The first time, I performed with Rafi Sahab (Mohammed Rafi) on stage was when I was nine. In the late ‘50s, he had come to Nagpur, my birthplace, with music composer duo Kalyanji-Anandji and the legendary Mukesh. The female singer, who was supposed to accompany them, couldn’t make it. Kalyanji-Anandji called some local singers for audition to All India Radio but nobody could make the grade. During the show, on the insistence of a sound recordist, I sang Rasik balma (Chori Chori, 1956), originally performed by Lata Mangeshkar. It was then that I got my first pat from Rafi Sahab,” says Usha Timothy, who went on to sing with Rafi on stage for nearly two decades. Tuesday marked the legendary singer’s 38th death anniversary.
Over the next two years, as she settled down in Mumbai, Rafi took her under his wing. Kalyanji-Anandji gave her a break as a playback singer in Himalaya Ki God Mein (1965). Timothy’s duet with Rafi, Tu raat khadi thi chhat pe, became a chartbuster. By then, she had won the all-India singing contest of AIR, Delhi, where Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Aamir Khan and Pt Omkarnath Thakur were the judges. All of 16, Timothy was a star.
“Rafi Sahab and Baaji (his wife) always treated me like their daughter, protecting, loving and even admonishing me like parents,” says Timothy, who performed with Rafi from 1960 till his death in 1980. Timothy describes Rafi as “a quiet man of few words, who would very rarely get angry”. The 69-year-old Mumbai-based singer recalls: “He was a stickler for riyaz. When abroad, we would have shows on Saturdays and Sundays. From Monday to Friday, he would do the riyaz and hardly go out in public.”
At a show in Dalli Rajhara in Chattisgarh, Timothy lost her way in a crowd while signing autographs after the show. “I was scared. I didn’t know where to go. Suddenly, Rafi Sahab came to the spot in his car. He mildly admonished me for being unmindful,” she says. There were times when Timothy was angry with the legendary vocalist. “During a London trip, a local girl befriended me. One day, she got her uncle to meet me. He introduced himself as a friend of my father (Benjamin Timothy) from Nagpur. He wanted to take me out shopping. I sought Rafi Sahab’s permission. After exchanging pleasantries with this man, Rafi Sahab refused to let me go with him. I was angry and didn’t talk to Rafi Sahab and Baaji for two days. Later, when I asked my brother about the man, he said the family didn’t have any such acquaintance. It was then that I realised how much Rafi Sahab and Baaji cared for me,” says Timothy.
Her sense of gratitude also extends to the musical training she got from the maestro. “He gave me insight into many finer aspects of singing — how to modulate my voice and stress on certain words, taans and murkis,” she says. During live shows, Rafi would be an entirely different person. “On those occasions, he was also a performer. He would give me romantic glances. He used to say: ‘You are like my daughter off stage but, on stage, I am Dev Anand and you are Madhubala’,” Timothy says.
Rafi also had a wicked sense of humour. “When I got married in 1972, he gifted me an entire honeymoon package. He gave us an Ambassador car filled with eatables and drinks. He instructed the driver to put a curtain in the middle and not look behind,” says Timothy, who stopped singing for a decade after Rafi’s death.
She also remembers Rafi’s innumerable shows for charity. “Last year, actor Mala Sinha recounted an anecdote about Rafi Sahab. She once requested him for a charity show at a church. The show made a good collection. Malaji gave Rafi Sahab a blank cheque and asked him to put any amount he deemed fit. Rafi Sahab refused. He said,‘Jesus was as much his as of Malaji’s,” Timothy says. Clearly, Rafi’s songs are not the only thing we must cherish in today’s turbulent times.