Rafi Saab


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Woh afsana jisse anjaam tak laana na ho mumkin

Usse ek khubsurat mod de kar chhodna achha.

(The story that can not be concluded

Is best left alone with a beautiful twist.)

WHEN Sreechand Totlani wrote this in a letter to the chief protagonist of this essay, Umesh Makhija, it was meant to say that he would not be returning the money he had borrowed from Umesh. Understandably, this caused much chagrin to Umesh. However, what rubbed salt onto Umesh’s wounds was that the lines were not from a Mohammed Rafi song but a Mahendra Kapoor one. Both individuals concerned belong to my family, where battles are waged on these matters. It is to Umesh Makhija that we turn, a Mohammed Rafi fan, although he would prefer to be called bhakt. The word fan does not do justice to the story that unfolds below.

The Drive-In Road in Ahmedabad is noisy and congested, rather non-descript, but an important arterial road in the city. On that road is a cluster of buildings called Indraprastha Towers. In one of them is the well known temple of Mohammed Rafi, ‘Rafi Mandir’, arguably the first one in India. The temple is part of Umesh Makhija’s home. Umesh is a successful businessman, belonging to a family that in the 1940s pioneered the making and selling of brassieres in Ahmedabad. His large three floor shop in Tankshaal, the old part of the city, displays names of heroines for every new brand of a bra; the walls are filled with photographs of Rafi Saab; and songs in Rafi Saab’s voice are played through the day.

Every staff member working in this shop is now intimate with the songs; humming, singing, listening, identifying the film, the music director, the lyricist and so on. We may choose to come to the shop, or not, for the moment let us return to ‘Rafi Mandir’. The entry to the temple begins with the greeting ‘Jai Rafi Saab’, and photographs of Rafi Saab are hung outside the apartment. Guests are led to one of the bedrooms that stands in as the temple. Shoes or chappals are removed outside, and guests led into the sacred venue.

Rafi Saab appears in over a hundred photographs. This sanctum sanctorum is now a much-photographed sight. It has the markers of a temple as well as a mazaar. It has earth from the ground next to Rafi Saab’s mausoleum in Bombay, but the nature of worship is Hindu-like, almost. Umesh and his wife Poonam light a diya there every morning and make their offerings. Their children do not appear for any examination without seeking the blessings of Rafi Saab. Every Sunday from 2 pm to 4 pm, the temple is open for ‘darshan’ and Rafi bhakts from far and wide visit with the reverence of devotees going to a temple.

Individuals (predominantly men) from all walks of life, class, caste and religion visit this house; get served tea or coffee and snacks. They request for a song or two to be played, enjoy the community of listeners, and with a final ‘Jay Rafi’, they depart. These visitors range from small-time shopkeepers to judges and even an occasional additional director general of police. Neither their names nor their positions seem to matter; what is valued and remembered is the nature of their commitment to Rafi Saab.


Judging their faith and devotion, Umesh chooses to show (or not) the memorabilia of Rafi Saab that he has collected. A bevy of objects used by Rafi Saab – his pen, his muffler, his blanket are laid out with utmost reverence for some select guests to see, and occasionally touch. A double bed in the middle of the room is bedecked by a bedcover that has the first line of every Rafi song with the word ‘raat’ (night) in it, as do the pillow covers. The pictures of Rafi Saab that surround the visitor (leaving almost no bare space on the walls) are some of the most unusual ones, including one with Rafi Saab depicted as Krishna, holding a flute, and crowned with a peacock feather.

Umesh Makhija also holds, arguably, the largest repository of Rafi songs, in every language, that Mohd. Rafi sang in, including the ones he composed for his daughter’s wedding. Rafi Saab’s family is a part of Umesh’s pilgrimage each time he visits Bombay and he invariably pays his respects to all the children of Rafi Saab and their respective families.


I begin this story with trepidation. Will it remain a story; or will I be able to communicate that it is life; or that its passion is of the most unusual order, comparable probably only to a religious zeal, but also one that rises above religion? I tell the life and story and passion of Umesh Makhija, my first cousin who is known to every Mohammed Rafi follower in the world. The inadequacy of language, especially English, in conveying this story is my first hurdle. The second is my own closeness to it, but I might be able to overcome that (perhaps that intimate proximity may even help, who knows).

And like all stories, this one also does not have a beginning unless I produce one. For instance, Umesh’s relationship with Mohammed Rafi could have begun, as he sometimes says, with the song, Madhuban mein Radhika nache re. Upon listening to it the first time in the early 1980s, he went on to listen to it innumerable times the same day; and told himself that this was his favourite singer. However, it could have well begun with him having a flamboyant father, Udhavdas Makhija, my uncle.

Rafi Mandir in Umesh Makhija’s home. All photographs from Umesh Makhija’s personal collection.

I remember interviewing him as a respondent in the context of Partition. On the day of leaving Karachi when it was engulfed by riots, Udhavdas had gone to watch a film. My interview had turned out to be his narrative of the film Mahal. Poor and living hand-to-mouth for most of his life, he made sure to have enough money to watch a film with his wife every Friday, ‘first day first show.’ His wife, my aunt Pushpa Makhija, perhaps imagined herself to be Nirupa Roy – the long-suffering mother of Hindi cinema. Those roles must have felt very much like her own story to her; bringing up children amidst scarce resources and dealing with a ‘short-tempered’ (read abusive) husband.


But perhaps the story may have begun with the fact that each of the eleven children in Umesh’s family had fashioned himself/herself after a film star. The eldest one Vimala always ‘knew’ that she was Mumtaz. The commitment to look like Mumtaz, and to act her like, was consistent and deep enough for her to imagine the boy who walked into her life to be a film actor. And inspired by the pair of Mumtaz and Dharmendra, she eloped and married outside her caste and community.

While this first affair in the family shook everyone up, the rationale for this behaviour was very clear to the family. And one that had everyone’s consensus. It had happened because Vimala was following Mumtaz’s footsteps. This was more an explanation, not a condonation of her actions, and Vimala remained outside the family fold for many years; until her sin was forgiven and bridges built.


The sister, younger to her, Jyoti, imagined herself to be a Hema Malini look-alike. In Umesh’s words, ‘She wore yellow bell-bottoms, the kind that Hema Malini wears in the poster of the film Charas. And that’s how she saw herself. She loved the song, ke aaja teri yaad aayi... a Rafi song, incidentally.’ These sobriquets were not a matter of objection to anyone. Both the actors and spectators shared consent over these forms of self-fashioning. An inspiring figure among these forms of self-fashioning was my own brother, Bharat, who was like an elder brother to Umesh.

‘He did not announce ever that he was trying to look like Amitabh Bachchan. But you see the way he looked; and expected you to understand without his using speech; the way he walked, sat, talked. It was clear to us that he liked Amitabh. And because of that none of us missed a single Amitabh film. My aunt (your mother) made me wait in the queue for two hours to buy the tickets for Muqaddar Ka Sikandar. It was taking so long that she had brought me food from home, but insisted that I was not to leave the queue. Finally we all, your family and some of us, went to watch it. When Amitabh dies with his head in the lap of Vinod Khanna, and the song, Zindagi to bewafa hai ek din thukrayegi, I head a series of sobs from all of you… it was the effect of Amitabh or the fact that it reminded your family of Bharat himself.’


Accompanying these endeavours of a makeover were the songs that constantly played in the house; and contestations arose on who was allowed to play their songs on the tape recorder.

‘A tape recorder with "Nagpal" written on it made our lives colourful. Without money, we managed to watch films, listen to songs. And songs, in particular, dil te touch kanda huya (translated from Sindhi, it means, they touched the heart). From the ear they went to the heart, and then to every pore of the body. For me, all roads led to Rafi. Whether it was Vinod playing Guru Dutt songs, or Suresh playing Dev Anand songs, there was a heavy dose of Rafi in them. Rafi Saab was the crowning glory of those years. My father’s favourite songs were "badatameez kaho ya kaho jaanwar…" and "main zindagi mein hardam rota hee…" These were also Rafi songs. So, every note led me to him.’


In the contestations over the tape recorder, women mattered less. I have no memory of their playing their favourite songs on the tape recorder while the men were around. Perhaps they did so later, or listened to the Binaca Geet Mala and Chhaya Geet at night (as I did, with my sisters). This backdrop which produced Umesh Makhija and his love for Rafi is also the story of living amid scarcity and strained resources. We would be missing something important if we thought the two had no connection.

Umesh and Poonam Makhija in the Rafi Mandir.

Consider that this was the first generation after Partition of a large family of twelve to thirteen people (not counting some who died of infant mortality); money was scarce; but the fantasies many. One would have thought this situation would fuel dissatisfaction about money, but their affective role filled in for their material shortages. It created a tacit understanding among family members that this passion was what they all held in common, and that it did not cost too much to support each other in this one available jouissance of life.

Umesh recounts how on a hot scorching summer day, when his father asked him to buy some mangoes, he spent it instead on a new cassette with songs from Junglee on one side and Jaanwar on the other. While Umesh incurred his father’s wrath, he was eventually gifted with a tape recorder. The twinge of joy characterized this period in the Makhijas’ family, and it was sometime during this period Umesh heard the song Madhuban mein Radhika…


Umesh studied, like my cousins and siblings, in a school named Shri Abhichandani Sindh Modern High School near Lal Darwaza in the city of Ahmedabad, which, like other Sindhi medium schools, closed down long ago. Its location could not have been more convenient for a cinema lover. Not far from the school were all the well known single-screen theatres of their day where ardent cinema-goers went at 9.30 am for a ‘first day, first show’ every Friday.

Umesh remembers watching the Shammi Kapoor festival like this. ‘I would go with any friend who was willing to buy my ticket, because I didn’t have the money. I must say my friends respected my passion, hausla afzai karte, and would pay for my ticket. I just knew that I was going for the songs, but did not know then that I was going for a particular voice. So if I liked every Shammi Kapoor song, it meant that I was a fan of Mohammed Rafi, but this realization had not dawned upon me. Really speaking, Shammi Kapoor and Rafi Saab are like do badan ek jaan. In an interview Shammi Kapoor mentions that had Rafi Saab not been around, who would have sung my songs? Perhaps I would have been my own playback singer, or chosen Asha Bhosale, but certainly no other male singer.’

The teachers in the school were as steeped in the ‘filmy mahaul’ (Umesh’s words) as the students. Given that the same community populated the entire school, it perhaps made forms of familiarity and lack of pretenses possible.

‘We would know in a Monday class which film some of our teachers had watched the previous day. One or two of them, like Balwani Sir, for instance, would teach us for twenty five minutes and in the last five minutes give us some work to do. During those moments he would walk up and down humming. If I heard Balwani Sir humming the song aaj mausam bada, beimaan hai bada… I would ask him, "Sir did you watch Loafer yesterday?"’

Such questions were met with amusement and camaraderie rather than judgement, as would be the case in a more metropolitan school. The condescension towards Hindi cinema and its songs was restricted to the upper class elite of the city and certainly did not exist in most schools. Umesh and my siblings managed to escape to cinema halls in the recess and quite often with the grudging blessings of their teachers.

‘Let me recount an even earlier memory; which convinces me that I was a Rafi fan from the time I was born; its just that I identified that connection later. So I used to like a girl when I was in the seventh standard. With our hearts in our mouths, my friend Mahesh and I hopped on the bus she took to find out where she lived. We didn’t know what her stop was you see; so we bought our ticket for the last stop. The end – CN Vidayalay. She got off at a bus stop. I had written the song meherbaan likhun haseena likhun… but I didn’t know this was by Rafi Saab. I must have been destined to become a Rafi bhakt; a love that preceded knowledge. I realized.’


As mentioned earlier, Rafi Saab imbues Umesh’s business world too. No part of his world is without that voice. ‘Even my bill books have a song (yeh maara prem patra pad kar ke tum naraaz na hona). My traveling bag has a song (hum to chale pardes) and the "first-night" lingerie has a song (babul ki duayen leti ja) and so on. Every employee at my shop is a Rafi fan. The songs come in handy to them through times thick and thin… They all think that I should be revered too; but no, the light is His, I am only the medium. In fact I have learnt so much from another guru called Iqbal Mansuri, who recently passed away.’


Incidentally, Umesh has been a sympathizer of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu majoritarian party in India. And it is likely that he will continue to be so, which he explains as the ‘practical thing to do.’ In his words, ‘Iss waqt mahual aisa hai’ (Such are the times now). As to what that meant, I did not ask him to elaborate. But he did not wait for me to ask the next question, which he anticipated to be about Rafi Saab being a Muslim. ‘It’s true that Rafi Saab was born in a Muslim home, and I have great relations with that family. But his voice is the voice of the people, aawam jo aawaz hai. If he did not confine himself to his religion, why should we do that? And yet I do not play his songs on a Friday, because I must also respect the memory of his being a namaazi. People find this difficult to understand.

‘There were goons from the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal who had come to know that I have pictures of Rafi Saab as a Hindu God. I asked them: were songs of Rafi Saab, "baharon phool barsao" or "aaj mere yaar ki shaadi hai" not played at your weddings? Was he not Muslim then? They listened to his music with me and left. This temple has such vibrations that people just change, and they go away with a broader outlook. Someone from Pakistan saw my photograph on Facebook recently and commented that I had worn shoes and gone to pay Rafi Saab respects at his mazaar. Before I could explain many others jumped on him and told him I was the real bhakt, how dare my motives be questioned.

‘Once a scientist from ISRO also said something absurd and I said to him in puzzlement: was Rafi Saab Muslim? I thought he was a ferishta, and angels don’t have religion. I have no time for such nonsense, I block out people like that. As for myself, I did not start off thinking of him as God, but he became one.’


At this stage we must ask ourselves how to read Umesh Makhija’s narrative and the afterlives of Rafi Saab. It is quite clear that the devotion Umesh possesses transcends any critical assessment of Rafi Saab. Regardless of how great and popular a singer Rafi Saab has been, to Umesh every word he sang in whichever language is sacred, almost scriptural. By invoking lines from Rafi Saab’s ouvre, Umesh performs the same function that I have seen people in Kutch perform with folk saints, who come to their rescue in times of flood and famine, weddings and deaths.

This God-making mill that does not run slow reminds me of Ashis Nandy’s essay, ‘A report on the present state of health of the gods and goddesses in South Asia’ (Post- colonial Studies 4(2), 2001, pp. 125-141). Nandy begins by quoting Sujata Bhatt’s poem on how the ‘Gods roam freely’ disguised as snakes or monkeys, lying hidden in notebooks or leaves you may trample upon. The ubiquity of Gods and Goddesses leads Nandy to formulate the age-old relationship of domesticity and irreverence with Gods and Goddesses.

Nandy says, ‘Deities in everyday Hinduism, from the heavily Brahminic to the aggressively non-Brahminic, are not entities outside everyday life, nor do they preside over life from outside; they constitute a significant part of it. Their presence is telescoped not only into one’s transcendental self, to use Alan Roland’s tripartite division, but also into one’s familial and individualized selves and even into one’s most light-hearted, comical, naughty moments. Gods are beyond and above humans but they are, paradoxically, not outside the human fraternity.’

The making of Rafi Saab as God in Umesh’s life, and along with him, his own family and other Rafi followers, is reminiscent of less dogmatic times when textualized practices of God-making were not frowned upon. This God-making of a Muslim figure has also, by and large, escaped notice because it is that of a popular culture icon, and not likely to threaten the social order. However, many forms of fascinating contradictions cohere around the phenomenon making Rafi Saab a signifier of syncretism. This has not changed Umesh’s electoral practice; but certainly nuanced his perspective on the social life of Hindus and Muslims. Umesh believes that the two communities are inseparable; drawn by a magnet, and left to themselves they would probably do just fine. However, political rhetoric drives wedges between them.


So then why has this perspective not influenced Umesh’s affiliation to the BJP, or his choice to vote for the party? Umesh was somewhat taciturn on the subject, but what I could gather was a separation of the life of emotions and the exigencies of electoral decisions. He would have justified his choices by citing the BJP as a more effective party, or friendlier to a business community of which he is a member.

Be that as it may, in the life that Umesh leads, friendships transcend religion; rather affective ties formed through love for Rafi Saab help build their own community. An entire circuit of reverence, faith, songs and narratives bind this community that numbers in the thousands or more and Umesh Makhija is at its forefront, exemplifying passion, contradictions and the profound God-making processes that must make us at least see popular cinema’s psychic sovereignty in South Asia.


* I would like to thank Poonam Makhija and Abhijit Kothari for providing support in the writing of this essay.