One treasure of the Internet is the RMIM Usenet group and its more user-friendly compiled archive. One of my favourite pastimes over the years has been to open random articles from the archive, read about the songs there while making a playlist of the songs discussed in the thread. It’s one thing to listen to these songs. But the additional notes posted by the knowledgeable RMIM community along with the painstakingly compiled lyrics base of Giitaayan and Smriti.com create a totally different engagement.
Recovering from an illness at home, with lots of time to spare, I went back to the archive. I found this 1997 article by Amla Mazumder, daughter of lyricist Shailendra. Ms Mazumder writes a touching tribute of her father and presents the ideas and world views that went into many of Shailendra’s songs. She closes the article with a list of 11 songs – these are songs of Shailendra which Shailendra considered his favourites.
It is a remarkable list. When a writer (or any artist for that matter) picks his favourites from his own works, the list in a way showcases what the writer really wants to say to the world. They represent his view of the world and the writer feels these works communicate them better than any other. The writer finds himself in his true form in these selections.
I immediately made a playlist of this and spent a whole day listening to them. It has triggered many thoughts which I am putting down here below.
First, here are the 11 songs in chronological order
- Awara hoon (Mukesh, Awara, 1951, Shankar Jaikishen)
- Mera Joota Hai Japani (Mukesh, Shree 420, 1953, Shankar Jaikishen)
- Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke (Manna Dey & Lata Mangeshkar, Do Bigha Zameen, 1953, Salil Chowdhury)
- Sab Kuch Seekha Humne (Mukesh, Anari, 1959, Shankar Jaikishen)
- Mat Ro Maata (Manna Dey, Bandini, 1963, SD Burman)
- Ab Ke Baras Bhaiya Bhejon (Asha Bhonsle, Bandini, 1963, SD Burman)
- Koi Lautade Mere Beetein Huen Din (Kishore Kumar, Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein, 1964, Kishore Kumar)
- Jin Raaton Ki Bhor Nahin Hai (Kishore Kumar, Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein, 1964, Kishore Kumar)
- Aaj Phir Jeene Ki Tamanna Hain (Lata Mangeshkar, Guide, 1965, SD Burman)
- Sajanwa Bairi (Mukesh, Teesri Kasam, 1966, Shankar Jaikishen)
- Sajanre Jhooth Mat Bolo (Mukesh, Teesri Kasam, 1966, Shankar Jaikishen)
Here is a YouTube playlist that I have made. If you want to listen to the songs, then I can suggest something. Pour yourself a nice shot of your favourite drink, settle into your recliner, dim the lights, quieten down everything and then press play. You don’t need to see the visuals (though there is some breathtaking black and white camerawork and scene design by the masters), just engage with the songs word by word.
Now, to put down a few words that have been evoked by this list.
Language of the commoner
One of the first things that one notices is the simplicity of language. All songs form a vocabulary that a common person on the street can use. To some extent, the nature of the characters for whom these songs were written plays a part in the construction of the vocabulary. There’s a tramp, there are paddy farmers, women convicts and bullock cart drivers. Of course, there are a couple of urban, sophisticated characters like an engineer, a dancer and an army officer. But even for them, Shailendra keeps it simple. One can contrast this with “labz” play that other writers indulge in – Gulzar with his sargoshians and satrangis, for example. If you follow some of better modern songwriters, people like Irshad Kamil, Amitabh Bhattacharya, Swanand Kirkire,etc, you’ll see their songs dripping with some really sophisticated, esoteric words – khanabdoshiyan, sukun ka zazira, chand ki firaaq, etc.
One of SD Burman’s personal quality control habits was to test his tunes with his servants and various tradespeople like the laundry man, the security guard, etc. If he found them catching on and humming the tune repeatedly, he knew he had a winner. All his legendary folkish sounding tunes went through that QC. It appears Shailendra might have, mentally if not actually, done the same – test his lines with common people.
One example is the villager calling out to Shambhu as he walks to the city looking for a job. In order to reclaim his land, Shambhu has to go, his situation demands it but the villager knows this is a point of no return. So he says,
“Apni kahani chhod ja
Kuch to nishani chhod ja
Kaun Kahe is or tu phir aaye na aaye
Just two big words of three syllables. Every other word is a single or at most two syllables long. Easy on the tongue, easy to remember, easy to hum. You probably use these words everyday when chatting with friends over coffee. And yet such depth. Contrast with a similarly placed song, Kabira by Amitabh Bhattacharya
Ae Kabira maan ja, ae fakira maan ja
Aaja tujhko pukare teri parchhaiyya
Ae Kabira maan ja, ae fakira maan ja
Kaisa tu hai nirmohi, kaisa harjaaia
Lovely writing, meant for an urban, elite character – the effort of constructing sentences using inherently deep meaning words like fakira or nirmohi is praiseworthy. But it enhances, in a way, the charm of how Shailendra, in simple words, describes the same emotion of seeing someone close leave and go away.
Social themes – migration, alienation, boundaries
Let’s look at some of the themes covered in these songs. How do they convey Shailendra’s view of society? As Ms Mazumder mentions in her article, there’s a lot of Shailendra in these songs, even if they explicitly refer to the on-screen characters.
If you start with Awara, the first big idea is one of social alienation – the alienation that a poor orphan feels in modern urban society.
Sunsaan nagar, anjaan nagar ka pyaara hun
There is a metropolis outside but for the individual, he is as good as living in “Empty Ville”. Shailendra considered himself an orphan after his mother’s death. When he moved to Bombay for work, he found himself in a strange land. All that comes out in these lines. There is a story that when Raj Kapoor first met Shailendra (he heard a poem of Shailendra and wanted to buy it for his film), he asked him to say something about himself. Shailendra replied, awara hun, is gardish mein aasman ka tara hun. RK was floored.
Then we come to the the emotions and trauma of migration. In the 1950s, in newly independent India, people had new hope. This hope drew them to the cities where they would find new careers as engineers, craftsmen, scientists, etc. Shree 420 begins with this hope. A young man is off looking for new opportunities. But Shailendra has a twist.
Naadaan hai jo baith kinaare
Puuchhen raah vatan ki
Chalana jivan ki kahaani,
Rukanaa maut ki nishani
These lines can be read in two ways (at least I am reading them in two ways). One, it’s a good, philosophical rule of life to keep moving. Stagnation is death. The other way is a sly bit of trolling by Shailendra, if I may say so. The country is moving forward and everyone needs to catch up. If you don’t, it’s death. These lines raise questions on the inclusiveness of growth and change. People take their time to sense the new ideas and make their decisions to join the movement. However, in reality, there is always some coercion, some collateral damage of any change. One can say that the need to migrate as a consequence of progress is an unfortunate but real phenomenon.
But the overall mood in Mera Joota Hai Japani is positive and optimistic and let’s keep it that way for now. For real, serious stuff, we need to see the next one, Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke.
One of Shailendra’s greatest abilities was to capture the essence of the film or the story in the song, and specifically in one or two lines.
This song does that. Do Bigha Zameen as a film describes how a landed family who have their goals and plans worked out and are steadily working their way towards them end up becoming landless roadside dwellers in the city with no hope of anything. It is the story of migration, of the impact of urbanisation on rural families, treating them, making them homeless nomads. About this, Shailendra writes
Dharti kahe pukaar ke,
Beej bichhaa le pyaar ke
mausam bitaa jaay, mausam bitaa jaay
Shailendra tells the migrant that to plant some roots else there may be no return. He will be left with nothing. And what is it that is really lost. It’s the social goods – the community, the collective love and support from everyone during harvesting, festivals, or anything that happens in the village. The seeds of love that you sow in a place, the migrant will miss that. He has to now start all over again in the city.
Tilt then, the poet gives the migrant a tip to maintain his humour.
Nila ambar muskaaye,
Har saans taraane gaaye
Haay tera dil kyon murjhaye
Man ki banshi pe
Tu bhi koi dhun bajaa le bhaai
Tu bhi muskuraa le
Relationship Themes – separation and breakups
There are three songs which are about separation – Ab Ke Baras Bhejo, Sajanwa Bhairi, Sab Kuch Seekha. Each one highlights a different cause of separation
In Ab Ke Baras Bhejo, a woman is serving her time in jail. She prays for someone from home to come and see her. She recalls the joys of the monsoon and the greenery and energy that came with the rain winds. It’s interesting that the lady keeps mentioning her “baabul”. She is in jail and euphemistically, a jail is often called a “sasural”. As a prisoner, she has been separated from her family and they seem to have abandoned her.
Baabul ki main tere naazon ki paali
Phir kyon huii main paraaii
Bite re jag koii chithiyaa na paati
Na koii naihar se aaye, re
Ab ke baras bhej bhiyako baabul
The stigma of being a convict has broken all relations.
Then we come to separation triggered by deceit and betrayal inAnari. Here, we see some very personal anguish infused in the words
duniyaa ne kitanaa samajhaayaa
kaun hai apanaa kaun paraayaa
phir bhii dil kii choT chhupaa kar
hamane aapakaa dil bahalaayaa
Shailendra had many incidents of people not keeping their commitments – film directors, actors, music directors. These include those who were supposedly very close to him and had great regard for him. The above lines bring out some of that angst.
The last of the separation songs deals with marital separation. The husband (Sajanwa) has become a stranger
Jaae base parades balamavaa sautan ke bharamaae
Naa sandes naa koI khabariyaa, rut aae rut jaae
Naa koi is paar hamaara
Naa koI us paar
The lines are quite explicit and clear.
Personal Themes – Nostalgia, loneliness and a second chance
There are two songs from Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein. Shailendra was Kishore Kumar’s favourite by far and he got some absolute gems as songs. If Pyaasa was Sahir expressing himself, DGKCM is Shailendra expressing himself in the voice of Kishore. Koi Lautade Mere Beetein Huen Din is very clearly about the old days. Again, it touches on changes in people’s lives and the havoc it causes.
Main akelaa to na tha, the mere satha\i kai
Ek aandhi si uthii, jo bhi tha leke gai
Aaj main dhundhun kahaan, kho gaye jaane kidhar
The nature of the storm is part of the film. But there may be some autobiographical element in here. Shailendra lost his mother early and that had long lasting effect on him. His daughter tells us that Shailendra brought out that angst in many of his songs. The descriptions of loneliness and feeling of hopelessness caused by such events came from his own personal life. The other song from DGKCM is even more depressing.
Raat ke taaron tum hii bataao
Meri vo manzil hai kahaan
Paagal banakar jisake liye main
Kho baithaa hun dono jahaan
Utter hopelessness. When someone loses all purpose.
We are talking 1960s now when Shailendra’s health has worsened, physically and mentally. He died in 1966. In these last years, he seemed to have decided on his second life. The last three songs are all about journeys and possible rebirth.
The first one is a death row convict being led to the gallows. It’s a fait accompli but the convict says he is only getting liberated.
Ho hanskar mujhako aaj vidaa kar
Janam safal ho meraa
Rotaa jag me.n aayaa
Hansataa chalaa ye baalak teraa
Mat ro maataa laal tere bahutere
Ho kal main nahin rahugaa lekin
Jab hogaa andhiyaaraa
Taaron men tuu dekhegii
Hansataa ek nayaa sitaaraa
Mat ro maataa laal tere bahutere
Then there is Heeraman, the bullock cart driver, making what appears to be a smuggling trip but is unaware of it. To further highlight the irony, he is singing
Tumhaare mahal chaubaare, yahii.n rah jaae.nge saare
akad kis baat ki pyaare
akad kis baat ki pyaare,
ye sar phir bhi jhukaanaa hai
Incidentally, the mukdha of this song comes from the original story i.e. it’s written by Phaniswarnath Renu. Shailendra took the two lines from Renu and added the rest. The certainty of mortality is presented thus and it puts a frame on the crime that’s happening on the screen.
Then there’s Rosie. She had tried to commit suicide but was saved. Now she is looking forward for a new life, a new career. Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna is probably, in my view, the only positive, optimistic song in the list, relatively of course.
10 out of the 11 songs convey different forms of sadness. This is what Shailendra picks as his favourite. He has written lots of fun songs, mind you. But he seems to prefer these. In the words of his daughter,
“For me there is a Shailendra song for any emotion, any situation, from birth to death, such was his versatility. Millions of listeners feel this way about his work.”
Yet the spectre of death always haunted him. He was obsessed by death. There was no fear involved, but a kind of helplessness drew him towards it.”
I shall close this article with a song which I thought should have been in the list. Here is the final song of Bandini where he explains the life story of Nutan’s character
“Main bandini piya ki,
main sangini hoon saajan ki”