Shailendra: The people's Poet
Overcoming immense personal crisis, Shailendra has left behind an indelible mark on Bollywood music with wholesome lyrics that irk deep emotions
Four poets who became the top lyricists in Bollywood were first spotted at poets' symposiums. The quadrate comprised of Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir, Shakeel Badayuni and Shailendra.
In 1946, a dusky young man with determination in his eyes and a bewitching smile took the stage in a poetic meet organised by IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association) and sang a song – Mori bagiya mein aag laga gayo. A struggling director-actor Raj Kapoor who had accompanied his father, the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor, was fairly impressed by this young versifier.
Raj Kapoor was planning to launch his first feature film, Aag, and he approached the budding poet to use this song in his film, inviting him to pen some more lyrics. Shailendra told him curtly, "I don't write for money and I see no reason to be writing for your film." Raj Kapoor was visibly hurt. Raj Kapoor told him, "All right, come to me when you feel like it. You're always welcome," and left. But this arrogant response went down well with Raj Kapoor.
Born as Shankar Das to Kesri Lal Rao and Parvati on August 30, 1927, in Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan), Shailendra's ancestors originally belonged to Bihar. His father migrated to Rawalpindi under financial duress. Luck favoured him and he soon became a successful military contractor in this city. But this prosperity was short-lived. Once again the family moved to Mathura where Kesri Lal's younger brother was working in the railways.
Losing his mother at a young age had created a void in Shailendra's life. While he did his early schooling and intermediate in Mathura, he was also writing. Naturally gifted, his poems were being published in a magazine in Agra. He wrote these poems under the pseudonym Shachipati that he later changed to Shailendra.
Reserved in his temperament, it was ironic that this sensitive poet found himself amidst the noise of hammers in a railway workshop. He rented out a room in Parel where he constantly engaged with his muse. His craft had chiseled and his verses found space in the prestigious Hindi magazine – Hans, edited by the legendary writer Premchand.
Shailendra was a loner essentially because he had been through a lot of hardship in life. In 1948, when he visited Jhansi, he met a distant relative's daughter Shakuntla. Instant attraction led to instant marriage.
His meager salary was worrying and he could not afford to take along his newly wedded wife. Just four days after the marriage, he left for Bombay. Shakuntla joined him much later. And, when she was on the family way, Shailendra suggested that she should go to Jhansi and deliver her first child at parental home.
Shakuntla was ready to leave for Jhansi but Shailendra was penniless. He was in a fix, helpless, anxious and annoyed. Suddenly, Raj Kapoor's words of appreciation flashed across his mind. Apprehensive and hesitant, he sought an audience with Raj Kapoor. As he entered his office, Shailendra asked him, "Do you remember me? RK responded firmly, "Yes I do." Shailendra said, "Now I need money urgently – five hundred rupees for my wife's delivery. You give me the money for any work you think I could do for you."
Raj Kapoor had produced Aag without Shailendra's lyrics. At this point, he was busy with his next film Barsaat. Raj Kapoor told Shailendra that he needed a title song along with one more number.
Shailendra wrote the title song, Barsaat mein hum se mile (Lata), and a peppy dance number, Patli qamar hai tirchhi nazar hai (Mukesh/Lata). Both the songs soared to popularity. After Barsaat, Shailendra joined the Raj Kapoor camp along with Hasrat Jaipuri, and the new duo composer, Shankar Jaikishan. This foursome remained entrenched in the Raj Kapoor camp right till Mera Naam Joker.
Barsaat was the blockbuster of 1949 – and Shailendra was reborn, as he became the master of title songs, be it Jis desh mein Ganga behti hai or Sangam. It is generally believed that he wrote the song Awara hoon soon after Khawaja Ahmed Abbas had finished the narration of the story to Raj Kapoor. This lore prevails as both Abbas and Raj Kapoor were stunned. The film was named Awara and Shailendra's title song Awara hoon even hit the international shores. His other much-famed title songs were Chori Chori, Anari, Junglee, Ashiq, Aas Ka Panchhi, Ayee Milan Ki Bela, Raj Kumar, Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, and Hariyali Aur Rasta.
Soon, Shailendra was to carve his own niche and came at par with both Majrooh Sultanpuri and Shakeel Badayuni. Unlike the lyricist Sahir, he chose to write in simple Hindi. Keeping his verses more colloquial than literary, he wished his songs to be hummed by all, from an illiterate man on the street to a well-heeled sophisticate across age groups.
Deeply influenced by Kabir and Rabindranath Tagore, Shailendra's verses had an earthy feel, as he wrote what he felt or saw in his own life. He had a melancholic disposition, born personal from tragedies – losing his mother as a child and his sister succumbing to illness.
Shailendra and composer Shankar were primarily responsible for the projection of Raj Kapoor's persona as an innocent, guileless simpleton in his productions. For instance, in songs like Awara hoon, Sab kuch seekha humne, Mera naam Raju and Patte ki baat kahega deewana – Raj Kapoor was very fond of listening to Shailendra's dafli and was even seen playing a dafli in songs of Shree 420.
Salil Choudhary made his debut as a music composer in Bimal Roy's unsurpassed Do Bigha Zameen. Shailendra worked with Salil for the first time and produced memorable hits – Dharti Kahe Pukaar Ke (Manna Dey/chorus), Hariyala sawan dhol bajata aya (Manna Dey/Lata), and immortal lullaby Aaja re nindiya (Lata).
The combo of Salil Choudhary and Shailendra rendered some outstanding songs – Chhota sa ghar hoga (Kishore) in Naukri, Raat ne kya kya khwaab dikhaye (Talat) in Ek Gaon Ki Kahani, Munna bada payara (Kishore) in Musafir and Mukesh's evergreen Zindagi khwab hai in Jagte Raho. Salil Da's personal favourite by Shailendra was O sajna in Parakh.
What's revealing is the fact that Shailendra penned his lyrics on given tunes. In a Filmfare interview in 1963, he said: "Since music by itself is an easy language with its vivid and eloquent expression, there is nothing exceptional in lyrics being written to suit a given melody."
Shailendra also worked with composers Anil Biswas, C Ramchandra, SN Tripathi and Roshan. Interestingly, he was seen in cameo roles. In Raj Kapoor's Boot Polish, a song was picturised on him – Chali kaun se desh (Talat) in Shree 420. He also appeared in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's debut film Musafir and his own production Teesri Kasam.
Not heeding advice from his friends and well-wishers, Shailendra ventured into film production, wanting to make a film on Phanishwar Nath Renu's classic story Teesri Kasam. Directed by Basu Bhattacharya, the film had Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman in the lead. Due to financial crisis, the film was accomplished in five years. By then, colour cinema had taken. Shailendra wrote all the songs that were composed by Shankar. When Jaikishan commented that "songs lacked Shankar Jaikishan effect", Shailendra added two more songs written by Hasrat Jaipuri, Maare gaye gulfam (Lata) and Duniya banane wale (Hasrat Jaipuri).
Shailendra was pressurised to change the end of the film but he didn't cave in. The film was released without adequate publicity. The audience rejected it. This was the last blow to Shailendra. He was reeling under heavy debt and being hounded by moneylenders, which adversely impacted his health. He was taken ill and admitted to North Court Hospital on December 13, 1966. What a stroke of fate that he passed away on December 14, which happened to be his constant companion Raj Kapoor's birthday! He left one song of Mera Naam Joker incomplete and had only written the mukhada, Jeena yahan marna yahan iske siva jaana kahan. It was later completed by his son Shelly.
Teesri Kasam eventually took Shailendra's life, but the film received the President's Gold Medal for the best feature film of that year posthumously.
Shailendra was also a recipient of three Filmfare Awards for his songs Ye mera deewanapan hai (Mukesh) for film Yahudi; Sab kuchh seekha humne na seekhi hoshiyari and Main jaagun tum so jaao (Rafi) in Brahmachari. The glimpses of Shailendra's life are amply reflected in his various verses but the philosophy of his life is succinctly portrayed in his lyrics of Anari:
Kissiki muskrahton pe ho nissar;
Kissi ka dard mil sake to le udhar;
Kissi ke vaaste ho tere dil mein pyar;
Jeena issi ka naam hai...