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How Harindranath Chattopadhyay introduced rap to Hindi cinema


Poet, scholar, MP, playwright, and actor, Harindranath Chattopadhyay was a man of many talents. Yet, his most memorable one was the introduction of 'rap' in Hindi cinema through his limericks. On his 119th birth anniversary, we take a look at the enigmatic poet. 

Shriram Iyengar

The history of rapping, as a form of poetry, dates back to America in the 60's and 70's. It was a form of expression born under oppression and class struggle. Some credit boxing legend Muhammad Ali as one of the first rappers who emerged in the public space. It took another three decades before hip-hop and rap arrived in India. It is only now that the addition of rap verses in songs has become a necessity for a hit Hindi film song. Badshah, Naezy, Divine are names that are becoming commonplace. However, there was one man who attempted this form at the same time as Ali was laying people low with his 'butterfly' verses. His name was Harindranath Chattopadhyay. 

SHAPER SHAPED
In days gone by I used to be
A potter who would feel
His fingers mould the yielding clay
To patterns on his wheel;
But now, through wisdom lately-won,
That pride has died away:
I have ceased to be the potter
And have learned to be the clay.

The above verses are a reflection of the polymathic talents of Harindranath Chattopadhyay. Poet, litterateur, politician, musician, actor, Chattopadhyay was a man of many talents. Born in Hyderabad on 2 April, 1898, Chattopadhyay was a pedigreed scholar. His father, Aghornath Chattopadhyay was the first Doctorate in Science from Hyderabad. His mother was a poet and a singer. His sister was Sarojini Naidu, the Nightingale of India, the first woman to become president of the Indian National Congress. 

However, Harindranath went on to become a rare poet. His poems were imaginative, effortless and lyrical. Laurence Binyon, the English poet and scholar, praised him saying, 'He has drunk from the same fount as Shelley and Keats.' When he submitted an application as research scholar to Cambridge University, Sir Arthur 'Q' Quiller Couch, the litterateur and scholar sent in a reference saying, 'We would have given Shelley and Keats a chance. Why not this young poet?' As he says in this rare interview with Doordarshan, his poems emerge from his own life. Describing his birth city of Hyderabad as 'a city from the Arabian Nights', Harindranath also provides insight into the fascinating history of his family. The poet then goes on to describe the presence of 'Manna', the little child within him who creates poetry. 'Poetry', he says, "writes itself." 

Though his work as a poet remains hidden from a majority of the current generation, even some of the previous ones, few can forget his cinematic contributions. For someone who spent a major part of his life writing plays, Harindranath Chattopadhyay was automatically drawn to cinema. His most memorable role was, of course, in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Bawarchi (1972). But he began his career much earlier. It was in Abrar Alvi's Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) that he played Ghari Babu, the ominous inventor obsessed with clocks. His phrase 'Waqt ki awaaz sunn', was a ringing reminder of his penchant for rhymes. He would later be a part of three Satyajit Ray films, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), Sonar Kella (1971) and Seemabaddha (1971). 

Yet, his most lasting contribution to Hindi cinema was in the form of two limericks that continue to ring in memes and parodies. In 1966, he wrote the poem 'Rail gaadi' and sung it in his own voice on All India Radio. So popular was the song among children, and adults, that Ashok Kumar decided to use it for his film, Aashirwad (1968). In many ways, with its emphasis on onomatopoeic sounds, and rhyming words, it was Indian cinema's first rap song. Ashok Kumar even added a few 'beatboxing' sounds to get the song popular. 

Chattopadhyay even wrote the rest of the poems sung by Ashok Kumar in the film. It proved to be a second win for this wonderfully talented poet. In Bawarchi (1972), another poet, Gulzar, cast him as the sour patriarch terrorising the family. In a role that became his most popular memory, Harindranath Chattopadhyay again delivered a poem, this time in English. 

English remained his most used language. In Julie (1975), he wrote the iconic 'My heart is beating'. Few people remember the name Harindranath Chattopadhyay, but this song continues to feature as a memory of the past. Bejoy Nambiar might not have realised the influence of the grand old man when he inferred the song in Shaitan (2011). 

Harindranath Chattopadhyay went on to become a member of the 1st Lok Sabha from Vijayawada constituency. He continued writing and publishing poems till his last years. However, his most effective and least acknowledged contribution was the introduction of 'rap' into Indian films.