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An ode to the under-rated lyricist



On July 19, fans of old Hindi film music were saddened to hear about the demise of poet-lyricist Gopaldas Neeraj at age 93. Instantly, they shared links of his hits ‘Phoolon Ke Rang Se‘ and ‘Rangila Re‘ (from the film Prem Pujari), ‘Ae Bhai Zara Dekh Ke Chalo‘ (Mera Naam Joker), ‘Dil Aaj Shayar Hai‘ (Gambler), ‘Mera Mann Tera Pyaasa‘ (Tere Mere Sapne) and ‘Khilte Hain Gul Yahaan‘ (Sharmeelee).

The man was a genius no doubt, though he gave up film music during his peak to concentrate on poetry and teaching. On Facebook, tributes were paid by those familiar with his work, and trivia was shared.

There were two other kinds of reactions. One was the mandatory ‘RIP’, which is generally posted by those pretending to be affected, without really knowing anything about the artiste’s contribution. The other was: “These have been my favourite songs for years. I know every word. I never knew they were written by Neeraj.”

Gambler, Mera Naam Joker,


Hello!? If they were so close to you, how come you never bothered to find out who wrote them? Or did you assume they were penned by Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor or whoever gave you a mental image of the tune?

Neeraj obviously isn’t the only victim of this phenomenon. When I recently did an interview of Yogesh, many were surprised to learn he had written their pet songs in Anand, Mili, Rajnigandha and Chhoti Si Baat.

There is no formal name for this trend. So let’s invent one and call it CALS – Clueless About Lyricist Syndrome. The basics are

  • The listeners have been exposed to and enjoyed these songs for many years.
  • Over time, they have learnt their words, and have even sung them in bathrooms, at parties, or during antakshri.
  • Even if they know the song by heart, they may not know the meaning of every word or what the song is trying to convey.
  • Forget about not knowing the lyricists, there are many cases when they haven’t even heard of them.
  • The moment they are enlightened, these under-rated wordsmiths became their long-time favourites and inspirations.

Are the listeners at fault? Maybe, maybe not. Before analysing the various factors that may have led to such a trend, let’s cite a few more instances which have evoked similar reactions. These interactions are based on interactions with music lovers and by following posts on Facebook or WhatsApp music groups.

Anpadh, Aap ki parchhaiyan


Neeraj peaked in the early 1970s. If we go back down the years, only a select few hardcore connoisseurs know that Mukesh’s first hit ‘Dil Jalta Hai Toh Jalne De‘ (Pehli Nazar) was written by Aah Sitapuri, and Lata Mangeshkar’s iconic ‘Aayega Aanewala‘ (Mahal) by J. Nakshab. Or that Raja Mehdi Ali Khan wrote such Lata classics like ‘Aap Ki Nazaron Ne‘ (Anpadh), ‘Lag Ja Gale‘ and ‘Naina Barse‘ (Woh Kaun Thi), and ‘Naino Mein Badra Chaaye‘ and ‘Tu Jahaan Jahaan Chalega‘ (Mera Saaya), all for music director Madan Mohan. Lyricists Bharat Vyas, Qamar Jalalabadi and S.H. Bihari had great songs.

The 1950s and 1960s had many popular songwriters too, and their songs were recognised with greater frequency. Examples would be Shakeel Badayuni, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Rajendra Krishan, Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri. But there were others who weren’t as prolific or famous as their films didn’t do well or the music didn’t create much impact.

The CALS victims continued to surface. In the 1970s and 1980s, Naqsh Lyallpuri, Gulshan Bawra, Indeevar, Shahryaar, Hasan Kamaal, Verma Malik, Santosh Anand and Narendra Sharma wrote great songs. Anjaan did a chunk of Amitabh Bachchan blockbusters but remained ‘anjaan’ in the general public perception. And who was aware Ravindra Jain wrote many songs he composed? On the other hand, the work of Anand Bakshi, Gulzar, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Javed Akhtar were instantly recognised by the masses.

Cut to the 1990s. A sizeable section of listeners swore their love for A.R. Rahman. Many real fans knew who wrote most of his lyrics but there were also those who had no idea it was Mehboob. Bombay, Rangeela and Thakshak are only three examples, and he also wrote Ismail Darbar’s tunes in the super-hit soundtrack of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Likewise, the fabulous work of Sayeed Quadri, Prasoon Josh, Amitabh Bhattacharya and Irshad Kaamil was known only by a select few followers.

Thakshak, Rangeela, Bombay, Hum dil de chuke sanam


With that background in mind, two broad questions arise. The first is why, in spite of the fact that most lyricists have their own style and brilliance, some are more recognised than the others. The subject may require a separate and deeper analysis but let it suffice to say that some get the bigger banners with bigger stars, get better musical compositions, are less selective about projects or may be just plain lucky. There’s no rule that a famous name always produces outstanding work but yet they invariably get away with it when they don’t.

The subject of this article is why in many cases, listeners know the songs without knowing who wrote them. Besides Neeraj and Yogesh, three examples are ‘Yaari Hai Imaan Mera‘ (by Gulshan Bawra in Zanjeer), ‘Ek Pyaar Ka Naghma Hai‘ (Santosh Anand in Shor) and ‘Seene Mein Jalan‘ (Shahryar in Gaman). The favourites of many listeners.

The gut reaction to this might be to blame the ‘ignorance’ of listeners. Personally, I would disagree with that and would try to understand the upbringing and preferences of the listener.

There are different kinds of audiences. Some are the passionate type who take deep academic interest in songs. Some listen to songs because they hear them on radio and TV, or see them in films, and are thus attracted to some tunes more than others. A third category has those who listen to music casually without focus and yet ingrain some tunes sub-consciously. In many cases, the tune or beat take precedence over the words. It’s just a listening mindset which varies from person to person.

Knowing a song’s lyricist doesn’t determine one’s career. It’s not part of the school syllabus or required to get a job. Those who follow these details do so more out of personal interest or in some cases if they are part of the music industry. The same people may not know who wrote Midnight’s Children or painted Mona Lisa. For most people, songs come and go, with some remaining forever. A great song is a great song, and whether or not the listener knows the writer, the fact is that the writer has created an impact.

Let me conclude by citing a personal example. In 1995, when I was 31, if I was asked to name 10 hits of Anand Bakshi or Gulzar, I wouldn’t cross three. Majrooh Sultanpuri and Shakeel Badayuni were only names and I had no idea what they did. I loved ‘Ae Bhai‘ and ‘Khilte Hain Gul Yahan‘, but got to know about Neeraj much later. In short I was a symbol of CALS.

The moment I began writing on music I had to know these things to survive. There was no Google, and the only option was to go to Rhythm House and take down notes from cassette sleeves. Worse, I was surrounded by walkie-talkie encyclopedias who would scare me with their knowledge. “Indeevar wrote ‘Dil Aisa Kisine‘ in Amanush and M.G. Hashmat wrote ‘Mera Jeevan‘ in Kora Kagaz,” they would announce.

Who knows, if these details weren’t required for my job, my reaction today would have been: “I loved this song for years but didn’t know who wrote them.” As long as I continue enjoying the song, it doesn’t matter. Whether the lyricist is a victim of CALS or not, the truth is that he has produced something timeless. Let the magic continue.

Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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