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How 2 tributes to Mohd Rafi on Mumbai's roads were conceived – Birth anniversary special

A year after the dual tributes were unveiled, Cinestaan.com spoke to NR Venkitachalam, who spearheaded the memorial, and Nasreen Ahmed, daughter of the late singer, on how the honours came to be.

Sonal Pandya

A year ago, on Christmas eve, dual tributes to singer Mohammed Rafi went up in Mumbai. One involved the beautification of a previous memorial and the other was the dedication of a road to the late singer.

Rafi was born on 24 December 1924 in the village of Kotla Sultan Singh, Punjab. From his debut as a playback singer in 1944 until his death in 1980, Mohammed Rafi established himself as a skilled singer who could mould his voice to suit the actor on screen.

Cinestaan.com spoke to the man, NR Venkitachalam, who was instrumental in getting both feats accomplished in one day, along with Nasreen Ahmed, Rafi’s daughter, on how 24 December 2016 almost became ‘Mohammed Rafi’ day.

At 78, NR Venkitachalam is a retired corporate executive whose full-time passion is music. He is the founder of Klub Nostalgia, which organizes musical concerts round the year.

“We are one of the biggest music organizers in Mumbai and have done more than 250 shows in India and abroad," Venkitachalam said. "We started this in 2004, it’s 13 years now. Our specialization is to showcase songs of the Golden Era of Hindi films, [which] is specified as the 1950s and 1960s. We present songs and give our stage to talented youngsters to display their talent. Most of the singers today belong to Klub Nostalgia.”

Around 170 of those Klub Nostalgia shows were devoted to Mohammed Rafi. Venkitachalam calls it his 'partiality'. Members of Mohammed Rafi’s family have attended many of those shows and he recalled telling them for the past few years that “we have to do something really big for him”.

Though he was the main driving force behind the whole operation, Venkitachalam was fairly embarrassed to be taking credit for all the work. But he did divulge why he was so driven to put in place a proper tribute for Mohammed Rafi.

“I am a great Mohammed Rafi fan," he said. "Rather than fan, I am a devotee. I am a 78-year-old man and right from my college days I have been singing and hearing Mohammed Rafi songs. He was a versatile singer and because of his singing a lot of those songs became popular.”

An earlier smaller plaque graced the busy junction of Hill Road and SV Road opposite Lucky restaurant in Bandra, Mumbai. However, NR Venkitachalam said, “I used to drive by and [saw] that a lot of street children used to get into that area and answer nature’s call at the plaque. I was feeling very bad about that.”

He went to see Mohammed Rafi’s daughters and requested them to help him revamp the memorial. Nasreen Ahmed remembers that meeting well.

She said, “To be very honest, we were excited because all these years, nobody had done anything. But anyway, better late than never. But we were all very excited and happy that Mr Venkat approached us and put it up in front of us that he wanted to make the memorial. It’s a very good thing. Aisa chhota-mota banana nahin tha unko. Mashallah, he has done a very good job with all his hard work and running about. What he wanted, he got it [done].”

The retired executive, who is also a social worker, started with a bhoomi pooja on 26 October 2016 and began the process of beautifying the area.

“The memorial has a stainless steel structure about 10 feet tall, with a golden ball embedded inside, that is to depict the golden voice of Mohammed Rafi. That was the construct behind it,” NR Venkitachalam explained. "I had my own contractors and within a matter of one and a half months, we completed it, despite the fact that the area is very congested. I had to get a lot of approvals from BMC and traffic police, and most importantly, I had to find sponsors for this project which was costing Rs25 lakh. I managed that also, with Union Bank of India.”

Photo courtesy: NR Venkitachalam

A registered company called World of Mohammed Rafi Welfare Foundation was set up and the money for the memorial was allocated there. Nasreen Ahmed, eldest daughter of Mohammed Rafi, is the chairperson and there are several directors, including NR Venkitachalam.

Much of the work and landscaping was completed at night owing to the daily congestion of the area which sees a lot of pedestrians. The song title ‘Tum Mujhe Yun Bhula Na Paoge’ from the Shammi Kapoor-starrer Pagla Kahin Ka (1970) is emblazoned across the memorial.

Finally, in record time, the projects were completed. The memorial was inaugurated by local legislator Ashish Shelar and Shahnawaz Hussain, Union minister from Delhi. Venkitachalam remembered that there were around 3,500 people for the inauguration and an hour before the memorial was unveiled, the previous mayor of Mumbai, Snehal Ambekar, renamed 16th Road in Bandra as ‘Padmashree Mohammed Rafi Road’. This was the lane where the singer used to live.

Nasreen Ahmed also revealed that permission to rename the road had actually been granted two decades ago.

Photo courtesy: NR Venkitachalam

“It was in 1994 that the late MLA Ramdas Nayak had sanctioned it. Unfortunately, he was assassinated and everything went haywire. All those things came to a standstill. After so many years, when Mr Venkat approached about this work, I did mention to him about the 16th Road, he was really excited. He said, do you have a letter or something? I said, ‘Yes, yes, I do’.

When they went to authorities with the old letter, they were a bit surprised. But within a week, it all fell in place.

After both inaugurations were done, a celebratory function was held at the Rangsharda auditorium at Bandra Reclamation. The event was attended by celebrities like Jeetendra, Biswajeet, and several music composers.

“Of course, Mohammed Rafi’s family was there. SP Balasubrahmanyam, the singer from the South, he is a great devotee of Mohammed Rafi, he also came. It was a grand celebration. There was no music, only the celebrities were talking about Mohammed Rafi and their experiences,” NR Venkitachalam said.

Further, even after the two landmark tributes have gone up, the World of Mohammed Rafi Welfare Foundation is following in the late singer’s footsteps. NR Venkitachalam said, “Mohammed Rafi, besides being a great singer, was a great human being, a very generous man, he used to do a lot of good things, give money and help the poor. So the intention of this trust is to take forward the good things that he has done.”

Rafi’s fans from out of the state and even overseas stopped by the older memorial even when it was in disrepair. Now they can pay their respects to the singer, by way of the revamped memorial and the new road.

Rafi's daughter said, “Udhar toh waise bhi jaate the, even when it was in such bad shape. A lot of people used to visit the chowk and put flowers and garlands. But aaj toh zyaada hi log ho gaye hai. I would say his fan followers are just increasing day by day, we really feel proud about it.”

She is honoured that they have remembered him after all this time. “[Even] without us interfering in anything, it’s the fans, they have kept him alive," Nasreen said. "We, as a family, pray for him every day. Our prayers are answered. Dekhiye na, woh itne ache insaan the, ke aaj tak log itna yaad karte hai. No doubt, he was a wonderful singer, but as a human being, I think he was great. And I’m so proud to have had such a father!”