Paromita Vohra: The love language of Kavi Neeraj
But they especially gave us our more abiding love songs, still sung when a little bit of rum has gone down at parties and addas
The poet Gopaldas Neeraj passed away this week. He was the last of a cohort working in the 1960s — SD Burman, Shankar-Jaikishen and Dev Anand among them — that created some of our most abiding Hindi film songs. But they especially gave us our more abiding love songs, still sung when a little bit of rum has gone down at parties and addas.
Neeraj was noted for bringing a fresh, crystalline Hindi into film songs, which had relied on a repertoire of Urdu romantic phraseology. His lyrics created delicate, internal rhythms, tripping inside sentences, words playing peekaboo with words, as if finding counterparts in each other. Take for instance lines from two of his most famous songs: "rangeela re, yun ranga hai, tere rang mein, mera rang/rasiya re, na bujhe hai, koi jal se, yeh jalan" and, "kitna madir, kitna madhur, tera mera pyaar". They are like a fever-dream of language — where a word is used as verb and noun and adjective — rang, ranga and rangeela — or words are by a syllable — jal/jalan, madhur/madir — (honeyed, intoxicating), their meanings and sounds just touching each other before sliding past. It is a romance with words as much as romance in words.
Much like love makes us see the familiar and everyday with a sharp, technicolour newness, his lyrics make you experience language not normally designated as poetic, with deep pleasure. Metaphors were drawn from an entire world of experience — nature, ritual, culture, even cultivation (maine toh seenchi re, teri yeh raahein — I watered your path, making it fertile).
Though known for his use of Hindi, Neeraj used Urdu as pliably, an example being one of my favourite songs, "shokhiyon mein ghola jaaye phoolon ka shabab". Perhaps a notable quality of these love songs was that they could pinpoint love's perpetual elusiveness with precision, sharply pinpointing the experience of desire — "aata jo yaad baar baar, who pyaar hai" (the one you think of all the time , that one's love) and "har dam kare jo intezar woh pyaar hai" (what keeps vigil within you, that's love). He describes love not through usual themes like sacrifice or pain or devotion, but primarily through sensuous longing. This experiential sense of love being just outside one's grasp, gives it a contemporaneity, made more relatable by the use of everyday language.
Despite authoring so many iconic songs, Neeraj's film career accounted for roughly 20 of his 93 years. He moved to Aligarh at the peak of his career, and spent a thriving life in poetry and teaching till he was 90. Perhaps the hallmark of truly popular artists is that they believe deeply in the potency and power of art. They are thus not limited by the careerist logic of working only in one genre or industry but find meaning and define success through a successful relationship with art itself and also do not see the popular and artistic as overly separate.
In his own intimate life too, Neeraj seems to have been very persuaded by romance, once saying in an interview, "Had I not been inundated by such attention from women, I might have written another 50 books of poetry." To rephrase Frost: from what we've tasted of desire, we're not so sure. As Neeraj's songs made us wonder, maybe love is a poem. Or perhaps it is really a poem that's love.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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