Jab tak mandir aur masjid hai
Mushkil mein insaan rahega
‘Neeraj’ to kal yahan na hoga
Uska geet-vidhan rahega
The poet who prophesied the future (and our present) in these words was none other than Gopaldas ‘Neeraj’, whose 95th birth anniversary we mark today. In these challenging times, we shall be served well to remember this romantic revolutionary who leaves behind a powerful legacy of Hindustani poetry, lyrical film songs and unmatched philosophical insights to deal with our anxieties about the ‘self’ and ‘other’.
Neeraj was born as Gopaldas Saxena, in the village of Puravali, in Etawah district in Uttar Pradesh, on 4 January 1925 and went onto to become one of the greatest Hindi poets of all genres of poetry. Adversities pursued him from his early childhood as he lost his father when he was only six. Financial difficulties compelled Neeraj to leave his mother and siblings and stay with his paternal aunt in Etah. Despite all the odds, in 1942 Neeraj completed his high school with first division, only to give up further education, return to his family in Etawah and look for some gainful employment. The poet in him was restless but he had to work as a typist for hire at Etawah court premises and at a cinema hall paan shop. He also did wall painting for advertisement of ayurvedic medicines. Pulling a rickshaw and diving into the Yamuna river to retrieve coins thrown by devotees were not out of bounds.
Many others would have their spirits crushed but these adversities only emboldened the man. Diverse life experiences and living through the emotional rollercoaster, moulded the poet within him. At the age of fourteen, Neeraj performed at his first public event. In 1942 he participated in a kavi sammelan under the pseudonym Bhaavuk (emotional); his distinct rendition not only brought him instant praise from the other luminaries, but also a cash prize of five rupees which the great poet cherished all his life, more than any other award or recognition. He wrote under the pen name of Bhaavuk Etaavi for some time until he took the other and his most famous pseudonym
The quest for a stable job took Neeraj to Delhi where he worked as a typist in the government’s supply department at a monthly salary of sixty seven rupees. He used to send more than half of his salary home and always took a very late lunch in order to skip dinner and save some money; sadly, it led to serious liver ailment. Neeraj participated in a kavi sammelan in Delhi in 1944, where the eminent Urdu poet, Hafeez Jalandhari was so impressed by his rendition that he offered Neeraj work at the government’s publicity division for a salary of one hundred and twenty rupees. Neeraj was supposed to promote government policies through his writing and poetry recitation, and this work took him to different parts of India. He visited Calcutta in the aftermath of the 1943 Bengal Famine and the sight of humans fighting with stray dogs for some leftover food deeply affected him. It is here that he composed his famous poem, Vidrohi
Main Vidrohi Hoon, Jag Mein Vidroh Karane Aayaa Hoon
In British India, it was unthinkable for someone hired by the government to give a clarion call for revolution and go unpunished. Neeraj had to leave the government job and move to Kanpur, where he worked as a clerk and as a stenographer. He completed his Bachelors and then Master of Arts in 1953. For the next two years Neeraj, the job seeker, remained outside the productive workforce though Neeraj, the poet, had the most busy and productive time participating in different kavi sammelans with full force. In 1956 Neeraj finally found full time job most suited for his vocation, teaching Hindi at Dharm Samaj College in Aligarh, the city which became his ‘home’ forever
Neeraj is one of those rare Hindi poets who were equally well-versed in writing Urdu verses or Ghazals. He believed that any literature or poetry is alive not because of its wonderful arrangements or word play but because common people can easily remember and recite it. He believed that Urdu was the urban language of the courts and towns enjoying great popularity because of its lyrical flow, while Hindi (and its dialects) was the language of the countryside. He used the most simple and common words from the mixed language, referred to as Hindustani, with great effect to construct his poetry and lyrics. For Neeraj, the “mysterious element is the necessary element of poetry”, which allowed for multiple interpretations. He imagined the poet as the priest in the marriage mandap who ties the spiritual bonds between different syllables.
In the bygone era, poets reciting from the podiums of kavi sammelans and poets writing serious literary works were considered as belonging to the same genre. However, Neeraj discovered much to his chagrin that the proponents of ‘progressive writing’ and the Nai Kavita movement had pushed poets like him into the side-lines as manchi kavis. It is well known that even literary stalwarts like Mahadevi Verma, Nirala and Makhanlal Chaturvedi used to recite from the podiums of different kavi sammelans. Neeraj challenged this literary hierarchy by constantly reminding in his interviews that he recited his poem, Karwaan Guzar Gaya, at the Lucknow radio station in 1955, and in no time this poem gained unparalleled popularity across India, soon to become an iconic film song for Nai Umar ki Nai Fasal, sung to perfection by Mohammed Rafi. Even the literary circles of Pakistan were surprised with the innovative use of Urdu phrases to create such ethereal imagery by a Hindi poet.
Neeraj’s entry into the Hindi film industry was a rather late affair, mostly to fill in the colossal gap left by the untimely demise of Shankardas Kesarilal, ‘Shailendra’. Like Shailendra, his lyrics invoked the folk traditions of northern India and was a delight for music composers like Sachin Dev Burman and Shankar Jaikishan. Burman dada composed his finest tunes to Neeraj’s sublime lyrics in songs such as shokhiyon mein ghola jaye, dil aaj shayar hai, rangeela re, phoolon ke rang se, khilte hain gul yahan, mera man tera pyasa; Shankar Jaikishan’s simple but musical tunes to kehta hai jokar, aye bhai zara dekh ke chalo, likhe jo khat tujhe made Neeraj’s songs immortal. As the film industry showed signs of decline in the 70s, Neeraj returned to his ashiyana in Aligarh where he continued to compose poems and dohas. However, the film songs were just another medium for his creative pursuits; Neeraj the poet was far bigger than Neeraj the lyricist.
Neeraj, the astrologer always said he would live to a 100, but ill health forced him to apply for a euthanasia petition to the Aligarh district administration. He died a few days after filing the petition, on 19 July 2018 at the age of 93, and true to the values by which he had lived, he donated his body to the medical institute at the AMU. Within a month of his passing, his closest friend and connoisseur of his poetry, former PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, also died (as predicted by Neeraj himself!).
Neeraj owned the world, its sorrows, its joys, its beauties and preached compassion and empathy. The stronger your own faith, your humanity, the more you can see the others’ point of view. Religious quarrels and violence frustrated him and affected his sensitive soul, often expressed in the timeless poetry he composed
Ab to mazhab koi aisa bhee chalaya jay
Jis mein insaan ko insaan banaya jay
Today, our social fabric is in tatters. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find genuine heroes, leaders and public intellectuals who can help us make sense of the disorder, and provide a healing touch. Reading Neeraj, in times like this, is both revolutionary and cathartic.
Bhatki bhatki hai nazar, gehri gehri hai nish
Uljhi uljhi hai dagar, dhundhli dhundhli hai disha…
Tan ka kuchh taap ghate, man ka kuchh paap kat
Dukhi insaan ke aansu mein naha lun to chalun…….
(Swati Parashar is Associate Professor at the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University, Sweden. Ravi Dutt Bajpai is a Doctoral Researcher in International Relations at Deakin University, Australia.)