Some would argue that the late Mohammad Rafi was the greatest male playback singer in the history of Bollywood. He sang prolifically for four decades, right up till the week before he succumbed to a heart attack in 1980. Now, a memoir, called Mohammad Rafi — My Abba, looks at the life of the deeply private man. Author, Rafi fan and daughter-in-law Yasmin Khalid Rafi recalls accounts of his early days, his love for cars and why he never wanted his kids to be singers.
How did you get an insight into his childhood in Lahore?
He used to recount old experiences often. He’d talk about singing at the dargah in Lahore. During a KL Saigal concert, when the electricity went off, someone urged a teenage Rafi to entertain the restless audience. He sang a Punjabi folksong. Saigal told him he’d be a great singer one day.
How is it that none of his four children carried his legacy forward?
He didn’t want his kids to sing. So he sent them away to boarding school when they were young. He was a deeply religious man.
He’d say, ‘I have God’s hand over me, but I don’t think my kids can do what I’ve done’. He didn’t want the pressure on them to have to live up to. Also, there was no one in the family like him.
What prompted you to write the memoir now?
I grew up as a Mohammad Rafi fan, without any inkling that one day I’d be part of his family. I observed Rafi Saab closely from ’71 to ’78, when he asked us to move back from London and stay with him in Rafi Villa (now called Rafi Mansion, in Bandra). I was prompted to write about him after my husband passed away in 2005.
So what kind of a man was he?
He was a quiet man and very particular about routine. He’d wake up at 5 am every day and do riyaaz for two hours. In the evening, he wanted his dinner warm and on time, even if it was simple dal-chawal. He’d sleep by 10 pm. He was a private person. He’d be scared of media interviews. He’d get stressed and say, ‘I’m a simple man. I have nothing spicy to tell them’. He loved cars, but he never drove. He would keep painting them in bright colours, get wheel caps and accessories. And he’d always sit in the front seat, one arm on the window. His last Fiat still stands outside Rafi Villa.
Was he ever tired of singing?
Never. On July 26, 1980, he sang Sheher Mein Charcha Hai (from the film Aas Paas; 1981). He was at his peak. He recorded five-seven songs that week. It was astonishing that he died four days later of a heart attack.
Was there any bitterness with Lata Mangeshkar over the Guinness record controversy (for maximum number of songs), or the royalty issue in the ’60s?
There was never any acrimony. He sang with Lata right till the end. He’d be sad in the period when they weren’t talking because of the royalty issue. When Jaikishan (one half of music duo Shankar-Jaikishan) eventually helped them patch up, he was very happy; he took flowers when he went to meet her.