New Delhi: Arguably the smoothest voice with the widest range in Indian playback, Mohammed Rafi was born this day in 1924 in Kotla Sultan Singh of undivided Punjab in British India. Today, it's a village in Majitha near Amritsar on the Indian side of the international border. In interviews to broadcasters during his lifetime, Rafi had shared his primary inspiration for music. When a child, Rafi was mesmerised by the crooning of a faqir whom he would follow well beyond the end of the narrow lane of his neighbourhood even as his family would spend anxious hours wondering where the child went missing.

Rafi went on to learn classical music under the tutelage of Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan, Pandit Jiwan Lal Mattoo and Firoze Nizami. Few recall today that when music stalwarts of India, which was about to be freed by the British, were mulling over the right tune for Allama Iqbal's "Saare jahaan se achchha", a young Rafi came to know of it and approached Pt Ravi Shankar with a tune of his own. The arrangement of the notes was so purely classical, Shankar had to drop it, telling Rafi that the tune had to be easy for wide public consumption. But he did tell the budding singer, who had debuted as a professional singer in Lahore eight years ago at a tender age of 13, he had a promising future.

Like two other great playback singers of his era, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh, Rafi was enamoured with Kundan Lal Saigal. In fact, Rafi's first performance as a playback singer was for a film that featured Saigal in the lead role. It was an era when "inspiration" did not mean emulation, let alone plagiarism, as none of Rafi, Kishore and Mukesh copied the coarse, nasalised style of their idol. Kishore developed a baritone; Mukesh got rid of the coarseness of Saigal while Rafi, until his death in 1980, remained the only singer in Indian playback history, whose voice stayed equally smooth and uniform throughout his career. Compare the devotional "Man tadpat Hari darshan ko" in Raga Malkauns (Baiju Bawra) to the qawwali "Purdah hai, purdah hai" in Raga Darbari (Amar, Akbar, Anthony), and you can't pinpoint any sign of ageing: no 'thickening' of voice, no trembling while holding on to a note!

Those were the days when a certain singer would always match a few actors' singing persona on screen. Rafi sang for several actors until his numbers became a permanent fixture for Dilip Kumar, Shammi Kapoor and then Rajendra Kumar. But then, Yusuf saab had tried Talat Mahmood in quite a few songs too while Kumar had Mukesh sing for him in some. It was Kapoor from whom the audience always expected a Rafi.

One may argue whether that was a good career decision. The 1960s had all the better songs of Rafi going to Dharmendra and Kumar while Kapoor rarely got a gem like "Ehsaan tera hoga mujh par" (Junglee) or "Dil ke jharoke men tujh ko bitha kar" (Brahmachari). There were way too many songs picturised on a Kapoor dancing around trees or prancing about in a bar for the seriousness of Rafi. Until Aradhana of Rajesh Khanna arrived, with an untrained Kishore Kumar replacing the best-trained singer as the most favourite of Bollywood music directors ― despite the fact that the Bengali singer from Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, had an equal number of songs in the film.

An industry without grace and gratitude treated Rafi shabbily through the 1970s, at times visibly insulting him by felicitating other singing sensations in his presence while ignoring him. Known as a thorough gentleman who spoke no ill for any detractor, Rafi tolerated the slight for 10 long years. While the composers who were behind Rafi's chartbusters ― Shankar-Jaikishan, Jaidev, Ravi, Roshan, Madan Mohan, OP Nayyar, SD Burman, etc ― were all gone, the guardian of the semi-classical genre in Hindi playback, Naushad Ali, was not a sought-after music director in this age of RD Burman. Laxmikant-Pyarelal did lend Rafi ample support in reverence to the gems the singer had been delivering since "Woh jab yaad aaye" (Parasmani).

A tiff over the issue of royalty with Lata Mangeshkar in the early 1960s must have taken a toll, too. Among the most popular of gossips in Bollywood is one where the eldest Mangeshkar is projected as a monopolist who squeezed competitors and those she disagreed with out of the industry. There was another reason for the Lata-Rafi rivalry. When the Guinness Book of World Records recognised Lata as the most recorded singer, Rafi pooh-poohed the claim, saying that, at his rate of recording, he must have sung many more songs.

But then, one cannot be sure Lata was behind the decline of anyone's career, as the female singers who cast aspersions on her ― from Suman Kalyanpur to Vani Jayaram to Hemlata ― were no match for her. The times had changed. The audience taste had changed. They no longer wanted as much to brood as they liked to swoon. And Kishore was certainly better at delivering the Western variety. Even L-P and their senior Kalyanji-Anandji had to move on, more so because Rajesh Khanna and then Amitabh Bachchan ruled the box office. The listeners identified Kishore as the voice of the matinee idol and the superstar.

For some time, Rafi's career had taken a dip also because of a throat infection.

When Rafi was no longer Bollywood's favourite, he ruled the hearts as a benign, magnanimous, spiritual character. Always humility personified, Rafi also donated generously for charity. His mentor Naushad had once cautioned him against extreme benevolence. But Rafi did not pay heed to the warning, saying he was merely distributing what Allah had bestowed upon him.

That does not mean Rafi was out of the reckoning totally. With his impeccable Urdu, he was needed for the songs of Laila Majnu. For, the protagonist was an Arab. The identity of the character was important also in the selection of the voice for Rishi Kapoor in Amar, Akbar, Anthony where the actor played a Muslim tailor. Also in Hum Kisise Kam Nahin, Rafi was required to render the qawaali as well as the unforgettable "Kya hua tera waada".

At a not-so-ripe age, Rafi suffered a heart attack on July 31, 1980, and died that night before he could see his 56th birthday. 'Clones' emerged in the form of Shabbir Kumar from Gujarat and then Mohammed Aziz from Bengal in the 1980s, but they could never attain the artistic heights of the original. The present-day sensation Sonu Nigam places Rafi on top of the list of his favourites, but while obliging Gulshan Kumar for T Series' me-too numbers, Nigam realised he couldn't be another Rafi and soon retreated to his own voice.

The enormous range of Rafi from mandra sthayi komal dhaivata to tara sthayi komal dhaivata in "Yeh zindagi ke mele" or up to tara shuddha dhaivata khandaswara of "Pyar ki raah dikha duniya" may be too technical for the general readership. So, we stop by urging wannabe singers to try the famous "O duniya ke rakhwale" and go up to tara shuddha madhyama. Do not begin low to keep it manageable. Begin with mandra panchama. If you can rule the middle and high octaves, you are a true flagbearer of the legacy of Rafi, the ultimate singer who was too big for mere playback numbers.

[* shadja (षड्ज) ― sarishabha (ऋषभ) ― re, gandhara (गान्धार) ― ga, madhyama (मध्यम) ― ma, panchama (पञ्चम) ― pa, dhaivata (धैवत) ― dha, nishada (निषाद) ― ni; these are further divided into 12 notes: ṣhaḍja, shuddha rishabha, chatushruti rishabha, shuddha gandhara, shatshruti rishabha, sadharana gandhara, antara gandhara, shuddha madhyama, prati madhyama, pancham, shuddha dhaivata, chatushruti dhaivata, shuddha nishada, shatshruti dhaivata, kaishiki nishada and    kakali nishada]