Where did 'Awara Hoon' come from?

Of all the gifted artists who accompanied Raj Kapoor through his journey as a filmmaker, it was Shailendra who understood the ethos of the showman best. His composition for 'Awara' remains a hallmark in the poetry of Indian cinema. Here's how it came to be.

Shriram Iyengar

People closest to him called him by names like 'Pushkin' and 'Kabiraj'. Born Shankardas Kesarilal, he took up the pen name 'Shailendra', which means King of the mountain. It was a befitting title for someone who touched the greatest heights of evocative lyricism with his poetic style and understanding of the human heart.

Though he composed lyrics for films like 'Sangam', 'Dil Apna Preet Paraya', 'Boot Polish', 'Barsaat' and 'Teesri Kasam', Raj Kapoor's 'Awaara' remains the film Shailendra is most identified with. He wrote 6 songs for the film, including the cinematically perfect 'Ghar aaya mera pardesi'. The connection between the showman and the poet dated back to 1944. During a poetry convention in Punjab, Raj Kapoor had spotted a fiery young poet narrating the poem 'Jalta hai Punjab'/(Punjab is burning). His ability to use the simplest of words to stir such powerful emotions moved Raj Kapoor. But Shailendra, a hardcore IPTA loyalist, was sceptical of the glamour of cinema. Years later, struggling to make a hand to mouth existence working as a mechanic in Parel, he called on Raj Kapoor for help. Shankar Jaikishan-Hasrat Jaipuri-Shailendra-Raj Kapoor became the quartet with the Midas touch for Hindi cinema in the 50s.

Shailendra's greatest skill was his ability to translate the most complex emotions with the simplest words. Yet, it was a quality that hid the literary understanding and scholarship of its writer. Gulzar, a close associate of Shailendra, writes in an essay “Shailendra is the best lyricist, which ever happened to the Hindi film industry.” He points out that the poet was familiar with the range of works from Neruda, Faiz, Howard Faust, Mahadevi Varma to Mahashweta Devi and Manto. As someone who lived in the Parel area of Mumbai, surrounded by mills and mill workers, Shailendra absorbed the sounds, words and ethos of the common man into his lyrics. Songs like 'Ramaiya Vastavaiya' 'Dil ka haal sune dilwala' were ditties that were born of the songs he heard these workers sing. The socialist ethos of Raj Kapoor's stories ran strongest in the veins of this young poet. It is hardly a surprise then that Raj Kapoor trusted the poet with more than just lyrics.

Shailendra's greatest song 'Awaara hoon' would grow out of its local environments and become, like Raj Kapoor's iconic tramp, an anthem of the underdog. Alexander Solzhenitsyn enters an anecdote about the song in his novel 'Cancer Ward'. The origin of the lyrics was as simple as the songwriter himself. Shailendra had accompanied Raj Kapoor to the story narration by the legendary KA Abbas. A passionate storyteller, Abbas was stirred into passion as he explained the struggles of the underdog fighting society. As he ended the crescendo, the ever-humorous Raj Kapoor turned to Shailendra and said, “Kucch samjhe, Kaviraj?” (Did you understand anything, poet?) Shailendra made a simple reply “Gardish me tha. Aasman ka taara tha. Awaara tha.” (He was lost in the crowd. He was a star. He was a vagabond.) In one haiku, Shailendra had captured everything KA Abbas wished or attempted to say.


A simple man, Shailendra never sought attention for himself or his works. Once when Bimal Roy asked him to write a song for his film Bandini, he pushed another reluctant young poet to the fore, Gulzar. Gulzar recollects Shailendra saying to him “Go, your garage is not going anywhere. Go write something.” It launched the career of Gulzar, a poet who openly admits imitating the simple imagery of Shailendra in his works. Even in his absence, Shailendra contributed to the progress of Indian cinema's poetry.