Evidently, memories come to Yasmin Rafi, with small bursts of 16-year-old-like glee.
“Zaroor hero dikhte honge (Sure, he looks like a hero),” she laughs, recollecting the first thoughts about Mohammed Rafi that crossed her mind when she was told she was going to be married into his family, to his son.
For several years before she was married to Khalid, legendary singer Mohd Rafi’s second son, Yasmin, like the rest of India, knew Mohd Rafi as a singer who wove magic with his voice.
“I was a big fan of Mohd Rafi before I got married into his family. I am probably still his biggest fan,” she smiles.
A reclusive singer in the pre-paparazzi days, very little is known about Mohd Rafi, the person. Or maybe, one can say, what is known doesn’t quench the curiosity of his fans world over. So, while fifty-something Yasmin Rafi would keep jotting down bits about her memories of Mohd Rafi, it was her children who goaded her into writing My Abba- Mohammed Rafi. The book, published by Westland, has been translated from the original Hindi version written by Yasmin, by Rupa Srikumar. Following are excerpts from an interview with Yasmin Rafi.
You had known Mohammed Rafi as a fan probably for as long as you had known him as family? How different was Mohd Rafi as a person from what you knew, read about him as a fan?
Salim Khan, of the Salim-Javed Jodi, is my uncle. He was the one who proposed an alliance between Khalid and me. So when I heard about it, I was over the moon with excitement. I couldn’t believe for a while that I was going to be married into the family of a man who I and the rest of the country hear everyday on the radio! However, when I finally got to know him personally, I was shocked how he was completely different from the ideas you have of a star, a Bollywood singing sensation that is. He was very simple, very religious and scrupulously kept the family far away from the Bollywood razzmatazz. In fact, we in the family, had never been allowed to meet any celebrity, go to any Bollywood party, attend his recordings. He would firmly maintain that singing and Bollywood was his profession and he preferred to keep them at a distance from his home… In fact, after I got engaged to Khalid he once took my paternal family to watch a recording. I, however, was forbidden from attending it. He told me, now that I was a part of his family, I wouldn’t be able to attend recordings and all…
Why do you think, he was that protective about the family? Was there something he resented about the film industry that he wanted to keep you people away from it?
I don’t know. He was the kind of man, who even if he disliked something, wouldn’t say it out aloud. He came from a world, very different from Bollywood – sort of old school. He used to tell us, how he would be beaten up in his village in Punjab for singing and wanting to sing. His family was shocked that he wanted to do the job of miraasis (singer-performers). They relented when they realised how passionate he was about music and his eldest brother took it upon himself to train him with the masters in Hindustani classical music. I wouldn’t say he was orthodox, but definitely they were very traditional in the way they approached life, something I think, that didn’t agree with the idea of the film industry.
(Yasmin, recollects in her book, how in the Rafi family, like in her own, they were bound to follow strict dress codes, and despite being so closely related to Bollywood they were prevented from following ‘revealing clothes’ which were in ‘fashion’. “Years later, after Khalid and I were engaged, my parents received a message from the Rafi family stating that if I was to wear a saree, the blouse length must be twenty inches or more since ‘we only allow long blouses in our family’!” she says in her book.)
Mohd Rafi had been singing in the industry for over three decades. Music and how you approach it, change with time… Given he was schooled in classical music and flourished when the mainstay of Bollywood was melody, did he ever get frustrated with the influences that came into Hindi film music later in his career?
Yes, in a career spanning 39 years, such things are bound to happen. He used to get frustrated at the kind of music directors would be churning out later in the seventies. On days, he used to come back from a session with composer and tell us, “Yeh kya ho raha hai”. He used to be disappointed with music at times, later in his life. On other occasions, he would listen quietly to someone trying to convince him about a weird song or weird way of singing, and he would then come back and say, “Ab mujhe isko mere tarah se gaana hoga (I have to sing it my way)” with a laugh.
But he would also never turn away from trying new things, he liked them or not. When for Shaan, RD Burman wanted him to sing Yamma Yamma, he was shocked. He told him and told us, ‘How can I sing this song. This doesn’t go with my voice or my singing personality, I never sing such songs’. But he still went ahead and we all know, what a big hit it turned out to be!
In the seventies, Kishore Kumar shot to fame with Aradhana. It is also said that while his father SD Burman wanted to record all the songs with Mohd Rafi, when RD Burman took over, he chose Kishore Kumar for the songs left, over him. Did he tell you people how he felt after that? And how he dealt with the phenomenon Kishore Kumar turned into slowly…
It’s very difficult to say anything about this. He wouldn’t grudge RD because he had literally seen him grow up – his association with SD Burman was that long. There’s always a time for everything. That was Kishore Kumar’s time and Rafi-saab always admired good singers. In fact, despite the fact the film fraternity and music directors seem to have suddenly started obsessing with Kishore Kumar, who by the way had been singing for very long before Aradhana also, Rafi-saab encouraged Kishore Kumar-saab to do live performances.
Once Kishore Kumar was visiting our home in London, when Abba was here. I remember Abba, telling him, ‘You’re such a jolly personality, there’s so much life in you. You are an actor. You should do more live shows!’ At times, he would be upset about unkind things being written in the media, but he was a very quiet person, he hardly spoke about his grievances. However, once Rajesh Khanna's reign in Bollywood came to an end, Abba was back to work and he recorded a few of his best songs in the late seventies alongside Kishore Kumar.
Yamin recollects the turbulence that Mohd Rafi’s career ran into, at length in her book. She writes how Rajesh Khanna, who had gained superstardom with Aradhana and its songs Sapno Ki Rani and Roop Tera Mastana, wouldn’t let any composer sign on anyone except Kishore Kumar for his films – a factor that led to a sudden plummeting of Mohd Rafi’s singing career. An excerpt from the book says:
The media had raised a hue and cry after the release of Aradhana, and their misplaced allegations did hurt Abba. They had alluded that Abba’s reign at the top had come to an end. After the success of Aradhana, Rajesh Khanna had declared that he had only wanted Kishore Kumar as his voice. As Rajesh Khanna was the ruling icon at the time, the producers had no choice but to agree to his request. Following in his footsteps, it wasn’t long before other artists of the film fraternity started to have the same request – they wanted Kishore Kumar to sing their songs. There is no denying that this was a turbulent moment in Rafi Saheb’s career.
There was also a controversy over the Guinness Book of Records. Apparently, Mohd Rafi was not happy that Lata Mangeshkar was attributed the most number of songs…
First of all, it was not possible that Lata-ji sang more songs than Abba. She came into limelight at least six-seven years after Abba had already established himself as a singer in the country. Naturally, he sang way many songs more than her. So, he protested to what he thought was an incorrect claim. He wrote to them because it was fair that his body of work is recognised too… However, I think the records committee couldn’t decide who sang more songs and ultimately dropped both their names…