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14 December 2020

The Masters: Shailendra


I spent a lot of time when I was growing up listening to Hindi songs. My favourite songs were those whose words resonated with me – in fact, for many years, I wrote down the lyrics of those songs just so I could read them again and again. Mostly, I would spend hours, rewinding cassettes so I could jot down the words correctly. As I grew older, and often went to the city to watch movies, I would buy the little lyric booklets – they initially sold for 25 paise, and later went up to Re.1. (I wonder whether they still sell those.)

Strangely enough, I never associated the songs itself with the lyricists – very rarely did I know then who wrote which song. The names were familiar – Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Sahir Ludhianvi, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, Qamar Jalalabadi, Kaifi Azmi, Gulzar… but despite liking the verses these talented men wrote, there were very few songs that I could identify as being written by a specific lyricist.

It’s only later, when I became more attuned to the words of the songs that I liked that I began to pay attention. Today, on his death anniversary, I post a tribute to one of Hindi cinema’s greatest poet-lyricists, Shankardas Kesarilal better known by his takhallus, ‘Shailendra’.

Shailendra was born in Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan) and moved to Mathura where he did his schooling. It was here, still a boy, that he began to dabble in poetry. Growing up, he took up a job as a welding technician in the Indian Railways and was transferred to Bombay. Like many other literary greats of the time, Shailendra was a communist and an integral part of IPTA – the Indian People’s Theatre Association, the oldest association of theatre artists in India. It was IPTA that he was introduced to Salil Chowdhury, with whom he would go on to collaborate both for IPTA and for films.

Working at the Matunga Railway Workshop, Shailendra spent his evenings taking part in mushairas and Kavi Sammelans. At one such meeting, he recited his famous poem on the Partition – Jalta hua Punjab. In the audience was another young man, on the cusp of his own journey as a director – Raj Kapoor.

The final part of Kapoor’s Aag dealt with a young girl who has survived the horrors of Partition. Kapoor offered Shailendra the princely sum of Rs500 to  use the poem in the movie. Shailendra refused – his poetry was not for sale. Taken aback, but impressed by the young poet, Kapoor left him with a standing offer – any time he changed his mind, he could approach Kapoor for work.

The fates intervened – a personal crisis led Shailendra to approach Kapoor for work. Kapoor, who was then finalising Barsaat, already had one lyricist on board – Hasrat Jaipuri. But he offered Shailendra two songs – Barsaat mein tak dhina dhin and Patli kamar hai. The film, and the songs, were a hit, and Kapoor had his dream team – music directors Shankar-Jaikishan, lyricists Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra. Until his untimely death, Shailendra, whom Raj Kapoor affectionately called ‘Kaviraj’ would write some of Kapoor’s most iconic songs. Apart from Shankar-Jaikishan, with whom Shailendra worked the most, he also collaborated with Salil Chowdhury, SD Burman, and many other music directors.

Shailendra’s forte was simplicity. Steeped in the folklore of Uttar Pradesh and relying mostly on simple, easy to understand Hindustani, Shailendra wove magic with his words. From the deeply philosophical to the quietly romantic, to everything in between, Shailendra made writing lyrics look easy, though it is never easy to be simple. The simplicity of language, however, often had hidden depths – of thought, of imagery, of emotion.

 The sheer diversity of themes in his poetry, complemented by his innate understanding of the story and characters, helped him shape word images that moved the narrative forward. The tragedies in his life (a penurious childhood, the deaths of his mother and sister, caste discrimination) gave an empathetic edge to his lyrics, while his innate desire for social justice found its reflection in the socialist underpinning of his songs.

Shailendra had earlier written the dialogues for Bimal Roy’s Prem Patra (based on Salil Chowdhury’s script); in 1963, he decided to produce Teesri Kasam based on Phaniswar Nath Renu’s novella to be directed by close friend, Basu Bhattacharya, who had earlier worked as Bimal Roy’s assistant. The film, starring Waheeda Rehman and Raj Kapoor, was inordinately delayed and a commercial disaster upon release. Though it did receive a lot of critical acclaim and even the National Award.

However, it was too late for Shailendra who never recovered from the failure of the film; he died in 1966 at the age of 43.

Today, on his death anniversary, a list of some of my favourite songs, written by Shailendra.  

Dil ka haal sune dilwala
Shree 420 (1955)
Singer: Manna Dey
Music: Shankar Jaikishan

You couldn’t get any simpler than this. A man on the streets, singing to entertain his friends on the footpath… but Shailendra couldn’t let the occasion pass without giving in to the temptation of expressing his sympathies for the underdog. The script gave him ample scope to express those views. Look at this verse, for example: 
 Gham se abhi azaad nahiin main
Khush hoon magar aabaad nahiin main
Manzil mere paas khadi hai
Paanv mein lekin bedi padi hai
Taang adaata hai daulat wala
Dil ka haal suno dil waala

It’s the plight of the common man, who’s constrained by his circumstances, and the obstacles that the rich and the wealthy place in his path. Such a complex thought expressed in such a simple manner. There was humour too, and irony when he wrote:

Boodhe daroge ne chashme se dekha
Upar se dekha neeche se dekha
Aage se dekha peeche se dekha
Bole ye kya kar baithe ghotala
Ye to hai thanedaar ka saala

There’s one rule for the rich and well-connected; one for the poor.

Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Shankar Jaikishan
It’s a plea to live for the moment, dangerously, with no thought of a future, or perhaps even the present. Except for this moment in time, when two strangers meet, serendipitously, perhaps never to see each other again. Why not take comfort in each other’s company, lose themselves in the land of dreams?
Hum tum na hum tum rahein ab, kuch aur hii ho gaye ab
Sapnon ke jhilmil nagar mein jaane kahaan kho gaye ab
Hum raah poochein kisi se na tum apni manzil bataao
Mehfil mein ab kaun hai ajnabii tum mere paas aao

She shall not ask the way, nor he mention his destination, but they are strangers no longer; come, open your heart and seize the day!

 Sajanwa bairi ho gaye hamaar
Teesri Kasam (1966)
Singer: Mukesh
Music: Shankar Jaikishan
Each of Teesri Kasam's songs could have made this list. And I do love Aa bhi jaa and Chalat musafir, but this one, a sad, poignant tale about a woman barren, betrayed, abandoned… the words tug at my heartstrings.
Sooni sej god mori sooni
Maram na jaane koi
Chatpat tadpe preet bichaari
Mamta aansoo roye
Na koi is paar hamaara
Na koi us paar
Sajanwa bairi ho gaye hamaar

For a man to write from a woman’s perspective is not easy, but the sensitivity that Shailendra brought to Mahua’s plight was filled with compassion. Once again, while the verses ostensibly sang about a village woman, but it stood as a metaphor for Hira Bai, the itinerant dancer, who has no one to call her own, no child to fulfil an unexpressed maternal yearning.  

Teesri Kasam was Shailendra’s passion project, and he lovingly crafted the songs from the raunchiness of Paan khaaye saiyyan hamaaro to the boisterous Chalat musafir moh liya re pinjre waali muniya to the philosophical resignation of Duniya banaanewale.

Singer: Mukesh
Music: Salil Choudhury
The song of the ultimate hedonist – cynical, yet cheery; philosophical and humorous; self-aware and well, filled with puns. Shailendra took a Kabir doha (couplet):
Rangi ko narangi kahe bane doodh ko khoya
Chalti ko gaadi kahe dekh Kabira roya
That which is colourful they call ‘narangi’ (colourless/orange)
Milk, cooked to solids, they call ‘khoya’ (‘lost’/milk solids)
Something that moves, they call ‘gaadi’ (standing still/vehicle)
Dekh Kabira roya (Kabir weeps at the paradoxes)

And then spun an equally fantastical song about the paradoxes in life. Life is a dream; in that dream world, what is true? What is false? Everything is false! He (Motilal) lives as his heart dictates; when he has the time, he will worry about the morality of his actions. But in the meantime, who cares? When it is easier to extol the virtues of drink:

Ek katraa mai ka jab
Patthar ke honthon par pada
Us ke seene mein bhi dil dhadka
Ye us ne bhii kaha

It can even bring a stone to life!

O sajna
Parakh (1960)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Salil Choudhury
Once again Shailendra shows that he has his fingers on the pulse of a young woman’s emotions – she (Sadhana) is on the cusp of her first love; the monsoons are here, bringing solace to a parched earth as the first flutterings of romance thrill an as yet un-awakened heart. And all around is the music of the rain. To me, this is one of Salilda’s finest compositions, and it is wonderfully complemented by Sadhana’s fresh-faced beauty, Lata Mangeshkar’s voice and… Shailendra’s lyrics.
Aise rhim jhim mein, o sajan
Pyaase pyaase mere nayan
Tere hii khwaabon mein kho gaye
Saanwli saloni ghata
Jab jab chhaaye
Akhiyon mein rain aa gayi
Nindiya na aayi

In these rains, my beloved
My eyes remain parched
Lost as they are in dreams of you
When these dark beautiful clouds gather
Night shutters my sight
Yet slumber remains aloof

So simple. So evocative. So romantic.

Ab ke baras bhejo
Bandini (1963)
Singer: Asha Bhosle
Music: SD Burman
This is certainly one of Asha Bhosle’s finest songs – she infuses Shailendra’s lyrics with the pathos and longing of a woman separated from her loved ones. (It is said that Asha broke down after recording the song because the words reflected her own life to a large extent.) Picturised in a jail, it is sung by one of the women imprisoned there – a longing for their lost innocence. Shailendra’s song captures both – the feeling of innocence and the yearning to return.
Bairan jawaani ne chhene khilone
Aur meri gudiya churaayi
Baabul ki main tere nazron ki paali
Phir kyun huyi main paraayi
Beete re jug koi chhithiyaa na paati
Na koi naihar se aaye re

 She was her father’s favourite, why has she become a stranger? It’s been ages since she’s received a letter, nor has anyone come to meet her. Send me home, my brother, she pleads, send me home to my parents.

Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Music: SD Burman
Another one of Shailendra’s impishly delightful songs which can refer to two different people depending on the context. A flirtation right under the nose of the parents, but of course, even the object of his affections cannot be sure that this stranger is flirting with her. She’s on the upper berth of the carriage, and her ears perk up in displeasure when the audacious stranger sings:
Apni to har aah ik toofan hai
Kya karein woh jaan kar anjaan hai
Uparwala jaan kar anjaan hai…

Each sigh is like a storm in itself’, he claims, but what can he do when the One who knows feigns ignorance? ‘The One above’ he stresses, looking piously upwards. Each word is cloaked in meaning, if only one were to pay attention. But what exactly is he talking about?

Ab to hanske apni bhi kismet ko chamka de
Kaanon mein kuch keh ke to is dil ko bahla de
Ye bhi mushkil hai to kya aasaan hai
Uparwala jaan kar anjaan hai…

If the ‘one above’ would only smile upon him, whisper in his ears, then his future would be bright. But if this is too difficult a boon to bestow, then what is it that’s simple? He is innocence personified, and the girl is left to ponder – God? Or her?

Dua kar gham-e-dil
Anarkali (1953)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: C Ramchandra
Who said Shailendra only wrote in Hindstani? While that was indeed his language of choice, the eminent lyricist displayed his deep understanding of Urdu when he wrote:
Salaamat rahe tu meri jaan jaaye
Mujhe is bahaane hii maut aaye
Karoongi main kya chand saansein bachaa kar
Dua kar gham-e-dil khuda se dua kar

She offers her life for his, for what does she have to live for if he dies? Her prayers are all that she can offer to save her beloved; the irony is that her prayers will come true: she will foreit her life for his, only, not the way she imagines. 

Anuradha (1960)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Ravi Shankar
I repeat – Shailendra knew what a woman felt, perhaps better than most women did themselves. How else can one explain this song that encompasses a lifetime of regret in a few verses? She is Anuradha Roy (Lalita Naidu) who had given up a luxurious home, a flourishing career and a man who loved her more than he loved anyone to follow her love – a dedicated doctor in a remote village. Ten years have passed – ten years in which Anuradha has changed from a vibrant, cheerful young woman to a quiet, lonely housewife, who doesn’t know where she’s lost her husband, or indeed, herself.
Rut matwaali aake chali jaaye
Man mein hi mere man ki rahi jaaye
Khilne ko tarse nanhi nanhi kaliyaan
Piya jaane na, haay
Kaise din beete kaise beeti ratiyaan
Piya jaane na

It is tragic – seasons have come and gone, but the man who yearned to hear her sing, the man who rushed out to buy her flowers, he’s so engrossed in his work that he has no time for her. Indeed, he isn’t even listening to her sing now.

Meri Soorat Teri Aankhein (1963)
Singer: Manna Dey
Music: SD Burman
A song that is filled with metaphorical images, all representing a man rejected by a society that places a higher value on beauty of face than beauty of character. Shailendra weaves his magic to reflect his agony.
Poocho na kaise maine rain bitaayi
Ik pal jaise ik yug beeta
Yug beete mohe neend na aayi

Don’t ask how I passed the night
An aeon passed
in the blink of an eye
An aeon passed
But slumber passed me by

That endless night; a lamp that doesn’t dispel the darkness; a night, pitch black, with neither moon nor stars to light the way; not even the dawn brings hope.

Na kahiin chanda na kahiin tare
Jyot ke pyaase mere nain bechaare
Bhor bhi aa ski kiran na laayi

And because Shailendra began his career with Raj Kapoor, and because Kaviraj's death anniversary is the same as Raj Kapoor's birth anniversary, I leave you with a song that brings Raj Kapoor's 'Dream Team' together.

Kisi ki muskuraahaton pe ho nisaar
Anari (1959)
 Singer: Mukesh
 Music: Shankar Jaikishan
This is the way life must be lived – with hope and laughter, and selflessness. Relationships are based on trust; faith in oneself and others form the foundations of life itself. And if you can shoulder the burden of another’s sorrow; if you can, with your actions, put a smile on their face, well, that is a life worth living. Isn’t it?
Rishta dil se dil ke aitbaar ka
 Zinda hai humeen se naam pyaar ka
 Ke mar ke bhi kisi ko yaad aayenge
 Kisi ke aansuon mein muskuraayenge
 Kahega phool har kali se baar baar
 Jeena isi ka naam hai

'Ke mar ke bhi kisi ko yaad aayenge". Never was a truer word written. Shailendra did  leave behind a legacy that will never die – in his songs that spoke of universal emotions, in songs that reflected us ordinary people, and our dreams and hopes and aspirations. He took our inexpressible feelings and reflected them back at us in words so simple we could hardly fail to understand. He spun his magic to tell us what we didn’t know we felt. He left his mark – not just on Hindi cinema, but on our hearts, imprinted himself in our memories, in a collective consciousness of what it means to be human. Yes, he's remembered. He will be remembered.

A career spanning 17 years, more than 800 songs – it’s difficult to do justice to the man’s talent in a single post with a handful of songs. What are some of your favourite Shailendra songs?

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