Harjap Singh Aujla



     Punjab must be genuinely proud of its great son Mohammad Rafi, who was born in a non-descript hamlet in a remote rural area of Amritsar district. Starting from a humble and modest beginning, he rose to become the most prolific film playback singer of the movie industry, not only in India , but in the whole world.

     The Punjabis should be doubly proud that two of their sons have ruled over film singing for more than half a century. K.L. Saigal was the first Punjabi singing star, who dominated the Indian film industry for a decade and a half from 1933 to 1947. The Indian film industry switched over from silent movies to talkies in 1931, when film “Alam Ara” was made. But ever since actor singer Kundan Lal Saigal started his film career in the eastern metropolis of Calcutta in 1933, he did not look back and went from strength to strength, until death put a sudden end to his brilliant career as a singing leading actor in the dark year of 1947.

     When Saigal’s health was deteriorating, Mohammad Rafi was warming up to step into Saigal’s spikes. Mohammad Rafi’s success story is indeed a story of rags to riches. He was born in a village called “Kotla Sultan Singh” near the town of Majitha in the then Punjab ’s second largest district of Amritsar. Most of the land in his village was owned by Sikh farmers and the Muslim families were assisting them. The relations between the two communities were extremely cordial and the village was a happy community, unaffected by what was happening in Lahore and Amritsar . Most of the inhabitants had very few desires and aspirations and that precisely led to their contented lifestyle. The children of the village used to play “Chhattapoo”, “Pithoo”, “Kokla Chhapaki” “Gulel and target” as well as hide and seek. Mohammad Rafi’s childhood was not much different from other kids. In addition Mohammad Rafi liked to copy the folk singers in his amateur way.

     Mohammad Rafi was always falling in line with most of his villager folks. His education was confined basically to reading and writing in Urdu in Persian script. Cramming up of a little bit of multiplication tables was his other education. In his moments of leisure, he used to carry his family’s and friends’ cattle for grazing in  the fields. Intensive cultivation was alien to most of the villagers then and a lot of grassy fields were left untilled for the cattle to graze. As a child Mohammad Rafi always loved to graze cattle. He had heard some local “Mirasis” (Muslims, who’s profession was singing and acting as folk comedians) singing folk songs in semi-classical and other country tunes. He liked this art and his voice was suitable for it. He used to copy the “Mirasis” of his surrounding villages. While grazing cattle he used to sing popular Punjabi folk songs to all and sundry in the village.

     Mohammad Rafi was born in 1924 in his ancestral village Kotla Sultan Singh. Radio during those days was in its infancy in Europe and America . India did get some experimental radio in the four metros of Calcutta , Bombay , Madras and New Delhi in 1927. Lahore had a brief stint with amateur radio in 1928. But organized broadcasting came to Punjab in 1936 in the public sector. The newly constructed studio complex opened in Lahore in 1937. Thus up to the age of thirteen, Mohammad Rafi had practically no exposure to radio.

     Gramophone (in America phonograph) was already in great demand in the high-end “Bazaars” in the commercial city of Amritsar . Most of the wealthy people had already bought gramophones for their homes. Mohammad Rafi had also heard some music in the “Havelis” (imposing houses of the rich in Punjab ) of Majitha and the Bazaars of Amritsar. Born in Amritsar Indu Bala, was  the then leading most “Thumri” singer of India and Kamla Jharia was fast becoming the most prolific “Thumri” and “Ghazal” singer of India. These voices could be heard during those days in the music stores of “Hall Bazaar” in Amritsar . Mohammad Rafi certainly had some exposure to this music. His once in a blue moon visits to the historic “Hall Bazaar” always left behind sweet memories. Bhai Chhaila of Patiala was the most popular Punjabi folk singer of that time and Dina Qawwal of Jalandhar was becoming popular. Both these artists had some impact on Rafi. Agha Faiz of Amritsar was a great gramophone singer. Rafi had heard all these voices. Nevertheless he was happy and blissful in the dusty fields of his village. Every one in the village was his friend and none was his foe. What a life he had? 

     There was no one in his village to initiate Mohammad Rafi into the intricacies of classical music, which was and still is the mother of all music in India . Unaware of his handicap of not learning classical music, Mohammad Rafi kept singing to himself and to his simple village folks. His father wanted to create better living conditions for his family. One fine morning his father decided to leave for Lahore the capital of Punjab about fifty miles away from their village. Like several other Amritsaris, he was a very good cook and Amritsari cooks were in great demand not only in Lahore , but all over Northern India . His father opened a “Dhaba” (a no frills country style eating house) in Lahore . His food was invariably delicious and the customers both locals and outsiders started thronging to it. Well begun is half done, he sent a massage to his son Mohammad Rafi to come over to Lahore . Mohammad Rafi reached Lahore round about in 1941, at the age of seventeen.

     His father got Mohammad Rafi a job at a hair-dresser’s saloon. He used to shave the customers’ beards quite slowly but carefully. In order to keep his customers in good humour, while doing cuttings and shavings he used to keep singing some folk and country songs of Punjab . Rafi’s customers seldom took notice of his slowness, rather they enjoyed his music. One day Jiwan Lal Mattoo, the program executive of music at All India Radio Lahore passed by the hair cutting saloon and he faintly heard young Mohammad Rafi’s enchanting voice and he instantly liked its sweetness, range and tonal quality. He stopped and paused for a while and then entered the shop. He asked Mohammad Rafi if he was interested in becoming a radio singer. On hearing this unsolicited offer, Mohammad Rafi jumped in the air in happiness. In the month of March in 1943, Mohammad Rafi appeared in the audition test at the studios of All India Radio Lahore and to his utter surprise he passed the test. Thus from March 1943, Mohammad Rafi became a radio artist. This happened six months prior to the Nightingale of Punjab Surinder Kaur becoming a radio singer. At about the same time in 1943, after hearing his voice on the radio, a newly emerging film music director Shyam Sunder requested Mohammad Rafi to sing a song for his Punjabi film “Gul Baloch”. Mohammad Rafi did full justice to this film song and it opened the gates for his future entry into the field of Bombay ’s playback singing.



     Mohammad Rafi, a genius who rose to be the leading most film singer of the Indian subcontinent, had a modest and uneventful beginning. At the time of his arrival in Punjab ’s capital city of Lahore , from a small village of neighbouring Amritsar district, Mohammad Rafi had absolutely no idea or for that matter no expectation that some day he can be the leading film playback singer of his time. He was a saintly figure since childhood and was contented with his destiny. .

     Prior to moving to Lahore , he was married to the daughter of an uncle. Those were the days when child marriages were not uncommon in Northern India . He was less than fifteen when he entered into the wedlock, but he was told by his father-in-law to become self supporting before his wife could join him.

     For a couple of years, he was shaving the beards and cutting and dressing the hair of Lahorias. He kept enjoying even this profession thoroughly. He was not earning much money, but whatever he earned was more than enough to keep his soul satisfied and happy. Being a God fearing and honest young man, he had unique patience and bliss to live in whatever condition God desired him to exist. He never aspired to hop from one job to the other for better emoluments. Nature had blessed him with an uncanny unselfishness and utmost satisfaction in life. He never hankered after ill gotten wealth, power and pelf. Light music sprang naturally from his throat and he kept singing for his own pleasure and for the happiness of his customers. But his listeners saw something extraordinary in his sweet, melodious and soul inspiring voice. He was a God fearing person and a regular five times a day “Namazi”, but he was not the least bigoted. He could endear himself to any person who came in his contact even for a short-while.

     Jiwan Lal Mattoo of the music department of All India Radio Lahore spotted his musical talent in 1943 and after rigorous audition process, he trained Mohammad Rafi to develop into a folk and country singer. The knowledge, practice and appropriate application of classical music is essential for any singer. Jiwan Lal Mattoo imparted the requisite knowledge of the most commonly used classical Raagas in Punjab ’s folk music to Mohammad Rafi. Raga Pahadi was one such raga and Bhairavi was another. Basant and Malhar were some other commonly used ragas in Punjab . In addition to Jiwan Lal Mattoo, Master Inayat Hussain also gave Mohammad Rafi the finer point of folk singing. Mohammad Rafi also got along very well with another music teacher Budh Singh Taan, who also groomed Parkash Kaur and Surinder Kaur. Incidentally both Parkash Kaur and Surinder Kaur were making more money while in Lahore compared to Rafi.

     There were several known “Ustad” singers living in Lahore , who in age and years of experience were far more senior to Mohammad Rafi. He never tried to step on their shoes. Budh Singh Taan was also a light singer. Deen Mohammad used to sing as a solo folk singer, in addition to being a leading Qawaal. Agha Faiz of Amritsar was a very sophisticated folk and semi-classical singer. Another product of Amritsar , Shamshad Begum was senior to Mohammad Rafi by six years and born in Kasur child prodigy Noorjehan preceded Mohammad Rafi by four years. Both Umrao-Zia-Begum and Zeenat Begum were also senior to Mohammad Rafi. True to his quality of utter humility, Mohammad Rafi gave a lot of respect to all his seniors in profession. Mohammad Rafi was indeed a great learner. He won’t mind touching the feet of any “Ustad”, who was willing to teach him something new in music. That is why, “Ustad” maestros like Dilip Chander Vedi, a leading Dhrupad exponent of Punjab held Mohammad Rafi in high esteem.

     Mohammad Rafi had a lot of regards for Bhai Samund Singh ji of Sri Nankana Sahib and a colleague at All India Radio Lahore. Once he said Bhai Samund Singh is so much at home with classical music that he talks in classical music, which we can’t. About Bhai Santa Singh, he used to say “Bhai Santa Singh’s high-pitched calls to the “Guru” can never go unheard. On Bhai Santa Singh’s 1966 visit to Bombay, Mohammad Rafi made it a point to attend each one of his renditions scheduled at various Gurdwaras in the city Similarly when block-buster Punjabi film “Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai” was made in 1969, both Mohammad Rafi and Bhai Samund Singh were its leading singers.    

     After Mohammad Rafi’s tough nut father-in-law discovered that his son-in-law has become a radio singer, he sent his daughter to join Mohammad Rafi. The couple was very simple, unassuming and very hospitable. Mohammad Rafi had a vast circle of friends and fans. They used to converge to his home to listen to his silken voice. Mohammad Rafi’s wife was never tired of being the hostess. Most Lahorias were fond of drinking, but Rafi had never touched hard liquor in life. His guests also respected his pious restraints and never insisted to drinking in his and his wife’s presence. His music was enough of an intoxicant to his friends.

     Several movies in Hindi and Punjabi were made in Lahore during Mohammad Rafi’s stay in that city, but somehow it did not occur to any of the music directors to feature his velvety voice in a song. The only exception was another genius maestro Shyam Sunder, who gave Mohammad Rafi a Punjabi song to record. This film was “Gul Baloch” made in 1943. However this Punjabi film was poorly made and was not going to be a hit and its songs also sank along with the film.

     A great music director Pandit Amar Nath liked Mohammad Rafi’s voice, but he had lined up other singers for his songs. Another great music director Master Ghulam Haider liked him too, but he was moving to Bombay . While packing up to leave for Bombay , he whispered in the ears of Mohammad Rafi to join him later on in Bombay . Ghulam Haider left for Bombay in the end of 1943. In his long and wide entourage were included his well known orchestra as well as Lahore ’s famous film singers like Shamshad Begum, Umrao-Zia-Begum and Noorjehan.

     On a second call from Master Ghulam Haider, Mohammad Rafi decided to move lock stock and barrel from Lahore to Bombay in 1945. All that he used to earn was mostly spent on entertaining his friends and fans. It should not come as a surprise that Mohammad Rafi had not enough money to buy tickets in economy class for the Frontier Mail to Bombay . On this occasion his long term pampered friends and relatives, including his elder brother, came to his rescue. After an emotional and  tearful send off at Lahore Junction, he dis-embarked in Bombay after two days of monotonous train journey. Bombay was the ultimate city of dreams for everyone connected with movies and it proved extremely fruitful for Mohammad Rafi too.



     Mohammad Rafi was not a part of Master Ghulam Haider’s contingent, when he moved from Lahore to Bombay in the end of 1943. But after receiving several calls from Bombay , Mohammad Rafi finally decided to leave Lahore for Bombay in 1945. While boarding the train in Lahore , he was seen off by hordes of hugging and emotionally charged friends and relatives, but in Bombay there was no such scene. Hardly anyone turned up to receive him. This was a big cultural shock, but Mohammad Rafi was too cool to be agitated by such incidents. He had come to Bombay with a promise, which he had to fulfill at any cost.

     Mohammad Rafi sang a couple of film songs in 1945 in Bombay , but due to poor name recognition, these songs did not help him much. However he was paid a lot better. All India Radio gave him rupees twenty five for a whole day of singing in Lahore, but in Bombay he was paid, during those days a whopping sum of rupees three hundred per film song. In order to make both ends meet, he sang privately too in “Mehfils”, among the Punjabi community of Bombay .

     Mohammad Rafi’s first big break came late in 1946. Shooting for a Dilip Kumar Noorjehan starrer block-buster film “Jugnu” was started in 1946. This film was directed by Sayyed Showqat Hussain Rizvi and its soul stirring music was composed by Feroze Nizami on the lyrics contributed by Tanvir Naqvi. All at one or the other time had moved from Lahore and other parts of Punjab to Bombay . By this time Noorjehan had already established herself as the leading female film singer. Her competitor was another actress singer Suraiya. Both hailed from Lahore district. Mohammad Rafi was from the neighboring district of Amritsar.

     Noorjehan was extremely jovial and witty. She was known to give tough time to her competitors and co-singers. Strongly built, but petite in height, Noorjehan was already in the sound recording studio for the recording of a duet. She was expecting G.M. Durrani to be the other singer. But Feroze Nizami had a better option. Feroze asked Mohammad Rafi to come for rehearsal. When short simply dressed Mohammad Rafi arrived in the studion, Noorjehan erupted into a loud laughter. Being still new in Bombay and pitted opposite a star singer Noorjehan, Mohammad Rafi got nervous. Noorjehan smilingly asked Mohammad Rafi “So little chap you have finally come to Bombay , welcome, welcome, how were things in Lahore ?”. A nervous Mohammad Rafi remarked “Things are not bad in Lahore , every one over there was missing their baby Noorjehan. On hearing this instant reply from otherwise a quiet man, everyone in the studio erupted into a loud laughter. Most of the members of the orchestra were of course Punjabis. Mohammad Rafi tried his best in rehearsals, but he was under a complex that he was singing opposite a star. When the recording of the duet song “Yahan badla wafa ka be wafayi ke siwa kya hai” was completed, Mohammad Rafi had doubts about his performance. He wanted a retake, but the music director said it is fine.

     When the film was released in 1947, this very duet became the best selling song. This gave the necessary break to Mohammad Rafi and from then on he never looked back and went from strength to strength.  Mohammad Rafi’s price tag per song recording jumped to rupees five hundred, the same as Noorjehan’s.

     After the release of film “Jugnu”, Mohammad Rafi became a much sought after playback singer. Ghulam Haider was composing music for another block-buster film “Shaheed”. Surinder Kaur was its leading female singer, but one song sung by Mohammad Rafi “Watan ki raah main watan ken au jawan shaheed ho” became so popular that Mohammad Rafi became a household name. This song was recorded in 1948 and released during the same year.

     Born on April 11, 1904 the reigning male singing star K.L. Saigal died on January 18, 1947 at the age of forty two. Like a “Banyan” tree K.L. Saigal was larger than life, no other singer could grow to potential under his shadow. Being trained in Calcutta , K.L. Saigal’s style of singing had the tinge of semi-classical musician with a Bengali finesse. But Mohammad Rafi’s style was a lot more flexible and suitable for every actor. G.M. Durrani was another Punjabi singer, who in years was senior to Mohammad Rafi. The top slot left open by K.L. Saigal’s demise  took some time to be filled.

    A lot of music directors came forward to groom and polish the singing skills of Mohammad Rafi.

    Pundit Husnalal Playing his favorite instrument violin

     Among the foremost were Shyam Sunder (an import from Lahore ), Pandit Husnalal Bhagatram (another import from lahore ), famous drummer Ustad Allah Rakha (originally of Gurdaspur district) Naushad Ali from U.P. and Sajjad Hussain. In fact once Sajjad Hussain asked Mohammad Rafi to sing “Heer Waris Shah” for him. Mohammad Rafi sang it with typical Amritsari slang. Sajjad composed its tune in his own inimitable style. With a lot of effort Mohammad Rafi mastered the new tune, but the end product was great.


    Pundit Husnalal rhearsing a tune with Mohammad rafi

    Pandit Husnalal offered to train Mohammad Rafi into a top notch film singer. When Husnalal Bhagatram started their career as a duo of music directors in 1944, they depended thoroughly on the seasoned voice of Zeenat Begum a discovery of their elder brother Pandit Amar Nath. But during the late forties much shriller female voices started dominating the film scene. Amongst men Mohammad Rafi was senior in years to Mukesh and Manna Dey. Talat Mahmood had started earier than Mohammad Rafi in 1941 in Calcutta . But in Bombay Talat Mahmood came a couple of years later than Mohammad Rafi.

     When the opportunities came Mohammad Rafi pounced on them. Then came August 15, 1947 . What Mohamad Rafi observed will be covered in the next issue?.



    By the middle of 1947, Mohamad Rafi had become a household name in Hindi speaking North India . His flexible, sweet and velvety voice suited most young actors including the brilliant rising star Dilip Kumar. Most of the finest music directors, spearheaded by the duo of Pandit Husnalal Bhagatram, were showing interest in grooming his raw talent further into the art of film playback singing.

     In his ancestral province of Punjab , the communal divide was on the rise. In March of 1947 some five hundred Sikhs and some Hindus were gruesomely murdered in Rawalpindi area, which was not too far away from his ancestral home in Amritsar district and his recent professional home Lahore . Even during those days such gruesome news was difficult to hide. Those ugly news slowly trickled into his new home city of Bombay . Mohammad Rafi had seen excellent communal relations in his ancestral village in rural Amritsar , this barbaric news came as an unbelievable shock to this God fearing and sensitive young-man.

     By August the matters had taken a turn for the worst in his home province. Entire Lahore division had exploded into communal frenzy of the worst kind. There were massacres of Sikhs and Hindus in Gujjranwala, Sheikhupura, Nankana Sahib, Sialkot , Lahore and Kasur. Soon afterwards, the Sikh frenzy erupted in Amritsar , Gurdaspur and Ferozepore. There was complete anarchy on both sides of the Radcliffe line and all districts of Punjab were engulfed in bitter communal riots.


    Sardul Kwatra - Amarjit Chandan's collection- Date unknown

    Renowned film producer Roop K. Shori and music director Vinod had arrived in Indian Punjab bereft of all their belongings from Lahore soon after the outbreak of communal riots. On arrival in Bombay , they were narrating many heart rending stories of cold blooded tyranny. The Shoris had not only lost their film studio in Lahore , they lost all their wealth and property. Vinod came to Amritsar in a penniless condition. Vinod had become a good friend of Mohammad Rafi. In a futile attempt to see the return of better days in Lahore , another music director Sardul Singh Kwatra had spent some days after partition in Lahore . He narrated to Mohamad Rafi some first hand accounts of uncontrolled massacres in Lahore and its vicinity. Sardul was very fair-minded in his description of the communal riots. He had seen tyranny on both sides of the communal divide. He narrated “Things were extremely bad in Gujjranwala, Sheikupura, Sialkot and Lahore , but the retribution seen in Amritsar was a lot more horrifying”. Sardul Kwatra, knew Mohammad Rafi since his days in Lahore . Later on Sardul became a collection agent and business representative of Mohammad Rafi. Mohammad Rafi had all along been a God fearing and righteous gentleman. He always bowed before the will of the most benevolent “Khuda”. At every available opportunity, he lent his sweet silken voice to every song composed for fostering communal harmony and brotherhood amongst the Hindus, Sikhs and the Muslims in all parts of India .

     Pandit Husnalal Bhagatram had composed several tunes for the lyrics penned to depict the horrors of the partition and the resultant bloodbath. One such song was “Is dil ke tukde hazaaar huye, koi yahan gira koi wahan gira, behte huye aansoo ruk na sake koi yahan gira koi wahan gira”. The literal meaning of this is that a heart was broken into thousands of pieces and the pieces were scattered all over the place, some here and some there. A truly hurt Mohammad Rafi gave his emotion filled voice to this song. This song became an instant hit on both sides of the border. The sad assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was also caused as a result of the bitterness generated between the Hindus and Muslims. Pandit Husnalal Bhagatram composed an emotional tune for a song describing the life story of Mahatma Gandhi. The wording was “Suno suno aye duniya walo baapu ki yeh amar kahani”. This song also became very popular in Northern India .

     From early 1948 Pandit Husnalal decided to groom two young voices for the film industry. Mohammad Rafi was his choice among the male singers and Lahore born actress singer Suraiya was his choice as a female singer. Pandit Husnalal used to call Mohammad Rafi, sometimes as early as at 4am , to his home along with his Tanpura. He used to give lessons in different “Raagas” and asked him to rehearse those “Raagas” in “Khayal” format. This basic training in classical music continued for several years and it went on to make Mohammad Rafi a high-class  versatile singer. It was difficult for a young beautiful lady like Suraiya to come to a music director’s place at odd hours to learn the basics of music. So Suraiya unfortunately did not learn classical music, but she was very persevering on light music and she always rehearsed her assignments in the studios to perfection. .

     By late 1948 Lata Mangeshkar came in contact with Pandit Husnalal. She was a very versatile singer. Her grasp and learning ability of classical music was very quick. Pandit Husnalal discovered that training of Lata Mangeshkar could be a lot more rewarding. So he slowly started preferring Lata Mangeshkar over a more emotional and sorrow filled voice of Suraiya. As far as the male artists were concerned, Mohammad Rafi has always been Pandit Huisnalal’s first preference. A lot of times, on the specific recommendations of the top lyricists of the day, Pandit Husnalal Bhagatram gave the best “Ghazals” to Talat Mahmood to render in his unmatched linguistic sophistication. Most of the “Ghazals” sung by Talat Mahmood also became very popular. Mohammad Rafi never entertained any jealousies with any singer whatsoever. He invariably admired Mukesh, Manna Dey, Talat Mahmood and Hemant Kumar for the uniqueness of their voices.

    Music Director Vinod

     Mother language is a great bond that binds human-beings. This was more true In the case of Mohammad Rafi. His first ever film song was composed by a Punjabi music director Shyam Sunder and his first nationwide film hit was composed by another Punjabi music director Feroze Nizami. Since 1948, in Bombay , his voice was initially used by Punjabi music directors such as Master Ghulam Haider, Pandit Husnalal Bhagatram, Vinod, Shyam Sunder, Allah Rakha Quraishi, Hans Raj Behl, S. Mohinder and Sardul Kwatra. After his songs became hits regularly, most other music directors including Naushad also started patronizing him.

     Master Ghulam Haider’s brilliant tune composed for film “Shaheed”, rendered by Mohammad Rafi for the patriotic song “Watan ki raah mein watan ke naujwan shaheed ho”, which became the signature tune for the movie, became overnight a nationwide hit. Even now on India ’s national days such as the independence- day and the republic day, this particular song is proudly played by All India Radio.

     Maverick music director Shyam Sunder’s tunes rendered by Mohammad Rafi for film “Bazaar” (1949) including a duet with Lata Mangeshkar entitled “Apni nazar se door voh, unki nazar se door hum, tum hi batao kya Karen, majboor tum majboor hum” caught the imagination of entire Hindi knowing India. Allah Rakha Qureishi used Mohammad Rafi’s and Surinder Kaurs’s voices in film “Sabak” with a fairly good response from the public. Vinod’s music for his 1949 film “Ek thi ladki” was a super-hit. Most of its songs were rendered by Lata Mangeshkar, but the Lata Rafi duet “Khamosh nigahein” reserved a proud place on the popularity charts. Hans Raj Behl’s song “Jugg wala mela yaaro thohri der daa, hassdiyan raat langhe pata nahin saver da” rendered by Mohammad Rafi for his Punjabi block-buster film “Lachhi” (1949) had appeal which transcended the boundaries of Punjab . On popular demand the same tune was used later on for a Hindi song too. Mohammad Rafi’s Punjabi duet with Lata Mangeshkar entitled “Kaali kanghi naal kale waal payi vaahuniyan, aa mil dhol janiyan” for film “Lachhi” also created waves among the lovers of Punjabi music in Northern India . Sardul Singh Kwatra composed soul inspiring music for a humorous Punjabi film “Posti”. Its music was recorded in 1949, but the film was released in 1950. One of its masterpiece duet songs rendered by Mohammad Rafi with debutant playback singer Asha Bhonsle entitled “Too peengh te mein parchhawan, tere naal hulare khawan, laalay dosti”, achieved a lot of popularity in Punjabi knowing India.

     Mohammad Rafi’s utmost devotion to his profession and hard work under the music direction of Pandit Husnalal Bhagatram paid great dividends and he became India ’s leading duet singer in the company of Lata Mangeshkar. Some of his pre-1950 duets with Lata Mangeshkar are acclaimed as some of the finest in the history of film singing. I shall mention two of these. One was “Khushi kaa zamaaana gaya rone se ab kaam hai, pyaar jiskaa naam tha judayi uska naam hai” recorded for film “Chhoti Bhabi”, based on an old Punjabi folk tune, was the personal favourite of music director Sardul Kwatra. Sardul even used this tune for one of his later songs in Punjabi. Another Husnalal Bhagatram masterpiece duet was “Paas aake huye hum door, yehi tha qismat kaa dastoor” recorded for film “Meena Bazaar”, it became Mohammad Rafi’s favourite song. This film did not do too well in the cinema halls, but its music became the proud possession of the most discriminating collectors of music including Allahdad Khan of Peshawar .

     After 1950 most of the great music directors of India considered Mohammad Rafi a force in film music. When Naushad composed his masterly tunes for films like “Dulari” (1949) and “Deedar” (1951), Mohammad Rafi became the star that no one could afford to ignore. Film “Deedar” song entitled “Huye hum jin ke liye barbad” became an all time hit. Later on his high pitched numbers sung for films “Amar” and “Baiju Bawra” put him up at a very high pedestal. Mohammad Rafi was honest to the core, never greedy and success did not make him arrogant.

     When, after initial setbacks, O.P. Nayyar, as a music director, attained a place of prominence in the film world in 1953, Mohammad Rafi became his first choice as a male singer and the duets sung by Mohammad Rafi with Asha Bhansale as well as with Shamshad Begum became extraordinarily popular. Mohammad Rafi never charged a penny from music director Sardul Singh Kwatra for any song rendered on Sardul’s music. He did the same favour for several years to most of the music directors, who migrated from what is now Pakistan . He also helped a fellow Amritsari singer Mohinder Kapoor in becoming a playback singer. 

     In his religious life Mohammad Rafi was always a true five-time “Namazi” and a strict “Momen”. But in his professional life he has been a liberal secularist. He visited the “Gurdwaras” like a Sikh used to during his younger days. Even while living in Bombay he visited the “Gurdwaras” on special festive occasions and during the visits to Bombay of iconic Sikh  â€œRaagis” like Bhai Santa Singh ji and Bhai Samund Singh ji. He missed no opportunity to visit Bombay ’s famous annual Baisakhi Mela. Throughout his singing career Mohammad Rafi sang several memorable “Naats”, but he lent his voice equally well to extremely soulful “Bhajans” (on the tunes composed by icons like Naushad) and some melodious “Shabads” (on the tunes mostly composed by music director S. Mohinder).   

    What Mohammad Rafi did and achieved after 1952-53 has been recorded by several other historians and writers on film music and I shall not dwell on that period. My desire was to unfold his impressionist younger years and the years of his grim struggle to reach the pinnacle of success. My head will always bow in admiration before Mohammad Rafi the Great. May his soul, rest in piece for ever in his heavenly abode. Such pious individuals are rarely born on this earth.    

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  • Bhai Santa Singh – A Unique Exponent of Guru’s Hymns

    By: Harjap Singh Aujla

    AS a child I was used to waking up between 6 and 7am. But on one cold early winter morning of 1948, my mother woke me up at about 4:30am, gave me a bath and made my JooRa (a bun of combed and knotted hair worn by the Sikhs). After I put on new clothes, she took me to the family radio and asked me to operate it. I pushed the on-button and the light came on. Soon the sound appeared. The sign-on tune of All India Radio looked like a great achievement. Then a sweet voice announced the time 5:00am and the start of a special one hour morning service on the airwaves of All India Radio Jalandhar-Amritsar in honour of the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.

    The announcer told that we are taking you to the Golden Temple Amritsar for a direct transmission of the recitation of “Asa Di Vaar”. In a split second the beat of the drums (tabla), the sound of harmonium and high pitched voices of a group of musicians could be heard. It seemed that the musicians were emotionally calling Guru Nanak to once again bless this earth with his physical presence in human form. The special recitation of the hymns of the “Guru” sounded genuinely emotional and appeared rather impressive. At that young age I did not understand as to what was being sung, nevertheless, I felt highly impressed by the melody, tone and texture of the music. I had no knowledge as to who was singing, nor did anybody announce it especially. For a number of years the voices heard on that day were shrouded in mystery, but my curiosity was always there to unravel this mystery.
    Several years later, I had a chance meeting in America with Sardar Jodh Singh, the retired Assistant Station Director of All India Radio Jalandhar. Sardar Jodh Singh happened to be the announcer of the programme in the sanctum sancrorum of the Golden Temple on that auspicious day. He revealed for the first time that the group of musicians performing “Shabad Kirtan of Asa Di Vaar” at the Golden Temple during the first ever live transmission on the Birth Anniversary of Guru Nanak was indeed led by Late Bhai Santa Singh, the then senior most musician of the Golden Temple. I knew it all along that it was somebody special, somebody highly accomplished. A number of “Shabads” recorded on 78 RPM gramophone records in the voices of Bhai Santa Singh Ragi and party were available in the market for decades and different stations of All India Radio including Delhi, Jalandhar, Jammu and Lucknow used to play these records.

    Bhai Santa Singh had the God given unique capability to sing in very high notes, which most other musicians could not replicate. His exact date of birth is not known, but according to recorded information he was born in the walled city of Amritsar in 1904. During those days very few Sikhs used to sing even in the gurdwaras and those who did sing had to hone their skills at classical music under the strict guidance of Muslim or Pandit professional classical teachers. Bhai Santa Singh was no exception, he enrolled at a very young age as a learner of Sikh classical music in the music department of the famous “Yateemkhana” (orphanage) in Amritsar. The head teacher was a renowned trainer in classical music Bhai Sain Ditta. Several of Sain Ditta’s students served as the “Huzoori Ragis” at the Golden Temple. Other famous students of Sain Ditta included Bhai Taba, Bhai Naseera, Bhai Darshan Singh Komal and Sain Ditta’s own son Bhai Desa. But Bhai Santa Singh was exceptional among them all. Soon after completing his education at the Yateemkhana Bhai Santa Singh was employed as a “Hazoori Ragi” at the Golden Temple during early twenties. His group included among others another famous personality Late Bhai Surjan Singh also. Both were bestowed with very sharp and melodious voices and could sing in unison. The democratically elected governing body for the Sikh shrines the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), replacing the old institution of “Mahanthood” took control of all the historic Sikh shrines in Punjab and North West Frontier Province in 1925, but still a very high standard of “Gurmat Sangeet” (traditional Sikh religious music) was maintained at most of its Gurdwaras at least during the first three decades of the inception of the SGPC.

    During those days the Golden Temple Amritsar was known for employing highly accomplished musicians for performing “Chawnkis of Shabad Kirtan” in its sanctum sanctorum. Recommendations by the influential and the powerful were never considered for recruitment of staff. Other great musicians in the service of the Golden Temple included legendry Bhai Lal, Bhai Chand, Bhai Chanan, Bhai Hira Singh etc. Soon Bhai Santa Singh carved a nitch for himself. He was very hard-working. As a first step he used to grasp the meaning of the “Shabad” to be sung. He modulated his voice to convey the true meaning of the “Shabad” without the need of explaining it through a speech or a discourse. At times he used to slow down the beat so much that the meaning of each word of the “Guru” was understood clearly even by the layman. While reciting the “Bir Rus Bani” (martial music) of the tenth master Guru Gobind Singh, he used to convey the message of war by increasing the pace of the musical composition.

    On special occasions, the Golden Temple and Gurdwara Janam Asthan Sri Nankana Sahib, the two most sacred Gurdwaras, used to exchange their leading musicians. Bhai Santa Singh used to go to Nankana Sahib on those occasions.

    All India Radio Lahore came into being in 1936, but the full fledged production facilities were added in 1937. That was the year when Bhai Santa Singh was also approved as a casual radio artist. During those days the line up of the classical vocal radio artists of All India Lahore included among others Dalip Chander Vedi, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Master Rattan of Phagwara, Master Madan, Dina Qawaal of Jullundur, Mubarik Ali Fateh Ali of Jullundur and Harish Chander Bali. The leading Sikh religious musicians included Bhai Santa Singh of the Golden Temple and Bhai Samund Singh of Gurdwara Janam Asthan Nankana Sahib. Malika Pukhraj, Bhai Chhaila of Patiala, Mohammad Rafi, Noorjehan, Zeenat Begum, Shamshad Begum, Dilshad Begum, Mukhtar Begum, Parkash Kaur and Surinder Kaur were considered much junior Punjabi song and “Ghazal” singers.
    Casual singing at All India Radio Lahore made Bhai Santa Singh very famous. During those days Genophone Recording Company opened its modern recording studio in Lahore. Master Ghulam Haider was hired as its music director. Master Ghulam Haider developed a special liking for the voice of Bhai Santa Singh. He persuaded Bhai Santa Singh to record some “Shabads”. The tunes were either traditional Sikh religious “Reets” handed down from generation to generation or Bhai Santa Singh’s own highly melodious creations. The orchestra with special preludes and interludes was of course Ghulam Haider’s. Eight “Shabads” were recorded on four discs of three minutes each and each became very popular. These recordings were made in 1941-42, but their 45RPM extended play discs were available till 1970s. Other Sikh musician whose recordings of Sikh religious music are among the earliest available on records include Bhai Budh Singh Taan, whose rendering of “As Di Vaar” was available on 12 discs in 78RPM.

    “Asa Di Vaar” by the group of Bhai Sudh Singh Pardhan Singh was also recorded during the forties. One or two records of “Shabad Gayan” in the voices of Bhai Gurmukh Singh Sarmukh Singh Fakkar of Nankana Sahib were also available in the market. In addition one disc of “Shabad Gayan” in the voice of child prodigy Master Madan was also recorded during the nineteen forties. This recording after disappearing from the market for several decades is once again available. Some “Shabads” sung by Bhai Budh Singh Taan and Surinder Kaur were also available in the market during the forties. Bhai Samund Singh, although sang regularly for the radio, but did not record his “Shabad Gayan” on discs until the nineteen sixties, when during the Quin Centennial celebrations of the birth of Guru Nanak a set of five long playing records was published.

    AFTER the creation of Pakistan, Bhai Samund Singh also joined Bhai Santa Singh in the service of the Golden Temple. They had very different styles of performing “Shabad Kirtan”. Bhai Samund Singh used to perform a modified version of “Khayal Gayaki”. He used to leave the “Alaap”, “Jorh Alaap” and the “Vilambhat Lai” as well as the climax “Dhrut Lai” and sing the entire “Shabad” in “Madh Lai”. On the other hand Bhai Santa Singh either sang in the traditional “Reets” handed down from generation to generation or he created his own “Reets” by improvising new tunes from the source “Ragas” and “Raginis”. Bhai Santa Singh used to rehearse the tunes for hours at a stretch to the accompaniment of “Taan Pura”.

    Bhai Santa Singh lived a simple life. He used to ride a bicycle on his way to perform “Shabad Kirtan”. One day an admirer presented a car to him, which he retained for a few days before giving it back to him. The reason given for spurning the offer was that he used to recite a path while riding a cycle and he used to complete the path while riding the bike. But when he started being driven in the car the same distance was traveled in 5 minutes and he could not complete the path. Such was the simplicity and lack of greed in Bhai Santa Singh. Once the famous Bhai Chand was supposed to perform last of all in a special “Kirtan Diwan” in pre-partition Lahore and Bhai Santa Singh was the penultimate singer. But Bhai Chand got so much impressed with the “Shabad Gayan” by Bhai Santa Singh, that he requested to skip his own turn and requested Bhai Santa Singh to finish the “Diwan” by singing “Raga Darbari Kanra”. Bhai Santa Singh completely mesmerized the audience with his soulful rendition of “Raga Darbari Kanra”. This story was narrated to me by Bhai Gurdip Singh ji, the head priest of New York’s famous Richmond Hill Gurdwara.

    Round about in 1949, Bhai Santa Singh abruptly left the service of the SGPC and temporarily moved to New Delhi. Soon he tried his hand at becoming a building contractor in Assam, but contractorship did not suit his temperament and he took employment in Gurdwara Sis Ganj Old Delhi. Delhi was fast becoming a city of refugees from West Pakistan. Some of his most ardent admirers had moved from Lahore, Gujjranwala, Lyallpur, Montgomery, Sialkot and Sheikhupura to Delhi. For them it was a pleasure to listen to the “Shabad Gayan” by Bhai Santa Singh. On hearing about Bhai Santa Singh’s joining the service of Gurdwara Sis Ganj Delhi, the crowds at that historic gurdwara started swelling each morning.

    The refugee “Sangat” of Delhi got so much hooked to listening to Bhai Santa Singh’s “Shabad Kirtan” at Gurdwara Sis Ganj Chandni Chowk that they insisted that the early morning “Chawnki of Asa Di Vaar” must always be performed by the group of Bhai Santa Singh. The only other group allowed to perform “Asa Di Vaar” in the absence of Bhai Santa Singh was Bhai Avtar Singh Gurcharan Singh and Swaran Singh, formerly of Sultanpur Lodhi in Kapurthala District.

    While in Delhi Bhai Santa Singh became the staff artist of All India Radio Delhi and his live performance of “Shabad Kirtan” became a regular feature of its Punjabi Program. Some years after 1947, one of the most important members of his group Bhai Surjan Singh parted company and formed his own group. This incident affected him badly, but he trained his brother Bhai Shamsher Singh to sing alongside him. This did not diminish the popularity of his group. In the meanwhile Bhai Surjan Singh’s newly created group also became very popular. To this day the best selling records of “Asa Di Vaar” are Bhai Surjan Singh’s.

    On the death of India’s First Prime Minister Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru in 1964, Bhai Santa Singh was the only Sikh religious musician, who was especially invited to perform “Shabad Kirtan” during the period of mourning at All India Radio Delhi. Some of these recordings are still preserved in the archives of the Delhi Station of All India Radio. At one time or the other every great maestro, be it a vocalist or an instrumentalist of India, had the honour of singing at one or the other stations of All India Radio. Some of those artists were recorded and many others were not. Even those who’s performances were recorded, their recordings were destroyed later on due to the callousness of the authorities. If all the recordings of Bhai Santa Singh and Bhai Samund Singh would have been preserved, we would have had at least 300 hours of recordings of each. Such musicians are not born every day. We are sorry to lose their historic moments.

    Late Yogi Harbhajan Singh was a great admirer of the “Kirtan Shelley” of Bhai Santa Singh. In order to train his followers, the American Sikhs, in the art of performing “Shabad Gayan” he wanted to bring one of the students of Bhai Santa Singh’s school of music to America. Bibi Amarjit Kaur, who had honed her skills under the guidance of Bhai Santa Singh was brought from India to America for the purpose. She now works in the World Bank and lives in Northern Virginia, in one of the suburbs of the American Capital Washington D.C. By listening to her you can get a glimpse of her great mentor. The way she modulates her voice, it appears that she is coming true on the teachings of her great mentor.

    In 1965, Bhai Santa Singh’s former companion Bhai Surjan Singh suddenly left for his heavenly abode. Although they had parted company years ago, but still Bhai Santa Singh took this loss to heart. For several days he felt very much dejected. But according to the “Gurus” message the life must go on and Bhai Santa Singh did not miss his “Kirtan” schedules.

    Bhai Santa Singh’s few shabad compositions were used in an All India Radio programme produced in 1969 by Professor Harbhajan Singh, the poet, on the 500th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev.

    According to Dr Madan Gopal Singh, the singer and son of Professor Harbhajan Singh, the recording is in the archive of Manjit Bawa, the painter. He has to say further on this:

    1. The nearly one-hour long feature, broadcast on the National programme, was written in Hindi as a tribute to Guru Nanak and was part of the year long focus to mark his 500 birth anniversary. The feature was subsequently published in Punjabi as a booklet by M/S Faqir Singh & Sons, Amritsar.

    2. Some of the compositions which I remember distinctly (their melody is permanently etched in my memory and I can reproduce at least the skeletal version)
    i) Suni Pukar daatar/miti dhundh ii) Saajan mainde rangle iii) Gagan mai thal iv) jagad jalanda rakh lai...

    3. I have no idea if Bhai Saheb was specially commissioned (if it was 1969 this couldn't have been possible) to do these recordings or these were excavated from the AIR archives. In case these recordings were taken from the AIR archives, it does indicate that the AIR has possibly a rich collection of Bhai Saheb's renditions.

    4. Bulk of the Gurbani rendition in the feature was in the voice of Bhai Santa Singh ji. There were two other raagis and if I am not mistaken, these two were Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Amrik Singh.

    5. Bhai Sumand Singh ji was not part of the programme. His rendition of "Bhujbal Deejai" is part of the achival material that existed on the spool I had handed over to my painter friend Manjeet Bawa. Bhai Saheb had come to the main Gurudwara in Karol Bagh, New Delhi and had participated in a Kirtan Darbar (attended by many other luminaries). The recording was made by my second cousin and a sound-technician with the AIR, the late Santokh Singh, and subsequently transferred onto our spool.

    Bhai Santa Singh was in great demand for his unique style of “Shabad Kirtan” all over India, but he seldom stepped out of Delhi. Once in 1966, on the persistent request of the “Sangat” of Bombay he was allowed to go to Bombay for a couple of weeks. On hearing this welcome news, the knowledgeable “Sadh Sangat” of Bombay was electrified. They had the once in a lifetime experience of listening to Bhai Santa Singh live. They requested for more of his time, but the management of Gurdwara Sis Ganj in Delhi refused to extend his stay, because the “Sangat” in Delhi also wanted to listen to his “Shabad Kirtan”. On the day of his departure for Delhi big crowds gave him a tearful sendoff in Bombay. On his way back to Delhi, while still in train, he suffered a massive heart attack. Before any medical care could be administered, he had already left for his heavenly abode, in the feet of his divine master. Bhai Santa Singh’s funeral saw the community in deep mourning. This story was narrated to me by his pupil Bibi Amarjit Kaur.

    After Bhai Santa Singh’s death, his brother Bhai Shamsher Singh took over his group. Bhai Shamsher Singh could sing in all the tunes of Bhai Santa Singh, but he lacked the range and modulation. After the death of Bhai Shamsher Singh about two decades ago, Bhai Santa Singh’s nephews Bhai Harjit Singh and Bhai Gurdip Singh are keeping his tradition alive. They can not match the dexterity of Bhai Santa Singh, but they have kept all his “Reets” alive. Today they are the leading musicians of Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee are held in a high esteem. The life may not be perfect but it is, nevertheless, going on.

    Further information:

    To listen to Bhai Santa Singh’s rare recordings visit:

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    Harjap Singh Aujla

    South Asia Post - June 30, 2007

    I am experiencing mixed feelings of immense pleasure and deep sadness in compiling this article. The pleasure is born out of the satisfaction that I am experiencing the nostalgia of a treasure of unparalleled Punjabi music that once flowed from the God given vocal chords of Lata Mangeshkar. The sorrow is due to the Punjabi nature of callous indifference that leads to virtual extinction of this kind of treasure trove. To me writing of this article amounts to salvaging of some of the treasures buried under deep seas after the sinking of Titanic. As I dig deep into what Lata Mangeshkar has sung in Punjabi in her younger years (1948 to 1950), I wonder at these marvels in Punjabi language. She is simply the most brilliant singer that India has produced during the twentieth century. Her voice is most feminine that can be imagined and her effortless modulation and range of notes from the highest to the lowest, do amaze the top notch critics of music.  

    All of us have heard her best in Hindi/Urdu films, but most of us have missed out on what gems she has given us in Punjabi films. She sang in only half a dozen Punjabi films dating way back from 1948 to 1950 and 1953-54. She, in all created about two dozen songs, but she gave us superb melodies that may never be replicated. In her songs, she appears to have mastered the sweet Lahori Punjabi.  

    In my childhood I had heard the best of Lata Mangeshkar in Punjabi films, thanks to All India Radio Jalandhar-Amritsar and Radio Pakistan Lahore. But the irony is that All India Radio has lost, perhaps for ever, its best film music in Punjabi and Radio Pakistan has banned playing of Indian Music, also perhaps for ever. For the historians and connoisseurs of Punjabi music, this tragedy is unforgettable. 

    This story starts with the independence of India and the destruction of Punjab. Overnight hundreds of thousands of people were given marching orders, against their will, to go to new unknown abodes. One such person was music director Vinod, a Christian by faith. He moved from Lahore to Amritsar and then to the film city of Bombay. He had obtained lessons in composing film music from Late Pandit Amar Nath, had studied to the music of Master Inayat Hussain and learnt as to how Ghulam Haider was composing the preludes and interludes for his tunes. Vinod loved Lahore, its narrow lanes and its Central Punjabi culture, he did not want to leave this city, but the reality of communal frenzy frightened him into packing up. He never felt at home in Bombay and his yearning for the bazars and folks of Lahore was never subsiding. His deep sense of sadness found a unique expression in the most memorable Punjabi film music that he composed. 

    Music Director Vinod’s first super-hit Punjabi film venture happened to be a movie called “Chaman” (1948). In “Chaman” Pushpa Hans sang a soulful song “Saari raat tera takni haan raah, haye tarian ton puchh chann wey”. Even Shamshad Begum sang some very nice songs for this film, but the climax was the two songs sung by Lata Mangeshkar. It is an important piece of information for the historians of Punjabi film music that one of the earliest songs that Lata Mangeshkar sang was a Punjabi song for film “Chaman”. The lyrics of the song are “Galliyan-ch firdey dhola, nikke nikke baal veh, balan kolon puchhni haan, channa tera haal veh”. This song was composed in a very slow beat in “Raaga Piloo” mixed perhaps with “Jaijaiwanti”. The tune is very sad and Lata’s highly emotional rendering is even sadder. This song, written by Aziz Kashmiri, is a beauty. If we compare the finesse, this song puts Lata’s first ever Hindi song “Dil mera torah, ho mujhe kisi ka na chhorha tere pyaar ne, hay terte pyaar ne” sung for film “Majboor” composed by Master Ghulam Haider to shame. This is a landmark Punjabi song. The secong Lata Mangeshkar song from the same film is “Raahe raahe jandiya, akhiyan milandiya, akhiyan chura ken a jaah, dhola veh, akhiyan chura ken a ja”. This is a variation of a Punjabi folk tune “Dhola”. These songs can easily match the appeal of music director Shyam Sunder’s landmark songs composed for Hindi film “Bazaar” also made in1948. This films lyrics were composed by Aziz Kashmiri, another Lahore based poet, who also migrated to Bombay. Aziz wrote in earthy Punjabi better than most others. If anyone can find these songs with a collector or someone who does not know their real worth, he will be stepping on a rare treasure. No amount is too much for these records. 

    Film “Lachhi” was shot in 1949. Its  music was composed by the Late Master Hans Raj Behl. The lyrics were penned by Mulkh Raj Bhakhti, another import from Lahore. Lachhi was a big hit. Its landmark song is “Naale lammi te naale kaali, haye weh channan, raat judaiyan waali” sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Other songs sung by Lata include “Do milde haaye dilan noon, bedard zamana door kare, haaye vichhran te majboor kare” and “Haarha veh channan, yaad saannoon teri awe”. Lata mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi had sung some very memorable Hindi songs for music director Shyam Sunder in film “Bazaar”, but the film “Lachhi”duet (Lata & Rafi) with lyrics “Kaali Kanghi naal kale waal payi vaahunia, aa mil dhol jaania” is no less than the “Bazaar” masterpieces. Some of the songs of film “Lachhi” are still available in some of the music shops in India. 

    Vinod composed the music for a super-hit Hindi/Urdu film “Ek Thi Ladki”, in which a Lahori Punjabi girl Meena became very popular as the heroine. A Punjabi folk based song “Laara lappa laara lappa laayi rakhda, addi tappa adi tappa layi rakhda” based on a folk tune of song “Jutti meri jandi e pahariye de naal, paula mera janda e musafire de naal”. Lara lappa song was sung by Lata Mangeshkar and became a big hit. Soon afterwards Vinod composed the music for a Punjabi film “Bhaiyaji” in 1950 with five Lata songs. Its best emotional song “Jhil mil tariya jah Akhiyan na maar veh, ajj saada mahi naal tutt gaya pyar veh” was very brilliantly sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Shanker Jaikishan, who started music direction with Raj Kappor - Nargis starrer film “Barsaat” (1949), attempted to give Punjabi style music. Initially they composed a music which was similar to that of Pandit Husnalal Bhagatram, but by the time they composed music for Dilip Kumar – Nimmi starrer film “Daag” (1952), they had a new model before them and it was Vinod’s film “Bhayiaji” song “Jhil mil taariya jah akhiyan na maar veh”. This pattern they used for the Lata superhit song “Kahe ko der lagayi re, aye na ab tak baalma”. Vinod’s other songs for the film “Bhaiyaji” including a Lata – Rafi duet “Chal aa bagan wich nachiye ni, ki badliyan chha gayiyan” also became hit. 

    Sardar Davinder Singh, a highly dedicated Programme Incharge of Punjabi Programmes at All India Radio Delhi, who died a few years back told me a very interesting story. This story of historic significance unfolds as follows: 

    One day in late sixties, Davinder Singh was sitting in his dilapidated office in the Annexe of Broadcasting House New Delhi. The morning Punjabi Programme was over and he was planning the evening programme. All of a sudden a middle aged Maharashtrian looking thinly built woman was ushered into his office. The woman introduced herself as Lata Mangeshkar. She had come from Bombay for a live performance. She asked Davinder Singh if he had a rare Punjabi film song of 1950 bearing lyrics “Rassi utte tangiya dupatta mera dolda, udd pudd jana pataa dassda nayin dhol da”. The song is from a Punjabi film “Madari” with musical score by Ustrad Allah Rakha Qureshi. Davinder Singh had this song at the radio station. Lata wanted to pay any price to have it. But the government rules did not permit Davinder Singh in parting with this record. Lata wanted it desperately, because this song, along with some other rare Punjabi songs in her own voice dating back to 1948-1950 period were very dear to her. Davinder Singh made a copy of this song from a 78 RPM disc and handed it over to Lata Mangewshkar. 

    Another two songs from film “Madari” bearing lyrics “Puchh mera haal kade ake mere haaniyan, tere pichhe rondiyan ne akhiyan nimaniyan” and “Asan takkya maahi nuun pehli waar, oh akh bacha ke gallan wich laake, chhod gaya, haye ni dil torh gaya” were very emotionally sung by Lata. In the meanwhile Vinod was composing typically Punjabi tunes for some of the Hindi/Urdu films also. 

    Ustad Allah Rakha Qureshi (the great tabla master) composed the music for another Punjabi film “Phumman” in 1950. Its music is great, but two of its Lata Mangeshkar songs are simply outstanding. The lyrics of one song are “ Main addiyan chuk chuk vekhan, menoo maahi nazar na aawe”. The other song is “Raatan andheriyan aa gaiyan, dhola, raatan andheriyan aa gaiyan, dhola teriyan uddikan chha gaiyan”. Lata’s first three years in Punjabi films were outstanding. 

    Soon the producers of Punjabi films realized that the market for purely comedy based Punjabi movies is very restricted. On the other hand the Hindi films were much richer in content and lavish in budget. Only in the quality of music the Punjabi Cinema could compete with its counterpart in Hindi. The market for the Punjabi Cinema was mostly confined to the East Punjab Circuit which included Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, hill areas of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh and Haryana (which was also a part of the then Punjab). Delhi and UP territory was another market, but not really good, because the refugees from West Punjab were spread thinly all over U.P. and were not a concentrated block. Pakistan was a good territory for exhibition, but due to piracy and cheating its returns were poor. Therefore the number of Punjabi films made in India dwindled to a trickle. 

    Lata reluctantly sang for another good musical Punjabi film “Vanjara” in 1953-54. She did this on the request of a singer/actor Shaminder Singh Chahal, a wealthy landlord of Muktsar, In Ferozepore District of Punjab. Lata sang about five songs including two duets with Shaminder Singh in the music direction of Sardul Singh Kwatra. Sardul himself admitted that after the creation of Pakistan, the market for Punjabi cinema had dwindled very badly. More than 60% of Punjabi speaking population was based in Pakistan. India’s less than 40% share got scattered all over the country. Sardul said even the will to make decent Punjabi films in India was lacking. The producers were contented in making humour centric movies only. Urban culture was totally missing in the Punjabi films. All this and stoppage of the exhibition of Indian films in Pakistan in 1960, caused the virtual demise of Punjabi cinema in India. But, by then, Lata Mangeshkar gave her best to Punjabi films in “Chaman” (1948), “Lachhi” (1949), “Bhaiyaji” (1950), “Madari” (1950) “Phumman” (1950) and “Vanjara” (1954). She gave us two dozen precious gems.  

    It is true that there is nothing in sheer numbers, Lata’s two dozen Punjabi songs are worth more than 10000 ordinary songs currently circulating in Punjab. After the Golden three years of Punjabi film music, perhaps Lata also smelled that all is not well with the Punjabi cinema in India, so she started shying away from Punjabi films. If the lovers of good Punjabi music can unearth some of the rare gems of Lata Mangeshkar, they will be doing a great service to Punjabi music.  

    From the 1980s, some good Punjabi films are being made, but the standard of music set by Vinod, Hans Raj Behl, Allah Rakha Qureshi and later on by Sardul Kwatra and S. Mohinder (Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai 1969) is being sorely missed. Folk singers, untrained in classical music, have become heroes and singers in the films and the standard of music in Punjabi films has taken a steep nose dive. 

    Across the border in the 1950 – 1960 decade, however, the Golden Period of Punjabi Film music took shape in Pakistan. They made great musicals with, a daughter of the soil, Zubeida Khanum as the top play-back singer. But after Zubeida Khanum’s marriage, the standard went down in Pakistan too. Only a miracle can restore the standard of Punjabi film music to its days of past glory. 

    A genuine master of the art of music direction Vinod, who was every inch a Punjabi, became a casualty of the fall of Punjabi cinema in India. He wanted to compose music for Punjabi films, but not more than two films were made in each year and the contracts for composing the music were grabbed by Hans Raj Behl and Sardul Kwatra. Thus Vinod felt squeezed out of his first love, the music making for Punjabi films too. This frustration told on his health and he died at the prime of his youth during the mid-fifties, un-honoured, unwept and unsung.    

    { The author Harjap Singh Aujla lives at 16 Junction Pond Lane, Monmouth Junction, New Jersey 08852 USA. Phone number 732 329 0981 and the e-mail address is       

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  • Legendary Singer Surinder Kaur and the Trauma of Partition of India

    Harjap Singh Aujla

    South Asia Post Issue 45 Vol II, August 15, 2007

    Harjap Singh AujlaWE are celebrating the independence days of Pakistan and India in August, but there are bitter memories in the eyes of those who saw the events unfolding at the time of the first independence-day. Surinder Kaur was one such witness to the horrors of partition of the Indian sub continent. During the nineties of the 20th century, two of Surinder Kaur’s daughters got settled in New Jersey, USA. She used to visit America during the summers each year. Outside her own family members and those of her older sister Parkash Kaur, the only people she would often call on were Iqbal Mahal of Toronto and myself, because we were among her biggest fans in North America. Once I asked her about her childhood and the formative years, she started talking about the partition of Punjab. Here is what she told long before her death in May 2006.

    Surinder Kaur was born in 1929, but I know from my sources that she was older than Lata Mangeshkar and was born in 1927. I am telling this because I want the history to be recorded the way it was. According to Surinder Kaur her older sister Parkash Kaur was nearly a decade older than her. Their father’s name was Bishan Dass. He was a conservative man. He never liked his daughters singing in public. Parkash Kaur had a enchanting voice and   a natural twist in her voice made singing easy even for difficult classical tunes. Lahore was the cradle of Punjabi culture. It was home to a large number of folk songs and folk tunes. Parkash Kaur had mastered a lot of them from older ladies of her locality. Parkash Kaur was a very popular invitee to every wedding or engagement ceremony within their extended family or you can call it the clan.

    Surinder KaurParkash Kaur used to take Surinder Kaur or even Narinder Kaur to accompany her to the weddings. They learned to sing in unison and the people liked it. Soon even the strangers used to invite them and were willing to pay them also, which was a rarity during those days. Parkash Kaur’s family objected to it, but as her demand increased, the family relented. Parkash Kaur became the first radio singer in the family around 1940. Surinder Kaur followed her in 1943. Perhaps on August 31, 1943, Surinder Kaur was auditioned as a casual artist at All India Radio Lahore by Jeevan Lal Mttoo, the in charge of music. Surinder Kaur had no training in classical music.  Mattoo selected her in spite of this drawback. He knew that even Amritsar born Shamshad Begum had no training in classical music, still she became a very accomplished singer. Surinder Kaur had similar potential. Even Parkash Kaur had no training in music and she was singing professionally. So Surinder Kaur was approved and she sang her first two songs on that special day. Mohammad Rafi started as a radio singer in March 1943. Surinder Kaur’s voice was appreciated by one and all and her demand increased. Master Inayat Hussain, a freelance music director invited Parkash Kaur and Surinder Kaur to sing a couple of songs under his music direction. After repeated rehearsals both the sisters sang very professionally.

    These first songs were “Haaye na wass oye naa wass baddlaa aje na wass oye kaaliya” and “Dhol sipahiya we kithe giyon dil laake”. These songs became instant hits.

    By 1944 Ghulam Haider had shifted to Bombay. Pandit Amar Nath remained the reigning music director in Lahore. His favourite singer was Zeenat Begum. Surinder Kaur said that whatever Pandit Amar Nath used to compose for Zeenat, she (Surinder Kaur) tried to copy it and sang it repeatedly. This is how she became a singer. Soon there after Master Inayat Hussain composed another soul stirring tune for Parkash Kaur and Surinder Kaur to sing as a duet. The song was “Maawan te dhiyan ral baithian ni maaye koi kardiyan galloriyan, ni kankan lammiyan dhiyan kyon jammiyan ni maaye”. It was recorded in two parts, which are featured on the two sides of the same disc. This record sold like hot cakes throughout the Punjab. Zeenat and Shamshad Begum had shifted to Bombay. The vaccum left in Lahore was filled by the two sisters, Parkash Kaur and Surinder Kaur.

    Budh Singh Taan was another versatile maestro. He could shift roles between a music director and a radio singer. Bhai Santa Singh and Bhai Samund Singh were the leading Sikh religious musicians and Budh Singh Taan was the third such musician at All India Radio, Lahore. He is credited with the recording of the first ever complete “Asa Di Waar”. Budh Singh Taan did not record it in Lahore’s own “Jeno-phone Studio”, which had its own music director and orchestra, but he went to Bombay to record it in the studios of newly opened “Young India Recording Company” in Wadala, Bombay. Budh Singh Taan composed two tunes of Shabads for Surinder Kaur to sing. One of Guru Nanak’s Shabads was “Vaid Bulaya vaidgy, meri pakarh dhandole baanh”. This record also sold very well in Lahore and Amritsar. Surinder Kaur was by now basking in the glory of her well recognized talent and she enjoyed every bit of it.

    It never occurred to Surinder Kaur that anything untoward could happen. She was making more money than the male members of her family. Sister Parkash Kaur was also doing very well. By 1945, the people in the streets were talking about the creation of Pakistan and Lahore becoming a part of it. Surinder Kaur was very naïve; she never thought anything untoward could happen in her loved city. The property values were rising by leaps and bounds and the main buyers were the wealthy Hindus of Lahore and Amritsar. Surinder Kaur and Parkash Kaur were minting money in music. They had hired a harmonium player and a dholki player to accompany them on the pre-wedding musical programmes.

    Surinder Kaur got the scare of her life, when she heard that in March of 1947, hundreds of innocent Sikhs were burnt alive in a Gurdwara in Rawalpindi district. This stunning news created tension in Lahore too. The property values started tumbling down. A lot of people lost their life’s earnings during this down trend in real estate prices. Some people still believed that Lahore will fall into India’s share. The city had more Hindu and Sikh population and even in the villages most land was owned by them. A large section of the press was pleading for Lahore’s inclusion in India.

    By the beginning of August it was becoming more and more clear that Lahore will fall into Pakistan’s share. Pakistan became independent first and Lahore was included into it on August 14, 1947. Overnight All India Radio Lahore became Radio Pakistan Lahore and the tone of the radio and pro Pakistan  newspapers changed.

    Surinder Kaur’s family was in panic. They had to move quickly out of the city. One “Mohalla” of Lahore inhabited entirety by the Hindus was set ablaze. Some people perished in the inferno, others left in a jiffy. A lot of Sikhs were killed in gun battles and in attacks with sharp weapons. The Lahore Amritsar Highway was the bloodiest. A report was spread that the “Hall Bazaar” in Amritsar, which was the stronghold of wealthy Hindus was also torched.

    The family of Surinder Kaur and Parkash Kaur decided not to go to Amritsar, which was the nearest city, but to go to more peaceful Ferozepore. The family, without much to carry along joined a “Qaafila” to Kasur and Ferozepore. The caravan was moving slowly. On both sides there was stench of death. Some more people joined them on the way, they were telling stories of cruelty and wanton destruction. Not even the old or the very young were spared. The stories emerging out of Gujjranwala, Sheikhupura and Nankana Sahib were the most heartrending. We were dumb-folded. But we were also told that the situation in the Lahore Wagha section was the bloodiest. Somehow we crossed Kasur and approached Ganda Singhwala. On reaching Ganda Singhwala, we heaved a sigh of relief. Ferozepore was only seven miles. There were signs of India approaching. There were hordes of burly Sikhs moving towards Ferozepore. These folks also joined. A few steps from Hussainiwala were the Indian border. The sooner we reached the Indian Territory, smiles returned on our lifeless faces. We were seeing a lot of grim faces of the Muslims heading to Pakistan. What a madness it was? Our departing Muslim brothers needed sympathy, which we surely wanted to express, but could not. The times were such. At one time we were given a lot of love by our Muslim brethren in Lahore, but no one could guess how all of a sudden such a change in mindset could happen.

    On reaching Ferozepore, we discovered that life was a lot better in Lahore. We were much less in demand in Ferozepore, at times we had to sleep without food. As September approached, we discovered that in Pakistan, the violence had subsided, but in Amritsar, the frenzy was on the increase. In the beginning of August East Punjab was peaceful, but after 15th of August, when train loads of dead had arrived at Amritsar’s Main Railway Station, the people in the villages got out of control. Even the government could not calm them. Ferozepore was comparatively a lot more peaceful. Surinder Kaur stayed for a few months in Ferozepore, and then suddenly a message came from Bombay that Master Ghulam Haider wanted to feature Surinder Kaur’s voice in film “Shaheed”. D.N. Madhok offered her living accommodation.

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  • Talat Mahamood’s Love for Punjabi

    Harjap Singh Aujla

    South Asia Post Issue 44 Vol II, July 31, 2007

    Harjap Singh AujlaTalat Mahmood was a symbol of finesse in manners, language and singing. During good old days, in the Indo-Gangetic plains of Northern India there were three great centers of distinctly different cultures. Calcutta was the home of Bengali culture  Lahore was the center of Punjabi culture  and Lucknow used to be the heart and soul of Urdu culture. Hailing from an old “Nawabi” (princely) family, Talat Mahmood was brought up in the cradle of sophisticated Urdu culture. He was born on February 24, 1924. Since his childhood he was fond of good music and fine poetry.

    Talat  MahamoodLucknow used to host night long sessions of concerts by great classical masters. Talat Mahmood used to stay awake all night to listen to India’s best. And he used to sing a lot while being alone at home. His father discovered his talents and got him enrolled in music in Lucknow’s famous Maurice College. At age sixteen he became a casual artist at All India Radio Lucknow, where he used to sing Urdu Ghazals. This stint at All India Radio got him a lot of fan following. The people would like him to sing in private “Mehfils”.

    At age seventeen in 1941, on the advice of some sincere friends, he moved to Calcutta, which was the then largest center of films and all kinds of fine arts in India. Talat Mahmood got instant acceptance by the listeners. He started as an “Urdu Ghazal” singer, but sang some equally appealing “Hindi Geets” too. He also sang some religious songs called “Naats”, which became quite popular.

    Talat knew that while in Rome do as the Romans do. He learnt Bengali and sang some Bengali songs  too. The Bengalis instantly liked his soft style of singing, which is a hall mark of Bengali melodies too. Talat recorded some two hundred 78rpm gramophone discs in Calcutta. In 1944, Talat Mahmood attained instant fame when he sang a landmark “Ghazal” with words “Tasveer teri dil mera behla na sakegi”. This became a hit all over India and Talat became a household name. Talat Mahmood wanted to be a singing actor like Frank Sinatra. He acted in three Calcutta made films “Rajlakshmi”, “Tum aur Main” and “Samapti”.
    Some friends again advised him that Bombay was fast developing into the prime center of Urdu/Hindi film industry in India, relegating Calcutta to the second spot. Famous Bengali music directors like Anil Biswas, Sachin Dev Burman and Ram Ganguli were already camped in Bombay. The writing on the wall prompted Talat Mahmood also to change his base. By late 1948 or early 1949, Talat Mahmood had moved to Bombay. The reigning doyen of music directors Anil Biswas gave him his first chance to sing a song with words “Shukriya aye pyaar tera shukriya” for a soon to be famous film “Aaram”. Talat Mahmood had a peculiar vibration in his rendition, which was accepted by the Calcuttans, but he was not sure about the taste of the Bombayites . He first tried to suppress this natural vibration, but Anil Biswas told him to keep it as it uniquely suited his style. Film “Aaram” and Talat Mahmood’s voice in it, drew the attention of all the poets associated with the film-line towards this new singing star. They discovered the perfection with which Talat Mahmood could pronounce each word of Urdu lyrics. None of his contemporary film playback singers could pronounce Urdu words with poise, perfection and ease that flowed from the throat of Talat Mahmood.
    Both music directors S. Mohinder and Sardul Kwatra admit that Talat Mahmood became the choice of all the Urdu lyricists based in Bombay’s Film World. From the point of view of technique of singing and mastery over classical music, both Manna Dey and Mohammad Rafi were ahead of Talat Mahmood, but in softness of voice and sophistication in pronunciation Talat Mahmood was ahead of them. Mohammad Rafi being more versatile in the art of actual singing was on the contrary the choice of most of the music directors. This led to Talat Mahmood singing the best written “Ghazals” and Mohammad Rafi singing more Hindi Geets and “Urdu Naghmas”. Other playback singers like Mukesh, Manna Dey, Hemant Kumar and Kishore were pushed further down the ladder, though Kishore Kumar became more popular during the anti-indigenous rock, disco and pop phase in Indian film music. During the fifties Mohammad Rafi was the most prolific film singer, but Tatat Mahmood sang more of the sophisticated and sad poetry.

    In Bombay Talat Mahmood experienced very different phenomena. In Calcutta every one communicated in Bengali, but in Bombay, the language at the sets of the movies was a mixture of Urdu and Hindi (according to Pandit Nehru it was Hindustani), while off the sets Punjabi was spoken by most of the film folks. Actors like Prithvi Raj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, Rajinder Kumar, Sunil Dutt and character actors like Manmohan Krishan, Jagdish Sethi, Romesh Thakur, I.S. Johar, Pran Nath, K.N. Singh, Om Prakash, Sunder and actresses like Suraiya, Shyama, Geeta Bali, Kuldip Kaur, Beena Rai etc all spoke Punjabi while being away from the sets. Marathi was the language of the area, but in the film-line Punjabi and Urdu were the languages of communication.

    Talat Mahmood’s best friends like actresses Suraiya and Shyama mostly spoke Punjabi during informal chit chat. Music Director Vinod was an astute chooser of voices for his soulful tunes. He had the distinction of introducing Talat Mahmood to singing of Punjabi music and his debut song in Punjabi, recorded for a Punjabi film “Mutiar” had its tune very carefully composed by Vinod. This film was made in 1951. Surinder Kaur was still in Bombay, but was packing up to shift to New Delhi, where she earned  a lot of name and fame. Vinod got a duet recorded in the voices of Talat Mahmood and Surinder Kaur. The wording is “Ho chann ve, badli de pichhon chori jhatiyan na paa”. Vinod composed a very emotional tune for Talat Mahmood to sing a solo song for the same film “Mutiar”. Its first version was recorded in Urdu; the wording is “Ai gham mujhe jaane de, jis raah pe jaata hoon”. Talat sang it by immersing himself in romance and pathos. Later on its Punjabi version was also to be recorded. The possible wording was “Ai gham mainoo jawan de, jis raah te janda haan”. I do not know whether the Punjabi version saw the light of the day or not, but after listening to the Urdu version you can judge the beauty of the tune and its superb rendition. Talat Mahmood wanted not only to sing songs in Punjabi, but also wanted to learn the art of speaking chaste Punjabi.

    About this he confided later on with music director Sardul Kwatra. Sardul taught him the basics of Punjabi language during the recording sessions of music for the Punjabi film “Kaude Shah”. However, for mastering the art of speaking the language, Sardul told Talat Mahmood to dwell for sometime either in Lahore or in Amritsar from where most of the actors, actresses, writers, music directors and poets have migrated to Bombay. This was very hard for Talat Mahmood to do, because all along during the fifties he was in great demand in Bombay.

    Sardul Kwatra had heard the Talat Mahmood – Surinder Kaur Punjabi duet. He loved Talat’s tonal quality. While composing the music for Punjabi film “Kaude Shah”, Sardul composed most of the songs to be sung by Shamshad Begum, but one duet he composed for Talat Mahmood and Raj Kumari. The lyrics are “Zulfan ne khul gaiyan, akhiyan ne rul gaiyan, ki khatiya e dil laake”. The duet although was very sad, but it did very well in terms of sale of records. The best selling song of film “Kaude Shah” was a Shamshad Begum number bearing lyrics “Chhann chhann kardi gali de wichon langhdi ve mere sajna di dachi badami rang di”. But the Talat Rajkumari duet closely followed it in sale of discs. Talat was featured in a couple of other songs in film “Kaude Shah” including a chorus.
    Film “Kaude Shah” introduced the spice of Punjabi to Talat Mahmood. While on a trip ro Punjab, Talat Mahmood exhibited his love for Punjabi during the late sixties. On a fine wintry evening Begum Akhtar accompanied by Talat Mahmood visited Chandigarh in connection with a “Mirza Ghalib Nite”. While receiving the audience’s requests for the “Ghazals” to be sung, Talat was seen mumbling some words in Punjabi too. I was wonder struck to observe Talat Mahmood’s eagerness to learn and speak Punjabi. On the other hand we, the home grown Punjabis are abandoning this sweet language and trying to speak Hindi or English. Is this sheer inferiority complex or something else on our part?

    Talat Mahmood is no longer with us. But his sweet memory shall linger for ever. Who so ever loves Urdu poetry and its soulful, sensuous rendition shall fondly remember him. He was loved by the lovers of melody and sublime lyrics. Talat had more female fan following compared to any of his contemporary playback singers. Thanks to the advancements in recording, reproduction and listening technologies, his music shall live for ever and  make him immortal.

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