When Gopaldas Saxena 'Neeraj' first arrived in Bombay, he was asked to write a song by SD Burman, of which the first two words were already written for him " 'Rangeela re'. Even though it was the age of lyricists, of poetic sensibilities ruling Indian music, little was expected of Neeraj (Gopaldas' pen-name). The next day, he handed Burman the song he had written overnight. The rest is history.
Gopaldas Neeraj, who passed away at the age of 93, was one of those rare voices who married music and poetry at the altar of truth, but was still (on his own admission) considered an outsider by both. Not only was Neeraj gifted with that rare sense of lyricism, phraseology as diverse as this country, but he also, most crucially, spoke truth to power.
Neeraj was born in the Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh in 1925. He lost his father at the age of six, and had to withdraw from formal education after Class 10, so he could look after his family. Much of Neeraj's poetry was shaped by his struggles. By the '60s, Neeraj had been heard by Dev Anand, the man who would introduce him to tinsel town, and his two chief collaborators, SD Burman and Shankar (of Shankar-Jaikishan). But much like his life, Neeraj was perhaps the right man at the right place, but at the wrong time. After almost half a decade, Neeraj left Bollywood to return to Aligarh, where he continued as professor at the Dharam Samaj College. Only Dev Anand, he would later claim in life, kept in touch with him.
The tag of the 'people's poet' is commonly thrown around. But for Neeraj, it is perhaps accurate. He was revered in both, the Hindi and Urdu speaking worlds. And in the spirit of secularism, he translated on both stages not as Hindu or Muslim, but poet alone. A writer capable of critical introspection, as his lines from the famous poem 'Karvaan Guzarta Rha' suggest:
Nind bhi khuli na thi ke haay dhup dhal gayi
Paanw jab talak uthhe ke jindagi fisal gayi
Paat-paat jhar gaye ke shaakh-shaakh jal gayi,
Chaah to nikal saki na, par umar nikal gayi
No wonder Dev Anand was smitten when he first heard Neeraj recite this very poem at a sammelan. His capacity to speak honestly can be judged by the fact that even during his years struggling as a typist before the brief foray in Bollywood, Neeraj left government jobs because he couldn't agree with the politics of new India. Communalism, even in a post-independent India, was rearing its head and poets like Neeraj couldn't help but let their conscience be affected by it. In an age where this division feels particularly wide, his ghazal 'Ab Toh Mazhab Koi Aisa' is stunningly reflective of the malady at the heart of this country:
Ab to mazhab koi aisa bhi chalaya jaaye
Jisme insaan ko insaan banaya jaaye
Aag behti hai yahan, Ganga mein bhi Zamzam mein bhi
Koi batlaaye kahan jaa ke nahaya jaaya
It is difficult at times to commit everything to poetry. For the simple reason that it seems a futile exercise, given the limited engagement it has. But Neeraj's poetry was that rare breed that spoke of commitment itself. Neeraj probably committed everything to paper, until his being dissolved with it. Most poets re-write the same poem all their lives. Neeraj was different. His music, his tone, his subjects, even his anger carried nuance. Be it the darkness of cut-throat politics:
har Ä¡halat mo¸ pe TokÄ hai kisÄ« ne mujh ko
ek ÄvÄz tirÄ« jab se mire saath huÄ«
maiÃ± ne sochÄ ki mire desh kÄ« hÄlat kyÄ hai
ek qÄtil se tabhÄ« merÄ« mulÄqÄt huÄ«
Or displacement of the mind in a life no less mundane, than it felt endless:
Tamaam umr main ek ajnabi ke ghar mein raha
Safar na karte huye bhi kisi safar mein raha
To most writers, reconciling the poetic with the politic is often problematic. One is considered statement, the other verse. But Neeraj found a levelling place for both to be considered music. It is surprising to think his ghazals and poems are as easy to hum as they are to read. A poet as accessible as he is rare is an anomaly. Moreover, Neeraj wasn't one to shy away from speaking his mind. For all the state honours " including the Padma Bhushan " he received, he remained avowedly critical of the way religion and caste were used by politicians to divide people, a trope that repeatedly appears in his poetry.
Neeraj's rather more famous contributions remain his songs in films like Mera Naam Joker, Prem Pujari, Kanyadaan and others. He took over from the brilliant Shailendra, and in his brief time in the industry took poetry to its peak. In an age where that lyricism is under threat, not just from outside but from the inside the creator's mind as well, the ability to write depth into rhythm is as unique an ability as it sounds alien. More than that, the nature of the Indian poet has changed to the extent that the void left by Neeraj's pen is unlikely to be filled. Because only he worshipped his craft, as much as he was blessed with it:
Atman ke saundarya ka shabd roop hai kavya
manav hona bhagya hai kavi hona saubhagya