Growing up in Calcutta in the 1970s and 80s, it was difficult to avoid the Rafi-Kishore binary. The animosity between the two camps was as potent as between supporters of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, Amitabh and Mithun, Gavaskar and Kapil. You couldn’t have both — you had to pledge allegiance to one or the other.
My choices in the matter were a bit forced. Though Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar enjoyed similar airspace at home, Kishore was by far the greater god to boys and girls my height. It didn’t help that I bought my music from one Nadu-da, in a corner of whose 6x6-foot shop stood a bust of Kishore. Each song re-recorded on a Meltrack cassette cost Rs 2, but out-of-print Kishores (such as ‘Munna bada pyara’ from Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s first film, Musafir) came at a steep Rs 16. The K voters derived a new high from nostalgia when His Exalted Eccentricity passed away in 1987.
Then came college. Older cousins, feeling they could finally talk man-to-man with their brother, started saying in a facts-of-life voice: “Remember Kishore lipped Rafi songs in 11 films, no less”, and “In Kishore’s superhit Padosan he gets the inspiration to do playback from a Rafi song, na?” and so on. Hence started a stuttering education.
An unexpected chapter of that education opened recently when Silk Road Communications declared they had remastered and released for the first time Rafi’s ‘last songs’. The claim could be contentious but the effort was surely worth lending an ear.
An audio documentary at the end of the album tells us the recordings were meant for Sorry Madam, a film planned in the late 1970s by director Dilip Bose. When Bose’s wife passed away, the project fell off board. The songs — two solos by Rafi and one solo by Asha Bhosle, and three Asha-Rafi duets — were composed by Chitragupt. His sons Anand and Milind, who were at the recordings, remember that the arrangements were scored by some of the best instrumentalists in Bollywood: Manohari on saxophone, Kersi Lord on keyboard, and Cawas Lord on percussion.
So far, so archaeological.
Problem is, the songs themselves belong in the 1970s and not in Bollywood evergreenery. Despite Rafi’s pitch-perfect delivery, ‘Teri nazar teri ada’ stays in the la-la-la territory in which it opens. ‘Dil walo ki toli nikli’, a duet, promises a different treatment with harmonies reminiscent of Salil Chowdhury. But by the end, it too sounds uninspired. The next duet, ‘Mohabbat karegi asar dhire dhire’, could be from any Jeetendra starrer of the 1970s. And you can almost see Mumtaz prancing in a tight sari to Asha’s hilly, folksy ‘Holey re doley re’.
Then comes a shock. After 1:40 minutes into ‘Pyar kiya hai aise’, Rafi’s voice gives way to that of a clone’s. Then from about 5:00, it shifts back to Rafi’s. But the jacket announces only Rafi. So till I hear anything otherwise, this will be marked as a cheap cheat in my book.
While I was recovering from the jolt, along came a ‘new’ Rafi collection, Shades. It’s yet another case of Saregama delving into its deep resources and serving up the same old salad with a new dressing. But at least the ingredients are authentically old.
Among the four CDs, the ones titled Mohabbat and Masti mostly pack radio favourites. Some rarer gems are tucked away in the CDs titled Chhed Chhad and Shararat. Sample the bluesy ‘Mein mein mein quartoon, baj raha hain bar-bar dil ka teliphoon’ from Mr Quartoon MA. Or the march-like ‘All line clear’ from Chori Chori. Of the 64 songs on the CDs, maybe 4 or 5 will make it to my Best of Rafi collection. But then, that’s because Rafi left us such a rich and huge trove.
If you are still archaeologically minded, check out the quirky online resource that’s mohdrafi.com. It provides information on more than 3,500 songs and hosts ‘Rafi radio’. (Caution: if you open more than one page at once, the radio will open as many times — creating a bizarre echo and amplification.) The site’s members call themselves Rafians without a shred of irony. Here’s a little teaser for them: can you tell me the two Rafi songs that feature in Padosan?