Music and lyrics: How Shailendra gift-wrapped cosmic truths through his songs – Scroll.in

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At a mushaira in Bombay in the late 1940s, Raj Kapoor heard a young man recite a poem called Jalta Hai Punjab. Impressed by the fiery thoughts and the passionate recital, Kapoor requested the young poet to sell him the song. Kapoor was keen to use it in his under-production film Aag (1948). But the young man rebuffed Kapoor, saying his poetry was not for sale. Taken aback yet impressed, Kapoor made the poet a standing offer: he could come to Kapoor anytime, should he change his mind.
Sometime later, in a curious turn of events, the young poet, who worked as an apprentice at a railway workshop, did exactly that. His wife was pregnant, and he needed money for her delivery. With Kapoor’s offer echoing in his ears, he met the actor-director and requested a loan of Rs 500. Kapoor readily gave him the money, but not as a loan. He said the poet could keep the money. But the youngster would have none of it, and offered to do something in return. Upon which, Kapoor asked him if he could write two songs for his next film, Barsaat (1949). The poet agreed, and happily wrote those two songs. When the film released, both these songs became chartbusters. One of them goes Barsaat Mein Humse Miley, while the other is Patli Kamar Hai Tirchi Nazar Hai.
And that is how Shankardas Kesarilal stepped into the world of Hindi films as the lyricist Shailendra. Sought after by the best music composers, directors and producers, he went on to write about 900 songs in a sparkling career spanning 17 years.
The Rawalpindi-born, Mathura-bred Shailendra saw hard times early in life. His father, once a prosperous contractor, became a poor man. And even as young Shailendra was grappling with poverty, he lost his sister and mother to illness. After his matriculation, he made his way to Mumbai to earn a living.
Given his own hard life, Shailendra strongly identified with the plight of the poor and wrote a number of poems and songs in their support — including Har Zor-zulm Kee Takkar Mein Hartal Hamara Naara Hai, which became a rallying cry for the rights of the downtrodden. He recited his poems at mushairas and kavi sammelans, and at meetings of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, of which he was a member. Jalta hai Punjab was one such poem.
After Barsaat, Shailendra made himself at home at RK Films. Raj Kapoor, Shankar-Jaikishan, Hasrat Jaipuri and he were thick as thieves. Mukesh, who sang for Kapoor in many of his films, was their fifth team member and a close friend. Indeed, all five seemed to have been made for one another. They crafted a long string of glittering gems till the mid-sixties: an incredible run of 17 years.
Barsaat, Awaara, Chori Chori, Shri 420, Boot Polish, Aah, Anari, Teesri Kasam…The team churned out hit after hit. Each song they created was better than the others. Through these films, Shailendra helped create Raj Kapoor’s on-screen image of the helpful working-class simpleton who is at odds with the ways of a big, bad world. It helped that in a newly-independent India, many of Raj Kapoor’s films had shades of socialism that the public were instantly able to identify with.
The magic of the SJ-RK-Hasrat-Shailendra-Mukesh team was such that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
But Shailendra did not work with only Raj Kapoor. He wrote lovely songs for films made by Amiya Chakraborty, Navketan (Dev Anand and Vijay Anand), Bhappie Sonie and others. Nor did he write songs for only Shankar-Jaikishan. His work with SD Burman (Kala Bazar, Bandini, Guide), Salil Choudhury (Usne Kaha Tha, Parakh, Madhumati, Do Bigha Zameen, Musafir), Roshan (Naubahar, Sanskar, Aagosh), Kishore Kumar (Door Ka Raahi, Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein), RD Burman (Chote Nawab), Ravi (Dilli Ka Thug), Anil Biswas (Choti Choti Baatein, Sautela Bhai), SN Tripathi (Sangeet Samrat Tansen) and Pandit Ravi Shankar (Anuradha) is nothing but burnished gold.
Shailendra’s gifts were many, but chief among them was his ability to convey the essence of a story or situation in simple, beautiful words. Once, Raj Kapoor took him along to meet the story-writer KA Abbas, another of Kapoor’s close collaborators. Abbas is said to have narrated a new story over a couple of hours, all the while ignoring Shailendra. At the end of the narration, Kapoor asked Shailendra what he made of it. The poet replied, “Gardish mein tha, aasman ka taara tha. Awaara tha.”
Hearing his two-hour narration summarised in two lines, a shocked Abbas realised that he had grossly under-estimated the quiet man. Subsequently, when this story was made into the film Awaara, these lines formed the theme song.
It was this gift that made Shailendra a theme song specialist. In Barsaat, Awaara, Guide, Junglee, Door Ka Raahi and many other films, his theme song beautifully sets the tone for the entire story. At times, he was roped in to write just the theme song of a film, even when the other songs were being written by someone else.
Shailendra had the unmatched ability to gift-wrap cosmic truths through his songs and place them in your palm. Which is why, filmmakers repeatedly sought him out when they wanted songs to be a few notches above the regular standard, or when their scripts demanded a sensitive treatment of songs.
What’s common to these popular songs: Pyaar Hua Iqraar Hua, Mera Joota Hai Japani, Chahe Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe, Kaanton Se Kheenchke Yeh Aanchal, Suhana Safar, Dharti Kahe Pukaar Ke, Khoya Khoya Chand, O Re Maajhi and Haaye Re Woh Din Kyon Na Aaye?
As you may have surmised, all of them were written by Shailendra. But the astonishing nuance is that these are songs that defined the on-screen persona of many stars of the day: Nargis, Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Waheeda Rehman, Dilip Kumar, Balraj Sahni, Dev Anand, Ashok Kumar, Nutan and Leela Naidu. Even today, when you think of these actors, these songs instantly come to mind. This says something about the calibre of the songwriter.
Shailendra was the first leading lyricist to use simple words in songs, in a departure from the then-common practice of liberally using Urdu and difficult dialects of Hindi. He mostly wrote in a conversational style in plain Hindustani, ensuring that his songs struck a chord with everyone –
from chairman to watchman. He was able to do that because, unlike his contemporaries – Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Kaifi Azmi and Sahir Ludhianvi – who were shaayars who had drifted into Hindi cinema, Shailendra seemed made-to-order for films. But more than that, I think he used simple language because he was a simple, straightforward man.
In doing so, he showed other lyricists the way. Shankar Iyer, co-founder of REWIND’s Retro Radio Revival, a group that is bringing back radio-style enjoyment of old Hindi film songs, says, “Shailendra inspired wonderful lyricists such as Yogesh and Anand Bakshi to write songs that instantly connect with film-goers and music lovers.” He adds that Shailendra’s ability to turn out high-quality lyrics quickly, and to tune, was another big asset for directors and music composers.
Shailendra’s songs are simple, but hardly simplistic. In fact, they often clothe deep thoughts and rich imagery.
Listen to the Mohammed Rafi sing Khoya Khoya Chand in Kala Bazar (1960), and you instantly picture a man under a moonlit sky, pining for his lover. (Incidentally, the lyrics of this song came to Shailendra when he was gazing at the night sky on a beach in Bombay. He quickly wrote them down on a cigarette pack that belonged to young RD Burman, who had been instructed by his father, SD Burman, to “keep watch” on Shailendra and ensure that he went home only after giving the junior Burman the lyrics.)
When you hear Kaanton Se Kheenchke Yeh Aanchal (Guide, 1965), you feel Rosie’s sense of liberation and joy at rediscovering the desire to live. Every word of Poocho Na Kaise Maine Rain Bitaayi (Meri Surat Teri Aankhen, 1963) drips with pathos. And in Sajan Re Jhoot Mat Bolo (Teesri Kasam, 1966), the poet exhorts you to stick to the path of truth.
Why, even in Chakke Pe Chakka (Brahmachari, 1968) – a zany song for children, peppered with phrases like “chunnu chabeeley” and “munnu hateeley” – he slips in a life lesson in the last antara.
Shailendra had an uncanny understanding of the cinematic medium. His words wrap themselves tightly around the situation, and move the story forward. In fact, I think of his songs as musical screenplays.
His early encounter with poverty, the loss of his mother and sister, and the caste-based discrimination his family had faced (they were Dalits who belonged to the Dhursia caste) gave him a nuanced understanding of life and made him the sensitive man he was. Shailendra identified deeply with every facet, emotion and situation of life. This gave his poetry matchless emotive power and range.
Moved by Phanishwarnath Renu’s story Maare Gaye Gulfam, Shailendra had it adapted for the screen. Turning producer, he roped in Basu Bhattacharya to direct the film. Named Teesri Kasam, it had a stellar cast and crew. But soon, he realised that a creative and deeply sensitive person like him was not made for film production.
Teesri Kasam was four years in the making. Dinesh Shailendra, the lyricist’s youngest son, said, “Money being siphoned away, pilferage of material, distribution wrangles, Raj Kapoor not giving dates, escalating costs – the film was plagued by several problems. People took my father for a ride in whatever way they could.” He added that Mukesh was the only person who stood by the poet-producer during this terrible time. When the film was finally released in 1966, it sank, plunging Shailendra into sorrow.
But what broke his back and his spirit was the realisation that, more than his investment in the film, his investment in people had come a cropper. He couldn’t stomach the betrayal by people close to him – including family, friends and peers in the industry.
Dinesh Shailendra narrates a telling incident that took place soon after Teesri Kasam’s release. One day, his brother, Manoj Shailendra, found the lyricist writing something in his diary. On asking him what he was writing, Shailendra said he was calculating how long it would take him to recover the loss. He told Manoj that, given the high fee he was charging for writing songs, he could recover the money in mere months! But deep at heart, he knew that he could never recover the faith and trust he had lost in people.
From there on, Shailendra’s life spiralled downwards. He took to drinking heavily. He turned down several assignments because he was not in a mood to write.
For instance, after writing a jewel of a song (Rulaake Gaya Sapna) for Jewel Thief (1967), he told Vijay Anand to get the other songs written by Majrooh Sultanpuri. On December 14, 1966, he passed away, leaving several promises to music-lovers unkept. When Teesri Kasam won the President’s Gold Medal for best film of that year, he wasn’t around to collect the award. Today, this film is considered a classic for its poetic treatment of the story.
Shailendra was just 43 when he passed away. His was a life rudely interrupted.
Though he worked in Hindi films for just 17 years, he wrote an eternity’s worth of songs. And as long as human life is coloured by joy, sorrow, love, friendship, failure, triumph, loss, humour, ambition, struggle and a hundred other shades, we will continue to hear, sing and celebrate Shailendra’s songs.
Also read:
Music and lyrics: Composer Ajit Varman was a meteor in the firmament of Hindi cinema
Music and lyrics: Songwriter Gulshan Bawra combined soul and depth with a sense of fun
Music and lyrics: ‘Thodi Si Bewafaii’ and the magic of one-off collaborations

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