Mohammad Rafi – My Abba by Yasmin Khalid Rafi (Review)


“I think most memoirs, though they purport to be about this particular time or this person you met, are really about the effect that person or time had on you.”  

This quote by the American writer, Rosemary Mahoney is apt in the case of  the book – Mohd Rafi – My Abba by Yasmin Khalid Rafi (translated by Rupa Srikumar and A.K. Srikumar). I had picked this book up a couple of years back when I spotted this in Bangalore airport. Since then, it had been relegated to the to-read pile, forgotten and neglected. This weekend, it resurfaced and I did read it.

As the title reveals, this is a personal memoir about Mohd. Rafi, written by his daughter-in-law. Yasmin Khalid Rafi (born in 1951) was married to Rafi saab’s son Khalid Rafi. The book is an easy read – written simply and from the heart. Yasmin recounts personal incidents about her Abba (as she called him) from the time of her marriage to Khalid in 1971 till 1980 when Rafi saab passed away. It is the story of a fan who did not know that she would marry her favourite singer’s son and get to know him up close. The reader is pulled into the life of the Rafis and one gets to know more about Mohd Rafi – the person.

The book begins with the death of Rafi saab on July 31, 1980. Yasmin Rafi recounts the day from her memories. From the time, that they got the call about Rafi saab being taken ill to the time they got to Mumbai on Aug 1 (late in the night) by which time Rafi saab had been buried. The last few hours of Rafi saab’s life is described – his heart attack in the afternoon till his death at ten twenty five pm that night. The account is very emotional.

The next chapter outlines the ascendancy of Mohd Rafi from his childhood days in Lahore. Born on 24th December, 1924 in Kotla Sultan Singh (according to Rafi and other sources, which was corrected to Lahore by other family members after his passing away. The author admits that the place of birth is still not sure.) to Haji Mohammad Ali and Allarakhi, Rafi was one among eight children. His father owned a reputed catering business in Lahore and the family was said to be prosperous, conservative and religious. Rafi’s musical talent was evident to his family members by the time he was a ten year old. He was not allowed to learn music in the beginning because it was considered taboo. Seeing Rafi saab’s unwavering interest in music, his elder brother Mohammad Deen encouraged him (along with a friend Taj Mulk). Rafi saab was formally initiated into music as he trained under several renowned musicians like Barkat Ali Khan Saheb, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saab and Abdul Waheed Khan Saheb. the author also mentions the much-known anecdote about the music exhibition where K.L. Saigal was singing. When the electricity went off, Rafi got a chance to perform and quieten the noisy, impatient audience. Singing without the mike, Rafi had his first taste of success. The audience applauded and Saigal patted the young boy predicting that he would one day be a great singer.  Important events from Rafi’s life in the period from his birth till his becoming a known singer in Mumbai in the late 40s – both personal and professional – are also mentioned here.

The chapter titled “Tansen” lists Rafi saab’s professional (and personal) associations with the various music directors he worked with and the songs he sang for them showing his range (as if this was needed!) as a singer. I was surprised to know that O.P. Nayyar was the only music director that Rafi considered a friend. Yes, I have read interviews of O.P.Nayyar where he had described his great fondness for Rafi saab but still this came as a surprise. : ” They…enjoyed each other’s company very much so much that their conversation was laced with invectives.” I had read about a small fall-out between Rafi and Nayyar sometime in the late 60’s when Nayyar saab did not take Rafi for his songs. However this doesn’t find a mention in this book though the author does refer to an estrangement between Khayyam and Rafi and the time when Kalyanji (of the Kalyanji-Anandbhai du0) was miffed with Rafi. With others, the association was more professional than personal.

In the Chapter titled “From Fan to Family”, the author talks about her childhood spent in Indore and Bhopal and her family background (she is the niece of scriptwriter Salim Khan; cousin of Salman Khan) and how she first became a huge fan of Rafi saab and then got married to his favourite son. She describes her marriage and her move to London which is where Khalid Rafi was based. The chapters then on are more about Rafi as a father-in-law. It is an insight to the soft-spoken, mild, fairly uncontroversial legend as a person. London was a favourite haunt for Mr and Mrs Rafi and they did make a point to spend a lot of time there in the seventies. In fact, according to the author that the talk of Rafi saab’s declining popularity when Kishore -RDB were ruling the Hindi music scene in the seventies was not completely accurate. Yes, Kishore was the voice of the then superstar, Rajesh Khanna and there was some turbulence but this was also the time that Rafi saab was travelling a lot abroad (to London to visit his children and for the many live shows in various parts of the world.) She also mentions an incident when Rafi saab recorded six songs for Laxmikant-Pyarelal from 10 am to 11 pm one night so that the movies wouldn’t get delayed as Rafi saab was leaving for London shortly.

There was no rivalry as such between Rafi and any of the singers. In fact they shared a warm rapport. She does mention a humorous incident when Mukesh is said to have quipped to Rafi (in the sixties) that he (Rafi) should fall ill some times so that the other singers also get a chance to sing! On the day Mukesh was cremated in August 1976, Rafi had been hospitalised. Against the doctor’s orders, Rafi stubbornly left the hospital with his secretary (from the rear gate!) and attended the cremation and then came back looking very exhausted.

In this warm retelling, Rafi saab’s character as a person comes out – he was generous, mild, soft-spoken, professional and a man of integrity and character. Despite his fame and success, his feet were firmly planted on the ground and he apparently did not have any vices. He was attached to his family and there was a strict distinction between his professional and personal life. As a father, he was a strict father who did not allow his children to become singers (even though a couple of them had the talent.) He did not wish singing to become his family’s occupation and perhaps he knew that his own popularity and genius may not be matched and this may itself become a big obstacle for their success and lives. Rafi saab apparently was also very conscious that he did not have a formal education and was uncomfortable giving interviews.  Probably another reason why he focussed more on educating his children! He was a man fond of watches, cars and good food. The one time the author saw Rafi saab break down was when his donation of Rs 5000 to a mosque in Indore that was being rebuilt was rejected by the mosque committee. The reasoning  – Music is taboo in Islam and earnings made through music were illegitimate. He was apparently heartbroken. He is supposed to have said, “Allah has bestowed only this talent upon me right from my childhood, which I practise with great effort and integrity and it is open before the world. Even then my earnings are illegitimate?

All in all, this book is a heartfelt retelling of the author’s personal memories of one of the greatest singers India has ever seen, whom she had the privilege of getting to know on a very close level. Not much can be gleaned about Rafi as a singer in terms of anecdotes or songs etc; but it does provide an insight into Rafi as a person, as a father to his children and the effect he had on the author! I would have liked this book more if the author had provided more information about Rafi as a singer….but it is definitely a one-time read for Rafi fans especially and people who like old Hindi film music.

4 thoughts on “Mohammad Rafi – My Abba by Yasmin Khalid Rafi (Review)

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