A two-hour train journey from Delhi brought me to Aligarh, where eminent poet and lyricist Gopaldas Saxena “Neeraj” lives. I didn’t need to mention his address at the railway station – an auto-rickshaw dropped me near his house. It is heartening to know that in this age and times, a poet is so well known in his hometown.

A number of film posters enlivened the streets, roads and bazaars on the way. Old classics starring Pran and Dharmendra jostled for space with new releases and soft porn films. It’s a typical small north Indian town with the effect of Bollywood visible in its soul. Little wonder, then, that Aligarh has given the Hindi film industry lyricists Neeraj and Shahryar, scriptwriter Rahi Masoom Raza, filmmaker R Chandra and actors Bharat Bhushan and Chandrachur Singh.

It was Chandra, who made films during the 1950s and ’60s, who kickstarted Neeraj’s film career. Neeraj went on to write evergreen hits such as Dil Aaj Shayar Hai, Khiltein Hain Gul Yahan, Chudi Nahin Ye Mera Dil Hai, Jaise Radha Ne Maala Japi Shyam Ki.

The 93-year-old poet had recently returned from two poetry conferences when I reached his home. He was surrounded by visitors and admirers. He motioned to Ram Singh, his former Officer on Special Duty (Neeraj was honoured with the rank of cabinet minister under the previous Akhilesh Yadav government), to light his bidi. A man with a three-day stubble came forward and asked for help in getting a loan to buy an electric rickshaw. A government doctor and university vice chancellor waited with flowers. Neeraj clearly continues to command respect in his sunset years, and it has taken immense hard work and dedication to arrive here.

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Chudi Nahin Ye Mera Dil Hai, Gambler (1971).

Neeraj was born on January 4, 1925, in Puravali village in Etawah district, Uttar Pradesh. He lost his father when he was six. His paternal aunt and her husband educated Neeraj and his elder brother.

An early lesson in assuming responsibility came during his school years. When Neeraj failed in a subject by one mark, he requested the teacher to give him an extra point, but the teacher refused: “If I give you one mark today, you will get into the habit of asking favours. You are the son of the poor. You should get a first class throughout your life.”

The teacher’s words struck deep in Neeraj’s heart, and he strove to be the best not only in academics but in all spheres of his life.

Neeraj was drawn to music and writing poetry in school. After he got married, his uncle withdrew financial support, telling him, “You are on your own now.” The young and future poet took up whatever he got to make money – he sold bidis and cigarettes, offered typing services to a lawyer, taught children, pulled a rickshaw, painted the walls with the names of Ayurvedic medicine brands, and dived into the Yamuna river to retrieve coins thrown in by the pious. These odd jobs provided the poet with the invaluable experience of living varied lives, so essential to becoming a poet and a writer.

The Delhi years

Soon afterwards, Neeraj moved to Delhi to work as a typist in the government’s publicity division. He was promoted as the literary assistant of the poet Hafiz Jallandhari to help him propagate the government’s policies.

Although Neeraj had first participated in a poetry gathering when he was 14, it was Delhi that gave him his big opportunity. At a conference, he recited Pardesi apne ghar jao re in the presence of literary giants. Apart from a big round of applause, he recalls, he got five rupees as a prize.

“Even after getting several literary awards and the prestigious Padma Bhushan, none of the awards could match the happiness I got out of winning those five rupees,” Neeraj said. “I was hard up and the money came at a crucial time.”

Several invitations to poetry events followed. In 1943, Neeraj participated in a conference in Kolkata, which was facing a famine. Disturbed by what he saw – people fighting with each other like dogs over scraps of leftovers – he read out a poem critical of the government, Main vidrohi hun, which gained tremendous popularity.

For someone who was appointed to praise the government’s policies, he was openly criticising then. Fearing arrest, Neeraj fled Delhi for Kanpur, where he says that he lived for nearly two years in hiding.

Neeraj resumed giving private tuition and worked as a stenographer to fend for himself. He also managed to complete his graduation (he got a first class) and was appointed as an information officer for the Uttar Pradesh government in 1951. In 1956, he began teaching Hindi at Dharam Samaj College in Aligarh.

Meanwhile, Neeraj continued to participate in conferences. His poem Karvan Guzar Gaya created a sensation when he first recited it on All India Radio at Lucknow. “He was next to Harivansh Rai Bachchan, who made poetry accessible to the common man,” said his son Shashank Prabhakar, who is also a poet. “Later, he went to Bombay and imparted refreshing quality and depth to film songs.”

Neeraj (far right) at a recording with SD Burman (far left). Courtesy Milan Prabhat Gunjan.
Neeraj (far right) at a recording with SD Burman (far left). Courtesy Milan Prabhat Gunjan.

The filmmaker R Chandra signed up Neeraj in 1960 after hearing him at a poetry event in Mumbai. “I have written hundreds of poems, you can pick up the ones you like,” Neeraj recalls telling Chandra.

In 1966, Chandra made Nai Umar Ki Nai Fasal with eight poems by Neeraj, including Karvan Guzar Gaya (sung by Mohammed Rafi) and Dekhti Hi Raho Aaj Darpan Na Tum (sung by Mukesh). The film tanked but its songs achieved stupendous popularity.

When Dev Anand heard Neeraj at a gathering, he told him, “I like this language. Someday, we will work together.” Sometime in the late ’60s, when Neeraj learnt that Anand was making Prem Pujari and was looking for a lyricist, he wrote to the filmmaker, reminding him of his promise. Anand asked him to come to Mumbai. Upon his arrival, Anand handed over 1,000 rupees to Neeraj and said, “I will take you to my music director SD Burman tomorrow.”

Burman told Neeraj he wanted a song that started with the word “rangeela.” Thus was born Rangeela Re Tere Rang Mein. Burman, who was known as “dada”, was sufficiently impressed by the song’s heart-rending lyrics. “I had given a difficult tune to fail you but you failed me with this gem of a number,” Neeraj recalls the composer telling him later.

The SD Burman effect

Burman and Neeraj collaborated on several musical hits in the ’70s, including Sharmeelee, Gambler and Tere Mere Sapne. Neeraj would drop into Burman’s house at nine every morning. “I lost all sense of time while working with him,” Neeraj said. “One day, I arrived late at his house. I saw him humming a tune, his hands moving vigorously with the rhythm of the song and his eyes focused on one of the walls. I greeted him but he kept humming and gestured me to stay quiet. I didn’t realise what he meant and greeted him again. Dada kept singing and said to me, ‘Aa rahi hai, aa rahi hai, keep quiet.’ It was later that I learnt that dada was trying to perfect a tune.”

Burman advised Neeraj to shun overused words such as shama, parvana, sharab, tamanna, jaaneman, jaan and ishq. “I offered him words like bagiya, madhur, geetanjali, maala, dhaaga that had been rarely used in Hindi songs,” Neeraj said. “He was wonderful at experimenting with novel ways to make a song. For instance, he would use the mukhda [opening lines] after the antara [the middle part of the song] and try different musical instruments in Hindi music for the first time. Just imagine how poor our music would have been without him.”

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Rangeela Re, Prem Pujari (1970).

Neeraj also worked with Shanker-Jaikishan, creating such hits as Likhe Jo Khat Tujhe and Aadmi Hun Aadmi Se Pyar Karta Hun. When Neeraj gave Shankar-Jaikishan the lyrics for Ae Bhai Zara Dekha Ke Chalo for Mera Naam Joker in 1970, they felt that the song was formless without the opening lines, and that it would be impossible to compose its music. But when Neeraj suggested a tune, they were thrilled to hear it, he said.

At poetry events, Neeraj had recited his poems in his unique musical style, shunning the traditional way of recitation. Evidently, it was his talent to express himself in a musical way that helped him suggest the tune to such stalwarts as Shanker-Jaikishan.

In 1973, at the height of his popularity, Neeraj turned his back on the Hindi film industry and returned to Aligarh. By then, he had resigned from his college. “After Jaikishan passed away in 1971 and SD Burman stopped working because of his ill health, I felt disillusioned in Bombay,” Neeraj said. “I was a popular poet and felt disinclined to ask for work.”

The new music directors and film producers in the late ’70s didn’t think of Neeraj for their films. “Of all the people in Bombay, only Dev Anand and Vijay Anand stayed in touch with me right to the very end,” Neeraj said. “In fact, I wrote lyrics for Dev Anand’s last film, Chargesheet.”

He laments the falling standards of poetry at poetry conferences and in the movies. “The lyricist in our films is practically dead,” he declared. “It’s because people are running after material things that they do not want to listen to songs which requires them to think deeply. We are living in an age of superficial excitement. That’s why you see mimicry, jokes and crass humour being passed off as poetry.”

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Ae Bhai Zara Dekha Ke Chalo, Mera Naam Joker (1970).

Neeraj’s unique musical way of reciting poems and his magnetic aura drew a huge female fan following, and he wasn’t impervious to it. There were some turbulent affairs, and Neeraj even ended up marrying a second time. “Had I not been inundated with such attention from women, I would have ended up writing at least 50 more books of poetry,” he said.

His first love was a woman from a well-to-do family in Etah. “When talks of marrying her cropped up, her aunt stalled it by saying that I didn’t even have enough to support myself,” he said. “Years later, when I met her again, I was stunned to see her living in acute poverty with her sick husband. I thrust 200 rupees in her hands and told her to write to me if she needed anything. But I never heard from her. Many women fell in love with me later but I haven’t been able to fill the void her absence left in my life.”

Neeraj still gets phone calls and messages from his female fans, Ram Singh said. “There’s one from Bhopal who didn’t marry because she loved Neeraj ji passionately. He often talks to her over the phone. Now with Neeraj’s wives no longer alive, she sometimes comes to Aligarh to take care of him.”

When I learnt that Neeraj doesn’t suffer from major old-age ailments such as diabetes and high blood pressure, I ask him the secret for his longevity and his ability to work even now. “I eat in moderation and ensure my digestion is good,” he said. “As far as work is concerned, I love composing poems so much that it has kept me intoxicated throughout my life.”

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Dekhti Hi Raho Aaj Darpan, Nai Umar Ki Nai Fasal (1966).