Gopaldas Saxena ‘Neeraj’: Sublime poet who penned lasting lyrics : The Tribune India

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Gopaldas Saxena ‘Neeraj’: Sublime poet who penned lasting lyrics

Five years after Gopaldas Saxena ‘Neeraj’ passed away, his melodies reverberate in hearts of admirers

Gopaldas Saxena ‘Neeraj’: Sublime poet who penned lasting lyrics

Poet-lyricist Gopaldas Saxena ‘Neeraj’. - Photos courtesy: Mrigank prabhakar



Sumit Paul

Geet gumsum hai, ghazal hai chup, rubaai hai dukhi
Aise maahaul mein ‘Neeraj’ ko
bulaya jaaye
(Song is sullen, ghazal is silent and quatrain is sad/ Call ‘Neeraj’ in such sorrowful times and environs)

Aatma ke saundarya ka shabd
roop hai kaavya
Maanav hona bhagya hai,
kavi hona saubhagya
(Poetry is the wordy manifestation of the beauty of one’s soul/ To be a human is fortunate, but to be a poet is doubly fortunate)
— Gopaldas Saxena ‘Neeraj’

HINDI film music has been immensely lucky to have an array of lyricists who were predominantly poets. In fact, they somewhat disliked to be called ‘geetkaar’ (lyricists). It was a rather derogatory term for the greats like Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Shailendra and Gopaldas Saxena ‘Neeraj’, not necessarily in that order. Writing songs for movies is arguably the most challenging task that demands situational appropriateness and lots of compromise, though it may appear to be a cakewalk to the outsiders. Kaifi 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, usually the music is composed first and then suitable words are fitted in.

Gopaldas Saxena performing at a mushaira with actors Amrish Puri (extreme left) and Sunil Dutt (extreme right).

It’s indeed an uphill task. But great poet-lyricists succeeded in it and one name that simply stands out is that of ‘Neeraj’, whose takhallus (upnaam or nom de guerre) became synonymous with soulful songs like ‘Subha na aayee, shaam na aayee’, ‘Luti jahan pe bevajah palki bahar ki’ (both from the movie ‘Cha Cha Cha’, 1964), ‘Kaarvaan guzar gaya ghubaar dekhte rahe’ (‘Nai Umar Ki Nai Fasal’, 1966), ‘Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo’ (‘Mera Naam Joker’, 1970); ‘Rangeela re’ (‘Prem Pujari’), ‘Likhe jo khat tujhe’ (‘Kanyadan’, 1968) or that extremely meaningful song which inadvertently became an anthem of gay love, ‘Ek yahi apraadh main har baar karta hoon, aadmi hoon aadmi se pyaar karta hoon’ (‘Pehchaan’, 1970), to name but a few. It must be mentioned that ‘Kaarvaan guzar gaya’ has a cult status and is known for its sheer poetry and profundity. It was one of Mohd Rafi’s favourite songs. He sang it and Roshan Lal Nagrath composed it.

Gopaldas Saxena with actress Meena Kumari (left) and his wife, Manorama Sharma.

Here, presenting a humdrum list of this maverick poet’s bunch of lyrics for Hindi cinema is not the cardinal objective. Neeraj was basically a poet who happened to write quite a few (exquisite) songs for Hindi films. The emphasis is on understanding this moody, mercurial but magnificent poet’s persona and craftsmanship. Sahir wrote so tellingly, ‘Jo taar se nikli hai woh dhun sabne suni hai/Jo saaz pe guzri hai woh kis dil ko pata hai’ (‘Chandi Ki Deevaar’, 1964). (Everyone listened to the tune that emanated from the strings/ But who’s bothered about what befell the instrument?)

This couplet applies to Neeraj in toto. Having seen life from close quarters — working as a stenographer, typist, painter of ayurvedic medicines on walls at different times; spells of pulling rickshaws; selling beedis and cigarettes; and even diving into the river for coins during an impoverished youth; to working as an information officer for the Uttar Pradesh government; and teaching Hindi at the Dharma Samaj College in Aligarh — Neeraj saw the vicissitudes of life and that impregnated his poetry with the truths of life. He once said, ‘Kaavya mukhrit hota hai abhaav mein’ (Poetry blossoms in penury). Years after penning the first line, having got a trifle disillusioned later, he added: ‘Ek faqeeri-si aa jaati hai swabhaav mein’ (One becomes carefree like a faqeer, mendicant, by nature). Yes, that darvesh-type streak in his character made him leave Bombay despite his friends Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand persuading him to stay back. Just like Prof Akhlaq Mohammad Khan ‘Shaharyar’, who wrote songs for a few movies like ‘Umrao Jaan’ and ‘Gaman’ and bid adieu to Bombay, Neeraj returned to Aligarh. By the way, both Shahryar and Neeraj hailed from Aligarh, a city of literature (shahar-e-adab). Neeraj went to Bombay towards the fag end of the 1950s but never felt comfortable and finally came back to his home turf.

Neeraj dabbled in all genres of poetry and wrote beautiful dohas. Though his dohas didn’t get as much popularity as Nida Fazli got by experimenting with them, some of Neeraj’s dohe got the status of proverbs in the Hindi belt. For example: ‘Kaviyon ki aur chor ki gati hai ek samaan/ Dil ki chori kavi kare, loote chor makaan’ (Poets and thieves are alike/ Poets steal hearts, thieves steal homes) or ‘TV ne hum par kiya yoon chhup-chhup kar vaar/ Sanskriti sab ghayal hui bina teer-talvaar’ (TV attacked us insidiously/ The culture has become wounded sans arrows and swords).

Neeraj was basically a poet whose sensibilities were rooted in his mother tongue, Hindi. Like Shailendra, Neeraj used Hindi words but they don’t appear to be forced or artificial. Just remember his ‘Kaal ka pahiya ghoome bhaiyya’ (‘Agyaat’, 1970), ‘O meri, O meri, O meri Sharmeelee’ (‘Sharmeelee’, 1971), ‘Phoolon ke rang se dil ki qalam se’ (‘Prem Pujari’, 1970) or ‘Ramghaat par subha guzaari, premghaat par raat kati’, to name but a few. All these simple but profound lyrics established him as a poet par excellence. His masterly Hindi song ‘Kaarvan guzar gaya’ is a quintessential classic.

Like Dushyant Kumar Tyagi, Neeraj also enriched and expanded the firmament of Hindi ghazals. One very famous ghazal of his, ‘Jab bhi iss shahar mein kamre se main baahar nikla hoon’, underscores his mastery over this poetic format which embellished Hindi poetry just like it adorned Urdu poetry:

Jab bhi is shahar mein kamre se
main bahar nikla
Mere swagat ko har ik jeb se khanjar nikla
Mere honthon pe dua us ki zabaan pe gaali
Jis ke andar jo chhupa tha
vahi baahar nikla
Rookhi roti bhi sada baant ke jis ne khaai
Wo bhikhari to shahanshahon se badhkar nikla
Kya ajab hai yahi insan ka dil bhi ‘Neeraj’
mom nikla ye kabhi to kabhi patthar nikla

(Whenever I’ve come out of my room/ Daggers popped out of every pocket/ Benediction on my lips and imprecation on his tongue/ What was hidden inside, surfaced all of a sudden/ He shared his stale chapati with others/ That mendicant turned out to be greater than the emperor/ Neeraj, this human heart is so weird/ At times, it’s soft like wax, many a time, it’s as hard as a stone).

Neeraj dealt with life and its myriad moods in his poetry. The factor of relatability distinguished him from his peers. ‘Meri rachnaon mein jeevan ka spandan hai’ (My creations throb with life), he once said. Yes, his entire oeuvre is palpably close to life.

Very few people are aware that this versatile genius was also an actor. Neeraj enacted the role of Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ in a Hindi play, ‘Laal Qile Ka Aakhiri Mushaira’. He debuted at the age of 80! Neeraj, who passed away on July 19, 2018, will remain embossed in the hearts and minds of his countless admirers.


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