Sahir at 100: Raising Socio-Political Awareness Through Poetry

Sahir was a brilliant poet who devoted his poetry to raise awareness of the common folks to the reality of the prevailing social and political issues. His poignant and often heart wrenching words also echoed the intense love and loss of humans in relationships.

His great and undying love for his mother created in him even more depth of emotion that would perhaps have not been realized otherwise. His tragic family situation further invoked intense compassion for his mother due to her tragic circumstances.

His connection to his mother was of such strength that he left the world soon after his mother’s death, at only 59 years.

Poet extraordinaire

I was first exposed to Sahir through listening to his very moving lyrics on the radio and was drawn to listen more of his work. I was very impressed and am forever indebted to him.

His prolific poetry was equally stirring whether the subject was: women’s issues, wealth inequality, hypocrisy of religious leaders, political corruption, or wars. His work created a following rarely matched as it resonated with the public.

This week marks his centenary and this article is a token of appreciation to him.

Taj Mahal – a unique perspective

In the mid 1940s, the young Sahir began one of his poems with the following lines:

tAj tere liye ik mazhar-e-ulfat hee sahee / tujh ko is vAdi-e-rangeeN se aqeedat hee sahi / meri mehboob kaheeiN aur milA kar mujh sei

Taj [Mahal] may be a symbol of love for you / this stunning vale has reverential quality for you / but from henceforth my beloved, meet me somewhere else

and ended it thus:

ik shahenshAh ne daulat kA sahArA le kar / ham ghariboN ki muhabbat kA udAyA hai mazAq / meri mehboob kaheeiN aur milA kar mujh sei

an emperor, with help of his wealth / has belittled the love of us poor folk / but from henceforth my beloved, meet me somewhere else

Sahir Ludhianvi became a sensation. The poem while not disputing the beauty of the Taj Mahal, which the poet accepts ungrudging, comments on the flagrant flaunting of wealth by an emperor to express his love for his beloved queen. He also mourns the fact that the blood of our ancestors was used in building this edifice. (1) He eludes to the possibility that the builders may have loved too, and their feelings been genuine but their destitution prevented them from leaving such sepulcher for their sweethearts; their graves remain unmarked and without trace where no one ever lit a candle.

Sahir, who had not visited the Taj Mahal prior to writing the above poem, told his friend Krishan Adeeb:

“I wanted to write a poem on Noorjehan’s grave, but I was not able to find the right inspiration for it and, instead, I wrote ‘Taj Mahal.’ Why does one need to go to Agra for this? I have read Marx’s philosophy and I remember my geography as well. I know that the Taj Mahal was built by the side of the Yamuna by Shahjehan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal.”

Akshay Manwani, Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (Noida, India: HarperCollins, 2013, pp. 49-50).

At that time, this was a totally different, rather revolutionary way, of looking at the 17th century marble monument, an ode to love and beauty, built by the Mughal Emperor Shahjehan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal who died at a very young age during childbirth of their 14th child. She is buried in the Taj Mahal beside Shahjehan. The conservative Muslim newspapers were extremely critical in the way Sahir described Taj Mahal.

Music director Naushad (Ali) wanted Sahir to write something on Taj Mahal for the 1964 film Leader. Sahir offered the above poem but Naushad rejected it and instead opted for Shakeel Badayuni, who wrote a song subsequently recorded in the voice of the great Mohammed Rafi. (Listen/watch here.) Badayuni was a good poet but Sahir’s poem remains a masterpiece. Sahir’s poem was then used in the 1964 film Ghazal (listen/watch here) with Rafi lending his mesmerizing voice to Madan Mohan’s music.

One wonders how Sahir would have reacted to the nonsense being churned out by Hindu fanatics- that the Taj Mahal and Red fort were built by Hindu kings and the name Taj Mahal is a corruption of Tejo Mahalaya, which was a Hindu Lord Shiva temple converted into a Muslim mausoleum.

Sahir’s childhood

Sahir’s given name at birth was Abdul Hayee. He was born on 8 March 1921 in Ludhiana, a city in Punjab of pre-partition India to Chaudhri Fazl Mohammed, a wealthy Punjabi feudal landlord and Sardar Begum, whose family hailed from Kashmir, the daughter of a wealthy contractor Abdul Azeez. Sahir’s father had inherited his wealth from his father Fateh Mohammed who belonged to the Gujjar community.

Sardar Begum was the 11th of Fazl’s twelve wives. She bore him Sahir, who was Fazl’s only child. Her married life was devoid of happiness as Fazl, even after Sahir’s birth, didn’t stop womanizing or selling his land at give away prices to pay for his depraved life. Although she was from a wealthy family, her family’s wealth was no match to Fazl’s; for this reason, he refused to acknowledge their relationship. When her efforts to mend his ways failed, she took her son Sahir who was only a few months old, and left her husband for her younger brother Abdul Rasheed’s house, a fruit merchant.

Left with no choice, Sardar Begum went to court to stop her husband selling land and also to reclaim the land he had sold illegally. Many judgements favored her, but the people who had bought the land very cheap became her enemies. The court battles lasted almost 18 years.

Fazl threatened he would kidnap Sahir if she resorted to court action. Undeterred, she employed guards to protect Sahir to school and back. After school, Sahir was confined to the house with his mother. Sensing his wife’s determination, Fazl asked the court for Sahir’s custody. She filed for divorce, a big thing in India then, and asked the court to grant Sahir’s custody to her. Sahir was in fifth class/grade then.

Imagine the whirlwind of thoughts and fears rushing on in young Sahir’s mind. His entire childhood passed in insecurity with a dread of being seized by his father or what the court decision would be about his future or if his mother would survive the ordeal of litigation to look after him and other such thoughts. The court finally awarded custody of Sahir to his mother, but the childhood experiences affected him deeply all his life.

His mother’s plight is reflected in this extremely memorable verse:

The Sadhna film song excerpt on women’s condition in a men’s world:

aurat ne janam diyA mardoN ko, mardoN ne use bAzAr diyA / jab ji chAhA maslA kuchlA, jab ji chAhA dhutkAr diyA

tulti hai kahiN dinAroN meiN, bikti hai kahiN bAzAroN meiN / nangi nachavAi jAti hai, aiyyAshoN ke darbAro mein / ye voh be-izzat cheez hai jo, bas jAti hai izzatdAro meiN

woman gave birth to men, men gave her the brothel / at will, he used and abused her; at his will he discarded her

somewhere she’s weighed in dinars/ or she’s sold in market-place / she’s made to perform striptease in the court of lechers / for this, the dishonorable woman is placed among the honorable ones

Sahir mentions the fact that his childhood and other experiences are reflected in his work:

duniyA ne tajrabAt-o-havAdis ki shakl meiN / Jo kuchh mujhe diyA hai, lautA rahA huN maiN

whatever the world, in the shape of experiences and incidents, / gave me, I am returning it back

For the film Pyasa, Sahir modified the above verse thus:

ham ghamzadA haiN, lAeN kahAN se khushi ke geet / dengey wohi jo pAeNge is zindagi se ham

I am drowned in sorrow, where would I get the songs of joy / I am repaying back whatever I got from the world

Sahir’s birthday also happens to fall on International Women’s Day and it seems so appropriate as Sahir was a strong proponent of women’s rights.

In a song from film Naya Raasta (1970), his lyrics depict the hero encourage the heroine to bravely face the world with a smile. Few verses:

poNch kar ashq apni AnkhoN se, muskurAo to koi bAt bane / sar jhukAne se kuchh nahi hogA, sar uthAo to koi bAt bane

rang aur nasl, zAt aur mazhab, jo bhi ho Adami se kamtar hai / is haqiqat ko tum bhi meri tarah, mAn jAo to koi bAt bane

wipe off the tears from your eyes, put a smile which could change things / nothing would come out of bowing down / raising your head could change things

color and ancestry, caste and religion / they are all inferior to human being / accepting this truth, like I have, could change things

During the first two decades of Sahir’s life, Sardar Begum went through the worst period of her life. Sahir observed his mother’s anguish during this time and was profoundly impacted. He was a progressive writer of his time and deeply felt the humiliation his mother suffered and from the general treatment of women in society.

Allah’s slave/servant turns magician

Abdul Hayee or Hai means slave or servant of God. Hayee is one of the 99 names of Allah. (2) Hayee or Hai means The Ever-Living Allah, The Alive Allah. In his college years, Abdul Hayee changed his name to Sahir which means a magician. He decided for the name “Sahir” while reading Muhammaed Iqbal’s poem.

Sahir was an atheist and a very progressive writer so the name change was appropriate and it suited his prowess of playing with words – a word magician. His full new name was Sahir Ludhianvi, i.e., Sahir from or of Ludhiana. Sahir was open about his atheism. In one of his songs, Sahir declared Allah/God as “superstition.”

In the 1968 film Vaasna a very weighty verse included: “an empire is tyranny, God is superstition, the society is trouble.” Rafi’s pain-inducing voice has Chitragupt’s music. This song depicts the protagonist’s philosophy, which also coincides with Sahir’s views.

(God “superstition” has become a huge and profitable industry that has enabled people in the past and present to claim link/s with God, gods, and goddesses and the words of these claimants have been interpreted, reinterpreted, millions of times filling up libraries with infinite number of volumes. So much for a non-existent God!) (3)

A few verses from the poem:

mit na pAegA jahAn se kabhi nafarat kA riwAj / ho na pAegA kabhi rooh ke zakhmoN ka ilAj / saltanat zulm, KhudA vaham museebat hai samAj / zahan ko aise sulA do ke na kuchh yAd rahe / Aj is darjA pilA do ke na kuchh yAd rahe / bekhudi itani badhAdo ke na kuchh yAd rahe

the custom of hatred won’t ever erase from our world, that’s true /nor will the soul wounds ever get healed, that’s true /empire is tyranny, God: superstition, society: trouble, that’s true / put my mind to sleep, in a way that I remember nothing / today, intoxicate me, so that I remember nothing / increase my stupor, such that I remember nothing

(See the entire translation and the original in Roman script here.)

Partition of India – August 1947

A vast segment of the population suffered, directly or indirectly, during the partition of the subcontinent. The devastated economical and social effects of the Second World War on Britain and the pressure of the new global rogue United States forced Britain to leave India. Millions of people migrated to and from the newly crafted country of Pakistan from India, leaving in its wakeover a million people dead and many more wounded.

On September 11, 1947, Sahir, who had witnessed communal frenzy read his poem Aaj (Today) on All India Radio, excerpts follow:

sAthiyo! maiN ne barsoN tumhAre liye / chAnd tAroN bahAroN ke sapne bune

comrades! for you, I have for years / weaved dreams of moon, stars, and spring

He described the mayhem going on in the subcontinent:

aur naghme ki takhliq kA sAz-o-sAmAN / sAthiyo! Aj tum ne bhasm kar diyA hai / aur maiN apnA TooTA huA sAz thAme / sard lAshoN ke ambAr ko tak rahA hooN / mere chAroN taraf maut ki vahshatieN nAchti haiN / aur insAN ki haivAniyat jAg uThi hai

and the instruments that create my song / comrades! today you have turned them to ashes / and I, holding my broken instrument, / am gazing at the heap of cold corpses / all around me the savagery of death is dancing / and the animal instinct in humans have woken up

He begged for peace and a return to normalcy:

mAoN ko un ke hoNToN ki shAdAbiyAN / nanhe bachchoN ko un ki khushi bakhsh do / mulk ki rooh ko zindagi bakhsh do / mujh ko merA hunar merA lai bakhsh do / Aj sAri fazA hai bhikAri

moisten the parched lips of mothers / give little children their happiness / grant life to the soul of the country / impart me my skills and melody / today, the entire environment is a beggar

(Read the entire original poem in Roman script on Rekhta.)

In Delhi, Sahir learned from his friends that his mother has reached Lahore as part of a “muhajir” (refugee) camp. Lahore was now a part of Pakistan. Same month, Sahir rushed to Lahore and was happy to find Sardar Begum staying with his friend Sorish Kashmiri. Another close friend, Hameed Akhtar joined them in November.

Neither Hindu Nor Muslim

Years later, in the 1963 film Dhool ka Phool (Flower of Dust), Sahir revisited the subject of Partition. The film is about a Hindu child born out of wedlock and is abandoned. He is found by a Muslim who subsequently raises him. This song reflects Sahir’s idea of secularism, of sharing the earth together, of interfaith unity, and that the wealthy have no qualms in making money out of human tragedy.

you’ll not become a Hindu nor a Muslim you’ll become
a human progeny you are, a human being you’ll become

it is wonderful that so far no name you have
nor an association with any religion you have
the knowledge that has divided the human beings
you’re blameless, for none of that knowledge you have

the harbinger of changed times you’ll become
a human progeny you are, a human being you’ll become

each one of the human beings, Lord created
out of that Hindu or Muslim, we created
nature had blessed us with just one land
but here India and there Iran, we created

the storm that breaks every barrier is what you’ll become
a human progeny you are, a human being you’ll become

one that teaches hatred, that religion is not yours
the step that tramples human beings is not yours
that temple which has no Quran, yours it is not
where there is no Gita, that mosque is not yours

an inspiration of peace and compromise you’ll become
a human progeny you are, a human being you’ll become

these merchants of religion one’s own country they sell
also the shrouds of the human corpses they sell
those slayers and looters sitting in the palaces
for the price of thorns, the garden’s soul they would sell

for them, the declaration of death you’ll become
a human progeny you are, a human being you’ll become (4)

Even where situations in a film demanded a devotional song, Sahir would try to write it in a way that religious symbols or terms from different religions were intermingled to bring followers of various religions closer. The following is an example:

allAh tero nAm, ishvara tero nAm / sabako sanmati de bhagavAn

Allah is your name; Ishvara is also your name / may the Almighty, grant good thoughts to all

(Allah is an Arabic word for God; Ishvara is a Sanskrit word for God.)

Pakistan

Sahir knew Lahore well as he had been there before, but because things had changed, he was no more comfortable in Pakistan, nor was his mother.

They had been surrounded all their lives by people of different religions and castes. The changed circumstances had forced Hindus and Sikhs to leave in droves, for India. Muslims left India in huge numbers too, but almost 1/3rd of Muslims, decided to not move. Sahir started working as an editor of a bi-monthly Urdu magazine called Savera(Dawn).

Pakistan was already pro-Western. Their policies aimed to serve the interests of US capitalism at the expense of their own people.

In 1949, Sahir recited his poem Avaaz-e-Adam (The Voice of Adam) (5). Excerpts:

dabegi kab talak AvAz-e-Adam ham bhi dekheNge
rukeNge kab talak jazbAt-e-barham ham bhi 
dekkenge

how long will you suppress the voice of Adam, we too shall see / how long will the enraged emotions be blocked, we too shall see

ye hangAm-e-vidA-e-shab hai ai zulmat ke farzando / sahar ke dosh par gulnAr parcham ham bhi dekheNge / tumhen bhi dekhnA hogA ye Alam ham bhi dekheNge

o ye the children of tyranny, this tumult of the night is a farewell to you / at dawn the fluttering of the red flag we too shall see / you too have to witness this event, we too shall see

The above poem sealed Sahir’s fate in Pakistan. He received threats from the intelligence agencies. Arrest warrants were issued against him, prompting him to flee to India. Sahir then sent his friend Prakash Pandit to escort his mother from Lahore. His friend Hameed Akhtar, who was in Karachi then, was heart-broken to learn about Sahir and his mother’s departure upon his return to Lahore. (6)

Sahir had predicted the situation in Pakistan. He had told Akhtar:

“Yahaan mullah, maulvi aur jageerdaar ki huqumat ho jaayegi.”

“Here, Muslim clerics and feudal class will take over the government.” (Manwani p. 71.)

Back to India

Sahir was back in India. He wanted to write songs for Hindi/Urdu films and so he moved to Bombay, the biggest film center for Hindi/Urdu films. To establish himself, initially Sahir had to struggle to get in touch with the people who could understand his literary and artistic capability. He was associated with the pre-Partition Progressive Writers Association or Progressive Writers Movement which was founded in 1935 in London, England, by a few Indian writers. In India it was established in 1936. The anti-imperialist PWA’s goal was to produce literature which would inform and motivate people to fight the society’s injustices and ills.

His own man

Sahir once wrote:

jiO to aise jiO jaise sab tumhAra hai / maro to aise ke jaise tumhAra kuchh bhi nahh

live – as if you own the entire world / die – as if nothing belonged to you

Sahir was aware of the impact of his writing and wanted to include progressive issues in his film songs; he wasn’t afraid to express his own thoughts. Gulzar observed:

“Sahir Ludhianvi merged his poetry and social conscience in all his songs, but he totally refused to learn the film medium, and wrote only what he wanted. He is the only poet whom the industry accepted as he is, with his language, his vocabulary and his imagery. Sahir is also the only poet whose songs became succesful because of his lyrics, and not because of the tune or the singer, as was usually the case. In the history of Hindi cinema, this phenomenon of a lyricist succeeding entirely on his own terms happened only with Sahir.” (Manwani, p. 246.)

It was an unquestioned practice in India that the national public radio stations of All India Radio (world’s largest radio network) would play film songs with film, music director, and singer names without giving the poet/lyricist’s name. Sahir fought to also have the name of the poet/lyricist included.

Poet/writer/filmmaker Gulzar told Filmfare magazine:

Sahir brought dignity to lyricists with great vengeance. He was the first one to insist that when the film’s name, the music director’s name and the singer’s name are mentioned on the records why not the songwriter’s name? It’s because of his insistence that Vividh Bharati [of All India Radio] started mentioning the lyricist’s name.”

Gulzar remarked that Sahir had an ego, as big as his height. (Sahir was very tall.)

One of Sahir’s best friend was poet Jan Nisar Akhtar, both were considered inseparable. Jawed Akhtar, Jan Nisar Akhtar’s son, a poet and screenplay writer, who used to visit Sahir and was close to him, said the following on Sahir’s quality of work :

“He [Sahir] proved one thing beyond any doubt: that film songs and good poetry are not contradictory. They are compatible and they can be complementary. To think that film songs cannot achieve a literary high is wrong. It is possible.” (Manwani p. 242.)

Sahir was clear about his writing:

“I have always strived to bring song writing close to literary poetry and use it to provide political and social perspectives to people.”

Women in Sahir’s life

Sahir’s name has been associated with a number of women, including an alleged engagement to writer Hajra Masroor, and an affair with a married woman from Hyderabad. (Manwani. p. 129.)

But Sahir’s friend poet Ahmad Rahi said:

“In his entire life, Sahir loved once, and he nurtured one hate. He loved his mother, and he hated his father.”

Undoubtedly, the central woman in Sahir’s life was his mother: Sardar Begum. She not only gave birth to him, but also gave him a new lease to life when she fought against her husband and kept Sahir with her, by fighting court battles and eventually gaining custody.

Four women have been associated with Sahir.

Prem Mahinder Choudhary

The first time Sahir fell in love was during his adolescent years with a girl named Prem Mahinder Chaudhary. She was his college classmate. She loved him too. They were both united in wanting the British rule to end. But, it was not to be. Her early death due to tuberculosis ended their affair. It was a heart-shattering event for Sahir. He attended her cremation ceremony and wrote a poem titled Marghat Ki Zemeen Se – From the land of Cremation.

This poem was part of Sahir’s first book of poems called Talkhiyan (Bitterness). But was later removed at the request of Mahinder’s parents. A couplet (6) from the poem expresses Sahir’s agony:

kyuN ek begunAh kali ko jalA diyA /kyuN mujh se meri rooh ki tanvir chheen lee

why a sinless bud was burned to ashes / why my soul’s radiance was snatched from me

Ishar Kaur

Ishar Kaur was Sahir’s classmate and friend at Khalsa College. They both started liking each other.

But, Ishar realized she was Sikh and Sahir was from a Muslim background, and surmised furthering their relationship would lead to a dead end, so decided to avoid Sahir albeit, with a heavy heart.

Due to vacations, the college was closed. Ishar and few other girls were living in the hostel. Sahir arranged for the meeting and they met but the college authorities came to know about it. Ishar was expelled, and Sahir left the college. The general impression was that Sahir was expelled but there is no such record. The people familiar with the college are of the opinion that college authorities used the incident to get rid of Sahir because they were annoyed by his poems which were of political nature.

Ishar was married off to a distant relative in Mumbai. In 1970, Sahir was invited by the college for its golden jubilee celebrations where he reminisced about his time at that college with this couplet:

lekin hum in fizAoN ke pAle hue to haiN / gar yahAN nahi to yahAN se nikAle hue to haiN

but nurtured by this environment I have been / if I’m not part of this place, expelled from here I’ve been

Sudha Malhotra

Sudha Malhotra was a playback singer who lent her voice to Sahir’s words in a few films. The words of some of the songs created an impression that they both had a soft spot for each other.

The 1959 film Didi’s song had the female lead sing the following lines in the voice of Sudha Malhotra who also composed the music for this song:

tum mujhe bhool bhi jAo to ye haq hai tum ko / meri bAt aur hai meine to muhabbat ki hai

even if you forget me – as you have every right to / on my side, it’s different as I have loved you

The male lead replies thus in Mukesh’s voice:

zindagi sirf muhabbat nahi kuchh aur bhi hai / zulf o rukhsAr ki jannat nahi kuchh aur bhi hai / bhookh aur pyaas ki maari hui is duniya mein / ishq hi ek haqeeqat nahi kuchh aur bhi hai / tum agar aankh churaao to ye haq hai tumko / maine tumse hi nahi sabse muhabbat ki hai

life is not just love, its more than that / it’s not a paradise of tresses and cheeks, its more than that / in this world full of hunger and thirst / affection is not the only truth, its more than that / you have a right to ignore me, if you want to / not only you but I also love all others

(Listen the entire song here.)

Film Gumrah’s (1963) song, poetically one of Sahir’s best, had people’s tongues wagging that Sudha Malhotra and Sahir have seperated.

chalo ik bAr phir se ajnabi ban jAeN ham dono

let us once again, become strangers

Sudha Malhotra got married in 1960 and stopped singing. Although used in 1963, the above poem was penned decades ago.

Amrita Pritam

Amrita Pritam told an interviewer Dharmveer Bharti of the Hindi magazine Kadambini:

Sahir mere Sartre aur main unki Simone thi (Sahir was my Sartre and I was his Simone).”

The reference is to the famous French philosophers/activists/writers Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), who were life long live-in-partners. Though Amrita and Sahir never lived together, their feelings for each other were always present.

The first time Amrita and Sahir met was at a mushaira, a gathering of people and poets where the poets read their work, around 1944. Amrita was then married to an editor Pritam Singh. Their marriage was not working out. Sahir’s recitation and poem touched Amrita’s heart:

“Whether it was the magic of his words or his silent gaze, I was captivated by him.”

Regular correspondence between them turned into meetings dominated by silence. Amrita puts it thus:

“There were two obstacles between us – one of silence, which remained forever. And the other was language. I wrote poetry in Punjabi, Sahir in Urdu.”

It seems Sahir was a quiet person as poet Gulzar, Sahir’s and writer Krishan Chander’s neighbor, told an interviewer, that Sahir spoke very little.

But then again, he used to talk a lot with his friend poet Jan Nisar Akhtar. In 1971, Sahir was given the Indian government’s fourth highest civilian award Padma Shri. Sahir told Jan Nisar he should get one too. Jan Nisar asked the reason and Sahir said: “I alone can’t bear this humiliation.”

In her autobiography, Raseedi Tikkat (Revenue Stamp), Amrita expressd her feelings for Sahir:

“I would keep these remaining cigarettes [Sahir had smoked] carefully in the cupboard after he left. I would only light them while sitting alone by myself. When I would hold one of these cigarettes between my fingers, I would feel as if I was touching his hands . . .”

In four of her works, anthology of poems, a novel, poem, and a collection of short stories, Sahir was an important character.

One of her stories, Aakhari Khat (The Last Letter) was written to draw Sahir’s attention.

One day Amrtia and Sahir happened to meet and Sahir told her:

“When I read ‘Aakhari Khat,” I was so delighted that I wanted to take the magazine to each of my friends and tell them – look this has been written for me, but I decided to keep quiet. I thought if I told friends like [writer/editor/filmmaker] Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and Krishan Chander, they would chid me and threaten to take me to the asylum.” (Manwani p. 116.)

Once Sahir was in Delhi with his friends and his mother. Sahir told his mother:

“‘Maaji, yeh Amrita thi, janti ho na? Yeh aapki bahu bhi bann sakti thi.

(Mother, that was Amrita. She could have become your daughter-in-law.)” (Manwani p. 126.)

Her mother requested him to take marriage seriously:

Bete, bahu banao toh sahi kisi ko.”

(As long as you make someone my daughter-in-law.)”

Two great intellectual writers, both bold, good hearted and handsome people, hit a road block and couldn’t carry on their relationship. The feelings remained but the togetherness couldn’t be accomplished. Amrita got separated from her husband and lived with a friend named Imroze till her death in 2005 at the age of 86.

One of Sahir’s biographers Surinder Deol says its difficult to figure out why Sahir’s relations with women never advanced beyond a certain point.

“I have tried to psychoanalyse him but have ended my pursuit with questions. Was he a man who was unable to get into a stable, romantic relationship? Was there something he found within himself that made him reluctant to initiate a relationship, knowing that it would go nowhere? Was his deep love and affection for his mother a roadblock? I wish we had answers.”

Sahir’s magic

It has been noted by many that Sahir true to his name created magic with his words in poems/lyrics/nazams. But there was another magic he had mastered: his magic of weaving progressive social messages in his film songs and thus brought them to the masses.

In Indian films, Sahir’s poems were incorporated without being changed. On very few occasions, Sahir changed lyrics to suit situations in the films, mostly; movies mostly created story lines and situations to adapt to his words. Music directors had to compose tunes around Sahir’s words rather than other way around, which was the usual practice.

Pyaasa

One of the best movies was Pyaasa and became a landmark film for excellence in acting, direction, story, dialogues, music, photography, but especially, for Sahir’s hard hitting stirring poetry.

The commercial success of Pyaasa made the publicity department change the film posters outlining Sahir’s poems. In many ways, it was regarded as Sahir’s film. Pyaasa was loosely based on Sahir’s life. The 1976 film Kabhi Kabhi was also based on Sahir’s life.

Pyasa’s song “jinheiN nAz hai Hind par woh kahAN hai?” those who are proud of India, where are they? was changed from the original “sanA-khvAn-e-taqdis-e-mashriq kahAN haiN? (Where are they who extol the purity of the East?”)

The song, about sex-workers’ condition and the country leaders’ indifference to their plight, was conveyed through one of the songs in Pyassa. Originally written as Chakley or Brothel, some changes were made to suit the situation in the film. It is one of the most powerful song on the sex-workers. Few verses:

ye kooche, ye nilAm ghar dilkashi ke / ye lutate hue kAravAN zindagi ke / kahAN hai, kahAN hai muhAfiz khudi ke / jinhe nAz hai hind par vo kahAN hai

ye purpech galiyAN, ye badnAm bAzAr / ye gumnAm rAhi, ye sikkoN ki jhankAr / ye ismat ke saude, ye saudoN pe takrAr / jinhe nAz hai hind par vo kahAN hai

these bylanes and auction houses of pleasure /where the caravans of life are being robbed /where are the guardians of self-esteem /those who are proud of India, where are they?

these crooked lanes, this sex market / this nameless traveler, this jangle of coins /this auction of women’s honor, this hassle over bargaining / those who are proud of India, where are they?

Talking about this poem to Nirupama Dutt, Sahir’s friend of youth, Painter Bawari, a signboard painter and also an Urdu poet, said:

“’I was stunned by the line: Madat chahti hai yeh Havva ki beti, Yashodha ki ham-jins, Radha ki beti’ (The daughter of Eve, Yashodha and Radha is crying out for help).

“This boy, just 17, had shamed men across religions by describing the fallen woman as the daughter of the most venerated names.”

In another song of Pyasa, Sahir depicts the hypocrisy of society willing to honor the dead, because the dead posed no danger and permitted them to profit. But the same society refused to accord equal treatment when those dead were alive. Here is the original poem.

Translation:

What is the use?

the palaces, thrones, and crowns of our world / the societal enemies of people of our world / the wealth-starved traditions of our world / even if I were to attain this world, what is the use?

every body is wounded and every soul is thirsting / the eyes are confused; the hearts are sad / is this the world or an existence of senselessness / even if I were to attain this world, what is the use?

here the human existence is a play thing / this place is the home of dead worshiping / here death is cheaper than life / even if I were to attain this world, what is the use?

youth keeps wandering in a licentious life / young bodies are exhibited to be marketable / here love is realized for business / even if I were to attain this world, what is the use?

in this world, human beings have no worth / neither do fidelity or friendship carry any worth / here no one values love at all / even if I were to attain this world, what is the use?

burn down this world; leave no trace of it / remove the world from my sight / it’s your world, you take care of it / even if I were to attain this world, what is the use?

Sahir’s plea

Sahir wanted other poets and lyricists to write in a way that would inspire people to bring about good change. In the Indian film industry, no one else joined him.

In Pakistan, there was Habib Jalib who was a revolutionary poet and wrote such songs for films but he wasn’t allowed too much time because he was forced to spend a lot of time in prisons, for his speeches and activities on behalf of workers. He also endured torture in these prisons. But, he did not give up. Also, the Pakistani film industry is much smaller than that of India.

In an introduction to his book, Gaata Jaaye Banjara, an anthology of his film songs, Sahir elaborated on his idea of how the poets/lyricists should use the medium of films to initiate positive changes while trying to reach more people:

Films are the most effective medium of our age. If they are used to bring about constructive and positive change, people’s thought processes and social progress can be influenced greatly and very rapidly. Unfortunately, not many from among us have bothered about this aspect of cinema because, like other things, even this is under the control of those who look at personal gain as more important than bringing about social improvement. This is why our film stories, film melodies and film lyrics are generally shallow. This is why literary circles consider film literature with distaste and hatred.

This is different from literary poetry and is difficult as well. That is why it is important for a critic that when he sits to critique a film’s songs, he should not only consider which poet has written the songs, but for which character have the songs been written. He must also consider that film songs are written on already composed tunes. As a result, the poet in some places has to go against the established norms of literature and, instead of focusing on the right usage of words, has to pay greater attention to the lyrical quality of words.

While selecting words the lyricist also has to pay attention to the fact that people living in the far corners of the country, a majority of whom are illiterate and whose language is not Urdu or Hindi, are able to understand these words.

… I have always strived to bring songwriting as close to literary poetry and to use it to provide new political and social perspectives to people.

… (Quoted in Manwani, pp. 251=52.)

Aaj Aur Kal

For the 1963 film Aaj Aur Kal Sahir wrote:

rang aur nasl nAm aur daulat / zindagi kitane farq mAnti hai / maut hadbandiyoN se ooNchi hai / sAri duniyA ko ek jAnti hai / jin usooloN pe mar rahe haiN ham / un usooloN ki qadrdAN hogi

color and ancestry, name and wealth / life believes in so many differences / beyond any limitation is death / for death, the entire world is same / the principles we’re dying for / death is the appreciator of those

For the same film, Sahir also had a rousing song:

takht na hogA tAj na hogA kal thA lekin Aj na hogA / jisme sab adhikAr na pAye wo sachA swarAj na hogA

lAkhoN ki mehnat par kabzA muthi bhar dhanwAno kA / deen dharam ke nAm par khuni batwAra insAnoN kA / jiskA ye itihAs rahA hai ab wo andhA rAj na hogA

yesterday there were thrones and crowns, but today they won’t be / where everyone doesn’t have rights, true self-rule* it won’t be

*(Swaraj, i.e., self-rule or independence.)

the labor of millions is controlled by a fistful of wealthy people / in the name of religion, they create bloody division of people / whose history has been such, now that exploitative rule there won’t be

Sahir’s Parodies

Sahir created a parody of the 1954 film Nastik, that Poet Kavi Pradeep wrote and sang the famous song on the deadly Partition of the subcontinent. Pradeep’s couplet:

dekh tere sansAr ki hAlat kyA ho gai bhagwAn/kitnA badal gayA insAn

O God, look what has happened to your world / how much the human has changed

Sahir penned a parody of the above song in a 1955 film, Railway Platform, Excerpts:

dekh tere bhagwAn ki hAlat kyA ho gayi insAn / kitnA badal gayA bhagwAn

bhukhoN ke ghar mei pherA na dAle / sethoN kA ho mehmAn

O human, look what has happened to your God / how much the Supreme Being has changed

He won’t pass by starving people’s homes / will instead enjoy the wealthy’s hospitality

Phir Subah Hogi

Poet/philosopher Muhammad Iqbal wrote Tarana-e-Milli – The Anthem of the Islamic Community in 1910. A couplet:

cheen-o-arab hamarA, hindustAn hamarA / muslim haiN ham, vatan hai sarA jahAN hamArA

Central Asia and Arabia is ours / Muslims we are, the world is our homeland

(Cheen nowadays means China, but then it meant Central Asia.)

Sahir Ludhianvi parodied Iqbal’s poem for a song in 1958 film Phir Subah Hogi. It was based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment.

One of the movie songs was a parody the above poem.

cheeno-arab hamarA, hindustAn hamarA / rehne ko ghar nahiN hai, sarA jahAN hamarA*

jitni bhi buildingei thi, sethoN ne bANT li hai / footpath bombai ke haiN ashiyAnA hamarA

China and Arabia are ours, India too is ours / there is no home to reside, entire world is ours

all the buildings that were there, the rich have distributed among themselves / footpaths of Bombay are the nest of ours

*(The first couplet is attributed to Majid Lahori.)

The most powerful song of Phir Subah Hogi Sahir wrote was vo subh kabhi to Aegi (that dawn will arrive, someday) where the song begins with hope that a dawn will come when all the misery will go away but Sahir then aptly reminds the people that it will come with self-determination: vo subh hameeN sa Aegi (because of us, that dawn will come).

Excerpt: vo subh kabhi to Aegi

jis subh ki khAtir jug-jug se, ham sab mar-mar ke jite haiN / jis subh ki amrit ki dhun mei, ham zahr ke pyAle pite haiN / in bhukhi pyAsi ruhoN par, ek din to karam farmAegi / vo subh kabhi to Aegi

that dawn will arrive, someday

the dawn for which we’ve been living half-dead for ages / in fervent hope of that dawn’s nectar, we’re imbibing bowls of poison / one day, perhaps, it will grant mercy on these starving thirsting souls /that dawn will arrive, someday

vo subh hameeN sa Aegi

jab dharti karwat badlegi, jab qaid se qaidi chhooTeNge / jab pAp gharonde phooTenge, jab zulm ke bandhan TooTenge / jailoN ke binA jab duniyA ki sarkAr chalAi jAegi / oos subh ko ham hi lAeNge / vo subh ham hi se AeNgi

because of us, that dawn will come

when earth’s mood alters, when prisoners get released from jails / when the dwellings of sin shall shatter, when bonds of tyranny will break / the governments of the world will run without any prisons / it’s we who’ll bring that dawn / because of us, that dawn will come

(vo subh kabhi to Aegi in its entirety is here. Watch here.)

Naya Raasta

Sahir’s song from film Naya Raasta

apne andar zarA jhANkh mere watan / apne aiboN ko mat dhaNk mere watan

terA itihAs hai khuN me lithdA huA / tu abhi tak hai duniyA me pichhdA huA / tune apnoN ko apnA na mAnAN kabhi / tune insAN ko insAN na jAnA kabhi / tere dharmoN ne zAtoN ki taksim ki / teri rasmoN ne nafrat ki tAlim di / wahshatoN ka chalan tujhme jAri rahA / qatl-o-khooN ka junuN tujhpe tAri rahA

look within yourself, my homeland / don’t conceal your vices, my homeland

your history is drencehd in blood / you are far too behind in the world / you never accepted yours as your own / you never treated humans as humans / your religions divided people into castes / your customs taught hatred / barbaric tradition stayed with you / obsession with murderous boodbath overshadowed you

Film Chitralekha song

There is a dialogue between a dancer (Meena Kumari, the female lead) and an ascetic (Ashok Kumar) who have crossed paths before. The ascetic visits her place. She bows to touch his feet (a mark of respect) but he steps back because she’s a dancer and he’s there to save her from the fire of hell because it’s God who has brought him to her door. The converstion is followed by a song in Lata Mangeshker’s voice with music by Roshan.

Sahir has blasted the nonsense of Godly righteousness and the things Godly people declare as virtue and sin:

sansAr se bhAge phirte ho

sansAr se bhAge phirte ho / bhagwAn ko tum kyA pAo ge
is lok ko bhi apnA na sake / oos lok me bhi pachhatAo ge
sansAr se bhAge phirte ho

ye pAp hai kyA ye punya hai kyA / ritoN par dharm ki mohareiN haiN
har yug me badalte dharmoN ko / kaise Adarsh banAoge

ye bhog bhi ek tapasyA hai / tum tyAg ke mAre kyA jAno / apmAn rachetA kA hogA / rachnAko agar thukrAoge

ham kahte haiN ye jag apnA hai / tum kahte ho jhuthA sapnA hai
ham janam bitA kar jAeNge / tum janam ganvaN kar jAoge

oh ye who keep running from the attachments of this world / how indeed will you attain the Lord / you couldn’t thrive in this world / you’ll also regret in the afterlife

what is sin and what is a good deed / they’re religious seals on rites, that’s all / when religions keep changing in every age / how could you adopt it as a principle

the sex is also a component of meditation / you who renounce the world, how would you know / it will be an insult to the Creator / if you spurn this beauteous creation of His

we say this world is ours / you say instead, it is an illusion / we’ll depart having lived to the fullest / you’ll depart living an unlived life

Sahir was a moderate drinker but never depended on alcohol to stimulate his writing ideas. Though, in later years, Sahir started drinking heavily. In 1976, his mother passed away. It was a big blow for him. Sahir wrote songs for film maker Yash Chopra, from Chopra’s first film till 1980 when Sahir passed away, and was good friends with him said this about Sahir:

“After his mother’s death, he went into a shell. He would say, ‘Kuch[h] mazaa nahin aa raha likhney ka.‘ (I’m not enjoying writing any more.) His lonliness must have killed him.”

Sahir’s cousin, Sarwar Shafi expressed similar thing:

“… He kept his mother’s loss within him for four years. He stopped going to mushairas as well.”

Sahir also lost his best friend Jan Nisar Akhtar the same year as his mother. In 1977, his friend and neighbor Krishan Chander died too.

Chander had accomodated Sahir at his house when Sahir came to Bombay.

Sahir passed away at a very young age of 59, on October 25, 1980.

One of Sahir’s biographer, Akshay Manwani, realized Sahir’s worth and paid the following tribute:

Sahir Ludhianvi wrote on awhole gamut of issues. He was a savant who stood up for those who lived on the margins of society, stressed upon the need for communal harmony and remained opposed to war. At the same time, he championed the most frequently used theme in the Hindi film song, the love song, like few before or after him. … his understanding of romance, its associated moods and pitfalls, was at par with John Keats, Pablo Neruda or William Shakepeare. (Manwani, pp. 252-53)

One of Sahir’s songs from Yash Chopra’s 1976 Kabhi Kabhi has the following lines:

meiN pal do pal ka shAyer hooN / pal do pal meri kahAni hai /pal do pal meri hasti hai / pal do pal meri jawani hai

kal aur AeNge nagmoN ki khilti kaliyAN chunne wAle / mujhse behatar kehne wAle tumse behatar sunne wAle / kal koi mujhko yAd kare kyuN koi mujhko yAd kare / masaruf zamAnA mere liye kyuN waqt apnA barbAd kar

I am a poet of a moment or two / my story is of a moment or two / my existence is of a moment or two / my youth is of a moment or two

tomorrow, others will come to pick up the blooming buds of songs / better poets than me and better listeners than you / will tomorrow, someone remember me? but why would someone remember me / why would the busy world waste its time to remember me

Sahir underestimated his popularity for the future generations. Those moment or two of fame have proved of a very long duration. Even after forty-one years, Sahir’s popularity has remained strong; people recite his poetry and sing his songs.

Let’s hope, Sahir’s progressive messages, through his songs and poems, stay with people for a long long time. One can hope that a new generation will be awakened by his words, because desperate need exists today, given the dire prevailing situation.

Notes.

(1) Any grand thing, country, structure, etc. has always been built with a great deal of peoples’ blood and sweat. The tragedy of exploiting labor is an ongoing saga. Just look at the Apple Park in Cupertino, California, built at the cost of $5 billion. Between July 2019 to July 2020, Apple made a profit of $104 billion yet as consumer advocate Ralph Naderreminds us, Apple’s CEO Tim Cooke, despite pleas, has refused to part with just 2% of that amount, that is $2 billion tax deductible, to be given to the 350,000 Foxconn workers who built Apple’s iPhones and iPads. The sum would have amounted to an year’s pay.

(2) There is more than one list of 99 names. A prefix abd or abdur/abdul (meaning slave/servant) is added so a person is not addressed by God’s name; though in practice, it’s not followed strictly. Many Hindus use the suffix das with a diety’s name such as Ishwardas or Bhagwandas or with several Hindu lords’ names such as Ramdas, Kishandas, and so on. Das means slave/servant.

(3) The ancient amalgam of rulers, priests, and merchants, in order to maintain their their wealth, power, and life style, had to keep the poor masses under control – which could only be done through creating fear of the afterlife and giving them hope of good rewards after death if they remain subservient in this life. The same system has continued in some form till today. More groups have joined the power structure: the corporate run news media and social (or as many people say unsocial) media, and the celebrities. They all mint money but rarely talk about reducing inequality – the main cause for many people turning to God. Many of the people doing financially well are their own Gods.

(4) The original in Hindi/Urdu script is here. A temple and mosque are Hindu and Muslim places of worship, respectively. The Qur’an and Gita are Muslim and Hindu scriptures, respectively. In the US, there are shroud sellers, i.e., the people in the funeral house business who charge exorbitant price.)

(5) See the whole poem in Raza Naeem’s article, “The Poem That Forced Sahir Ludhianvi to Leave Lahore Forever,” published in India’s The Wire and Pakistan’s Naya Daur. The writer is a Pakistani and so is guarded mentioning the hold of the intelligence agencies. The Wire said the following: “But after the poem was published, Sahir was threatened by intelligence agencies and he migrated to India.” But in Naya Daur: “After the publication of his poem, Sahir faced many difficulties and migrated to India.” Pakistan’sintelligence agencies are notoriously efficient in teaching lessons to people and journalists who question their cruel methods.

(6) Many notable people went back to India. One of the great political analyst of our time, Professor Aijaz Ahmad had migrated to Pakistan but had to leave during Islamist General Zia-ul-Haq’s time too. However, the India of now is not the India of then. Since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 things have radically changed as he has succeeded a great extent in placing India firmly on the path to become a Hindu Rashtra (Nation.)

(7) Listen to the whole poem here in the voice of Dr. Salman Abid, whose voice, at some places, has a slight touch of Kabban Mirza. The video, recording, and presentation are not of optimal quality.

B. R. Gowani can be reached at brgowani@hotmail.com

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