Poets Coming Alive!

One of the most attractive features gracing the living room of filmmaker-lyricist Gulzar’s home in Mumbai is a marble bust of Mirza Ghalib, the great Urdu poet who lived about two centuries ago. The statue is just twenty feet away from Gulzar’s desk, where he works and meets visitors. But when photo sessions happen in his home, they usually take place near that bust. This is perhaps a subconscious way of respecting India’s greatest ever poet, but it is also a touristy thing for visitors. In many ways, it is like going to Paris and taking your snap with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop, in an “I’ve-been-there” kind of way.

The statue is Gulzar’s statement of the value he attaches to the great poet. He has said it often too, how much he admires Ghalib. It was Gulzar who made a television serial to salute his idol thirty years ago. Gulzar has even used some of Ghalib’s poetry to garnish his own work, like in Dil dhoondta hai phir wohi fursat ke raat-din (Mausam, 1975). In fact Gulzar even commissioned a bust of the bard and donated it to the latter’s home in Old Delhi, when it was restored for visitors a few years ago.

But why just Gulzar, most poets and lyricists of significance—from our cinema or outside—have thought the world of Mirza Ghalib. He remains eminently quotable, which is why we find dozens of his couplets gracing the world of Hindustani poetry, especially as harbingers at the start of songs. Of course, taking direct quotes from deceased poets, without even naming them, is absolutely all right in the tradition of Urdu poetry. Here are two examples of such borrowings, tweaked just a bit:

  • Hazaaron hasraten aisi ki har hasrat pe dum nikle…Pyaar ki galiyon se o beta (Rafi/Devar Bhabhi, 1958)
  • Jaana tumhaare pyaar mein…Ishq ne humko nikamma kar diya (Mukesh/Sasural, 1961)

Such sprinkling is not just restricted to Ghalib’s work. Pandit Mehtab Rai ‘Taban’ was an 18th-century poet who wrote, “Shola bhadak uttha mere is dil ke daag se, aakhir ghar ko aag lag gayi is dil ke chiraag se”. This was modified to “Dil ke phaphole jal utthe seene ke daag se, Is ghar ko aag lag gayi ghar ke chiraag se”, and used in three songs as an opening couplet in:

  • Andhe ki laathi tu hi hai (Saigal/KC Dey, both versions/Dhoop Chhaon, 1935)
  • Jal ke dil khaak hua (Lata/Parichay, 1954)
  • Taqdeer ne hus-hus ke mere dil ko rulaaya (Asha, Rafi/Jallad, 1956)

The above are cases of hybridizing. These aside, let’s take a quick look at a few undiluted poems of Mirza Ghalib, set to music long after he had gone:

  • Aah ko chaahiye (Saigal/Begum Akhtar/both non-film; Suraiya/Mirza Ghalib, 1954)
  • Baazeecha-e-atfaal hai (Talat/Rafi/both non-film; Jagjit Singh/ Mirza Ghalib, TV serial)
  • Bus ke dushwaar hai (Talat/Rafi/both non-film)
  • Hai baske har ik unke ishaare mein nishaan aur (Rafi/Mirza Ghalib, 1954)
  • Har ek baat pe kehte ho tum ki tu kya hai (Saigal/Lata/both non-film)
  • Hazaaron khwahishen aisi (CH Atma/Lata/Durrani/Jagjit Singh/all non-film)
  • Ibn-e-Mariam hua kare koi (Begum Akhtar/Farida Khanum/both non-film)
  • Ishq mujhko naheen (Talat/Mirza Ghalib, 1954)
  • Kabhi neki bhi uske jee mein (Asha/Talat/both non-film)
  • Nuktachin hai gham-e-dil (Saigal/Yahudi Ki Ladki, 1933; Suraiya/Mirza Ghalib, 1954; Jaddanbai/Rafi both non-film)
  • Ye na thi hamaari qismat (Suraiya/Mirza Ghalib, 1954; Usha Mangeshkar/Main Nashe Mein Hoon, 1959; Begum Akhtar/Rafi/Habib Wali Mohd./Amanat Ali Khan/Mehdi Hassan/all non-film)

We also find footprints in Hindustani music of other poets who never wrote with music in mind. Again, let’s think of just a few of their poems that were taken without being grafted and turned into a song, long after the poets passed away.

Thus wrote Meerabai, the 16th century saint devoted to Lord Krishna:

  • Ae ri main to prem deewaani (Lata/Suman/both non-film; Geeta/Jogan, 1950; Lata/Naubahaar, 1952))
  • Ghunghat ke pat khol re (Juthika/non-film and Geeta/Jogan, 1950)
  • Jo tum todo piya (Lata/Jhanak Jhanak Paayal Baaje, 1955; Lata/Silsila, 1981)
  • Mat ja jogi (Lata/Juthika/both non-film)
  • Mere to Girdhar Gopal (Chitra Singh/non-film; Vani Jairam/Meera, 1979)
  • More to Girdhar Gopal (MS Subbulakshmi/ Meera, 1947)
  • Pag ghunghru baandh (Juthika/Amirbai/both non-film; MS Subbulakshmi/ Meera, 1947)
  • Piya te kahaan (Lata/Toofan Aur Diya, 1956)
  • Preet kiye dukh hoye (Lata/ Garam Coat, 1955)

Here’s the poetry of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was the final Mughal King:

  • Baat karni mujhe mushkil (Mehdi Hassan/Shareek-e-Hayaat, 1968; Runa Laila/non-film)
  • Lagta naheen hai dil mera (Rafi/Lal Qila, 1960)
  • Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon (Rajkumari/Toote Taare, 1948; Rafi/Lal Qila, 1960)

Saint Kabir (c1398-1513) was an oral poet whose words were written down by followers. He is famous for his two-line dohe distilled with wisdom.

  • Jheeni jheeni re bheeni chadariya (Manna/Mahatma Kabir, 1954)
  • Maati kahe kumbhaar se (Laxmi Shankar/Anup Jalota/both non-film)

Amir Khusro was a Sufi poet who lived over 700 years ago. He is remembered by:

  • Chhaap tilak sab chheeni re (Lata, Asha/Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki, 1978; Sabri Brothers/non-film)
  • Kaahe ko byaahi bides (Lata/Heer Ranjha, 1948; Jagjit Kaur/Umrao Jaan, 1981)

Patron-of-the-arts Wajid Ali Shah was the final Nawab of Awadh. He poem Babul mora came alive from the vocals of Begum Akhtar and Malika Pukhraj outside films, and by Saigal in Street Singer (1936), Manna Dey in Mahatma Kabir (1954), and Jagjit Singh-Chitra Singh in Aavishkaar (1973).

That was just a small representation of many of our long-gone great poets, who were not lyricists. But what’s the difference between these writers?

Lyricists, poets, and songwriters

A poet is a person who writes words that are meant to be read. As such, he usually does not repeat words, and has no real concerns about the length of his work, because he doesn’t need to worry about the confines of a song. He develops an idea in verse, but for whatever it is worth, his art stands or falls alone.

The lyricist is also a poet, but he writes the words that are essentially designed to be heard when set to music. His art has to work with instruments and voices in a collaborative way. He usually has to say it all in less than a hundred words, because songs generally tend to be of a few minutes’ length. Add to that the fact that the composing musician also sometimes takes the help of choruses and repeated content to advance the thought well, restricting the word count even more. Think of Naina barse rimjhim rimjhim, from Woh Kaun Thi (1964), in which the compellingly repeated use of barse, barse, barse, only amplifies the mystery inherent in the film’s story. In Do Bigha Zameen (1953), it is the chorus in Mausam beeta jaaye that is needed to highlight peasants collectively at work on their farms.

Because lyrics have to gel with the rhythm in the music, the collaboration becomes critical. That’s one reason some composers prefer to make the music first, into which the lyricist fits his words.

The songwriter is another kind of person yet. This person not only writes the words, but creates the melody of those words. While that is pretty common abroad, Indian lyricists are usually not songwriters. Cantillation, which is reciting a poem, as is done at mushairas and for religious texts, is not considered musical enough to qualify as singing.


(Published on 20th August 2017)

(Featured image: Mere to Girdhar Gopal, Hema Malini in Meera, 1971)

page 13, http://epaper2.dnaindia.com/index.php?mod=1&pgnum=1&edcode=131002&pagedate=2017-08-20

21 thoughts on “Poets Coming Alive!

  1. Deep, deep research. So educative. Brilliant.

    Even as this article talks about the past-present connect, it is at the same time a tribute to the old masters. The article sends one thinking, if there could be some more instances. In fact, the poet-specific listing made it a bit easier.

    Mira Bai….. the opening of that celebrated Shakeel-Naushad score.. mohe bhool gaye sanwaria….. is by Mira….. Jo main aisa jaanti preet kiye dukh hoye, nagar dhindora peetti preet na kariyo koye..

    I am even tempted to quote payo ji maine ran rattan dhan payo…. For the simple reason that this is perhaps the only one where Mira has idolized Ram instead of Krishna. However, popular though, it is not part of any film.

    In Shakeel’s holi aayi re kanhai… the antara… lakdi jal koyala bhai, koyla jal bhai raakh, mein paapin aisi jail na koyla bhai na raakh…….is perhaps by Amir Khusro.

    Kabir…… Shailendra banked on him for a a prologue to his his immortal muse…. Zindagi khwab hai……the doha is …. Rangi ko naarangi kahein, bane doodh ko khoya; chalti ko gaadi kahein, dekh Kabira roya

    Then we have Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai by Ram Prasad Bismil being used in Shaheed and Vande Mataram… by Bankim in Anand Math.

    Manek the title of this article is so full of life. And Hema in this photo looks so sublime, so pure.


    1. Rivetting are your remarks, especially about Meerabai’s only bhajan where she sings for Lord Rama. I have saved that thought for the future! And all those other songs…you miss nothing 🙂

    2. Vijay Kumar ji how are you able to connect these so effortlessly? Hats off to you. And you, Manek, for inspiring such deep thought and/or study. Grateful to have such inspirations on a daily basis around me!

  2. Wah Manek- I am simply astounded by the vivid themes, you conjure up every time. And just when I think- has he got any more subject to write about- you come with something awesome

  3. What a lovely write up Manek bhai. It’s compelling. The way you have weaved it through the hindi films leaves me speechless. When the ऋषि Sufis or संत (Saints) recite they are words of God. Their poetic meter is automatic. Kabir, Meerabai, Gurubani, Surdas, Tulsidas, Khusro, Tukaram, are some of the examples. When MS sings ‘’mere to girdhar gopal’’ the tune and composition is automatic. Your prose on poets and films fits like a glove, well studied and researched. Kudos…

  4. Simply loved going through all the songs you mentioned. Such a revealing article, need to read it again while listening to these beautiful songs, bhajans and ghazalz. Thank you Manek 🙂

  5. Engaging read, Manek ji. And lovely collection of songs under the topic ?
    Earlier this year I had written a small article on a similar topic. Would love to share the link with your permission.
    Thank you ?

  6. Only someone passionate about hindi film music can write an article like this , very well researched and written ….. the reference to Pandit Mehtab Rai ‘Taban’ who almost everyone has forgotten shows the extent of information you have got. It took me 2yrs to find out the name of the poet who wrote the lines” Dil ke phaphole jal utthe seene ke daag se, Is ghar ko aag lag gayi ghar ke chiraag se”, this information was given to me by an urdu scholar , as hardly any body knew about pandit mehtab rai. This article should be read by all lovers of music and poetry .

  7. I feel like going ‘marhaba! ‘Like an oil sheikh at a dance show put up for his benefit! Superb, Manek. Yet another look at all beloved pieces of music! I wonder how many different angles we will see this graceful elephant (HFM) from, thanks to you. Will definitely be reading again.

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