FEATURE: An evening with singer Mohammad Rafi

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The final part of our weekly series focusing on Asian nostalgia, following the 70th anniversary milestone for India and Pakistan.

Because there were no war veterans clubs and no community centres available for them during the 1960s and 70s, the first-generation migrants usually came together over the weekends in one ‘chosen’ house where they would sit to talk about anything and everything.

A room was set aside where besides watching TV, the older men would listen to the songs of the Indian film industry’s most famous playback singers.

There was of course the sweet voice of Lata Mangeshkar – who at the time was the Indian Sub-Continent’s version of Nancy Sinatra.

But it was always the beautiful voice of an amazingly gifted Indian playback singer called Mohammad Rafi who stole everyone’s hearts.

His love songs were so popular they could be heard on audio cassettes played in nearly every Asian living room – as well as in almost every Asian barbers shop.

Mohammad Rafi was a household name at the time.

This superb singer was known to be the only artist on the globe who had an astonishing ability to change the volume pitch of his vocal chords into a loud melodramatic tone, or into its opposite, a low romantic voice.

Mohammad Rafi’s voice could liven up a cold Saturday evening or cheer up the men on a damp cloudy Sunday afternoon.

His songs helped the early migrants of Batley, Dewsbury and Heckmondwike – at least for a few hours – to get away from the Heavy Woollen District’s mist and fog, away from its tall mill chimneys, away from the long work shifts, away from the cold and damp Yorkshire weather, and away from the lengthy dark winter nights.

His popularity grew throughout the 1960s as he was now singing all of his songs for the Indian cinema.

The film world of India knew Mohammad Rafi with his title “Awaaz-E-Hind” - meaning “The Voice Of India”.

The audio tape-recorder was always playing his songs in the ears of that army first-generation who often gathered together over the weekends in groups of up to ten or 15 to sit in a crowded living room – mostly on Sunday afternoon - just to listen to this amazing singer.

In the late 1960s, a second-generation children of these war veterans began arriving from the sub-continent into our local neighbourhoods.

Most came as teenagers. Some were old enough to start work in the mills, others had to attend the local high schools for a few years.

Schools like Heckmondwike Secondary near White Lee, Batley Boys High on Field Hill, the former Birkdale High, Earlsheaton High, as well as Victoria High (situated where the health centre now stands) in Dewsbury, all saw this tiny minority of Indian and Pakistani lads in their classrooms for the first time.

By 1970, many of them had gone back to India or Pakistan for a short holiday, got married, and then “put in the papers” for their new brides to come over.

These newly-married Indian and Pakistani couples moved into their own family homes – either with their parents or with their in-laws - and so, the traditional South-Asian extended family unit had begun to develop within British society – and in Kirklees.

The arrival of this second-generation built up another new fan-base for Mohammad Rafi, as well as an audience for the cinemas in Bradford.

After five days of hard shift work from Monday to Friday in the local mills, the men from Dewsbury, Batley and Heckmondwike could now get on the 268 bus, or drive, to watch the Hindi films being shown at the time in Bradford’s cinemas.

Bradford was a city which already by the late 1960s had a large well-settled population from India and Pakistan.

Singers like Rafi and Lata were icons of what is now remembered as the golden age of “old Bollywood”, a period throughout the 1960s which saw some beautiful films produced.

There were many romantic ones where famous Indian 
actors like Dharmendra Deol had lead roles singing Mohammad Rafi’s love songs.

Unknown at the time to many local Indian and Pakistani residents who were settled in the Heavy Woollen District during the sixties and seventies, this popular actor Dharmendra Deol even had Sikh relatives living in the Thornhill area of Dewsbury and in Springwood, Huddersfield.

He always kept a low profile when visiting their homes during any of his overseas tours in case large crowds gathered outside. The relatives were also asked to stay quiet about their family connections with him.

In 1968, the first ever Pakistani currents affairs programme known as “Nahi Zindagi, Naya Jeevan” (meaning “New Way, New Life”) was aired - on Sunday mornings - by the BBC.

It was a sign the BBC was slowly acknowledging the growth of at least one minority ethnic group in British society.

The programme ran in the Urdu language till 1987.

But it was nowhere near as popular for the local Pakistani population as were the cinemas of Bradford.

A visit to the cinema, especially by the younger second-generation, usually on Sunday afternoons was a well-deserved treat after a long week inside the textile mills.

By the early 1980s, the older men had been working in the factories for nearly 20 years and were now beginning to reach their retirement age.

As a result, they started going on the ‘Hajj’ pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

The ‘Hajj’ is a ritual all Muslims – men and women – should take part in at least once in their lifetime.

Most perform it whilst in their 20s or 30s. But for Muslims from the Indian Sub-Continent, the usual custom during the 1980s was to go on ‘Hajj’ when old or after retiring from work.

By this time, the cinemas of Bradford were slowly closing down, and gradually being demolished as religion began to play a more important role especially in the lives of the newly-retired, former army pensioners.

The title “Haji” was now attached to their names – ‘Haji’ meaning a person who had performed the sacred ‘Hajj’ pilgrimage.

Rediscovering their Muslim faith after returning from “the Hajj” gave a new sense of purpose to the elders.

As for their children - the second generation - they also learned to adjust their social lives with the changing times of the eighties.

There were now three choices available for them. It was either the VCR in place of the cinema, or playing cricket over the weekends with their friends – or the other alternative was the local mosque.

Most headed towards the mosque as well as developing a strong passion for cricket outside the mosque’s walls!