In this country of almost a billion and a quarter you might find some people who have not heard of Mohammed Rafi. In such a scenario, My Abba: A Memoir, a book on the great singer written by his daughter-in-law Yasmin Khalid Rafi in its stream of conscience kind of technique, connects one to his life like no other book. Yasmin is writing about someone she idolised and loved, like only a daughter can. When she talks of him, a jumble of memories comes rushing back and surrounds her—the songs she liked, the music directors who worked with Rafi Saheb, his simplicity, his generousness, his love for his family, his insecurities, his inability to be flamboyant, the metamorphosis that transformed him into a great performer the moment he set foot on the stage.
Yasmin led a privileged life; she grew up loving the voice of Mohammed Rafi. While she listened to his magnificent voice, she created a mental image of the man who could always create magic with his incredible voice. A few years later, she got married to Mohammed Rafi’s favourite son. Her joy knew no bounds despite the fact that Khalid lived in London and she had to leave her family and India, she didn’t seem to be overly anxious about going to a strange land. She kept travelling back and in the 70s when Rafi Saheb began to visit London regularly, she got to spend more time with her parents-in-law.
My Abba talks about the man, his background, his deeply religious family, where singing and music were hardly the kinds of things that one indulged in. It also talks about the man who prayed regularly, fasted, performed the Haj, sang Hamds in praise of Allah and Na’ats in praise of Prophet Mohammad, was keen to sing at the shrine of a Sufi and when security concerns denied him the opportunity, was at ease singing late into the night at a friend’s house. The man could also be deeply hurt when his contribution to a mosque was not accepted because he had earned it through singing and in his hurt asked, “Who gave me this voice if not Allah?”
The book makes no attempt to be an “objective” soulless account of birth, childhood, education, struggle, success and the painful passing away kind of biography. It is a biography in the style of tazkirahs that have been written in Urdu and in Hindi about the well-known and the famous. It is also a biography of Yasmin. My Abba was not written in English. It was written because Yasmin’s children wanted her to put together her memories of her father-in-law. Yasmin did it in the only way she could, placing her memories, her observations of Rafi saheb, the man, the performer, the Sufi, the simple uncomplicated man who could not nurse a grudge, at times not even charging money for a song because the producers or the director told him that they had no money.
Read My Abba and you meet a man who lived in the midst of all the petty politicking, jealousies, rivalries of the chaotic business of film making and selling and yet studiously avoided film parties, did not seek publicity, did not court journalists, did his riyaz, sat with song writers and music directors and actors like Shammi Kapoor, trying to understand the mood and the picturisation of the song. He went to the studio, recorded his songs and went back home, in his parrot green ambassador, to his family. He discouraged his children from taking to singing because he knew that they would be judged against him and he did not want to burden them with this legacy; a man who occasionally indulged in buying cars and changing houses but led an extremely disciplined life. According to the Encyclopaedia of film Songs 1930-1980, compiled by Harmindar Singh ‘Hamraz’, in a singing career spanning 35 years (1945-80), Rafi saheb sang a staggering 5000 songs, at an average of 140 songs per year. Only Asha Bhosle had sung more songs till July 1980, the year and month he died. As long as he lived he had no equal and none has emerged in the 33 years since his passing away.
No one who has written about Rafi saheb has said anything that presents a different picture. The slim volume with a rare collection of intimate and formal photographs and a helpful appendix of song and film references is written from the heart and captures a remarkable life in a simple and easy to read style. The text carries the cadence of Hindustani and that gives it a feel of an authentic account.
(First published in the The New Indian Express.)