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Shailendra: When the Poet is a Lyricist

February 13, 2024 | By

Ratnottama Sengupta traces the journey of ‘Kaviraj’ Shailendra on the Indian screen through a few of the immortal songs he penned in his brief and brilliant life as a lyricist


I was in China for the Festival of India, and when I went to their cinema capital, Shanghai, I was greeted by one song, Awara hoon, and a reference to Do Bigha Zameen (1953), identified by another time-defying song, Mausam beeta jaaye, both from the pen of the same lyricist. Then, a decade later, I was in Moscow, and even in the new millennium, to welcome Indians, people crooned Awara hoon! But even today, on the Net, the Hindi song from Awara (1951) is identified in this pecking order: “Sung by Mukesh. Picturised on Raj Kapoor. Music composed by Shankar Jaikishan. Lyrics penned by Shailendra.”

The story of how Shailendra refused to “sell” his poem, ‘Jalta Punjab‘, to Raj Kapoor for Aag (1948) is known by now. Perhaps a lesser known is how Awara hoon got written. When Shailendra, by then in need of money, returned to RK, he dragged ‘Kaviraj’ (as he had anointed Shailendra) to his screenwriter KA Abbas who narrated the storyline and then sought his listeners’ opinion. RK looked at Shailendra, and the poet put the crux of the narrative in a single line: Awara hoon, ya gardish mein hoon aasman ka taara hoon! As casually as that, he penned the title song of a celluloid classic.

Shailendra’s refusal to “sell” his art – his poetry – was not a whimsy. And, yes, he did go back to RK for money, and he was convinced by RK to write for films, and he went on to become one of the most sought-after lyricists of the Hindi screen. But it always rankled that he, who wanted to write verses to give vent to his angst with the way of the partitioned world, had to write cheerful songs and romantic ditties for people who paid him. Tang arata hai daulatwala, he cribbed, in talking about Dil ka haal, secrets of his heart.

Herein lies the tragedy of a lyricist. The better the rendition of a song, listeners remember it more by the singer who rendered it, the actor who embodied the persona; or the film for which it was written. Seldom do people recall – or even know – who had penned the ditty that has got woven into the warp and weft of not only the script but, over time, of our life! So where’s the question of according them the literary status of a poet?

Yet, Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu refutes that there is no literary value in writing for cinema. “Yes, in a commercial art like cinema, everything cannot be literature,” the seven-times National Film Award winner admits that all movie songs are not poetry. But he is ready to tussle with those who say songs do not have the charm or aesthetics of poetry.

Lyricist Shailendra

The role of songs in cinema is different, and therefore the aesthetics is different from that of poetry. Lyrics are written to fit into a script, a character, and a social clime. So, a lyricist has to bow to politics, humanities, and sociology. And still, a film song becomes a feast for the tastes of common people because it contains in its folds the seeds of nuanced literature.

When a poet becomes a lyricist, he does not have the same freedom: his imagination is bound by the barriers of melody. He has the added responsibility of creating poetry by overcoming the constraints of the situation and the tune scored to heighten the emotion of the moment. When the lyrics of a song transcend these constraints, it attains the heights of aesthetics, not necessarily of poetry but of its own particular identity.


young shailendra

Shailendra as a young boy

Was Shailendra — born 30th August 1923 in Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan) — a poet, a lyricist, or a poet who is best remembered as a lyricist? And even as I pose this question, I am inclined to ask another: Can you have a song that will be remembered 100 years later if there was no poetry in it?

In the golden era of Hindi film music there were the greats we know as Majrooh Sultanpuri, Hasrat Jaipuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Kaifi Azmi. They were all poets but, remember, they were writing for a film, to take the story forward, through characters in a situation, to be rendered by a playback artiste.

I can recall countless songs that fit the bill of poetry. But few songs go on to presage the yet-to-unfold narrative, or even the final resolution of a film. And, in doing so, they sometimes equate the screenplay. In this aspect, Shailendra led from the front. He was perhaps the lyricist most qualified to be a screenplay writer. In support of this statement I will readily mention two songs – both for films that released in 1966, within weeks of his final exit. One is the Mahua Ghatwarin song from Teesri Kasam/ The Third Vow: in it Hiraman, a bullock-cart driver, recounts the story of Mahua (who is sold off for money by her own family) to Hirabai, the Nautanki dancer who he is ferrying to the fair. Hirabai is visibly moved by the story and, in the finale, she defies that fate. The song — Duniya bananewale kya tere mann mein samaai — was penned by Hasrat Jaipuri. But in all likelihood the source of Mahua’s tale was Shailendra. The film’s producer, too, had roots in Bihar, the region its writer Renu came from.

Duniya banane waale (Teesri Kasam, 1966) Shankar Jaikishan / Hasrat Jaipuri / Mukesh

The second is the title song of Guide, directed by Vijay Anand with Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman leading the cast.  These songs exemplify how amazingly he could add depth to the narrative by emoting for the characters to meet the demands of the situation.

Wahaan kaun hai tera, musafir (Guide, 1965) S D Burman / Shailendra / S D Burman

So we can say that Shailendra was a poet but 90 per cent of his writing was penned after the tune was set. Yet, at certain times, an idea would strike him because he had a fair grasp of music, too. S D Burman once said on a radio programme that Shailendra came with the tune of the song Ab ke baras bhej Bhaiya ko Babul in Bandini1. It’s essentially a folk song of Eastern UP-Bihar region.

Sometimes, as in O sajana barkha bahar aayee (Parakh, 1960not only was the tune set, it was a super popular Bangla song, Na jeona. But Shailendra wrote such immortal words for the deathless Lata Mangeshkar number that not a single note needed to be changed.

Like any other art form, Shailendra’s poetry and thereby his lyrics sprang from his life experiences. So where did a poetry express itself in a line like Aaj kal mein dhal gaya? Here’s the story. As it often happens, a producer owed him a certain amount of money which he promised to clear when Shailendra needed money to take his pregnant wife to the hospital. Of course, the promise remained unfulfilled. When he returned at night, the clock had gone from ‘Today’ to ‘Tomorrow’. Shakuntala asked her husband, “Kuchh hua? Any progress?” “Nahin,” he replied, “aaj kal mein dhal gaya. Tum so jaao, go to bed,” he told her. The very next day he wrote the song which still takes us to L V Prasad’s super hit film, Beti Bete (1964). Tu bhi so jaa, so gaye hai sab nagar… Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi sang.

Aaj kal mein dhal gaya (Beti Bete, 1964) Shankar Jaikishan / Shailendra / Lata Mangeshkar

Another day, late in the night, he was returning from R K Studios. Needless to add that, with quite a few pegs in his tummy, his feet were not under his control. And some neighbours, watching the ‘action’ from their balcony, broke into laughter. Shailendra reacted to that the next morning with these words: When the peacock prances in the forest, no one takes note. Alas, every eye rises when I swing after downing drinks!  Jungle mein mor naacha kissine na dekha, Hum jo thodisi peekar jhoomey – haay re sabne dekha! The words have been inscribed in our national memory by Rafi, Salil Chowdhury and Johnny Walker (Madhumati/1957).

On another occasion, he was ducking S D Burman who needed him to pen a song for Kala Bazar (1960), the Navketan film featuring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman. One morning Burman Dada sent his son, Rahul Dev – who was assisting him in composing music for films – to extract the song he had been evading. Shailendra first went to Shankar Jaikishan, then here and then there, all with RD in tow. At the end of the day they arrived at Juhu Beach. Shailendra spread his legs on the sand, asked for a matchbox — and asked him to give him the tune. Then he took out the piece of paper in his cigarette box and scribbled the words on it. “You can go home now,” he told RD who dutifully took the scrap to his father. The song that was recorded by Mohammed Rafi the next day went thus: Khoya khoya chand, khula aasman, Aakhon mein saari raat jayegi, Tumko bhi kaise neend aayegi? The moon, somewhat lost in the clouds floating in the open sky… how can you sleep on such a night?

Shailendra’s background helped him become a poet-lyricist. He was and always thought of himself as a poet more than a lyricist. That is why he was initially reluctant to write for films. In Dil ka haal suney dilwala (Shree 420, 1955) he says,

Gham se abhi azad nahin main,
Khush hoon magar abaad nahin main,
Manzil mere paas khadi hai,
Paavon mein lekin bedi padi hai,
Taang adaata hai daulatwala…

I’m happy I’m free, I’m rich but I have no fulfilment… My feet are chained by men with deep pockets. I’m writing for the money people pay me.” Clearly he was agonised to write what other people wanted to express.

Dil ka haal suney dilwala (Shree 420, 1955) Shankar Jaikishan / Shailendra / Manna Dey

The poverty he had seen as a child fired his poetic imagination in a big way. A song from Ujala (1959) indicates this: Chulha hai thanda par pet mein aag hai, Garam garam rotiyan kitna haseen khwaab hai. Pen portrait of a hungry man, or child, this imagination makes your mouth water and also brings tears to your eyes. Can this imagery come from one who has never suffered the pangs of hunger?

aja re pardesi

Aaja re pardesi (Vyjayanthimala in and as Madhumati) (Pic courtesy: Twitter)

“Gareebi mein padna likhna mushkil thaa…” Poverty made it difficult to read and write, Dinesh Shailendra was recounting moments from his father’s Diary that his mother had bequeathed to him — the fifth and youngest of her brood. He was speaking at the public function organised by Rafi Lovers’ Circle to honour the creativity of his father in his Centenary year. “But he learnt the two ‘R’s of read and write – though perhaps not the third ‘R’ – through the benevolence of a Bengali gentleman. That perhaps explains why Bengali was so dear to him. Small wonder, Shailendra’s deathless song, Aaja re pardesi was penned for Bimal Roy and Salil Chowdhury (Madhumati/ 1957). And when it came to his own production, he trusted Basu Bhattacharya with the direction, and Subroto Mitra with the cinematography, and Nabendu Ghosh with the screenplay.

Unfortunately, Shailendra had not mastered ‘’Rithmatic’. Since had scant business sense, the budget of Teesri Kasam soared from Rs 3 lakh to a staggering Rs 23 lakh. The result? He was eons away from breaking even when he passed into eternity on December 15 – three months after the film’s first screening in Delhi, and three months before it brought home the Golden Lotus. Mukesh, the voice of Raj Kapoor, was responsible for distributing the film after that. Which is why the 29th KIFF screened the classic based on Phaniswar Nath Renu’s story, as a joint tribute to the lyricist and the singer on their birth centenary.


Shailendra’s sensitivity to words came not from being born to a man of letters – no one in his family was a writer or professor. But Shailendra opened the doors of that fascinating world for himself. Every evening after school – and later, college – he would go to Mathura Railway Station, watch trains come and go, sit at A H Wheelers, pick up books and read read read. He could, therefore, talk about the Paris Commune in a poem and, in another poem, adapt Shelley’s Ode to Skylark.

Alive to the nuances of words was the outcome of his craving to absorb the emotions of words, be it in Hindi or Bengali, English or Bhojpuri. “Sweetest are the songs that speak our saddest thoughts…” then, becomes Hai sabse madhur woh geet Jinhe hum Dard ke sur mein gaatey hain (Patita, 1953).

Can such thoughts ever be written off simply because the poet died at age 43?

1. Source: Dinesh Shailendra

More Must Read in Silhouette

‘If Raj Uncle Liked a Song, He Would Give Baba a Gold Coin’: Amla Shailendra Remembers Her Father ‘Kaviraj’ Shailendra

Shailendra’s Teesri Kasam: Sapne Jagaa Ke Tune Kaahe Ko De Di Judaai

Teesri Kasam – A Story of Love That Meandered to its Dead End

15 Songs of Shailendra: The Art of Simply Expressing Deepest Thoughts

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A National Award winner for her Writings on Cinema, Ratnottama Sengupta is a natural writer with keen understanding of Cinema and Visual Art. A Journalist since 1978, she has been with The Times of India, The Telegraph, Screen and been the Editor of the online magazine Daughter of writer Nabendu Ghosh, she writes extensively on Cinema and on Art. She has contributed to Encyclopedia Britannica on Hindi Films, and has to her credit many titles including on Plastic Arts. Ratnottama has curated 'Little Languages Film Festival' in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata; 'Prosenjit: A Retrospective', Delhi; 'Bimal Roy Centenary', Goa, Kolkata; 'Bengali Cinema After Rituparno', Delhi; and initiated the 'Hyderabad Bengali Films Festival'. * She has been on IFFI Steering Committee; National and International Award juries; with CBFC; and on NFDC Script Committee. She scripted Mukul, a short film on Nabendu (2009). She debuts as director with And They Made Classics.
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