Mohammad Rafi remains one of the most popular and iconic Bollywood playback singers.

He continues to shine as a beacon of Indian music and his songs are loved immensely all over the world.

Artists of newer generations draw inspiration from Rafi Sahab, whose vocal ability is unmatched in terms of dynamism and versatility.

While much is known about his discography, we invite you on a thrilling journey to find out more about his amazing life.

So, sit back and let DESIblitz give you a detailed insight into the life and career of Mohammad Rafi.

Early Forays into Music & First Marriage

The Life & Career of Mohammad Rafi - Early Forays into Music & First MarriageOn December 24, 1924, Mohammad Rafi was born in Kotla Sultan Singh, Punjab in British India.

His parents were Allah Rakhi and Haji Ali Mohammad.

As a child, Rafi Sahab was nicknamed ‘Pheeko’. His interest in singing started when he began to imitate a fakir in his native village.

In 1935, Rafi Sahab moved to Lahore. At the young age of 13, he performed publicly for the first time.

However, this was not just any performance. Singing alongside Rafi Sahab was none other than the great singer and actor Kundan Lal Saigal, who majorly influenced Rafi Sahab.

At the age of 14, Rafi Sahab married his cousin Basheera Bibi. In 1942, they had a son named Saeed Rafi.

The marriage ended the same year when Basheera refused to accompany Rafi Sahab to Mumbai (then Bombay).

In Mumbai, the legendary star Suraiya noticed Rafi Sahab singing. Enchanted by his melodious voice, she heaped praises on him.

In 1944, Rafi Sahab made his film singing debut with the Punjabi movie Gul Baloch. Along with Zeenat Begum, he sang the charming duet ‘Soniye Nee Heeriye Nee‘.

Mohammad Rafi’s first Hindi song was released in the film Gaon Ki Gori (1945). It was titled ‘Aji Dil Ho Kaabu Mein‘.

This song introduced the audience to a ravishing voice that would enthral viewers for decades to come.

Finding His Voice & Love

The Life & Career of Mohammad Rafi - Finding His Voice & LoveThe 1940s

In 1945, Rafi Sahab married for the second time to Biliquis Bano. The couple went on to have six children. Biliquis graciously accepted Saeed as her son as well.

In an interview, Rafi Sahab playfully discusses his union with Biliquis Ji.

He states: “The truth is that I think my wife fell in love with me herself!”

The composer Feroz Nizami introduced Rafi Sahab as the onscreen voice of Dilip Kumar in Jugnu (1947).

This started a hugely successful, evergreen actor-singer combination that shines in 77 songs.

In Jugnu, Rafi Sahab notably had a cameo role. This is his only appearance in front of the camera.

The 1940s was also the period that saw Rafi Sahab muse with the music director Naushad Ali. They worked on 149 songs together.

When Naushad composed music for Andaaz (1949) – which starred Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor – he had Rafi Sahab sing for Raj Sahab, while Mukesh was the voice for Dilip Sahab.

All the songs of Andaaz are chartbusters, signifying the effect of Rafi Sahab’s voice.

Naushad Sahab remarks about the association he shared with Rafi Sahab:

“I have seen many great singers miss their notes, but I have never seen Rafi making any such mistake.

“Rafi and I were one. Since he passed away, only 50% of me has remained.”

The 1950s

The voice of Mohammad Rafi truly shone brightly in the 1950s, with the singer widening his scope with peppy songs, ghazals, and qawwali.

He also formed everlasting partnerships with music composers including Roshan, SD Burman, Shankar-Jaikishan, OP Nayyar, and Chitragupta.

Rafi Sahab began unforgettable associations with all the male stars of the time. Some of these actors were Dev Anand, Rajendra Kumar, Sunil Dutt, and Johnny Walker.

However, Rafi Sahab’s most successful combination is arguably with Shammi Kapoor.

Rafi Sahab sang a staggering total of 190 songs for him, making Shammi the actor for whom he rendered the most numbers.

Shammi reminisces about the association he had with Rafi Sahab:

“My association with Rafi Sahab, believe me, I don’t think anyone could have done for me what Rafi Sahab did for me.

“The type of understanding that we had was most uncanny.

“Of course, I was there for almost all my recordings and he would know exactly what to do as I told him.”

Known for his original ability to modulate his voice according to the onscreen personas of actors, the words of Shammi ring true in many of his numbers, in which Rafi Sahab adapts his vocals to suit Shammi’s boisterous energy.

Dev Anand echoes this sentiment. Reflecting on their partnership that spanned 100 songs, the evergreen actor says:

“Rafi Sahab was an embodiment of melody. I owe the success of so many of my films to him.”

The 1960s

Mohammad Rafi’s adulation continued to grow throughout the 1960s.

He was the epitome of romance, singing for many actors and working with several renowned composers.

This was also the decade in which awards galore started for Rafi Sahab.

In 1961, he won the Filmfare ‘Best Male Playback Singer’ Award for his rendition of ‘Chaudhvin Ka Chand‘.

He went on to win this award five more times.

In Rafi Sahab’s authorised biography Mohammad Rafi: The Golden Voice of the Silver Screen (2015), Sujata Dev comments on Rafi Sahab’s charm in this decade:

“The influence of Western music was another trend evident in compositions of both newcomers and the established music directors in the 1960s.

“[Rafi Sahab]’s charm was not limited to the high-spirited numbers.

“Rafi Sahab could easily juggle between the classical ‘Madhuban Mein Radhika‘ and a swinging ‘Aaja Aaja’.”

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Rafi Sahab also began performing live concerts.

He was known to be a shy, soft-spoken person by nature. However, when onstage, he transformed into this jovial ball of energy.

Audiences all around the world loved it. At the insistence of viewers, the concerts of Rafi Sahab sometimes went on for six or seven hours.

The Kishore Kumar Wave

The Life & Career of Mohammad Rafi - The Kishore Kumar WaveAround the same time when Rafi Sahab began his singing career in the 1940s, Kishore Kumar was making headway as an actor.

Kishore Da confessed that he was more interested in singing, and he did sing plenty of great numbers in the 1950s.

However, he only sang songs that were picturised on himself and Dev Anand onscreen.

In 1969, Kishore Da was given a new lease of musical fame with Aradhana, in which he sang several timeless numbers for Rajesh Khanna.

Aradhana made a superstar out of Rajesh, but Kishore Da’s plane was also soaring. The salvation he received from the film made him the most preferred voice for male actors.

Consequently, Kishore Da began enjoying his best years in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, Rafi Sahab developed a throat infection in these years, allowing the energetic Kishore Kumar wave to spread even further.

Kishore Da’s rise, along with Rafi Sahab’s decreased output carved the way for the media to report that Rafi Sahab’s time was over.

However, Kishore Da and Rafi Sahab always maintained that they were good friends and had nothing but immense respect and admiration for each other.

Kishore Da’s son, the singer Amit Kumar, speaks fondly of the adoration both the legends shared:

“It is best described as that of mutual respect, perhaps the best the industry has ever seen between contemporaries.

“The adoration was evident from many instances like when [Kishore Da] used to say that Rafi Sahab was like his elder brother.”

This brotherhood was never more visible in the concerts of Kishore Da when before performing his songs, he used to announce:

“Mohammad Rafi Sahab was a very dear friend of mine. He was like a brother.

“Before I present my songs, I wish to present a song of his. I hope that all of you will like it.”

The 1970s & Tragic Passing

The Life & Career of Mohammad Rafi - The 1970s & Tragic PassingAlthough Kishore Kumar was ruling the Bollywood music scene in the 1970s, Rafi Sahab proved all of his naysayers wrong from the middle of the decade.

A surprising move was taken when Rafi Sahab was chosen as the voice for the much younger actor Rishi Kapoor in Laila Majnu (1976).

The music director of the film Madan Mohan insisted he would only compose the soundtrack if Rafi Sahab sang the songs.

This instinct proved to be a hit, and several filmmakers began using Rafi Sahab as a voice for Rishi.

Rafi Sahab also sang classic qawwalis for Rishi in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977).

In the film, composers Laxmikant-Pyarelal created history with the song ‘Humko Tumse‘.

For this romantic number, the four leading playback singers of the era – Mukesh, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi, and Kishore Kumar – rendered their voices together for the first and only time.

In July 1980, the world suffered a massive blow. On July 31, Rafi Sahab had a massive heart attack.

He was rushed to the hospital with Biliquis Ji and his youngest son Shahid Rafi by his side.

Rafi Sahab needed a pacemaker, which was not easily available in 1980.

When Mohammad Rafi passed away, a two-day mourning period was declared in India.

Shammi Kapoor recollects his reaction to the news of Rafi Sahab’s death:

“A boy said to me, ‘Rafi Sahab has died. Your voice has gone’.

“I will never forget that expression.

“But Rafi Sahab will be there forever and ever.”

Controversies

Royalties

In the glitz and glamour of filmdom, even the most revered figures aren’t free of controversy.

In 1961, Rafi Sahab developed discord with Lata Mangeshkar, who was the reigning female playback singer of the era.

Lata Ji demanded that singers should also receive a share of royalties made from songs. She argued that a song sells due to the singer’s name.

Recognising Rafi Sahab’s position as the dominant male playback singer, Lata Ji wanted him to support her.

However, Rafi Sahab had an opposite viewpoint. He believed that a singer’s claim on a song ended when they received the agreed fee.

Lata Ji was offended by Rafi Sahab’s lack of support.

Their equation was strained further during a recording for Maya (1961). Lata Ji and Rafi Sahab argued with one of the verses.

Rafi Sahab was displeased when the music director Salil Chowdhury defended Lata Ji.

Subsequently, Rafi Sahab declared that he would no longer sing with Lata Ji.

For the next six years, many of Rafi Sahab’s duets were recorded with Suman Kalyanpur, whose collaborations with Rafi Sahab established her as a famous singer.

Meanwhile, the music composer Jaikishan brought about a reconciliation between Rafi Sahab and Lata Ji.

In 2012, Lata Ji claimed that she received a letter of apology from Rafi Sahab following this incident.

However, the claim angered Shahid, who said: “If my father has given this apology letter, let her prove it.

“Why has she come out with this after 50 years? Because there’s nobody to defend.

“My father is no more and Jaikishan Sahab is no more.

“She is also a good singer, but if you’re talking about a human being, I don’t know.”

Lata Ji and Rafi Sahab’s first duet after their reconciliation was an SD Burman composition – ‘Dil Pukare‘ from Jewel Thief (1967).

Guinness World Records

Rafi Sahab and Lata Mangeshkar found themselves involved in another controversy when it came to the Guinness Book of World Records in the 1970s.

According to Rafi Sahab, he has sung over 26,000 songs in his career in a variety of languages.

However, Guinness named Lata as the singer who sang the most songs.

In a letter dated November 20, 1979, Rafi Sahab wrote:

“I am disappointed that my request for a reassessment vis-a-vis Ms Mangeshkar’s reported world record has gone unheeded.”

It must be noted that despite her skirmishes with him, Lata Ji always maintained her admiration for Rafi Sahab.

On July 24, 2010, Lata Ji said: “Rafi Bhaiyya was not only India’s greatest playback singer, but also a wonderful person.

“I am yet to come across another artist so modest, dignified, and unassuming.”

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016)

Millions of Bollywood fans love Karan Johar’s enthralling saga of unrequited love – Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.

However, many viewers also created a backlash against it.

This was due to a scene in which Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor) tells Alizeh Khan (Anushka Sharma):

“I sing very well. Lots of people have even told me that I sing like Mohammad Rafi.”

Amused, Alizeh replies: “Mohammad Rafi? He cried more than sing, didn’t he?”

This dialogue did not go down well. The singer Sonu Nigam, an ardent fan of Rafi Sahab, slammed the film.

He explained: “Only crack the jokes that you are able to hear about your parents.”

“If you hear such a joke about your parents and you are fine with it, then we are wrong.

“But if your blood boils, then we are right.”

Meanwhile, Shahid shot back at the dialogue writer Niranjan Iyengar:

“My father is a versatile singer, he has sung love songs, sad songs etc.

“Niranjan wrote the dialogue and it seems he doesn’t know anything about my father.

“What image [of Rafi Sahab] is he trying to put in front of the youth?”

Humanitarian Endeavours

The Life & Career of Mohammad Rafi - Humanitarian EndeavoursAmitabh Bachchan

Rafi Sahab is an amazing singer, but few know about his humanitarian acts and generosity.

Bollywood megastar Amitabh Bachchan details an incident involving Rafi Sahab:

“We had organised a show. It was a concert lasting two days. We invited Rafi Sahab for the first day and another singer for the second.

“For some reason, the singer for the next day did not turn up. We were anxious because our show was on the verge of getting cancelled.

“Rafi Sahab was on his flight and going back. I remember we all ran to the airport and charged into it.

“We found that Rafi Sahab had already sat in the plane and it was starting up.

“We requested with folded hands: ‘Please, can we go and speak to him for two seconds?’

“They gave us permission. We told Rafi Sahab what had happened and said, ‘If you were to stay, our show will continue. Otherwise, we’ll be ruined.’

“You know, the man just left his chair, came down without saying a word, performed the next day as well, and then went back.

“I just admired his simplicity.”

Tabla Player

Mohammad Rafi: Golden Voice of the Silver Screen discloses an anecdote involving a tabla player, who used to perform in Rafi Sahab’s orchestra.

The tabla player needed money to pay for his mother’s treatment but was not paid well.

He says: “On July 5, 1978, I received Rs 200 by money order. I did not know who the mysterious benefactor was.

“This became a regular routine. In the first week of every month, I received the money.

“We musicians were not paid well in those days. Rs 200 was a significant amount and I could buy medicines for my mother.

“In the month of August 1980, I did not receive the money order. It struck me then that Rafi Sahab had passed away on July 31.

“I went home and told my mother and she remarked sadly that she would have wanted to thank him for keeping her alive.

“I then realised that Rafi Sahab must have overheard me when I was talking of my mother’s illness to the music director who was chiding me for having skipped a day’s session.”

The fact that Rafi Sahab kept his identity hidden throughout the whole episode shows what a humble, down-to-earth man he was.

Nitin Mukesh

 

5 Facts about Mohammad Rafi

  • Rafi Sahab loved playing badminton and often played with film stars.
  • For a new composer, Rafi Sahab did not charge any fees.
  • Whenever Kishore Kumar produced a film, Rafi Sahab only charged Rs 1 to sing for it.
  • Rafi Sahab once fell out with OP Nayyar for reporting late to a recording.
  • Rafi Sahab has sung the most duets with Asha Bhosle (796 songs).

 

Nitin Mukesh, a famous playback singer is the son of Rafi Sahab’s contemporary and friend Mukesh.

He reveals an incident that happened during the recording of a song named ‘Chana Jor Garam‘ from Kranti (1981).

The song is a number that Nitin sang with Rafi Sahab, Lata Mangeshkar, and Kishore Kumar.

Nitin speaks about Rafi Sahab’s patience during the song:

“The lines of Rafi Sahab were after my lines. When I started singing, I kept making mistakes.

“Laxmikant-Pyarelal got a little angry.

“But Rafi Sahab said, ‘I will wait until this kid gets his lines right’.

“He kept waiting, he encouraged me, and got me to sing my lines right, and only then did he sing his own.

“Such great people aren’t born across generations.

“You and I are very fortunate to have been born in the same era as Rafi Sahab.”

In the annals of Indian cinema, Mohammad Rafi is cemented as one of the greatest singers who ever lived.

His songs continue to resonate with legions of Indian music aficionados.

2024 marks his birth centenary year which is an appropriate opportunity to reflect on his staggering life and career.

Rafi Sahab has inspired countless artists and his work will continue to shine in glory.

So, if you’re a music lover, prepare to be awestruck by the legend that is Mohammad Rafi.