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The Arts

Remembering Gopaldas Neeraj, Who Captured Popular Imagination With His Poetry and Lyrics

One meeting with Neeraj was enough to drive home the point that poets inhabit a world of the imagination that is richer than and far removed from their immediate surroundings.

Every trip to Aligarh seemed somehow incomplete. A city once known for its many well-loved and well-regarded Urdu poets and prose stylists was also home to Gopaldas Saxena ‘Neeraj’, where he taught Hindi in a local college. And save for an occasional glimpse at the Aligarh railway station or the (in)famous numaish, I had never had the occasion to meet this famous son of Aligarh, the man who after all his wanderings in Lucknow and Delhi and Mumbai always came home to roost. And so I badgered this other illustrious, and entirely homegrown, Aligarh star, the Urdu poet Shahryar, to take me to ‘see’ Neeraj. Shahryar obliged, happily.

It was sometime close to the turn of the last century on Diwali when Shahryar took me to Neeraj’s home outside the university campus. The lamps hadn’t been lit yet and the arrival of the goddess of wealth was imminent. I found Neeraj, wearing a vest and lungi, playing cards with his friends. He had a several-days-old stubble and a distinctly bleary look about him as he chatted with his friends in a semi-rustic dialect spoken in the dehat area of western Uttar Pradesh, and slapped cards down with a flourish as he took a drag on a beedi. I must confess to being somewhat disconcerted. Was this the poet who wrote ‘Baadal, bijli, chandan, paani jaisa mera pyar/Lena hoga janam humey kai kai baar…‘ or ‘Shokhiyon mein ghola jaye phoolon ka shabab/Usmein phir milai jaye thhorhi si sharab/ Hoga yun nasha  jo tayyar woh pyar hai…’

At some point, having won (or lost) his game of cards, Neeraj began talking of the ghazal with Shahryar. I remember being struck by his understanding of the Urdu ghazal, his love for words and their inherent musicality and his keenness to experiment with form. That one solitary meeting with Neeraj served to drive home the point that poets inhabit a world of the imagination that is richer than and far removed from their immediate surroundings. At that point, Shahryrar and Neeraj, the two local heroes who had both ventured into the world of films, had tasted success but chose to come back home to a small town, were not sitting in that small aangan of a modest house in Aligarh; they occupied a realm that ordinary mortals can at best aspire to. And it is from that world, they send us words, seemingly simple words that when strung together in a certain way, create magic. Such as this song that Neeraj wrote for the film Sharmilee, that is entirely devoid of difficult or even unusual words but is profoundly evocative and eminently ‘sing-able’:

Jheelon ke honthon par
Meghon ka raag hai
Phoolon ke seeney mein
Thandi thandi aag hai
Dil ke aine me tu
Yeh sama utaar de
Khilte hain gul yahan
Khil ke bhikharne ko

Kaifi Azmi once likened a film lyricist’s job as first digging a grave and then looking for a corpse to fit in it, for in the Bombay film industry the music is composed first and then suitable words are fitted in. And indeed the task of writing songs to an existing dhun is not to everyone’s liking; Shahryar, for instance, had relatively less success at it than Neeraj and preferred to work mostly with Muzaffar Ali, who allowed him to tweak existing ghazals to fit the film scenarios working in tandem with Khayyam. Neeraj on the other hand wrote specifically for films after the stupendous success of ‘Karvan guzar gaya‘, a song he had recited on the radio in 1951, for the film Nai Umar ki Nai Fasal (1966). Sung by Muhammad Rafi to music set by Roshan, it captured the angst of an entire generation of young Indians, the tangle of student politics, blighted spring and lost opportunities. In his entire film oeuvre, possibly it is this debut song that uses difficult words: ‘Swapn jhare phool se/Meet chubhe shool se…’

Neeraj went on to write songs for several of Dev Anand’s films such as ‘Rangeela re/tere rang mein yun ranga hai mera man…’ (Prem Pujari, 1970) composed by S.D. Burman. This film was followed by Tere Mere Sapne, Sharmilee and Gambler with Burman. With Shankar-Jaikishan he worked on ‘Likhe jo khat tujhe‘ (Kanyadaan, 1968) and a song that would, in later years, inadvertently become an anthem of gay love, ‘Aadmi hun aadmi se pyar karta hoon‘ (Pehchan, 1970). In a Bombay film industry dominated by Majrooh, Kaifi, Sahir et al, Neeraj can be credited with introducing a new idiom. A song such as ‘Ai Bhai zara dekh ke chalo‘ (Mera Naam Joker, 1970), with its free verse, had not been attempted before. Neither had ‘Kal ka pahiya…’ (Chanda aur Bijli, 1970). He excelled in using simple, melodious Hindi words such as:

Saanson ki sargam, dharkan ki veena
Sapnon ki geetanjali tu
Mann ki gali mein mehke jo hardam
Aisi juhi ki kali tu 
Chhota safar ho, lamba safar ho
Sooni dagar ho ya mela
Yaad tu aaye, mann ho jaaye bheed ke beech akela (Prem Pujari, 1970)

In his five-year stint in Bombay, Neeraj also wrote frivolous songs like D’heere se aana khatiyan mein O khatmal…’ for Dev Anand’s Chhupa Rustam (1973)  and ‘Sunday ko pyar huwa, Monday ko iqrar…’ for Kanyadan. With the career in films behind him, Neeraj dabbled in writing dohas, ghazals and even haikus such as these:

Mere jawani
Katey huwe pankhon ki
Ek nishani

A chequered career that involved working, at different times, as stenographer, typist, painter of Ayurvedic medicines on walls; spells of pulling rickshaws, selling beedis and cigarettes, and even diving into the river for coins during an impoverished youth to working as information officer for the Uttar Pradesh government; and teaching Hindi at the Dharam Samaj college in Aligarh, culminated in his being appointed chairman of the UP Bhasha Sansthan by the Samajwadi Party and given an unprecedented rank of cabinet minister. A regular at the kavi sammelan and mushaira circuit, Neeraj also served as chancellor of the Mangalayatan University in Aligarh. In the end, when it was time to go,

Hum to mast faqir hamara koi nahi thikana re
Jaisa apna aana waisa apna jaana re

Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian who has published over 15 books and written over 50 academic papers and essays. Her recent works include Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers Movement in Urdu (OUP, 2014) and The Sea Lies Ahead, a translation of Intizar Husain’s novel on Karachi (Harper Collins, 2015).