This year marks the birth centenary of the lyrical genius whose verses transcended borders.
Urdu poet Allama Iqbal (1877-1938) said in one of his famous poems, Jawaab-e-Shikwa, which is deemed as God’s reply to another poem, Shikwa (complaint): “Dil se jo baat nikalti hai asar rakhti hai (whatever comes from the heart has an impact).” But Shankardas Kesrilal alias Shailendra, the people’s poet and film lyricist, was well aware of the importance of not just a speaker but also the listener when he wrote, “Dil ka haal sune dilwala (one who has a heart listens to another heart).” The song, which featured in Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 (1955), had underpinnings of Shailendra’s lived experiences from earthly sorrows and troubles. Nevertheless, the song also talks about the underprivileged and oppressed masses who find themselves on the wrong side of this unequal and unjust world because of the lottery of birth. Sample the following stanza that he stated without any mirch-masala (spices):
“Chhote se ghar me garib ka beta, Main bhi hun maan ke nasib ka beta Ranj-o-gam bachpan ke saathi, Aandhiyon mein jali jivan baati Bhukh ne hai bade pyaar se paala! (A poor man’s son from a small house, I too have blessings of my mother, Grief and sorrows are childhood friends, Braving storms, my life’s lamp burnt bright, Hunger has nurtured me with great love!)“ When his elder sister was struggling with a life-threatening illness, Shailendra would regularly visit the temple barefoot under the scorching sun. With prayers on his lips, he continued with the practice for several days despite blistered feet. But this devotion could not defer his sister’s untimely death. He felt let down by God and became an atheist.
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There is another incident that is said to have left a lasting impact on his impressionable mind. While playing hockey, someone made nasty remarks against him, targeting his social identity, Bihar’s cobbler Dhursia community. In a fit of rage, he broke his hockey stick and never played the sport thereafter. Soon after the Partition, his family shifted from Rawalpindi in Pakistan to Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura, where survival became a daily battle for them. He had no option but to take up the job of a welder at a Railway yard in Mumbai towards the end of 1947.
As a defiant response to life’s harshness, he took refuge in poetry to make sense of a bewildering world at a young age. It is not without reason that the poet, who wrote: “Tu zinda hai to zindagi ki jeet par yaqeen kar, Agar kahin hai swarg to utaar la zameen par (If you are alive then be confident about life’s sure victory, If there is a heaven anywhere, bring it down on the earth),” never let the flames of the welding torch, and even the dark shadow of despair from his troubled past, wilt the flowers of his fortitude.
A celebration of human values
It was a time when the political culture of the country was filled with the freshness of an idealism that drove the independence movement. Social realism had fired up the nation’s imagination. He found himself at the right place at the right time after having joined the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) and Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Moreover, he had his ear to the ground and understood the pulse of the common people. It was during this period his poetic genius attracted the attention of filmmaker Raj Kapoor. Following some initial inhibitions, he became a member of Kapoor’s core team and Indian cinema’s most influential lyricist, Shailendra. A famous song in Sangam (1964)that says, “Deewana saikadon mein pehchana jayega (the one who is madly in love will stand out in the crowd),” seems like an ode to the first meeting between the two legends.
In his poetic work, Shailendra used transparent language, weaving his verses out of unpretentiously profound philosophical thoughts. His poems and songs became a breathing and smiling testament to the fact that one need not necessarily be religious to be pro-social. Instead of exploring the abstract idea of spiritualism, he got a glimpse of God in humanity. Many see the wisdom of folk poetry and a reflection of the Bhakti movement in his work. Sample these songs: “Sajan re jhoot mat bolo” [Teesri Kasam (1966)] and “Wahan kaun hai tera musafir” or “Allah megh de paani de re” [Guide (1965)], which exhibit remarkable literary and philosophical depth and remain popular down the generations.
While his song “Honton pe sachai rehti hai” [Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960)] exhibits patriotism, songs like “Dil ka haal sune dilwaala” (Shree 420) elucidate disillusionment with the system owing to misrule and corruption as they talk about class struggle, exploitation, and nepotism in the way of upward social mobility. As torchbearers, many of his songs continue to shine light on desirable human traits and values. One of his iconic songs, a soothing lullaby that he wrote for Brahmachari (1968), “Main gaoon tum so jao, Sukh-sapno mein kho jaao” (I’ll sing, you go to sleep, wander into delightful dreams), underscores his simple life philosophy. It celebrates the joy of being generous, contrary to the narrow individualistic lament: “Koi gaata main so jaata (I wish someone could sing me to sleep)” written by Harivansh Rai Bachchan that featured in Alaap (1977). The same philosophy resonates in Shailendra’s other soul-stirring song, which was sung by Mukesh and picturised on Raj Kapoor for Anari (1959): “Jeena isi ka naam hai” (This is what the real meaning of life is all about).
A blend of politics, love, and folk music
Many of his songs exhibit a blend of socialist ideals and a humanism that not only concerns economic, political, and intellectual dimensions of life but also addresses the spirit, mind, and body. A good number of his songs gave birth to political slogans that have not lost their sheen to date. For instance, who has not witnessed protest demonstrators shouting this slogan with clenched fists: “Har zor-zulm ki takkar mein, hartal hamara nara hai” (Against every atrocity and injustice, strike is our slogan)? In this song, “Suraj zara aa paas aa, aaj sapno ki roti pakaainge hum” (Sun, come a little closer, Today, we’ll bake bread of dreams), he talks about hunger and malnourished children.
In a film career spanning just 17 years, he wrote many love songs that command eternal appeal. Among others, “Aaj phir jeenay ki tamanna hai” (Guide, 1965) needs a special mention here. It talks about the emotions of a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. As the song expresses her feelings, while she sets out to challenge regressive social customs, an ordinary ornament like an ankle bracelet becomes a powerful weapon. Nothing else can mirror a more truthful compliment to the song than the joyful exclamation, “*aa* ha ha haa ha…” that Shailendra uniquely used as a rhyme in this ever-green song.
Shailendra was well-versed in Hindi, Urdu, and his mother tongue Bhojpuri—a language spoken in the northeastern part of India and the Terai region of Nepal. His songs such as “Sajanwa bairi hogaye hamaar”, “Paan khaye saiyyan hamaro”, and “Chalat musafir moh liya pinjray waali munia” [Teesri Kasam (1966)] or “Ab kay baras moray bhaiya ko bhejo” [Bandini (1963)] do not sound different from folk songs.
Interestingly, no other Indian lyricist achieved global fame the way Shailendra did. “Awaara hoon” from Awaara (1951), directed by and starring Raj Kapoor, is a case in point. It has a mention in Nobel Prize-winning Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. Another song, “Mera joota hai Japaani” (Shree 420), found its way to Mississippi Masala (1991) and Deadpool (2016). The song personifies newly independent India, where democracy has just replaced the monarchies, as a young man playfully professing that even after borrowing from other cultures and countries, he still remains a Hindustani at heart.
The poet of the silver screen
In the cinematic circles, there is an interesting anecdote regarding the birth of “Awaara hoon”. It provides an interesting insight into Shailendra’s creative process. During a sitting, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, a noted screenplay writer and film director, narrated the story of a young drifter to Raj Kapoor, who had Shailendra sitting alongside. As soon as he concluded it, Kapoor turned towards Shailendra, when he was barely one year old in the industry, and asked whimsically, “Did you understand anything, Kaviraj (king of the poets)?” Pat came the reply, “Gardish mein tha, par aasmaan ka tara tha, Awaara tha”. Awestruck, Abbas asked Kapoor to introduce reticent Shailendra to him again, as he complimented, “He has summed up the 2.5-hour-long story in just one sentence!”
Shailendra continues to inspire generations of songwriters. In short, “Shailendra is the best lyricist, which ever happened to the Hindi film industry,” veteran poet Gulzar reiterated in an article carried by Naya Gyanodaya, a Hindi literary magazine, in its edition dated June 22, 2011. This is how he drew Shailendra’s portrait: “He had a dark complexion that sported a bright smile just like his verses.” Discussing his association with Shailendra, Gulzar added: “Shailendra made the space for me to write my first film song, “Mora gora rang lei le” in Bandini (1963). He asked me to occupy his seat—till he came back. He did come back but went off again. Standing by his seat, I’m still waiting for him to return. No one can dare take Shailendra’s seat.”
His immortal songs, among other movies, featured in Barsat (1949), Seema (1955), Madhumati (1958), Kala Bazar (1960), Sangam (1964), and Mera Naam Joker (1970). The film that was released after his death had his soul-stirring song, “Jeena yahan, marna yahan”. In his lifetime, Shailendra won three Filmfare Best Lyricist Awards for “Yeh mera deewanapan hai” (Yahudi) in 1958, “Sab kuch seekha humne” (Anari) in 1959, and “Main gaon tum so jao” (Brahmachari) in 1968. Incidentally, when noted Urdu poet and lyricist Sahir was awarded a Filmfare for the song “Jo wada kiya wo” (Taj Mahal) in 1964, he invited Shailendra to the stage and handed him his trophy, declaring him the “true winner” for penning the patriotic song “Mat ro mata” from Bandini (1963). All the top-notch film lyricists of that time would admit that no one knew the medium better than him.
True to a metaphor that he once used to describe himself in a song—“early morning light”—Shailendra died aged 43. His death coincided with the failure of his first film as a producer, Teesri Kasam, at the box office. But society rewards its heroes in its own undefined ways. The same film became a cult classic almost 20 years after his death. At a recent function that marked the birth centenary of the poet, Shailendra’s daughter, Amla Mazumdar, busted myths surrounding her father’s death. She clarified: “It was not Baba’s (economic) investment in the film but his investment in friends, the people who surrounded him, that killed him.”