Poet “Bhaavuk Etahwi” had a way with words. Stunningly simple, woven intricately, they made their way into the listener’s heart. In days before television, when mushairas and kavi sammelans were commonplace and poets were heroes reading their own writing — it mattered how they recited.
Deep in central Uttar Pradesh, where Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s ability to “steal” a mushaira was legendary, “Bhaavuk Etahwi”, born Gopaldas Saxena, aka “Neeraj”, was another name able to hold his own. Writer Mrinal Pande speaks of “two kinds of poets” at the time. One who was read quietly, privately, whose words got absorbed in silence, and, the other had a huge fan following, whose poetry was scribbled by girls in notebooks as it was recited, “in tarannum” (tune). In Neeraj’s case, his recitation was a vital part of the magic.
In 1953, Prithviraj Kapoor is said to have sat for three hours and heard Neeraj recite. He tried to persuade Neeraj to accompany him to Bombay and contribute to its cinema but he was brushed off. It took another passionate filmmaker, Dev Anand, a year later, to kindle a friendship, and persuade him to finally make the move to Santacruz, for a few years. The poet was well-known long before his short stint in Bollywood.
In 1954, his niece’s death in an accident, as a bride, and the deep personal anguish he felt, led him to compose, by far, his best-known work, which earned him the title of “kavi in Urdu and a shaayar in Hindi” by fellow lyricist Javed Akhtar:
Geet ashq ban gaye
Chhand ho dafan gaye
Saath ke sabhi diye dhuaan-dhuaan
Our hum jhuke-jhuke
Mod par ruke-ruke
Umr ke chaddhaav ka utaar dekhte rahe
Karwaan guzaar gaya ghubaar dekhte rahe
(Poems turned into tears
Verse was buried
All the lamps got wrapped up in smoke
And I, hunched and bent
Stood stalled at the crossing
Watching the tide of age, turn back
The Caravan departed, and
I stood by, watching the sandy desolation
it left behind)
He found himself in penury, after his father’s death, when he was just six. An uncle sent Rs 5 per month to the family as assistance. He struggled as a coin-picker from the river, and then, as a rickshaw puller and a paan seller till eventually he got a job as a typist in Delhi (with a salary of Rs 66 per month, of which he sent Rs 40 to his mother). That struggle provided a reservoir of real-life experiences that shaped his craft. Shakeel Badayuni was a fellow typist. Songwriter Hafiz Jalandhari pushed Neeraj into a government job in the 1950s, at almost double the salary of Rs 120 per month. But the disenchanted Neeraj went back to Hindi literature — teaching, writing and reciting poetry. Aligarh was calling.
Best known for his ability to understand and express fine, romantic love in Hindi film songs, Neeraj composed some memorable poems for Dev Anand, who became a lifelong friend. The effervescence of his words, sentiment — and Anand’s picturisation helped lift that phase in Hindi film music to among its finest. His songs spoke to a generation of Indians caught in the cleft-stick of hope and restlessness — well into the 1970s, before the anger and noise took over.
Neeraj used to speak of how music director SD Burman would urge him to push his limits to dig deep, enrich his vocabulary and broaden his lexicon. Innumerable hits like Phoolon ke rang se, Rangeela re, Ai bhai zara dekh ke chalo and more, which conveyed complicated emotions and angst directly, bear testimony to it. Later, after the death of Burman and Shankar (of Shankar-Jaikishen), the vacuum and insistence on writing to “dhun” (tune), and an eventual argument with Raj Kapoor, forced Neeraj to reconsider his choices. It bolstered his desire to go back home.
“The most fascinating thing about his work was the rhythm or pace (gati aur laya). The weight of each line was the same, but the way words within were also balanced and of the same weight — consider the line — woh hum na thhe, woh tum na thhe — made the poems very easy to remember and recall. The words effortlessly skated and slipped over each other, making them smooth,” says lyricist Varun Grover.
But, beyond the soothing love poetry, the delightful play on metaphors: mala mein dhaga, sapnon ki geetanjali, and focus on the shringar ras, there was more to Neeraj. Within him was a registan (desert) — a kind of restlessness haunted him, which those who are fans of just his film songs are less familiar with. His other poetry often deeply echoes viraha (separation), a sentiment far less exhibited in Hindi music lyrics today.
A tough childhood, not shying away from any kind of shram (labour), personal struggles and imprisonment in 1942’s Quit India movement as a student, come through in his lesser-known work.
His poem Tees January is a sharp rebuke of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassins, (Yeh kaun thak ke so raha hai, Yeh Gulmohar ki chaandaanv mein), or Asprishyata, written in 1946, and his later poems, are deeply reflective of life’s agonies, and explain why his stint in the “dream city”, despite so much success and acceptance, was short-lived.
Back in Aligarh, in 1973, also the home of Nai Umar Ki Nai Fasal (1965) filmmaker R Chandra, poet Shahryar and writer Rahi Masoom Raza, Neeraj resumed his teaching career, becoming the vice-chancellor of a private university, till his last years. The Padma Shri had come in 1991, Padma Bhushan, in 2007.
Neeraj stays on in Aligarh, uncremated. He had donated his body to Aligarh Muslim University’s Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College. Its anatomy department head prof. Tariq Zaidi spoke of how nearly 140 bodies had been pledged in the past six years, but “only six” had arrived. Neeraj, embalmed, for medical students to study, rests in peace and poetry:
Kal jis thaur khadi thee duniya, aaj
nahi us daanv hai
Jis aangan thee dhoop subah, us aangaan
mein ab chhaanv hai
Pratipal nutan janm yahan par, pratipal
nutan mrityu hai
(The world is not where it was yesterday
The courtyard full of sunshine is full of
Here, what’s new every moment is birth
— and death too)