Hearing Shailendra’s “songs is to see his heart at work; seeing his heart at work is like seeing light pass through a prism and refracted into a rainbow of mourning colours… Here was a lyricist who sometimes groped for hope while his ‘inner eye’ perceived only despair”, Ashraf Aziz waxes eloquent in his essay titled The Lyrical Romance of Suicide.
He added: “A chronological study of his songs illustrates the steadily tightening grip of hopelessness on Shailendra’s life. His vocabulary of hope-denied rang with the conviviality of his deathly thoughts. His view of the world was bleak.”
Shailendra would have been 92 on August 30. He died young, at the age of 43, on December 14, 1966. Lesser careers in Hindi cinema have been far more feted, and it is saddening to know that with each passing year, Shailendra’s legacy dims even more before it is wiped out entirely.
But Shailendra was sui generis. There is simply no other term that describes his impact on Hindi cinema. He built his entire oeuvre over a period of only 17 years, from his first film in 1949. In that sense, he was the proverbial parvana (moth), who burned out all too quickly, but not before he singed our hearts and our minds with his songwriting.
Consider that in Awara (1951), Shree 420 (1955) and Anari (1959), the three films of Raj Kapoor that possibly best encapsulate Kapoor’s man-on-the-street persona from the 1950s, Shailendra’s songs Awara Hoon, Mera Joota Hai Japaani and Sab Kuch Seekha Humney best articulate the essence of the characters played by Kapoor – more than the dialogue.
At the same time, Shailendra’s lyrics conveyed such intense pain and suffering that one wonders what led him to write such cathartic lines. Sample his work in such songs as Hain Sabse Madhur Woh Geet (Patita, 1953), Duniya Na Bahe Mohe (Basant Bahar, 1956) or Din Dhal Jaaye (Guide, 1965) and even the most callous individual tears up.
Even in his lighter songs, Shailendra appeared to be in search of some kind of utopian state where he could be at peace, such as in Yeh Raat Bheegi Bheegi (Chori Chori, 1956).
His pleas to this end went beyond this material world as demonstrated by the line “Laut aayee sada meri, takra ke sitaaron se” from Madhumati in 1958.
Ultimately, though, it was death that he sought and death alone that brought him comfort: Aye mere dil kahin aur chal, gham ki duniya se dil bhar gaya (Daag, 1952). In song after song, he romanticised the idea of dying: Khud hi mar mitne ki Yeh zidd hi humaari (Anari, 1959), Dost dost na raha, pyaar pyaar na raha, zindagi humein tera aitbaar na raha (Sangam, 1964), and Aaj phir jeeney ki tamanna hai, aaj phir marney ka iraada hai (Guide, 1965).
In Ganesh Anantharaman’s National Award-winning book Bollywood Melodies: A History of the Hindi Film Song, eminent lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar said about Shailendra:
“In my view he was the lyricist, who understood films as a medium distinct from poetry and theatre perfectly, and adapted to it beautifully. For his ability to know the medium, understand the situation, get into the characters, and writing in a language suiting the character, he was without peer… I’d go as far as to say that among all the lyricists of Hindi cinema, only Shailendra became a part of the film medium, expertly and successfully. All others remained poets who wrote for films.”
There is sometimes a tacit suggestion that of the many great lyricists who enriched Hindi cinema with their work in the 1950s and 1960s, it was Sahir Ludhianvi alone who wrote distinctly political songs. While Sahir’s legacy cannot be disputed, Shailendra’s work is far more nuanced. In his songs, much was said subtly and without bluster.
Take for instance, “Parbat kaatey, sagar baantey, lehar banaaye humney” in the song Ajab Tori Duniya, Oh More Rama (Do Bigha Zameen , 1953), which is as much of an ode to the working class as Sahir’s Saathi Haath Badhana from Naya Daur (1957).
Similarly, if Sahir wrote, Yeh mahlon, yeh takhton, yeh taajon ki duniya to decry the materialistic aspirations of society for Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957), Shailendra indulged in biting satire on the same subject with the delightful Teri Dhoom Har Kahin in Kala Bazar (1960).
Elsewhere, his lyrics “Mitey jo pyaar ke liye woh zindagi, jaley bahaar ke liye woh zindagi” from Kisiki Muskurahaton (Anari, 1959) can be deduced as a call either for communal harmony or pacifism or even martyrdom.
Shailendra’s simplistic writing gave many a song an eternal quality and left them open to all kinds of interpretations beyond the context of the film, as in the case of Apni Toh Har Aah Ek Toofan Hai (Kala Bazar, 1960) and Poocho Na Kaise Maine Rain Bitaayee (Meri Surat Teri Aankhen, 1963). Javed Akhtar correctly said, “Shailendra comes from the tradition of Kabir, Meera, Khusro. You get that kind of simplicity of these folk poets in Shailendra’s lyrics.”
In many ways, Shailendra’s life was circumscribed by boundaries. For example, Ashraf Aziz, based on his study of over 200 of Shailendra’s songs, suggests that compared to Shakeel Badayuni, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Sahir, Shailendra had the most limited vocabulary “which was recycled in his songs”.
Aziz drew up a recurring list of words/metaphors such as zameen/aasmaan; zindagi/maut; nadiya/saagar; manzil/seema from Shailendra’s songwriting and wrote, “…this limited vocabulary sustained Shailendra close to the top of his profession for about two decades. By addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, permutation and modulation, he succeeded in fashioning a torrent of melodies.”
Even with his limited grammar, finite mortality and constrained role in the triumvirate of composer, playback singer and songwriter, Shailendra put together a body of work that is exquisite, naayaab, magnifique. In his songs, we cry. We grieve. But we find enlightenment at the end of it, too.
Akshay Manwani is the author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (HarperCollins India 2013). He tweets at @AkshayManwani.