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On the Poetry of Shailendra: A Folk Poet of Hindustani Cinema

A shy but determined Dalit man; born in pre-partitioned Rawalpindi, Shailendra (1923-1966) was the poet whose subversive poems and deeply romantic and philosophical songs, I grew up listening to. I remembered word for word many of his works but was completely oblivious, for many years, to the genius of the lyricist who penned them. Years later, I critically analyzed his verses to discover how he brilliantly fused the age-old Indian consciousness with the tensions of the modern world in his mainstream lyrics. His legacy is that they have, over the decades, seeped into the corpus of Indian folk culture and linguistic life.

In the winter of 2014, when I was a precocious child of thirteen, I happened to visit the quaint city of Bareilly along with a team of passionate theatre artists; donned in black kurtas. It was to perform a nukkad natak – a street play as part of an annual theatre festival held there. I vividly recollect that we were all feeling like revolutionaries that morning, even had our mufflers and a dafli and our voices croaked (from all the incessant practice!), but were still singing intoxicated with the fervour of that one single poem which I still remember–

Tu zinda hai to zindagi ki jeet par yakeen kar

Agar kahin hai swarg to utaar la zameen par.

If you are alive, then believe firmly that life has won.

And if so, then dare to bring down heaven – wherever it is,

And establish it on this very Earth.

At that time, I was oblivious to the fact that this piece of impassioned work had been written sixty-four years ago by a poor, Dalit poet – Shankardas Kesri Lal Shailendra; who worked as a welder in the railway warehouse of Matunga, in Mumbai, and who later went on to become one of the greatest and highest paid lyricists of Hindustani Cinema; credited for writing the evergreen and eternal songs like – ‘Gaata rahe mera dil…’ Tu pyaar ka sagar hai’, ‘Nanhe munhe bacche teri mutthi me kya hai’, ‘Mud Mud ke na dekh…’, ‘Mera joota hai japani’ and the list is endless.

Amongst which my all-time favourite is this song, from the movie Anari (1959), starring Raj Kapoor who in his usual chirpy and innocent-eyed style goes about singing this message of a tramp’s philosophy of life on the streets of Bombay –

Kisi ki muskurahton pe ho nisar

Kisi ka dard mil sake to le udhar,

Kisi ke vaste ho tere dil me pyaar,

Jeena isi ka naam hai.

To sacrifice everything for someone’s smile

To be a confidante in someone’s pain

To possess love for someone in your heart,

That is what makes this life is meant for.

Over the years after engaging with Shailendra and his works more consciously and critically, I concluded that one of the markers of his genius and success as a poet and a lyricist lies in the fact that his songs have become a part of people’s everyday conversations, commonly used idioms, proverbs, and puzzles, and are sung at almost all occasions in India be it birth, marriage, death, or divorce.

In other words, his words have transformed into a corpus of literature similar to the timeless and ancient wisdom of our saints and poets which, over the years, have become part of our folk culture. They are passed on, primarily, orally, generation after generation; with people being completely unaware that a leftist-socialist poet penned them down for the silver screen.

It can thus be said that like many great folk poets i.e., Kabir, Shailendra’s work precedes his reputation where almost every Indian kid whether he knows Shailendra or not but has heard the original or a reprised or, at least, parodied version of his many popular songs like – Mera joota hai japani… or Suhana safar aur ye mausam haseen.

And this charm is not only limited to his songs; it is to be noted that Shailendra, much before he became a popular lyricist and that too on the insistence of Raj Kapoor, was a serious poet who used to recite his leftist and progressive poems in the annual events of IPTA – Indian People’s Theatre Association (the oldest theatrical group of India).

And therefore, it is not just in his songs, but in his revolutionary poetry as well that we see the evidence of his talents as a wordsmith; the unique ability to weave the most sensitive of emotions and the deepest of philosophies in the simplest and effortless language.

And though his poems are lesser known, he wrote some of the best Partition literature, with poems like – Jalta hai Punjab, Bhagat Singh, and one of the most powerful, innocent, and effective war poems I have ever read – Sun Bhaiya Rehmu Pakistan Ke, narrated by a character – Bhulwa, in the aftermath of the Partition to his friend Rehmu who goes and settles in Pakistan. Here are a few lines from that poem –

Pardesi kaisi chaal chal gaya

Jhoothe sapno se hamen chhal gaya

Darke to vo ghar se nikal gaya

Do angan kar gaya makaan ke

Sun bhaiya Rehmu Pakistan ke…

What mean tricks the foreigner (British) had played,

By deluding us with false dreams.

With fear, he has given us freedom in a hurry,

But has left us divided in its wake.

Listen carefully to this O! dear friend Rehmu of Pakistan.

Besides, it needs no further explanation that Shailendra’s impeccable craft, as has been mentioned countless times by his critics, is indeed his innate quality to express the biggest and deepest philosophies about existence, life, love, wealth, class struggle, and world politics with no lofty ideals or abstract ideas, but through the simple, direct, and honest truths of the struggles of everyday existence.

This quality of his is manifested poignantly in the song – Suraj zara aa paas aa – in Ujala (1959), where he talks about the pangs of hunger and poverty of kids in a slum, and how they are coming to terms to that with their innocence. He wrote –

Choolha hai thanda padra, aur pet me aag hai,

Garma-garam rotiyan kitna haseen khwab hai.

The embers have died, but the fire of hunger goes on.

The mere idea of well-baked pieces of bread is such a nice thought!

But for me, the more crucial and novel aspect of Shailendra’s works is that they are not just melodies of entertainment relevant only to a particular movie, a character, or a cinematic situation, but like all great literary works, they override boundaries and become a mouthpiece and the lifeblood of the great Indian philosophical tradition itself.

In other words, they have the essence of the indigenous Indian consciousness containing in themselves the rationality of ideas of Buddha, the intellectual questionings of the Upanishads, the fervent love of the Sufis, and most evidently, the inseparable humanism and deep optimism of the Bhakti tradition of Kabir, Meera, Nanak, Khusrau, and Bulle Shah.

Thus, it becomes noticeable that unlike his contemporaries – Sahir and Shakeel; who wrote predominantly in the Urdu tradition and were poets first and lyricists later, Shailendra wrote in simple yet stylized dialects of Hindi and Maithili and drew his inspiration, his idiom, metaphors, and similes, from the poetic tradition of the Bhakti and Sufi poets. Take the song – Ab ke baras – which he wrote for Bandini (1963) and which became widely popular in the voice of Asha Bhosle.

Ab ke baras bhejo bhaiya ko babul,

Savan me leejo bulai re

Lautengi jab mere bachpan ki sakhiyan

Deejo sandesha bhijae RE…

SEND my brother this year O! dear father

To take me away this monsoon.

And when my friends of childhood come to meet me

Do send the letter of summons along with them.

This song has palpable influences from this 13th-century poem by Amir Khusrau (1253-1325); who was a Sufi poet –

Amma mere baba ko bhejo ri,

Ki savan aaya.

Beti tera baba to boodha ri,

Ki savan aaya.

Send my dear father O! beloved mother,

As the monsoons are here.

O! dear daughter, I can’t do that,

As your father is old and the monsoons are here.

Furthermore, Shailendra adds an overarching angle to this Bhakti streak in his poetry. As he was living at a time of great socio-political change in the Indian subcontinent- with the disillusionment of independence, the horrors of Partition, and the burden of poverty, and illiteracy, Shailendra could not help but react to these forces. And what he did was revolutionary in the sense that he fused these concerns of his age and his leftist leanings into the very fabric of his Bhakti-influenced works, in turn immortalizing them by giving a quality of folk poetry and eternal wisdom.

This is most apparent in this hypnotic and introspective song – Wahan kaun hai tera – from Dev-Anand’s 1965 film – Guide, where we see Shailendra bringing in the key idea of the Bhakti tradition, which was championed by Kabir as well, that the ultimate truth rests inside the seeker and not outside in some external destination. He sums this up beautifully in these lines with the symbolism of a snake charmer befooled by his own tunes-

Wahan kaun hai tera,

musafir jaega kahan

Dam le le ghadri bhar,

ye chhaiyan paega kahan.

Kyun naache sapera…

No one is there for you in this world,

Where will you go O! Traveller.

Stop and rest for a while,

Where will you find this shade of life!

Why do you keep dancing to your tunes?

And it is this folk quality, the trait to strike right at the root of the common man’s consciousness that immortalized Shailendra’s lyrics, and even now, decades after the films for which they were written, his lyrics continue to be heard, reproduced and kept alive in the corners of India; surpassing boundaries of languages and religions. Nagarjuna, the famous Hindi poet has written on this novel quality of Shailendra’s effortless poetry –

Jahan kahin bhi antar man se rituon ki sargam bunte the

Taze komal shabdon se, tum resham ki jaali bunte the

From the depths of your conscience,

you used to create melodies like the seasons.

It was your craft to string verses like the nets of silk

From fresh and mellow words.

All translations of the works of Shailendra and Nagarjuna, used in this article, are done by the author himself.

Vinay Rajoria is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Anzal Khan

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Written by Vinay Rajoria

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