Before I enumerate upon this delicate issue, it’s imperative to mention that August 4 is Kishore Kumar’s 90th birthday and July 31 was Muhammad Rafi’s 39th year of final departure.
So, in a way, the lives of both the stalwarts of film music were entwined. While pursuing my PhD on Rafi at Lahore University a few years ago, it dawned on me that the much-hyped rivalry between the two Titans was a figment of a couple of English film magazines, that concocted and fabricated this myth with a view to gaining mileages and instant popularity. My objective is not to chastise those defunct magazines, but to detonate the fallacious notion that both were jealous of each other. They weren’t.
Rafi and Kishore admired and complimented each other whenever either of them sang a soulful number.
To put things in perspective, when Kishore crooned that unforgettable number, Ye wahi geet hai jisko maine dhadkan mein... (Maan jaiye, Lyricist: Naqsh Layalpuri, Music: Jaydev Verma, 1972), Rafi went to Kishore’s bungalow and hugged him for singing such a beautiful song. Mind you, it was Kishore all the way in 1972 and many critics started saying that Kishore along with his ‘team’ (RD Burman being integral to that) dethroned Rafi following the success of Aradhana, Amar Prem, Kati Patang among others.
The great Rafi indeed fumbled for a couple of years before regaining the popularity and even winning the Filmfare Award in 1976 for the song Kya hua tera vaada (Hum kisi se kam nahin, Composer: RD Burman).
Kishore was a natural singer with an exceptional voice. He was gifted. And Rafi was a trained genius with a matchless voice. Both vindicated the Urdu victim: Har zarra apni jagah pe aaftaab hai (Every particle is the sun in its own right).
Though the great composer Naushad Ali never used Kishore’s voice because the latter’s voice was wanting in classical mould, he (Naushad) too extolled Kishore’s natural ability to sing in a way that could stir the heart and mind instantaneously.
The detractors, who concocted this baseless rift, pointed out that Kishore was miffed when Rafi sang for him on the screen for the film Raagini (1958). Au contraire, Kishore himself suggested that Rafi should sing O P Nayyar’s atypical composition, penned by Jaan Nisaar Akhtar. The song was Man mora bawra.
Bengali film and music critic Nilotpal Chatterjee categorically mentioned this fact in an article in now defunct Amrita Bazar Patrika. Rafi was not willing to sing the song but Kishore and O P Nayyar persuaded and brought him around to singing this classical number.
Yet, the rumour persisted that Jaan Nisaar and O P preferred Rafi over Kishore, much to the consternation of both. The grapevine got further strengthened when in 1959, Rafi sang for Kishore on screen: Ajab hai dastaan teri ae zindagi (Shararat, Lyrics: Hasrat Jaipuri, Music: Shankar-Jaikishan).
In fact, the song was first recorded in the voice of Kishore Kumar but when he, Rajkumar and Meena Kumari, who acted in the film, listened to it, they were not very convinced. Kishore himself was not very happy with the way he rendered it. Again, it was Kishore who requested Hasrat to ask Rafi to re-sing it.
It’s worthwhile to mention that though Hasrat’s preference was always Rafi, he wasn’t very keen on Rafi singing for Kishore on screen. He too had to be persuaded to approach Rafi to sing Ajab hai dastaan teri... Rafi agreed but on a condition that he would not take money for the song.
Devyani Chaubal wrote on this incident in Stardust in 1971. Film-historians Anil Sari and Austin Kapoor also wrote about it in now defunct Hindi film magazine, Madhuri. Kapoor wrote that there was no bad-blood between the two at any point of time.
In 1966, a film hit the marquee. The name of the film was, Toofaan Mein Pyaar Kahaan? Rafi sang an extremely rare, but also exceedingly beautiful number that was picturised on Ashok Kumar.
The plaintive number was: Itni badi duniya jahaan itna bada mela, magar main... Prem Dhawan penned it and Chitragupt Srivastav composed the music. Initially, the song was sung by Kishore Kumar.
Ashok Kumar had an ear for music because he himself sang a few songs in the beginning of his career. He didn’t like Kishore’s rendition of a very difficult and pensive number like this.
Furthermore, Kishore couldn’t enunciate the Qaahin-e-Azraar (a laughter of despair, hatasha ki hansi in Hindi). Prem Dhawan also didn’t like it when he listened along with Ashok Kumar and Chitragupt.
There was also a cold-war between Chitragupt and Kishore kumar. The former composed the music for Kishore’s movie Ganga Ki Lahraein in 1964 and some misunderstanding cropped up between the two.
Ashok Kumar, Prem Dhawan and Chitragupt decided to re-record the song in the voice of Rafi, who went to Mecca for Haj. When he returned to Bombay, Ashok Kumar himself requested him to sing the song but didn’t tell him that it was already recorded in the voice of Kishore.
A simple soul that he was, Rafi sang and immortalised it. Kishore took it to heart as the episode bruised his ego. He sulked but didn’t make it public.
Film critic Iqbal Masood wrote that this particular issue was never sorted out by anyone involved in it. Ashok Kumar, Chitragupt and Prem Dhawan kept mum. Kishore felt let down and thought that his song was usurped by Rafi.
In 1969, Kishore and Rafi sang a song for the film Pyaar Ka Mausam (Lyricist: Majrooh Sultanpuri, Music: R D Burman). The song was: Tum bin jaaoon kahaan.
Rafi sang for Shashi Kapoor and Kishore for Bharat Bhushan. Till date, the debate remains inconclusive as to who sang the song better. The fans of Rafi are of the view that he sang it better than Kishore and Kishore’s fans feel that he sang it better than Rafi.
Both sang it equally soulfully. But that contest and context created an unhealthy comparison that resulted in the rumours that the great singers were envious of each other. They weren’t.
What fanned and fuelled it further was the phenomenal success of Aradhana (1969) at the box office, followed by Amar Prem, Do Raaste, etc. Kishore became a rage. But very few are aware of the background to this grand success of Kishore.
In 1969, Rafi decided to call it quits when the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar, Cairo told him during the Haj pilgrimage that singing was prohibited in Islam. Rafi was a devout Muslim and an extremely simple man.
He stopped singing after returning to Bombay. For almost 19 months, he didn’t sing. He was still the best available voice in India. Producers, directors, composers and lyricists tried to persuade him. But he didn’t relent.
Time and tide wait for none. Even the legendary Rafi had to learn this the hard way. Producers began to approach the second best option available to them and that was Kishore.
By the time Rafi realised the folly of his ill-timed decision, it was a trifle late. Yet, he slowly started regaining his position by 1974-75, precisely from Thokar and Ek Mahal Ho Sapanon Ka.
Kishore was no way instrumental in that lull period which Rafi faced in the early ’70s. Neither did Rafi ever hold Kishore responsible for this sudden decline.
Both were gentlemen and respected each other. But the outsiders and detractors thought otherwise and began to spin a yarn. When Rafi shuffled off the mortal coil, Kishore was inconsolable. Those were not crocodile's tears. He indeed held Rafi in high esteem. So did Rafi. Alack, both the legends are no more with us.