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Shailendra — the Leftist poet and Dalit genius whose lyrics define beauty of simplicity

Shailendra, the prolific lyricist, who straddled the worlds of communism and Bombay’s film industry, wrote over 900 songs.

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New Delhi: From being a welding apprentice in the Central Railways to being part of a theatre group and then becoming one of the most well-known lyricists of Indian cinema, Shailendra led a rich colourful life peppered with both both struggle and success.

Many might not know his complex life story — his tryst with communism or his battles of navigating the world as a Dalit man — the way his evergreen lyrics are known.

Shailendra, who is considered to be the first to combine Hindi and Urdu poetry traditions, first started attending mushairas and kavi sammelans (poetry conferences) while he was working at Matunga Railway Workshop in what was then Bombay. It was during this time that he got involved with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI), and began writing socialist-themed poems and songs set in post-Independence India.

He created the famous slogan —  “Har zor-zulm kee takkar mein, hartal hamara nara hai” (Strike is our weapon against every atrocity, every excess), this is used by protesters even today. 

It was one such poem on Partition, Jalta hai Punjab, that not only earned him literary acclaim but became his ticket to success in the world of cinema. 

Actor, producer and director Raj Kapoor happened to hear Shailendra recite the poem at an IPTA function when Kapoor was preparing for his directorial debut Aag, and promptly offered to buy the rights of the poem for a then-handsome sum of Rs 500, but Shailendra refused. Much later, Shailendra did reconsider, and a long and fruitful collaboration then happened between Kapoor and Shailendra, whom he fondly called Kaviraj and Pushkin. 

Shailendra went on to be an integral part of Kapoor’s team. His success went beyond Kapoor, as he went on to work with other superstars like Dev Anand, Kishore Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Waheeda Rahman and Nargis, and composers such as S.D. Burman, Manna Dey and Shankar Jaikishan.

In 2016, a street was named after Shailendra  — Geetkar-Jankavi Shailendra Marg in Dhauli Pyau locality of Mathura, the place where he spent most of his early life before moving to Mumbai.

But regardless of his fame, Shailendra fundamentally remained a “people’s poet” . His lyrics in songs like Thahar zara o jaane wale in Boot Polish (1954) always had strong socialist undertones. 

Also read: Jagjit Singh, the humble prodigy who made ghazals accessible

He wasn’t open about his Dalit idenity

Born to a Dalit family at Dhuspur village in Bihar’s Arrah district, Shailendra had never really been very open about his Dalit identity, despite having been part of a union, an integral part of IPTA and the Progressive Writers’ Association. 

But in 2016 while launching a compilation of Shailendra’s poems titled Andar Ki Aag (The Fire Within), his son Dinesh Shankar Shailendra revealed that his father had belonged to the Dhursia caste, a cobbler community from Bihar. 

“Growing up, my parents did tell us that we were from a low caste but I never understood what that meant until my late 20s, when I started to research my father’s life,” says Dinesh. 

Despite all the acclaim and accolades, Dinesh was always curious to know why his father had never received any national or state-level awards. But now even though there are some who disapprove of the idea of linking Shailendra to his caste, he is hailed as a Dalit genius, with veteran critic Dr Namvar Singh even referring to Shailendra as the greatest Dalit poet after Sant Ravidas. 

Also read: Jailed for anti-Nehru poem & celebrated for Bollywood songs, Majrooh Sultanpuri had it all

His evergreen songs

As 14 December marks the 53rd death anniversary of the artist who died at the young age of 43, ThePrint takes a look at some of his most memorable songs whose lyrics did not just contribute to the success of the songs they were written for or the movies they were featured in, but became intrinsically tied to the personas of the actors.

What image does Mera Joota Hai Japani Yeh Patloon Englishtani conjure up if not Raj Kapoor, his blazer-trouser costume and Charlie Chaplin-esque moustache. The Shri 420 (1955) song even featured in a 2016 Hollywood blockbuster starring Ryan Reynolds. 

In Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua, Shailendra’s simple yet beautiful lyrics were brought to life in this sensuous Raj Kapoor-Nargis scene under the umbrella that lives on in public memory even today. 

Khoya Khoya Chaand is the evergreen Dev Anand song from Kala Bazar (1960) that continues to be remixed and re-imagined.

Suhaana Safar Aur Yeh Mausam Haseen from Madhumati (1958) is perhaps one of the most remembered songs picturised on Dilip Kumar.

Sajan Re Jhooth Mat Bolo was one of the most profound songs featured in Teesri Kasam (1966), the film Shailendra produced before his death that very same year. 

Also read: Middle-class cinema’s pioneer Hrishikesh Mukherjee was all about stories with heart


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  1. Thank you for telling me that Manna Dey was a composer! People like you who do not know history end up distorting it, and this is true for any subject that you touch.

    Shame on you!

  2. Great!
    For those who are objecting the mention of word “Dalit”,always remember that for a Dalit with little social capital,the struggle is both against Caste and their own aim. Secondly, don’t apply Ostrich method of neglecting the problem of Caste. It is there and will be. Only by willing to understand,and fighting against it will solve this problem.
    Those who think that just neglecting the issue wouuld ultimately solve the problem will ultimately be defenceless when the problem would become out of proportion.
    Even Dr. Ambedkar was not willing to go into the politics to fight Caste when he came to India after studying in abroad. But when he himself faced untouchability and found the gravity of the problem from his own surveys,he dedicated his life against this monster

  3. I felt pained when ‘the print’ mentioned the lyricist’s caste. What kind of fair journalism is this?
    Please delete his caste and mention his achievements as it is contribution of the artist that counts.

  4. What a shameless way to showcase the greatest talent . Certain class of media put a news in a way that creates a rift / divide in society . Shame on the journalism level of Print and Long live Shailendra , Son of India .

  5. What ever his caste does not matter at all. He was a genius. Shame to brand now and dig his past.

    • Very true… Why was his caste mentioned? A lyricist thinks beyond such petty considerations.

  6. It is very much relevant. It shows that talent belongs everywhere and even thousands of years of suppression of his community failed to kill the spirit of expression in this dalit genius.

  7. Did anyone wanted to know whether he was “Dalit” or not? How it is relevant? Just another shameless attempt to spread caste-consciousness in the society, after Indian politicians. What kind of people are running this magazine? What is their motivation for giving space to such misguided interests?

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