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Article Hindi

Obit: Gopaldas 'Neeraj', last of the romantics

The Padma Bhushan awardee Hindi poet and film lyricist died in New Delhi on Thursday. 

Shriram Iyengar

'Mai vidrohi hoon, vidroh karaane aaya hoon'. A devastating statement made simply with poetic effect. That was Gopaldas Saxena 'Neeraj'.

The death of the 93-year-old poet and lyricist at New Delhi's All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) marks the end of an era for blank verse poetry in Hindi/Urdu literature and cinema.

It was Neeraj's free-flowing, lyrical and simple style that set the tone for an alternative to the powerful Urdu poetry in Hindi cinema and literature. It was a style that enabled him to step into the void left by the lyricist Shailendra, to create a new partnership with the great SD Burman and with Shankar-Jaikishan. 

A Padma Bhushan awardee, Neeraj was born in Puravali village in Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh on 4 January 1925. Having lost his father at the age of six, Neeraj turned to odd jobs after Matriculation, working as a typist, selling bidis, and painting walls to support his family. But he did not give up studies. 

Poetry was always Neeraj's passion. Having started writing at the age of 14, he would often recite his poems at mushairas (poetry gatherings). 

After graduation, he moved to Delhi to work for the British Raj's publicity department. There he worked as assistant to another poet, Hafeez Jullundhri. However, his poem 'Main Vidrohi Hoon', written in 1943 during the Bengal famine, changed all that. His superiors did not take kindly to this rebellion, forcing the poet to go underground.

After Independence, Neeraj followed the path of all great poets by turning to serious academics and began teaching Hindi at the Dharam Samaj college in Aligarh. But poetry continued on the sidelines.

A recital of the poem, 'Carvaan Guzar Gaya', for All India Radio in Lucknow in 1956 brought him to the notice of filmmaker R Chandra. Chandra, another resident of Aligarh, approached Neeraj to write for films. Thus began a relationship and a journey that would redefine the course of Hindi cinema lyrics.

Chandra used the poet's 'Carvaan Guzar Gaya' in his film Nai Umar Ki Nai Fasal (1965). The film bombed, but the song left the indelible impact that Neeraj's poetry was capable of making.

Neeraj's ability to weave in the most complex philosophies of life into simple romantic verse put him in the league of another wonderfully laconic poet, Shailendra. Dev Anand, who was seeking a voice to replace that of Shailendra, spotted Neeraj and invited him to Bombay for a meeting. It was here that Neeraj first met the composer who would be his most effective partner — SD Burman. 

Speaking to The Hindu newspaper in May 2015, the poet said, "Next day, he [Dev Anand] took me to SD Burman, who showed apprehensions about a poet’s ability to write to tunes on a given situation. Dev Anand said that he should not worry. He should give the tune and if Neeraj failed he would remain his guest for six days and enjoy Bombay.

"Burmanda gave me a tune and said the song should start with ‘Rangeela Re’ and it is about a girl who sees her beloved coming to a party with another girl. It should have elements of frustration in love, jealousy and satire.

"I worked the whole night and came up with 'Rangeela re, tere rang main yun ranga hai mera mann, chhaliya re...'." Burman had to give in.

The partnership resulted in some unforgettable numbers like 'Han Maine Kasam Li' from Tere Mere Sapne (1971), 'Aaj Madhosh Hua Jaaye Re' from Sharmeelee (1971), and 'Choodi Nahi Ye Mera Dil Hai' and 'Dil Aaj Shayar' from Gambler (1971). These were some of the many wonderfully lyrical songs that the great poet penned for Hindi cinema. 

In an age when Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, and Shahryar dominated the lyrics of Hindi cinema, Neeraj helped to bring in simplicity. His verses were rid of complex Urdu diction, and flowed with the ease of speech. As he would say, "My idea of poetry is to convey profound thoughts in simple words. Where is the art in saying difficult things in difficult words?" 

A perfect example of that would be 'Kaal Ka Pahiya Ghoome' from Chanda Aur Bijli (1969). The song won Neeraj a Filmfare award for Best Lyricist, and rightly so. A simple composition in free verse, the song captured the perfect synchronization of the poet's humanist philosophy and easy language.

Neeraj's blank verse style, though, did not always work. In the interview, the poet recollected walking into Shankar-Jaikishan's office with three pages of his poem for a Raj Kapoor film. Neeraj said, "Shankar hadn’t come across such blank verse for a film song before and could not hold it in tune. Ultimately, I had to step in." The song was 'Ae Bhai Zara Dekh Ke Chalo' for Raj Kapoor's roman-à-clef Mera Naam Joker (1970). 

In 1973, at the peak of his powers, the poet left the film industry to return to academics. The death of SD Burman and, earlier, Jaikishan of the Shankar-Jaikishan duo meant the end of an era. A new generation of composers began to opt for tunes and lyrics that Neeraj refused to abide by. His legacy, though, lay in the manner in which he changed the course of Hindi cinema's lyrics from high-brow literature to the common man's parlance.

He continued to write poetry into the 1990s. Neeraj was honoured with the Padma Shri in 1991 and the Padma Bhushan in 2007. 

In an age of remixes, the role of lyricists seems to have been reduced to playing second fiddle to rappers. The magic of espousing poetry that ripped into irrelevant social mores, outdated practices, and harmful habits seems to have been forgotten. An age in which political apathy has ripped through the fabric of Indian society, creating an insecure, angry mob of people, seems to have been the last thing the great poet witnessed. Sadly, it is a time when we would need him. As he wrote in his famous poem:

Ab to mazhab koi aisa bhi chalaya jaaye,
Jisme insaan ko insaan banaya jaaye.
Geet gumsum hai, ghazal chup hai, rubaai hai udaas,
Aise mahoul me Neeraj ko bulaaya jaaye.