Neeraj: Lilting Verses of a Versatile Poet
Neeraj worked across several generations of Hindi cinema – his words will be remembered for the romance, joy and fulfilment they evoked in a simple beat
Sometime in the mid-1950s, star-actor Dev Anand was the guest of honour at an All-India Kavi Sammelan. Here, a poet in his mid-twenties had stolen the show. Dev Anand met him and expressed his desire to work together in the near future. This brilliant poet was Neeraj.
Born as Gopal Das Saxena on January 4, 1925, in village Puravali near Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, he lost his father at the tender age of six. Brought up by his maternal uncle, his childhood was spent in utter penury. Neeraj was candid about these tribulations in a no-holds-barred interview with this author for a news channel. He took up several odd jobs for basic subsistence. He passed his matriculation with first division and left for Delhi in 1942. He had learnt typing and joined the supply department as a typist. Amidst this strife for sheer survival, he sought solace in writing poetry and his first collection of poems, Sangharsh, was published in 1944.
Soon after, he completed his graduation and post-graduation in Hindi, and secured a job as a lecturer in Meerut College. Invites to participate in kavi sammelans started pouring in. After some hiccups at the college he moved to Aligarh, his 'Karmabhumi', and a permanent abode, where he spent all his life.
In 1960, Neeraj had gone to Bombay to attend yet another kavi sammelan. He was staying with a fellow poet Manhar. One fine morning, a young man came to meet him. He was R Chandra, Neeraj's former student. It was the same R Chandra, who had produced a box office hit, Barsat Ki Raat (1960). The film is remembered till date for its famous Qawwali, Na to Karvan ki talash hai, penned by Sahir Ludhianvi.
Chandra was planning his next film, Nai Umar Ki Nai Fasal, and wanted to use Neeraj's poems. Neeraj agreed. His all-time great songs, Karvan guzar gaya (Rafi), Dekhti hi raho aaj (Mukesh), Aaj ki raat badi shokh badi natkhat hai (Asha-Rafi), and Mero saiyyan gulabiya ka phool (Suman Kalyanpur-Neelu Purshottam), were included in the film. In the meantime, veteran actor Chandrashekhar approached Neeraj to write songs for his directorial debut, Cha Cha Cha (1964), and he wrote two songs, which became extremely popular: Subah na aayi shaam na aayi and Wo hum na the woh tum na the (Rafi).
Though Nai Umar Ki Nai Fasal was Neeraj's first brush with Bollywood, it was released a year after Cha Cha Cha. Well, Nai Umar Ki Nai Fasal bombed at the box office, but its music was met warmly.
Madan Mohan's favourite lyricists were Rajindra Krishan and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan. Yet, he invited Neeraj to write the title track of Dulhan Ek Raat Ki (1966).
Neeraj worked with all the top composers of the 1960s, including Hemant Kumar for Manjhli Didi (1967) and Shankar Jaikishan in 16 films. Their favourite lyricists were Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri. But after the demise of Shailendra, they brought in Neeraj. His first film with them was Kanyadaan (1968) and Neeraj teamed up with Hasrat Jaipuri. Two songs of the film, Likhe jo khat tujhe (Rafi), and another light number, Sunday ko pyaar hua, Monday ko iqrar hua (Asha-Mahendra Kapoor-chorus) became very popular. Their next film, Chanda Aur Bijli (1969), had the iconic number, Kaal ka pahiya ghume re bhaiya (Manna Dey). It had almost been a decade that Neeraj was writing songs for films.
In 1970, Neeraj saw a full page ad in the weekly screen about Dev Anand's directorial debut, Prem Pujari. While reading the names of the entire cast and credits, he was amused to see a cross opposite a lyricist's name. He wrote to Dev and reminded him about his long-forgotten promise. Dev Anand asked him to come to Bombay and Neeraj took one week's leave from college. Pleased to meet Neeraj, Dev told him, "You have to convince S D Burman." Next morning, Dev took him to Burman Da, informing him that this is your next lyricist. Burman Da was also looking for a new lyricist after Shailendra, but he told Neeraj that he had to write a song, which should begin with 'Rangeela re'. Burman Da had a fascination for Rangeela o rangeela.
Neeraj sat through the night to complete the song, Rangeela Re, tere rang mein yoon ranga hai... (Burman Da recorded this song in Lata's voice for the film later). Next day, he went to Dev's office and showed him the song. Quite astonished, Dev immediately dashed to Burman Da's house with Neeraj and told him smugly, "Dada, I told you Neeraj would do it." Burman Da listened to the lyrics and told Dev, "You leave. I will sit with Neeraj." When Dev left Burman Da confessed to Neeraj that he had given him this difficult situation to make him give up. And, thereafter, this trio had a special bonding.
The song, Shokhiyon mein ghola jaaye, of Prem Pujari (Kishore/Lata), was taken from his poem Chandni mein ghola jaaye. When Dev told Neeraj that he had planned to shoot this song as a daytime sequence, Neeraj changed chandni to shokhiyon. Burman Da also liked his song, Phoolon ke rang se, and composed it brilliantly.
Neeraj worked with Burman Da in Gambler, Sharmilee, Tere Mere Sapne (1971) and Chhupa Rustam (1973). For Gambler, Neeraj wrote five songs and all became chartbusters. Sharmilee had Neeraj's own favourites: Megha chhaye aadhi raat (Lata); and Kishore's unforgettable, O meri o meri o meri sharmilee.
Neeraj and Burman Da were back in Tere Mere Sapne (1971) directed by Vijay Anand. The film was inspired by AJ Cronin's novel Citadel, with a focus on 'medical ethics'. Vijay played one of the doctors along with Dev, Mumtaj and Hema Malini. Neeraj wrote its songs with great intensity.
Neeraj also talked about his experiences with Raj Kapoor. He revealed in the interview that he knew Papa ji (Prithviraj Kapoor) personally. He was fond of theatre and had his own touring theatre group, Prithvi Theatre. They met in a couple of cities, where he was to perform his play, and Neeraj happened to be there to participate in a kavi sammelan. While Neeraj watched Prithviraj's plays, Prithviraj would go to listen to Neeraj at the kavi sammelan. There was mutual admiration between the two.
In fact, it was Prithviraj who recommended Neeraj to Raj Kapoor, since he was looking for a writer for the title song of his film Mera Naam Joker. When Neeraj met him and then wrote Kehta hai joker (Mukesh), RK was delighted and requested him to write another song. Neeraj wrote Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo (Manna Dey) in four parts. RK liked it immensely, but Shankar was not happy. RK intervened and asked Neeraj to render it in his own style. Ultimately, Shankar recorded the full song, but only three parts were retained in the film.
Neeraj did another film for RK, Kal Aaj Aur Kal, directed by RK's elder son Randhir Kapoor. Neeraj wrote two songs along with Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra's son Sally. Both numbers, Tik tik tik tik chalti jaaye jeevan ki ghadi (Asha-Kishore-Mukesh) and Hello, aap yahan aaye kisliye (Asha-Kishore), became popular among the younger generation.
Neeraj was at the top of his career as a film lyricist, having worked with big banners, Navketan, RK Films and Subodh Mukherjee Productions, as also ace composers, Shankar Jaikishan, S D Burman, Madan Mohan, Roshan and Hemant Kumar. Suddenly he said goodbye to Bollywood, came back to his home town Aligarh, and took to teaching in his college. Dev and Vijay Anand were the only persons with whom he kept in touch. Neeraj's last song was for Dev's Chargesheet (2011), Mera ishq bhi tu mera pyaar bhi tu (Shankar Mahadevan/Raja Kaasheeff).
Neeraj was disillusioned with Bollywood; but he kept his literary activities live and attended kavi sammelans. Spiritually influenced by Sri Aurobindo, he translated some portions of his classic epic Savitri. He was also very friendly with Osho.
A highly respected poet, Neeraj was decorated with several awards including Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, World Urdu Council Award and three Filmfare Awards consecutively.
His 93rd birthday was celebrated with fellow poets in Lucknow, where Neeraj was told that they would hold a kavi sammelan when he hits a century. Given his avid interest in astrology, Neeraj had a premonition that the 93rd year of his life may not be good for his health. Within six months, his health started deteriorating. He breathed his last on July 18, 2018. With the demise of Neeraj, an era of Hindi poetry came to an end.