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The Mohammad Rafi legend and the August divide

A few days ago, I found some radio and television channels carrying Mohammad Rafi specials and wondered what the occasion was.

punjab Updated: Aug 08, 2016 18:50 IST
Nirupama Dutt
Nirupama Dutt
Hindustan Times
Rafi’s singing talent was recognised by music director Ghulam Haider.
Rafi’s singing talent was recognised by music director Ghulam Haider.(HT File Photo)

A few days ago, I found some radio and television channels carrying Mohammad Rafi specials and wondered what the occasion was.

His birth centenary was nearly 30 years away and death anniversary was far from touching the 50th year.

Anyway, I sat back to enjoy the romance king’s all-time hits such as ‘Dheere dheere chal’, ‘Khoya khoya chand’, ‘Yoon to hamne lakh haseen dekhe’ and ‘Dil ke jharokhe mein tumko bitha ke’ among others. Only later did I get down to checking the internet about the reason for the Rafi recall.

Well, it was his 36th death anniversary. Coming to think of it, 36 is neither here nor there but then with a voice as loved as Rafi’s and songs as immortal as his any time is good to remember him.

Chandigarh-based Mohammad Rafi Yadgari Society has been remembering him every year for several decades. Scrolling down, the cursor stopped at a heading ‘Amritsar’s Kotla Sultan Singh remembers Rafi’. Memories of the time when I visited the singer’s birthplace Kotla Sultan Singh for the first time in the midnineties became fresh in my mind. The village, some 25 kilometres away from Amritsar, is named after a general of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

These days, TV crews visit the village from time to time but it was not known much then. The local school had organised a function to remember the singer.

I was to do a story on the singer’s happy childhood but I was unprepared for what followed. I discovered that Rafi’s nickname was Pheeto and he roamed around while singing and did not take much interest in studies.

I was told by one of the singer’s classmates whose name I do not remember anymore.

His father Haji Ali Mohammad was a respected barber and when the he saw that Pheeto was not taking interest in studies, he took him for apprenticeship at his brother’s salon in Lahore. It was there that when manicuring the nails of music director Ghulam Haider, Pheeto’s talent was recognised while he was humming a song and the rest is history.

His classmate also recalled how they went to a Rafi Nite at Amritsar in tractor-trolleys in the early 1960s and the singer was overjoyed but he did not accept their invitation to visit the village. Then the village women told me that in the unhappy August of 1947 the Muslims had been butchered in the village by marauders and over a hundred bodies lay rotting for four days till the villagers conducted a mass cremation. This was perhaps the reason for Rafi not coming back to the village.

In a subsequent visit to the village in 2003, it was women again who told me that cousins of Rafi, his wife Bashira’s sisters, were abducted, raped and thrown in the fields outside the village. It was this and more that made Rafi sob as he sang ‘Suno suno ai duniya walo Bapuji ki amar kanhani’. This 1948 song made him a celebrity overnight.

The unhappy divide could not divide many things. Kotla Sultan Singh will always be known as Rafi’s village and Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Pakistani scholar, who chronicled the histories of the Partition also visited this village.

He recounted in his book ‘The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed’’: “Winding up such a tour with a visit to the place of birth of a man whose popularity cuts across all religions and state boundaries of South Asia was for me a very appropriate way to end my sojourn. Just to give an example: when Rafi sang the bhajan (Hindu devotional song) ‘Mun tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj’ in the film Baiju Bawra, music lovers went into a trance.

An orthodox Hindu of Nepal was so completely enraptured by that song that he decided to go to Bombay and pay homage to its creators. He was completely flabbergasted when he learnt that the lyrics were written by a Muslim (Shakeel Badayuni), the tune was composed by a Muslim (Naushad), and it had been sung by a Muslim (Rafi). He kissed the feet of all three.”