Sunsets are beautiful, as long as it is not your own sun that you see sinking slowly over the horizon. December 14 1966 saw one such sunset, for my Baba left us that day, never to return. Today I still wonder at my inability to get over it.
Baba was born Shankardas Kesrilal Shailendra in Rawalpindi on August 30, 1923, the eldest of four sons of my grandmother Parvati Devi. My grandfather Sri Kesrilal originally hailed from Bihar, and already had a son and daughter from a previous marriage. Some time during Baba's childhood the family moved to Mathura.
Calamity struck when he was still quite young, when he learnt that his mother was dying. He often recalled the moments when he walked barefoot in the scorching sun, his body sunburnt and his feet blistered, praying for her survival. The day she died, however, he felt deeply disillusioned and let down, causing him to turn atheist for practically the rest of his life.
While training in Agra for employment in the Indian Railways, Baba met and fell in love with the woman who was to become his wife (and my mother). His affections were returned, but while wooing her he was generally disapproved of by all her family except my nanaji, her father. Nanaji took a strong liking to him and sanctioned their wedding on the same day that my mother's elder sister was due to be married. After the wedding Baba made my mother return expensive sarees and jewellery that she had brought from her father's, saying he would provide for her in his own way, once he was able to stand on his own feet.
His first full-fledged job with the railways brought him to Bombay in 1947, when India's struggle for freedom from British rule was at its peak. Technical aspects of his job did not suit his artistic nature, and he would much rather spend time writing poetry than toil in the workshop. His colleagues often advised him against absconding from work to write 'senseless ramblings', but to no avail.
He actively joined the freedom struggle and during one public meeting his fiery poem "Jalta hai Punjab", when read out aloud, caught the attention of a film-maker in the crowd - Raj Kapoor. He wanted to buy the poem and also wanted Baba to write for his new production. Baba refused to sell the poem, but with the birth of his first child, a son - (my eldest brother Shailey) came responsibility, and things changed.
Baba approached Raj Kapoor and agreed to write for "Barsaat" if the offer was still open. It was, and the rest is history. Success brought wealth, and with wealth came a retinue of servants and the influence of Western culture. Yet he never allowed us to boss the servants around - he once rebuked me for allowing a servant to carry my books home from school.
Baba's best known work is with Shankar-Jaikishan, but he was also a favourite with the other musical giants of those days, like Salil Chaudhury (Madhumati), S.N. Tripathi (Sangeet Samrat Tansen), S.D. Burman (Guide and Bandhini, among so many others), Pt. Ravi Shankar (Anuradha). He won the Filmfare Ward for Best Lyricist in 1958 (Ye
mera deewanapan hai, from "Yahudi"), in 1959 (Sab kuch seekha hamne, from "Anari") and in 1968 (Main gaaun tum so jaao, from "Brahmachari").
Baba was a true poet for whom simply being alive was poetry, and life itself a poem. He derived much inspiration for his more serious work from long walks on Juhu beach early in the morning, but was equally adept at writing the most profound lyrics for ordinary film situations. Those lyrics were vibrantly alive, in the sense they went far beyond the context of the film situation for which they were intended, and lived on long after the film itself had passed from memory. 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.
At the back of his serious work was the deep-rooted dejection he felt at his mother's death. Lyrics like
Laut aayi sada meri takrake sitaron se
Ujdi hui duniya ki sunsaan kinaron se
‘Ilahi tu sun le hamari dua
Hamen sirf ek aasra hai tera
Teri rehmay raah roshan kare
Salamat rahe saaya maa baap ka’
Maata o maata jo tu aaj hoti
Mujhen yun bilakta agar dekhti
Tera dil toot jata
("Ab Dilli Door Nahin")
hardly sound like they were written for mere film situations, with Baba not actually reliving the agony of his mother's death.
Yet he was a true professional, and behind his success as a writer was his ability to write for a film situation irrespective of his personal views. For example, in spite of his misgivings about religion he wrote the rapturously beautiful Bhay bhanjana vandana ("Basant Bahar"). And there are the witty, fun-loving ones like Laal chadi ("Janwar"), Sooku sooku ("Junglee"), Nakhrewali ("New Delhi"), Sambhal ke karna, jo bhi karna, and Matwali naar ("Ek Phool Char Kaante").
Whenever I'm down in the dumps I take heart from these words he wrote for a song during the freedom struggle:
“Tu zinda hai, tu zindagi ki jeet pe yakeen kar
Agar kahin hai swarg to utar la zameen par
Ye gam ke aur char din situm ke aur char din
Ye din bhi jaenge guzar, guzar gaye hazaar din”
Yet the specter of death always haunted him. He was obsessed by death. There was no fear involved, but a kind of helplessness drew him towards it. He saw death even in the most romantic moments, as in this verse from the song Holi aayee pyari pyari ("Pooja"):
“Ek baras mein ek din holi jag do din ka mela
Tan ka pinjra chhod ke ek din panchi jaae akela
Do ghadi muskaaye phir jeevan hi phulwari.”
And then there's my favourite:
Ke mar ke bhi kisi ko yaad aaenge
Kisi ke aansuon mein muskuraenge
Kahega phool har kali se baar baar
Jeena isi ka naam hai
The story of how his producing "Teesri Kasam" led to various problems and his untimely end is well known, but what bothered him was not the film's failure at the box-office, but that his investment in friends he trusted and loved went wrong. After a particularly bad bout of despondency my mother could take it no more, and on December 13 1966 he was to be admitted to the Northcote Nursing Home. On the way he and my mother stopped at the famous cottage at the RK Studios to call on Raj Kapoor, and Baba promised Raj that he would complete the lyrics for Jeena yahan once the December 14 tamasha (Raj's birthday celebration) was over. That was one promise he never kept, for he died on Raj's birthday.
Baba loved the seashore. He wrote, "I am the early morning light. I cast no shadows, I leave no shadow behind. The sun is my father..."
The world has his poetry, but I would much rather have him!
Some of his own favourites
Mat ro maata (Bandhini)
Ab ke baras bhejo (Bandhini))
Koi lautade mere beete hue din (Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein)
Sajanwa bairi ho gai hamar (Teesri Kasam)
Sajan re jhoot mat bolo (Teesri Kasam)
Jin raaton ki bhor nahin hai (Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein)
Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai (Guide)
Aawara hun (Aawara)
Mera joota hai japani (Shri 420)
Sub kuch seekha hamne (Anari)
Dharti kahe pukar ke (Do Bigha Zameen)
(Source: From the RMIM Article Archive maintained by Satish Subramanian)