Mohammed Rafi’s first break as a singer came in 1942, when he sang the duet Goriye ni Heeriye ni with Zeenat Begum for composer Shyam Sunder in the Punjabi film Gul Baloch (1944). Since then, he sang an estimated 4,500-5,000 songs in 14 Indian languages and four foreign languages until his death on July 31, 1980.

Not a bad feat at all for a singer who struggled with even English. In the biography Mohammed Rafi: Golden Voice of the Silver Screen, Sujata Dev writes about how the unlettered singer would politely turn down requests for autographs as his fame grew. “He began practising his signature diligently and when Ammi (mother) enquired why he was wasting reams of paper, he told her that he did not want to deprive his fans and so was learning to sign his name in English,” Rafi’s son, Shahid, told Dev. “Soon he began signing autographs in English and enjoyed doing so. It came as a great compliment for all his efforts when a journalist mentioned that he had the best signature in the industry.”

Rafi was born on December 24, 1924, in Kotla, a village near Amritsar. Singing in English became one of his greatest triumphs, especially since the language was a stumbling block throughout his life. When music composers Shankar-Jaikishen approached him to sing English numbers for a non-film music album in 1968, the singer was hesitant. Maverick actor-writer Harindranath Chattopadhyay, an ardent fan of the singer, wrote the lyrics. He convinced Rafi to take up the assignment, helping the singer perfect his diction for the recording. The two songs were Although we hail from different lands, based on the same composition as Baharon phool barsao (Suraj, 1966), and The she I love, based on the composition Hum kaale hain toh kya hua (Gumnaam, 1965).

Rafi’s English songs pale in comparison to the command he had over Hindi songs but never one to back down, he made a valiant effort to overcome his fears and grasp his limitations as a singer. It also gave him the courage to test his vocals in other foreign languages such as Dutch, Creole and Persian.

In this clip, Rafi sings in Creole, the local language of Mauritius, when he toured the country in the 1960s. He sings Mo le coeur toujours soif zot l'amour camarade (My heart will always be thirsty for your love, my friends), based on the tune of Ehsaan mere dil pe tumhara hai doston (Gaban, 1966).

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‘Mo le coeur toujours soif zot l'amour camarade’.

This video clip shows Rafi performing at a concert in Dutch. He sings Ik zal jou nooit vergeten al zal ik in India zijn (I will never forget you, although I will be in India). The music is by Shankar-Jaikishen from the composition Baharon phool barsao, which remains immensely popular among Rafi fans.

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‘Ik zal jou nooit vergeten al zal ik in India zijn’.

For the Persian track Aye Taaza Gul (O fresh flower), Rafi collaborated with Afghani singer Zheela.

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‘Aye Taaza Gul’.

In Mohammed Rafi: Golden Voice of the Silver Screen, Sujata Dev writes, “Kersi Lord, the multi-faceted musician had a long association with Rafi. He also happened to be the singer’s next door neighbour. ‘I remember once an Iranian couple had come to India and they wanted Rafi Sahab to sing an Iranian song. He called me home to play the synthesizer as he sang the song, with a fluency that made it seem as if it was his own mother tongue. The couple was left spellbound.”

Boxer Muhammad Ali felicitates Rafi in Chicago during one of his tours. Courtesy Sujata Dev’s ‘Mohammed Rafi’.
Boxer Muhammad Ali felicitates Rafi in Chicago during one of his tours. Courtesy Sujata Dev’s ‘Mohammed Rafi’.