Gopal Das Saxena ‘Neeraj’, could have been writing about today when he wrote: Ab to Mazhab koi aisa bhi chalaaya jaaye, jismein insan ko insan banaya jaaye.
Happy to be in Aligarh nearly till the end, Neeraj was born in a village called Puravali, in Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh but is often compared with the late Shahryar, another quality poet. Both stayed on in Aligarh and were clear about writing poetry of a certain standard, never agreeing to go ‘low’ to just make it big in films.
Active till well after he crossed the age of 90, Neeraj had a short stint as a lyricist in Hindi cinema, but his writings left a mark on those born well after he had left Mumbai. A beedi-smoker till the end, he was also accorded the rank of a cabinet minister by the previous Akhilesh Yadav government in UP.
A ‘jankavi’, or popular poet even before his stint in Mumbai, and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2007. He started by teaching Hindi literature and was a Professor of Hindi at Dharma Samaj College in Aligarh. He told The Indian Express in 2011, how he had lost his father at the age of six and left studies after Class X to look after his family, he did odd jobs, including jumping into the Yamuna to retrieve coins. He had said: “I did small jobs like working as a typist until I completed my post graduation. Then I worked for a while with the government, but disliked everything about their system.”
Neeraj debuted in another Aligarh-resident, R Chandra’s film, Nayi Umr ki Nayi Fasal, which bombed at the box-office, but its songs immediately struck a chord. Kaarwan guzar gaya, ghubaar dekhte rahe, being a memorable and melancholic tribute to the mood of the moment in the film.
Neeraj wrote in both Hindi and Urdu, and his work found immediate resonance, as it brought in fresh vocabulary into Hindi cinema, then replete with heavier words. It is believed that Neeraj’s fine poetry, with ethereal qualities and the right whiff of unfulfilled longing, filled the Shailendra-sized hole left by his demise.
Dev Anand, mesmerised after watching him recite kaarwaan guzar gaya at a mushaira, brought him to Mumbai to compose songs for Prem Pujari. The rest was truly history.
Phoolon ke rang se and Rangeela Re – with Neeraj’s lyrics and SD Burman’s music spun sheer magic for which he also received Rs 1,000, before even being signed up. Rangeela Re were in fact words he was given to compose out of as the starting phrase and the result left Dev Anand a fan for life. Dev Anand and Goldie are said to have stayed in touch with him till their last days, and Neeraj also wrote for Dev Anand’s last film, Chargesheet.
Writing at a time when Urdu got significant play in songs and was perhaps considered a little more cultured, Neeraj brought the beauty of Hindi to music in Mumbai. The similes, for example, were very different from what Urdu offered – togetherness being compared to badal-bijli, chandan-paaani, and love so intoxicating and sweet, itna madhur, itna madir, tera mara pyaar – was regarded as enchanting in a signature and unique way.
Writer-Lyricist Varun Grover says; “the laya or rhythm of his poetry was the most attractive part of his work. The way his words smoothly slipped and floated as they made their way into his poems. The most beautiful examples are, ‘Woh hum na the, woh tum na the’ and ‘kaarwan guzar gaya’..”
This was a time in Mumbai of great partnerships between composers and lyricists. Neeraj’s synergy with SD Burman resulted in some evergreen hits. The teaming up with composers was so important for a poet like Neeraj, that after the death of SD Burman and Shankar, of Shankar-Jaikishen fame, he packed his bags, regarding himself as ‘unlucky’ for Mumbai. He returned, happy to resume his teaching career. He was until a few years ago, the Chancellor of Mangalayatan University in Aligarh.
Says writer-journalist Mrinal Pande; “In the age of Mika and Honey Singh, Neeraj and his songs about gently self-effacing romantic individuals, watching the caravans of love leave them behind, enveloped in dust, are a sad reminder of a world we now see perhaps only in Hindi movies of the 1960s.”