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Kavi Pradeep, our national poet – Death anniversary special

On his 20th death anniversary, we remember the poet who instilled a sense of nationalism during times of great struggle. Kavi Pradeep understood the pulse of Indians like few others did. It earned him the immortal appellation of 'national poet' from prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Kavi Pradeep with prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri

Shriram Iyengar

The journey of Kavi Pradeep's patriotic fervour in his film career began early. In one of his first works in the Bombay Talkies hit Bandhan (1940), Pradeep wrote a song that was to become the anthem of young rebels fighting British imperialist rule.

'Chal Chal Re Naujawan' passed through the censors as a social song inspiring the young to take up work. But its underlying theme did not remain hidden for long.

Soon, a young Indira Priyadarshini was leading her 'vanar sena' singing the song in the streets of Delhi. In the decades to come, this guerilla tactic of embedding simple lyrics with patriotic fervour was to become common practice with the poet.

Born Ramchandra Narayanji Dwivedi, he took on the pen name of Pradeep in his college years. His frequent visits to poet conventions around Delhi and Allahabad earned him a reputation as a firebrand patriot.

It was this same poetry that drew him to Bombay. One of the stalwarts of the Bombay film industry, Bombay Talkies boss Himanshu Rai, heard him at a convention in the city and offered him a job. Kangan (1939), starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani, was the first big break for the young man.

Kavi Pradeep participated in the Quit India Movement of 1942. His nationalism stemmed from a deep-seated love for his country and its people, and his lyrics followed in the slipstream.

Writing for Kismet (1943), Hindi cinema's first blockbuster, Kavi Pradeep penned the song, 'Aaj Himalay ki choti se phir humne lalkara hai / Door hato ae duniyawalon Hindustan hamara hai.' The colonial government believed the song to be good propaganda against the Japanese and the Germans fighting World War II, but Indians took it to heart as a declaration of independence.

Before the British government realized it, the song had spread by word of mouth and was being sung at political rallies across the country. It turned Kavi Pradeep from an obscure dissenter to a revolutionary poet. Songs like 'Aao Bachchon Tumhe Dikhayein Jhaanki Hindustan Ki' spoke of the achievements of heroes while 'Dekh Tere Sansar Ki Haalat Kya Ho Gayi Bhagwan' pointed to rampant poverty and the endless greed of the rich.

Pradeep's patriotism was neither blind nor fervent. He was a humanist above all, as is obvious from songs like 'O Ameeron Ke Parameshwar' from Paigham (1959). The song speaks of the troubles of the poor in a world of laws set by the rich:

Aisa lagta garibo ka jag mein
Aaj rakhwala koi nahi
Aisa lagta ke dukhiyon ke aansu
Pochhne wala koi nahi
O ameeron ke parameshwar

[It seems the world of the poor
Has no protector
It seems the tears of the troubled
Have no comforter
O god of the wealthy.]

These themes were explored in greater detail by poets of the Progressive Movement like Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi and Shailendra. Where Pradeep stood out was in his single largest collection of poems evoking the highest qualities of patriotism — duty, sacrifice, and valour.

It was his emphasis on these three qualities that turned 'Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon' into one of the most powerful elegies composed in India. Armed with the melancholic voice of Lata Mangeshkar, Pradeep's lyrics tugged at the heartstrings of a country trying to forget the sacrifices of its brave soldiers in one of its greatest defeats.

Pradeep reminded citizens that even in lost causes, soldiers deserve honour. It would prove to be the song that would reignite pride in the country.

Poets have a short shelf life. Keats famously feared anonymity after his death. Kavi Pradeep, a generous man himself, would not have sought fame, but his work granted him the status.