Why Mohammed Rafi never got the Dadasaheb Phalke award?

Kudos to Amitabh Bacchan for getting Dadasaheb Phalke Award. Undoubtedly, the megastar is deserving of the highest award that's bestowed upon those who excel in the world of cinema. Film music is integral to Hindi cinema and great personalities from this sphere-Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsale and Majrooh Sultanpuri got it. Here come subjective, selective and universal or collective preferences and perceptions of the masses.

"There're certain very valid choices, decided by the people of the world and not by a specific committee comprising a handful of members," Nobel (Peace) Prize Committee issued a 'letter of acceptance' (a euphemism for the letter of admittance/confession), when a Nobel for Peace was never given to Mahatma Gandhi, though all his followers like Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu among others got it.

The same statement can be applied in the Indian context when the legendary singer Mohammed Rafi's glaring omission is taken into account. For the record, Rafi did receive a mere Padmashri in 1967. Though it can be argued as an extenuating factor that Rafi resides in the hearts of his countless followers and when one's greatness is certified by the public, s/he goes beyond all institutionalised awards. But we mustn't forget that any award is an official stamping of someone's excellence. Public recognition is always there, but governmental approval or structured validation is something that is expected and sought after. Otherwise, all awards could and would have been abolished. That they still exist is a clinching proof that state recognition underscores an awardee's true worth. 

On this score, Rafi's bizarre omission and his 'token' Padmashri (never receiving Padma Bhushan/Padma Vibhushan and the cinematic epitome Dadasaheb Phalke Award) can be cited as a quintessential case of national apathy, though the man is loved across the world for his unparalleled singing prowess. 

A few years ago in London, I was conversing with Dr Parminder Singh of Lahore University, a triple MA in Music, Punjabi Literature and Urdu Poetry. He helped me collect and corroborate a few facts about Rafi when I was pursuing a PhD on the great singer. Dr Parminder's words in fabulous Urdu still echo in my ears, nay, consciousness. He tellingly said, 'Jab itne azeem mutrib ko koi aur inaam, maslan Padma Bhushan, Vibhushan ya phir Dada Sahab Phalke se navaza jaana tha hi nahin toh Padma Shri bhi nahin dete' (When bigger awards like Padma Bhushan, Vibhushan etc. were not considered for such a great singer, it'd have been prudent not to give any award to him). Dr Parminder further added, 'Muhammad Rafi deserved the very best. By giving him the 'best'', the country and its government belittled his greatness and unintentionally humiliated him. So very true and a below-the-belt apercu by a man who saw and observed Rafi from close quarters.

Rafi was a singer, who could sing all types of songs and about whom Pakistan's President General Zia-Ul-Haq (of all people!) commented, 'Koi insaan unki tarah nahin gaa sakta ' (No individual can sing like him). It is worthwhile to mention that Zia was a grim man who seldom appreciated artistic pursuits and shunned music like Aurangzeb. However phlegmatic a person may be in his admiration, Rafi's universal voice evokes a spontaneous admiration and elicits a rich vein of wonderment. 

Even a humble and forever non-controversial Rafi felt that being awarded the Padmashri was somewhat below his dignity and calibre and even contemplated returning it. But then, someone suggested that the public could get a twisted message and his refusal might be misconstrued. A thorough gentleman that he was, Rafi didn't protest and he graciously accepted the award from the then President of India Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan. I must hasten to add here that Prithvi Raj Kapoor, father of Raj Kapoor, didn't attend the award ceremony as a mark of protest and immediately gave an interview to BBC's Hasnain Khan that Rafi deserved much more. Remember, in 1967, Rafi was at his zenith and was singing in almost every film. The senior most Kapoor was extremely fond of Rafi. Just imagine, in 1967, many people thought that Padmashri to Rafi was an act of sheer tokenism! His corpus of work increased and swelled even more till he bowed out of the world in 1980. 

Rafi not getting beyond Padmashri is a disturbing, even embarrassing, reminder of the existence of a large-scale system-apathy. The vox populi in the case of Rafi was never taken seriously. Rafi was not just an individual, he was an institution, and we have always suffered from Institutional Insouciance. I ran from pillar to post to convince the heads of music departments at Indian universities and also approached the VCs to pursue my PhD on Rafi ki aawaaz mein naghmagi (The Musicality in the Voice of Muhammad Rafi) in Urdu. No Indian university allowed me. Frustrated, I approached Lahore University and immediately got a go-ahead. My point is: Rafi, who sang for Indian films, was not considered a subject worth doing a doctorate on. But a neighbouring country had no problem for which Rafi sang only 13 songs (which is not known to many Indians who claim to be great admirers of Rafi). To cut the matter short, state's indifference, our lackadaisical approach and attitude and lack of unified efforts to get Rafi the pedestal he deserved are the factors that work in a confluence to every big award eluding him so far. Dadasaheb Phal-ke or Bharat Ratna will continue to elude if no concerted endeavour is taken up in this regard. 

An official recognition of his greatness is long overdue. He passed away on July 31, 1980. Nearly four decades have glided by, but nothing worthwhile has taken place. If Prithvi Raj Kapoor (1971) and Vinod Khanna (2017) could get it posthumously, what's the hitch in Rafi getting it?

The man who so prophetically sang, 'Mujh ko mere baad zamana dhoondhega' (Ek naari, do roop, 1973, Music: Ganesh/Lyrics: Asad Bhopali). Yes, we'll remember you wistfully, but also with a tinge of sorrowful exasperation that despite deserving the sublime best, just the best was perfunctorily accorded to you. 

An advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, civilizations and cultures.