It took over eight exhaustive rounds – and as many generous breaks – of the Shivaji Park in Mumbai to get Anna C. Ramchandra to speak out his mind. Known to be at his genial best when he would be out on his evening walk, it was the right time to know what went sour between him and Lata Mangeshkar after all those melodic years in the 1950s and 1960s.

‘Lata is at best a good instrument who can produce a good sound,’ Anna said to our utter shock and disbelief. ‘Mohammed Rafi was the best singer of all times.’ Summoning all our courage—since we were aware we were speaking to a man very obtuse with words—we asked him, ‘But weren’t you known as a Lata composer? Besides, you were never a great votary of Rafi. You never made secret of the fact that you were more inclined towards Talat Mehmood.’ ‘Truth has to be told at some point in life,’ Anna said, wiping the sweat off his brows.

Few people knew that the mild-mannered Rafi had had a small but fierce argument with Anna while recording a song. After long rehearsals when an irritated Anna told Rafi point blank: ‘What use is having a classically trained singer like you when you cannot articulate my expression the way I want it?’ Not his usual self, Rafi too lost his cool and counter questioned, ‘How come I did it with other composers unfailingly while Anna was the only one complaining?’

In Rafi’s wisdom, Anna identified more with Talat’s voice (since he felt it was similar to his own) and threw his dice in favour of the man with the silken voice. The equations changed completely when Nausherwan-E-Adil landed in Anna’s lap and the high-pitched songs he had in mind needed Rafi’s lung power. Anna conceded to us that evening that ‘Ye hasrat thi ke is duniya mein bas do kaam kar jaate’ was sung out of this world.

‘Ye Hasrat Thi Ke’ from ‘Nausherwan-E-Adil’.

Salil Chowdhury was another composer who preferred Mukesh or Talat over Rafi. But in a long tête-à-tête, he admitted that only Rafi could have done justice to ‘Toote hue khwabo ne’ (Madhumati, 1958). We had asked him what was his rationale in using Rafi when he had used Mukesh’s voice on Dilip Kumar in other songs? ‘He was versatile no doubt but Rafi sounded like Rafi whenever he sang,’ Salil-da said.

‘Toote Hue Khwabo Ne’ from ‘Madhumati’.

If you wondered why Mukesh sang with only Shankar–Jaikishen, Chitragupt, S.N. Tripathi, Usha Khanna, Kalyanji–Anandji, Laxmikant–Pyarelal and a few other inconsequential composers thrown in for a change – here is the simple answer: music directors like Naushad, C.

Ramchandra, S.D. Burman, O.P. Nayyar had just no place for Mukesh’s nasal voice. Naushad, steeped as he was in his Lucknowi adaab, was more courteous. ‘Mere sangeet me kaafi chadhaav-utaar hain. Uske liye Mukesh ji ki awaaz jachti nahi hain.’ [My music has lots of ups and downs. Mukesh ji’s voice is not suitable for it.]

Not that Naushad never bothered with Mukesh. Let’s not forget he used him on none other than Dilip Kumar in Mela and Andaaz at the height of his own and the thespian’s career. But with each composer there is always a personal tuning with lyricists and singers. It’s instinctive and personal and sometimes, little to do with their status. Ego clashes are just one aspect of that relationship. Naushad found [Mohammed] Rafi more disciplined, amenable and suitable for his oeuvre which used to be classical or semi-classical.

Burman Dada was a notch blunter. He openly stated that he could not get Mukesh to sing. And he continued to hold that considered opinion till the end although he got the singer to deliver great hits in ‘Chal ri sajni ab kya soche’ (Bombai Ka Babu, 1960) and ‘O jaane wale ho sake to laut ke aana’ (Bandini, 1960). It was widely suspected then that Dada used Mukesh only because his was the background voice and not going on the hero of the film Dev Anand or Ashok Kumar.

Now, if you think of the earthy O.P. Nayyar, the story is not much different. Nayyar’s Punjabi exuberance was never Mukesh’s cup of tea. His musical repertoire unleashed just two weapons in Rafi and Asha except for that patch in the late 1960s during which he got Mahendra Kapoor to replace Rafi. Rafi and O.P. had fallout during the recording of Sawan Ki Ghata. As disclosed by O.P. during one of his interviews, Rafi reported late to the recording stating that he was stuck in Shankar–Jaikishen’s recording. An angry O.P. retorted that from then on he too did not have the time for Rafi and cancelled the recording. They did not work together for the next three years.

In all this controversy, Rafi remained stoically silent, never speaking one word against O.P. But the composer, who had brought in Mahendra Kapoor— ironically, Rafi’s own protégé—was not happy within himself as the switchover was more out of his own personal anger than any musical merit. So when his anger cooled down and better sense prevailed, O.P. showed the grace of hugging Rafi and welcoming him back to his fold.

Not the one to keep grudges and animosities, Rafi responded as warmly and crooned in his ears: ‘Yun to humne laakh sangeetkaar dekhe hai, tumsa nahin dekha’.

Burman Dada had his own quirky yardstick for deciding which singer would suit his tunes. So when he conceived ‘Jalte hai jiske liye’ for Bimal Roy’s Sujata, Dada summoned Rafi to sing it. From someone who intermittently kept meandering from Manna Dey to Hemant Kumar to Kishore Kumar, Dada had seemed to stabilise on the durable vocals of Rafi in the 1960s. So when Bimal-da suggested Talat be sought for the song, Burman Dada grudgingly agreed, but he vent out his frustration on Talat before the rehearsals: ‘Look, this is a song I have composed with great involvement. Please do not spoil it.’ Talat felt slighted at this remark but chose to keep silent out of respect for Dada’s age and experience. The song made history, but Burman Dada never ever had a word of praise for the song.

Not even Naushad could keep himself out of the loop of controversy. During the making of the Rajendra Kumar–Waheeda Rehman starrer Paalki (1967), whose story idea was his own, he called in Talat to record ‘Kal raat zindagi se mulaqat ho gayi’. When Rajendra Kumar, who by the virtue of the consecutive jubilee hits he delivered had begun exercising his clout, came to know this, he was upset. How could anyone, including the giant Naushad even think of anyone else except Rafi to go on his lips? A distraught Rajendra Kumar rushed to Naushad’s residence the same night and made his displeasure known. One does not know whether Naushad changed his mind because of Rajendra Kumar’s stature (in those days) or his own musical sense. With some predicament he summoned Rafi to re-record the same song. Rafi, who knew Talat had recorded the song, was not keen because he did not want to hurt his contemporary singer’s feelings. He told Naushad with uncharacteristic candour, ‘I will sing this song only if Talat doesn’t mind it.’ The music director then had the undesirable task of conveying this to Talat, who agreed without any ado.

‘Kal Raat Zindagi Se Mulaqat Ho Gayi’ from ‘Palki’.

Perhaps, among the most spoken about chapter in Rafi’s illustrious career is the one that pertains to Rahul Dev Burman also known as Pancham. There are several number of Rafi fans who believe that Rahul Dev Burman played a tacit but big role in the revival of Kishore Kumar at the cost of a thriving Rafi. Pancham was not amused when the subject was brought up before him to get his side of the story. ‘It’s load of bunkum. You see Kishore’s time had come, and he hit it off,’ he stated matter-of-factly.

Even Sachin Dev Burman’s love affair with Rafi started from the advent of the 1960s. There goes a popular story that once Manna Dey came to visit Sachin Dev Burman when the composer was busy with Meri Surat Teri Aankhen. Sachin Dev Burman told Manna that he had thought of a lovely classical tune based on Bhairavi. Manna took it that it was for him and asked him rather preposterously, ‘Tell me when do I record the song?’ Sachin Dev Burman gave him a patronising look and told him, ‘This is for some other singer. For you I have another song (‘Poocho na kaise maine rain beetayi’) in mind.’ A stunned Manna countered, ‘But I am the Badshah of Classical. How can you get someone else to sing it?’ Refusing to be drawn into a debate, Sachin Dev Burman said in Bengali, ‘Badshahon ka badshah to udhar Bandra mein baitha hai,’ clearly hinting at Rafi.

‘Naache Man More’ from ‘Meri Surat Teri Aankhen’.

Excerpted with permission from Mohammed Rafi God’s Own Voice by Dhirendra Jain and Raju Korti, Niyogy Books.