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Shailendra — Everyman’s lyricist who turned into Raj Kapoor’s ‘Pushkin’

Shailendra's lyrics echoed the struggle & pain of poverty, but also held out a promise of love & hope for the future. He gave Raj Kapoor some of his biggest hits — ‘Awara hoon’ & ‘Mera joota hai Japani’.

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Post Independence, Indian cinema was in search of new narratives that would speak of the dreams of a new nation. As commercial Hindi cinema had the widest audience, its music and songs were of great importance. The first decade of mainstream cinema, the 1950s, was in fact, a period when songs and their picturisation were a key focus of moviemakers.

Lyrics played a pivotal role in shaping the personalities of actors and actresses who lit up the silver screen. The Urdu language played a dominant role in the songs of that era as the front-ranking poets and lyricists of that time, Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri wrote in that language.

Hindi-Urdu poet Shailendra, who gave Raj Kapoor some of his biggest hits — ‘Awara hoon’ and ‘Mera joota hai Japani’ — was born on 30 August 1923, in Rawalpindi in undivided India. From Rawalpindi, his family migrated to Mathura. Well versed in the folk tradition of Uttar Pradesh, he started writing songs for Hindi cinema, after a period of great struggle.

Shailendra became popular among the masses as his lyrics pulled the heartstrings with their linguistic simplicity, spontaneity, emotional ring, and its ‘common touch’. His songs also drew on contemporary issues and echoed the struggle and pain of poverty which he had known in his own life. They also held out the promise of love and hope for the future.

Due to his pro-Left leanings — he was a member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) — his songs spoke to the working class and their problems. The pain and anguish of partition, anti-establishmentarianism, and hope for the oppressed are some of the recurring themes of his songs.

On the occasion of Shailendra’s 98th birth anniversary, ThePrint takes a look at his life’s journey.

Slogans against oppression 

Shailendra’s childhood was spent amid a financial crisis. His family had originally migrated from Bihar to Rawalpindi in search of work but left for Mathura due to financial troubles. In his youth, Shailendra shifted to Bombay where he started working as a welding apprentice at the Matunga Railway workshop. But even during those harsh times, his love for poetry did not waver.

While working in the Railways, he joined IPTA, a cultural initiative of the undivided Communist Party. He wrote and recited many poems for IPTA’s programmes. The socialist and leftist influence is clearly visible in most of his poems.

He coined a slogan that is still used in various demonstrations. It goes like this….
Har zor julm ke takkar men hadtal hamara nara hai
Tumne Mange Thukrai Hain, Tumne toda hai har vada
Chhini hamse sasti roti, tum chhatni par aamadaa ho,
To apni bhi taiyari hai, to hamne bhi lalkara hai,
Har zor julm ke takkar men hadtal hamara nara hai

His resistance against the injustices in society is clearly reflected in another song written for IPTA. Here he writes:
Buri hai aag pet ki,
Bure hain dil ke daag ye,
Na dab sakenge,
Ekdin Danenge inqlab ye
Girenge julm ke mahal
Banenge navin gahr,
Agar kahin hai swarg to
Utar la jamin par
Tu Jinda hai,
Tu Jindgi ki
Jeet par yakin kar

This song which talks of hunger and revolution in the same breath is one of the best examples of his poetic form.

The Raj Kapoor and Shailendra partnership

Shailendra first met Raj Kapoor at an IPTA programme. In those days, Shailendra’s poem Jalta Hai was quite famous in the corridors of the Punjab literary world. Raj Kapoor was, at that time, also making his first forays into direction — he was keen to utilise Shailendra’s poetry for his first film, Aag (1948).

Narrating this incident in his book, ‘Getoon ke saudagar,’ written on Shailendra, author Brij Bhushan Tiwari writes: “Raj Kapoor also spoke about providing proper remuneration, but this ‘rebel-cum-autocratic lyricist’ responded: ‘I don’t write for money. There is nothing that might inspire me to write a song for your film. Why should I write then?”

After some time, when Shailendra was in dire straits and did not even have enough to take care of his pregnant wife, he reached Raj Kapoor’s office at Mahalaxmi and said: “I need money. I need five hundred rupees. In return, assign me any work that you seem appropriate.”

This is the period when Raj Kapoor was directing his second film, Barsaat, and he needed lyrics for two more songs. Hasrat Jaipuri had already written six. The two songs that Shailendra wrote for Barsaat were well-received by the audience. This collaboration started off the Raj Kapoor-Shailendra partnership that lasted for 17 long years.

Raj Kapoor used to fondly call Shailendra ‘Pushkin’ after the famous Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, and ‘Kaviraj’. Raj Kapoor’s romantic image and the humanist themes of many of his films that brought him immense fame is incomplete without Shailendra’s lyrics.

Apart from Raj Kapoor, Shailendra wrote numerous songs for actors like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Waheeda Rehman, Nargis, Kishore Kumar and also worked with musicians and composers like S.D. Burman, Manna Dey, Shankar-Jaikishan, Roshan, Salil Chowdhury.

Shailendra always remained silent about his Dalit identity

Shailendra, a Dalit, who belonged to Dhuspur village in Bihar’s Ara district, remained silent about his Dalit identity throughout his life.

In 2016, Dinesh Shankar Shailendra, his son, published a collection of poems written by his father titled ‘Andar Ki Aag‘. In this book, he revealed the family’s social identity — the Dhursias of the cobbler caste of Bihar. At the time of the release of this book, famous critic Dr Namvar Singh had called Shailendra the “greatest Dalit poet since Sant Ravidas”.

Also read: Upkar — film born of churn in newly-Independent India gave Bollywood a hit formula

Shailendra’s writings were for Everyman

The songs that poured out of Shailendra’s pen influenced and inspired many other lyricists. Several songs composed by him are still hummed by us. His influence is clearly visible in the works of lyricists like Yogesh, Gulzar, and Anand Bakshi.

Film director and lyricist Gulzar had once said: “It is because of Shailendra that I ventured into the film industry. He continuously inspired me to write and that’s how I wrote my first song – ‘Mora Gora Ang Lele‘ for Bimal Roy’s ‘Bandini‘. He was my friend, philosopher, guide and I learned a lot from him… He wrote from his heart and he wrote for the common man.”

In an article written on Shailendra in ‘Naya Gyanodaya’, Gulzar wrote: “He knew the difference between Najm and Nagme. He was also aware of how a Najm gets transformed into a Nagma. To know that, it is very important to stay connected with the people, and also with the folk arts. Shailendra was unique in being able to convey big ideas with the simplest of words and situations.”

Shailendra’s songs fit all situations

Filmmaker Amit Khanna has mentioned in an article that Urdu poetry has a specific tone that is based on meter and kafia, but Hindi has a huge range. According to him, Shailendra was the first lyricist who brought both these patterns together to compose his songs.

Due to his long-term association with the cinematic world, Shailendra’s poetic avatar was not discussed as much as his songs, but his poems do cover several aspects of life.

While a concern for social issues is clearly visible in Shailendra’s songs, their realism is unmistakable. In the song ‘Raat Gayi Din Aata Hai‘ from the movie Boot Polish, Shailendra writes:
Khela Bachpan, Hansi Jawani,
Magar budhapa tadpata hai,
Sukh Dukh ka pahiya chalta hai
Wahi nasiba kahlata hai

This song appears to be a mirror image of another song written by Shailendra for the film, Teesri Kasam:

Ladakpan khel me khoya,
Jawani neend bhar soya,
Budhapa dekh kar roya,
Vahi kissa purana hai.

It can therefore be said that Shailendra’s songs are the lyrics of a traveller who keeps a close watch on the journey of life, its trials, and tribulations.

Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420’s ‘Mera joota hai japani’, ‘pyar hua iqrar hua‘ and Teesri Kasam’s ‘Sajan re jhooth mat bol’o; Dev Anand-starrer Kala Bazar’s ‘Khoya-Khoya Chand’, Dilip Kumar-starrer Madhumati’s ‘Suhana Safar aur ye mausam hansin’, Daag’s ‘E mere dil kahin aur chal’, the film Bandani’s ‘O Mere Manjhi’ — are all characteristic of the ‘Shailendra style’. They are replete with the sorrows and the little joys of ordinary men and women. Who can ever forget the songs written by Shailendra for the film Guide?

The story behind Teesri Kasam

Around 1960, Shailendra came upon Mare Gaye Gulfam, a short story written by famous Hindi litterateur Phanishwarnath Renu. He immediately thought about filming it on the big screen. In a letter written to Renu, Shailendra asked his permission to do so which the author granted. Renu and Shailendra soon became bosom friends and work on the film started.

Shailendra wanted to complete this film — he was its producer — within a year with the title Teesri Kasam. In this film, he cast Raj Kapoor in the lead role of Hiraman and Waheeda Rehman in the role of Hirabai. However, it took more than five years to complete. In between, Shailendra became drowned in debt, Renu fell ill and returned to his village.

When Teesri Kasam (1966) was finally released it could not make a splash on the box office. In the meantime, Shailendra, who was deeply in debt, died at the age of 43 — after his demise, the film was honoured with the National Film Award.

Teesri Kasam is a poetic film in which Shailendra has picturised the folk tradition in a beautiful way. The songs he wrote in Bhojpuri make the film all the more powerful and true to its setting.

Shailendra’s songs always had this mix — an honest, carefree approach and a bracing up for the struggles of life. That’s why he wrote in the song Awara Hoon (Awaara, 1951):

Abaad Nahin, Barbaad Sahi,
Gata hoon khushi ke geet magar,
Jakhmon se bhara seena hai mera,
Hasti hai magar yah mast najar
Duniya main tere teer ka
Ya taqdeer ka mara hoon…

Whenever a person finds himself in trouble, in love, in sorrow, in celebration, in agitation, he can always fall back on Shailendra. That is the greatness of Kaviraj and why we still remember him today.

(Edited by Paramita Ghosh)

Also read: 5 songs and 5 moods to remember Khayyam, Bollywood’s versatile music composer



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