Neeraj: ‘Life wasn’t even awake when the sun went down’

Neeraj. Photo credit: RSTV

A tribute to popular Indian poet and lyricist Neeraj, who passed away last week.

By Zafar Iqbal

Noted Indian poet and lyricist Gopaldas Saxena, better known as Neeraj, passed away in Delhi on July 19, 2018. He had been ill for some time and was admitted to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi (AIIMS).

Born in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, on January 4, 1925, Neeraj was a Professor of Hindi Literature in Dharma Samaj College, Aligarh. He enjoyed living in Aligarh nearly till the end.

Neeraj first made his mark by writing lyrics for many successful movies and achieved a unique position as a songwriter who wrote with equal ability in both Hindi and Urdu. He stopped writing film songs after the deaths of Jaikishan of the music duo Shankar-Jaikishan and Sachin Dev Burman.

A strong believer in communal harmony, Neeraj could have been writing about today when he wrote:

Ab to Mazhab koi aisa bhi chalaaya jaaye,

jismein insan ko insan banaya jaaye.

(Need to have a religion that teaches how to human out of people.)

Alas, he is no more. In his own words:

Chah to nikal saki na, par umar nikal gayi

Neend bhi khuli na thi ki hai dhoop dhal gayi,

Paon jab talak uthe ki zindagi phisal gayi,

(“Life wasn’t even awake when the sun went down,

it slipped away before feet got off the ground.”)

Paat-paat jhar gaye ki shaakh-shaakh jal gayi,

Chah to nikal saki na par umar nikal gayi.

(“Dried leaves fell and branches burnt out,

desires stayed on while years thrashed about.”)

I came to know Neeraj during my student days at AIIMS. A popular song Kaarvan guzar gaya ghubaar dekhte rahe attracted us students to the film Nai Umar ki Nai Fasal, which was running at Sudarshan Cinema Hall, near AIIMS.

We used to go to Sudarshan usually for late night show after having dinner by jumping the boundary wall. The cinema management was very receptive of us students and balcony seats were always made available to us.

The lyrics in the movie by Neeraj were excellent and they became very popular later. It is believed that Dev Anand, mesmerized after watching him recite kaarwaan guzar gaya at a mushaira in the early 1950s, brought him to Mumbai to compose songs for his movies.

Neeraj wrote songs for several hit films such as Prem Pujari, Tere Mere Sapne, Sharmilee, Gambler. Kanyadaan and Pehchan.

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 complicated words. Writing at a time when Urdu had 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, itna madhur, itna madir, tera mera pyaar – were regarded as enchanting in a signature and unique way.

A song such as Ai Bhai zara dekh ke chalo (Mera Naam Joker, 1970), with its free verse, had not been attempted before. Neither had Kal ka pahiya (Chanda aur Bijli, 1970). He was at ease in using simple, melodious Hindi words such as:

Saanson ki sargam, dharkan ki veena Sapnon ki geetanjali tu

(You present melody of breath and heartbeat and dreams)

Mann ki gali mein mehke jo hardam Aisi juhi ki kali tu

(You are like a jasmine bud that offers fragrance in mind)

Chhota safar ho, lamba safar ho Sooni dagar ho ya mela

(Whether it is a short or long journey and lonely or crowded path)

Yaad tu aaye, mann ho jaaye bheed ke beech akela.

(I remember you and I become lonely in the midst of crowd.)

Well-known Urdu poet Shahryrar and Neeraj, the two great poets and friends from Aligarh, both ventured into the world of films and gained success and chose to come back to Aligarh to spend rest of their lives away from showbiz. In his will, Neeraj had instructed that his body be donated to the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College of the Aligarh Muslim University. An ultimate unmatched generosity reflecting his ideals of humanity.

Neeraj had a tough life in his initial years. Losing father at an early age, he had to do several odd jobs, including working as stenographer, typist, painter of Ayurvedic medicines on walls, spells of pulling rickshaws, selling beedis and cigarettes, and even diving into the river for coins.

He taught Hindi at the Dharam Samaj College in Aligarh and later employed as an Information Officer for the Uttar Pradesh government. He was, until a few years ago, the Chancellor of Mangalayatan University in Aligarh and was also accorded the rank of a cabinet minister by the UP government. At the national level, he was awarded Padma Shri in 1991 and Padma Bhushan in 2007.

(Dr. Zafar Iqbal graduated from the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. He was a professor at the Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago. He is now serving as a Senior Scientific Review Officer and Program Manager at the US Veterans Health Administration. He is a founding General Secretary and past President of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin, Metropolitan Washington Chapter.)

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