In the year of Sahir Ludhianvi's 100th birth anniversary, Mehfil-e-Sahir is Firstpost's ode to "the people's poet", through a collection of video tributes by seven leading Hindi film lyricists — from Varun Grover to Kausar Munir, Irshad Kamil, Shellee, Raj Shekhar, Mayur Puri and Hussain Haidry. Each of these lyricists has picked the verses that speak most to them, explaining why Sahir's words resonate even three decades after his death.
View the complete Mehfil-e-Sahir series here.
In this essay, Surinder Deol examines and puts into context Sahir Ludhianvi's life and legacy.
MY FATHER had a great fondness for Mirza Ghalib. He would often read a couplet and provide an interpretation, which for a high schooler like me at that time was difficult to comprehend as Urdu had not been a part of my curriculum. By the time I entered college, Sahir was everywhere. His songs were heard on the radio, his movies attracted large audiences, and his poetry was the topic of conversations among friends. I was drawn to Sahir’s work in a way that I hadn’t been to Ghalib’s. One day I walked into a bookstore and bought Sahir’s masterpiece Talkhiyan for the grand sum of a rupee. I had the book, but I couldn’t read the Urdu script. My next task, therefore, was to get an Urdu primer and a dictionary. Sahir was the reason that I learned Urdu. I can say that the Urdu language and Sahir’s poetry have been some of the greatest joys of my life.
2021 is a notable year because it marks Sahir’s hundredth birth anniversary. It is understandable that there is a renewed interest in his life and work. Social media posts display an undying appetite for accounts of his love affairs, especially his fondness for Amrita Pritam, one of the pioneerng Punjabi literary figures and someone who had the persona of a goddess carved into a piece of white marble. The Sahir-Amrita romance is no ordinary thing; it has become a cultural phenomenon, a meme that is divorced from facts, and it goes on multiplying in the imaginations of Sahir’s fans. The facts, however, do not support a great romantic tale.
Above: Sahir and Amrita Pritam: A relationship which was defined largely by silence. Image courtesy: Imroz. (Reproduced from Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet by Akshay Manwani, published by HarperCollins)
Sahir got to know Amrita when they lived in Lahore. Amrita was already married with a young daughter, and she was expecting her second child. They developed a great liking for each other, but given the circumstances, Sahir could not have done anything without destroying an existing marriage. Also, Sahir was an impoverished poet trying to make a living. For him to marry someone like Amrita, who was used to all the luxuries of life, was beyond the range of possibility. Then Partition happened, and they had to rebuild their homes and lives. Amrita didn’t divorce her husband until the early ‘60s, and by then, Sahir had moved on with his life in a different direction. There is no doubt that Amrita fell in love with Sahir. Her autobiography Rasiidi Ticket accounts for her lifelong obsession with Sahir, who never openly admitted that he was in love with her. If he loved her, it was a silent emotion that never showed up anywhere.
What is the secret behind Sahir’s everlasting appeal?
To answer this question, we have to go back several decades to Sahir’s student days in Ludhiana. He was raised by a single mother who suffered significant financial hardships due to her estranged husband's nasty and antagonistic attitude. She wanted Sahir to get a good education and become a government official, unlike his father, a semi-literate jagirdar. Sahir watched his mother’s struggles, and the idea of the ill-treatment of women in our society became strongly entrenched in his mind. This is one theme in Sahir’s work that has not lost relevance even after great [social] progress has been made. Although a large number of women and girls are getting education and employment, the evidence of domestic violence aimed against women, rape, physical violence, and trafficking is found on a daily basis. Sahir’s words do not stop echoing in our ears.
aurat ne janam diya mardon ko mardon ne use baazaar diya
The woman gave birth to men,
and they gave her
the place to sell herself.
maddad chahti hai y havva ki beti
yashodha ki ham-jins raadha ki beti
payambar ki ummat zulekha ki beti
sana-khwaan-e taqdis-e mashriq kahaan hain
Eve’s daughter is asking for help.
Someone like Yashodha,
One of the Prophet’s followers,
and Zulekha’s daughter.
Defenders of the sanctity of the East—
where are they?
Above: Sahir reciting at a mushaira. Choosing his attire for such an event would often be a hair-splitting experience for Sahir. Image courtesy: Sajjad Zaheer’s Estate represented by Najma Zaheer Baquer. (Reproduced from Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet by Akshay Manwani, published by HarperCollins)
Sahir had great confidence in his writing ability, but a poet’s life in India is a life of impoverishment. While he lived in Lahore, he was nothing more than a pauper. The issues of wealth inequality were not concepts to him; they were part of his daily living. Sahir wrote about it in several of his poems. Still, the poem that comes to my mind is Sub-he Nauroz (The New Year Morning), in which he talks about people getting ready to celebrate the New Year by exchanging gifts and partying while hungry and naked kids of the poor were running after cars.
bhuuke zard gadaagar bachche
kaar ke piichhe bhaag rahe hain
vaqt se pehle jaag uthe hain
piip bhari aankhein sahlaate
sar ke phoron ko khujlaate
voh dekho kuchh aur bhi nikle
jashn manaao saal-e nau ke
Hungry, beggarly kids,
running after an automobile.
Hurt by awareness that came before time.
Rubbing their pus-laden eyes,
scratching boils in their heads.
Lo, some more appeared on the scene.
Celebrate the New Year!
India is a much wealthier country today than when Sahir wrote about it. But isn't it a fact that few business families control most of the wealth, and hungry and naked children can still be seen running after cars around the time of any festival?
Sahir was a great lover of natural beauty. But because he spent most of his early life in Ludhiana and Lahore, what he could see was a flatland, no hills, and no valleys. Yet, it didn’t stop him from imagining places of incredible beauty and describing them in enchanting words. Sahir’s depiction of natural beauty is not separate from the beauty of his beloved, a talent he shares with another great Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. In a short poem titled Ek Manzar (A View) Sahir describes the natural beauty of a rural landscape, but notice a hint of the beloved’s appearance in the last two lines.
ufaq ke dariiche se kirnon ne jhaanka
faza tan gaayi raaste muskaraaye
simatne lagi narm kohre ki chaadar
javaan shaakhsaaron ne ghonghat uthaaye
parindon ki aavaaz se khet chaunke
pur asraar lae mein reht gunganaaye
hasein shabnam aaluuda pagdandiyon se
lipatne lage sabz peron ke saaye
vuh duur ek tiiley p aanchal sa jhalka
tassavur mein laakhon diye jhilmilaaye
Rays stealthily peeked
through the window
of the horizon.
Spaces opened up
in sheer indulgence and
pathways revealed their joyfulness.
The soft layer of fog
that had fallen
started to dwindle.
The young foliage lifted veils
that had covered its visage.
The fields were startled
by the chirpings of the birds.
The Persian wheel started to sing
in mysterious tones.
The beautiful dew-laden pathways
started to embrace
shadows of the green trees.
At a distant mound
there was a flicker
of a hem of a veil.
millions of lamps
twinkled and shimmered.
Who can forget the beautiful song chaand madham hai aasmaan chup hai that has breath-taking symmetry between romance and nature?
chaand maddham hai aasmaan chup hai
niind ki god mein jahaan chup hai
in bahaaron ke saaye mein aa ja
phir mohabbat javaan rahe na rahe
zindagi tere na muraadon par
kal talak mehrbaan rahe na rahe
The moon is at peace with itself.
Resting in the bosom of sleep
the whole world is silent.
Come to the shadows
of these springs.
Who knows how long
the vivacity of my love
I can’t say how long
life will show kindness
towards unfortunate ones
And let us not forget.
y vaadiyaan y fazaaein bula rahi hain tumhein
khamoshiyon ki sadaaein bula rahi hain tumhein
These valleys and these environs —
they are calling you.
Voices tucked away in these silences
are calling you.
Above: Sahir (second from right in the third row with name given as AH Sahir) as a member of Government College Ludhiana photography club. Image courtesy: Anupama Sharma. | The entrance to the Sahir Auditorium at Government College, Ludhiana. Image courtesy: Aniruddh Kaushal. (Reproduced from Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet by Akshay Manwani, published by HarperCollins)
Sahir got a book on Socialism as a gift from one of his friends. This made a great impression on him. Convinced that socialist principles could provide a way forward for a poor country like India after its independence, he joined the Progressive Writers Association, which was established in the ‘30s. There was no socialist party apart from the Communist Party of India (CPI) that strictly followed the Moscow Agenda at that time. Also, the differences between Socialism and Communism were not apparent to most people. Sahir joined that wave, but he didn't become a CPI member, unlike Majrooh, Sardar Jafry, and some others, who were committed communists. Although we talk about humanistic values championed by these poets, make no mistake that if CPI had won India’s first election, these people would have taken no time in supporting a Soviet-style regime in India, causing great suffering to the masses.
Sahir saw in Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru someone who understood the humanistic values ingrained in socialist principles. Nehru was a staunch secularist; he wanted to build a modern India and nurture a parliamentary system in which all voices were heard. It is not surprising that Nehru’s death in 1964 was an immense personal loss to Sahir — the loss of a mentor and a guide. Nehru got many compliments after his death, but the lines which Sahir wrote stand out for their philosophic depth and they superbly represent the anguish felt by millions of people around the country.
jism ki maut koi maut nahien hoti hai
jism mit jaane se insaan nahien mar jaate
dharkanein rukne se armaan nahien mar jaate
saans tham jaane se a’laan nahien mar jaate
hont jam jaane se farmaan nahien mar jaate
jism ki maut koi maut nahien hoti hai
When physical form disappears,
it is not the end of our being.
When we lose our flesh and bones,
we aren’t completely effaced.
When the heart stops beating,
it is not the death of our aspirations.
When breathing climaxes,
it is not the end of our proclamations.
When lips freeze,
it is not the end of our affirmations.
When physical form disappears,
it is not the end of our being.
Above: Kishore Kumar, Dev Anand, Sahir, Yash Chopra and RD Burman at the recording for Joshila (1973). Image courtesy: SMM Ausaja. (Reproduced from Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet by Akshay Manwani, published by HarperCollins)
Today we are witnessing new threats to democracy and the ideals of secularism. The boundaries between the spheres of the state and religion are being redefined. This is a time for reflection on our priorities as citizens and members of a global community and who we are as human beings. In this context, Sahir’s voice is essential because there is a timeless quality to it. Sahir was not a pal do pal ka shaa’yir (a poet of the moment). The values he championed — women’s rights, protection of natural beauty, wealth inequalities, regional and global peace — are here to stay for the better part of this century.
A life in images —
Above: Clippings of Guru Dutt's 1957 film Pyaasa in Hindustan Times. Pyaasa’s advertising reflected the importance of Sahir’s contribution to the film. From initially being advertised with images of Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman, it undergoes a change, highlighting the importance of the film’s songs like ‘Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par’ and ‘Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye’. Image courtesy: Mr Arun Dutt on behalf of Guru Dutt Films and Hindustan Times. (Reproduced from Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet by Akshay Manwani, published by HarperCollins)
Above: Talkhiyan, Sahir’s first collection of poems published in 1944, has appeared in dozens of edition, and it is one of the most sought after Urdu poetry books after Divan-e Ghalib. Image courtesy: Surinder Deol.
Above: Sahir back in Ludhiana for the golden jubilee celebrations of Government College, Ludhiana, in 1970 where he was even awarded a gold medal. Sahir is standing fourth from left, with Ajiab Chitrakar to his immediate right. On Sahir’s left are noted Punjabi painter Harkishan Lall, Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Jan Nisar Akhtar and Krishan Adeeb (extreme right). Keeping himself surrounded by friends was a part of Sahir’s personality. Image courtesy: Ajaib Chitrakar | From L to R: Sardar Jafri, Sahir, Khayyam, Ramesh Saigal. It was Sahir who recommended Khayyam to Saigal for Phir Subah Hogi (1958). Image courtesy: Trinetra Bajpayi | Sahir Ludhianvi (extreme left ) and music director Ravi (second from left ). Outside of their association with the Chopras, Sahir and Ravi continued their good work in films like Aaj Aur Kal (1963), Kaajal (1965) and Neel Kamal (1968). Image courtesy: Manohar Iyer. (Reproduced from Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet by Akshay Manwani, published by HarperCollins)
Surinder Deol is the author of SAHIR: A Literary Portrait, published by the Oxford University Press (OUP) in 2019. His translated works include Ghalib: Innovative Meanings and the Ingenious Mind (OUP 2017), The Urdu Ghazal: A Gift of India’s Composite Culture (OUP 2020); and The Hidden Garden: Mir Taqi Mir (Penguin 2021). He lives in Potomac, Maryland.
— Banner illustration by Satwik Gade for Firstpost