When you think of Naushad with due reverence, spare a thought for Shakeel Badayuni. For what would Naushad have brought his musical weight to bear on, were it not for Shakeel’s poetry? To acknowledge Naushad’s greatness as composer is to also pay tribute to the genius of Shakeel.

As you traverse the songs he penned for Naushad from Dard (1947) till Sanghursh (1968), you are so amazed at the consistency of Shakeel’s brilliance that you wonder who inspired whom to scale ever-newer peaks in music. No other composer–lyricist partnership was as committed to each other, lasted as long, or produced as many outstanding songs. Shakeel was Naushad’s discovery; it was the composer who got the struggling poet a break in [AR] Kardar’s Dard, ending days of poverty for young Shakeel’s large family. Shakeel never forgot that, and always underplayed his contribution to Naushad’s glory in the 1950s. Unlike Sahir who was wont to shoot his mouth off, Shakeel was content to write good, and often great, poetry for the composer to tune.

Shakeel used his experiences of deprivation with painful intensity in his early lyrics. His poetry stood out most for the quality of despair, giving vent to feelings of dejection, frustration and often a muted anger with the almighty for the plight of his protagonists. This last lent his poetry a blazing intensity, as in the song ‘Beech bhanwar mein’ in his very first film Dard: ‘Bekas ke ghamkhaar tumhi ho/Jo kuch ho sarkaar tumhi ho/Dil ka sukoon jeene ka sahara/Duniya ne sab chheena shah-e-madeena.’ Naushad used the same Raag Darbari to highlight Shakeel’s angry articulation of his grievance in Baiju Bawra where ‘O duniya ke rakhwaale’ bristles with the poet’s intensity. Shakeel’s words contribute as much to the potency of the song as Rafi’s pathos-drenched vocals. Baiju Bawra was a film that required Shakeel to use pure Hindi, and the man came up with trumps, penning a bhajan as authentic as ‘Man tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj’. It was for Naushad again that Shakeel wrote the ghazal ‘Na milta gham toh barbaadi ke afsaane kahaan jaate’ in Amar (1954, Lata). Was it any wonder that contemporary Sahir considered Shakeel the best ghazal writer in Hindi cinema?

‘O Duniya Ka Rakhwale’ from ‘Baiju Bawra’ (1952).

Shakeel confined all his creativity to love, romance and dejection, resisting all temptation to write about social causes. Among the quartet of Majrooh, Shailendra, Sahir and Shakeel that ruled Hindi film lyrics in the 1950s and 1960s, Shakeel was the only one to steer clear of political leanings. Sahir may have not liked Shakeel’s preoccupation with matters of the heart alone, but he had the grace to admit that Shakeel was truly brilliant in that genre. Nowhere is that brilliance more sparkling than in all the songs of K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam, where Shakeel had to help Naushad surmount the popularity of Anarkali, the same theme that was a musical hit seven years earlier. Shakeel reached his zenith as lyricist in the film, with each song a lyrical cosmos in itself, the line ‘pyar kiya toh darna kya’ easily the most popular. Anarkali challenging Emperor Akbar in his court with her public declaration of love for prince Salim hasn’t lost any of its spirited defiance fifty years on, thanks in no small measure to Shakeel’s words: ‘Aaj kahenge dil ka fasana/Jaan bhi lele chaahe zamana/Maut wohi jo duniya dekhe/Ghut ghut kar yun Marna kya’.

‘Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya’ from ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ (1960).

If it was defiance in this song, it was Shakeel’s trademark dialogue with the Lord in ‘Bekas pe karam kijiye sarkaar-e-madeena’, Naushad’s Kedar tune that found a place among Lata’s first list of personal favourites in 1967. While each song leaves you impressed, it is in the other Lata solo at the end of the film, Khuda nigehbaan ho tumhaara/Dhadakte dil ka payaam lelo, that Shakeel’s words, topped by Ram Lal’s Shehnai and Naushad’s Yaman notes, move you to tears.

After Mughal-e-Azam, everything Shakeel wrote seemed less. Of course, there were many flashes of brilliance in later years, the title song of Chaudhvin Ka Chand being a case in point. Shakeel also wrote ‘Mere mehboob tujhe meri mohabbat ki kasam’ (Mere Mehboob), ‘Ek shahenshah ne banwa ke haseen Taj Mahal’ (Leader), ‘Guzren hain aaj ishq mein hum us makaam se’ (Dil Diya Dard Liya) and ‘Dil ki kashti bhanwar mein aayi hain’ (Palki), all for Naushad, but with the slide in the fortunes of the composer, Shakeel’s poetry went unnoticed. With Mughal-e-Azam, the best of Naushad was over, and all of Shakeel’s verve couldn’t reverse the fortunes of either. His hits for Hemant Kumar in Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam and Bees Saal Baad and for Ravi in Do Badan kept him going, but lyrically, what he wrote for others came nowhere close to the magic he created for Naushad.

‘Bekarar Karke Humein’ from ‘Bees Saal Baad’ (1962).

Luckily for him, death came early, in 1970, and he was spared the redundancy that many stalwarts of music of the previous two decades, including Naushad, had to face. Perhaps he was bidding adieu to the world in his last hit song ‘Aaj puraani raahon se’ in Aadmi, where he wrote with uncanny prescience: Jeevan badla duniya badli, mann ko anokha gyaan mila/Aaj mujhe apne hi dil mein ek naya insaan mila/Pahuncha hoon wahaan nahin door jahaan/Bhagwaan bhi meri nigaahon se’.
Excerpted with permission from Bollywood Melodies A History of the Hindi Film Song, Ganesh Anantharaman, Penguin Random House India.