On Thursday, melody queen Lata Mangeshkar and tens of thousands of others fondly remembered eminent poet and lyricist Shailendra—who was addressed as ‘Pushkin’ and ‘Kaviraj’ by legendry film-maker Raj Kapoor. It was his 96th birth anniversary.
Born as Shankardas Kesarilal (1921-66) on this day, Shailendra struggled through life for several years before becoming one of the most popular poets of his times and the highest paid lyricists in Bollywood. In early 1950s, he worked in a Railway yard as a welder in Mumbai. A shy and silent man, it is said, he would participate in the cultural programmes of Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) wearing shirts pock marked and burnt by sparks. The flames and sparks of the welding torch, however, couldn’t wilt the flowers of his poetic ambitions and passion. Shailendra—who has inspired generations of lyricists—wrote songs which still remain as fresh in public memory and continue ruling the music charts.
Jii karata hai jeetay jii
Main yun hii gaata jaaun
Gardish men thakay haaron ka
Maatha sahlaata jaaun
Phir ik din tum doharaao,
Main gaaun tum so jaao
Sukh sapanon mein kho jaao
(While alive, I wish
I could keep singing to
The tired, the defeated and the lost
Caress them and help them sleep
So that one day they sing back to me
While I sing, you go to sleep
Slip into the sweet slumber)
Written by the Marxist poet and legendary Bollywood lyricist himself for a soothing lullaby that featured in the film Brahmachari (1968), these verses are a glowing testimonial for Shailendra.
Shailendra demonstrated a trademark writing style. He expressed complex emotions and thoughts in the simplest words. But whatever he wrote it was never devoid of deep philosophy of life—similar to the dohas of Kabir, a 15th-century Indian mystic poet and saint, whose writings influenced Bhakti movement and poetry of Meera Bai, a 16th-century Hindu mystic poet.
Even for films, he wrote deep philosophical songs which remain popular till date. In Sajan re jhoot mat bolo from movie Teesri Qasam (1966), he sounds like an idealist who prefers truth, compassion, generosity and good deeds over materialistic pursuits and possessions. And calls for creating meaning and adding value to life to escape its banality.
Musafir jaaye ga kahan (where will you go, o traveller!), is another philosophical gem from Guide (1965) wherein he asks some basic questions that everyone encounters in life sooner or later. Before coming to a conclusion that this world is a mirage, seen by all, experienced by all but controlled by none, he underlines thoughts that cross the mind of every conscientious person: “why is the snake-charmer swaying to his own tune?”
O mere Majhi from Bandhini (1963) has remarkable literary and philosophical depths and yet remains popular in equal measures down the generations.
In Tu pyaar ka sagar hai from Seema (1955), Shailendra talks about an unbounded desire of a bruised heart to love the long-separated beloved—but between the two boundaries of life and death.
Raj Kapoor and his inimitable dancing immortalised the epic song Kisi ki muskurahaton pe ho nisaar, in which the poet sees true meaning of life in sacrificing oneself for someone’s smile. “Perish for love that is life, crave for spring that is life,” the song asserts with a declaration, “Even if we die, we will be remembered by someone, that we’ll smile in someone’s tears, The flower will tell every bud, on and on, that this is what life is all about!”
While a good number of his songs reflected socialist ethos, most of his poems on political subjects continue to be anthems of several theatre groups in the country including IPTA.
Tu zinda hai to zindagi ki jeet par yakeen kar
Agar kahin hai swarg to utaar la zameen par
(If you have life in you, believe in its survival instinct
If there is heaven anywhere, bring it down on earth)
In Mera joota hai Japaani featured in Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420 (1955), Shailendra talks like a cheerful young man who personifies Hindustan. “We must borrow from other cultures and countries and yet remain staunch Hindustani at heart without compromising on our core value system,” he says philosophically in the iconic song.
Dil ka haal sunay dil waala that featured in the same movie, talks about class struggle, exploitation and nepotism. In another song, Suraj zara aa paas aa, Aaj sapno ki roti pakayenge hum (Sun, come a little closer, Today, we’ll bake rotis of dreams, he talks about hunger. Not bitterly but in a jovial manner, quite poetically.
Most of his romantic and love songs count among some of the finest songs of Bollywood. Among other songs of Guide (1965), Aaj phir jeenay ki tamanna hai talks about the emotions of a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage and seeking love outside. A woman who wants to defy gender stereotypes and defeat social taboos. When Shailendra expresses emotions of such a woman, even a joyful impromptu human expression like “ha ha ha ha ha ha” becomes a never-heard-before but beautiful rhyme in the lyrics writing. And an ornament like ankle bracelet becomes a symbol of revolt in the song.
Who could have described it poetically better than Shailendra when it comes to the sweet pain that lingers in the yearning for the beloved’s company as he did in Ye raat bheegi bheegi in Chori Chori (1956).
Pyaar hua ikraar hua in Shree 420 (1955) celebrates the beginning of lovers’ union; who being clueless about their journey and destination are struggling with fears and apprehensions; even after mutual acceptance of love.
Songs like Awara hoon and Suhana safar talk about the emotions of a person who is lonely on the road of life, looking for love. The loneliness in these songs brims with hope and optimism. In fact, in Awara, he proclaims: “Yes, I am devastated, but I sing songs of happiness. My chest is full of wounds but my carefree gaze laughs.”
Though he was well versed in Hindi and Urdu, another language Bhojpuri—which is spoken in the northern-eastern part of India and Terai region of Nepal, was his mother tongue.
Several of his songs like Paan Khaye Saiyyan Hamaro, Sajanwa bairi hogaye humaar, Ab kay baras more bhaiya ko bhejo and Chalat musafir moh liya pinjre waali Munia don’t sound different from the folk songs.
Shailendra entered film-industry on the insistence of Raj Kapoor when he went back to him for repaying a loan of Rs 500. Within a career of about 20 years, he wrote hundreds of memorable songs besides a highly critically acclaimed movie Teesri Qasam—which he adamantly never wanted to be a typical Bambaia movie. As predicted by many, the movie, proved disaster at box office. At 43, Shailendra—who professed love and happiness in his songs throughout life and wished: Gata rahay mera dil—left this world betrayed and emotionally-shattered.
He left behind an incomplete song, Jeena yahan marna yahan, Iskay siva jaana kahan (One has to live here, die here. Where else one can go). The song posthumously featured in Mera Naam Joker in 1970. It was completed by his son Shaily Shailendra.