jaikishen, Kalyanji Bhai asked him to do a similar programme for him. Since Abba was too busy at the time he apologized and suggested, 'You could ask Lataji instead.'
'Rafi Saheb, but you do sing for us? Kalyanji Bhai said.
Abba replied, 'Lataji also sings under your music direction. Well then, why not ask both of us?'
This incident prejudiced Kalyanji Bhai against Abba and he started to avoid him."
While there are some inconsistencies in the author's recollection of Mohd Rafi's songs, this book should not be taken to be an authoritative compendium of the singer's songs or his professional life. Rather, it is the very personal account of a star-struck daughter-in-law's memories of her father-in-law.

Mohd Rafi's philosophy in life was marked by a lack of self-promotion. So, when Yasmin - the daughter-in-law - once exclaimed, "Abba, no one can sing as well as you," Rafi calmly replied, "Never say that. Allah dislikes boastful talk."

Mohd Rafi did not need to boast. His singing was proof that Allah had indeed blessed him.

4 stars

Book details:
ISBN 13: 9789381626856 (English), 978-9381626955 (Hindi)
Imprint Tranquebar Press
Format Paperback
Extent 204 pages
Pub date Nov 2012

Facebook page with several photos.
Publisher's Page

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© 2013, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.