Inhabiting two worlds

Print edition : February 21, 2014

"Naya Daur' (1957), which had Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in the lead. The songs Sahir Ludhianvi wrote for it were a big hit. Photo: the hindu archives

The book on Sahir Ludhianvi, the Urdu poet and Bollywood lyricist, is a case of hero-worship albeit a sincere one.

SAHIR LUDHIANVI belonged to the Golden Age of Hindi film song. He made his mark as a lyricist in Baazi produced by Dev Anand and his elder brother Chetan. Chetan Anand, a former master at Doon School, Dehradun, was also a member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), the cultural arm of the Communist Party of India which was banned from 1948 to 1950 following the Telangana uprising in the princely state of Hyderabad. Sahir, like Chetan Anand, was a member of the IPTA and of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA).

Sahir Ludhianvi’s credentials as a militant Urdu poet—his detractors called him a pamphleteer—did not affect his career as a highly successful romantic film lyricist. He seemed to inhabit two worlds—the one in which politics and poverty existed cheek by jowl and the other in which Hindi cinema’s make-believe transformed, usually, the harshest of realities into something romantic and palatable.

The schism in Sahir’s artistic life did not bring on a crisis of conscience. He was very comfortable with his success as a film lyricist and the money it brought in. He was not overly bothered by the fact that he was not the emblematic poet of the Indian Left. He was the glamour boy of Urdu poetry because of the popularity of his film songs. This writer remembers hearing him recite one of his poems at the mushaira at Red Fort, New Delhi, in 1971. It used to be a gala event in those days as Urdu was still a vibrant language spoken and read by refugees who had come to India from western Punjab when it was ceded to Pakistan. There were newspapers and magazines with large circulation in the language.

Sahir’s poems went down well with youngsters but it was his friend Jan Nissar Akhtar and the irascible Firaq Gorakhpuri who made a deeper impression on the connoisseurs. If memory serves well, Fana Nizami Kanpuri knocked the audience over with his ghazal on the partition of India and then Alam Fatehpuri, a lecturer from St. John’s College, Agra, won them over with his nazm on the history of the ghazal. Sahir, in his well-cut suit, was pleased just to be in Delhi, meeting friends and enjoying a whisky or two, maybe three, with them. He was already a star lyricist of Hindi cinema, possibly the highest paid, ahead of Majrooh Sultanpuri and Shailendra, both of whom were more versatile and mature in their understanding of life’s ironies.

Sahir in his film songs understood the mood of the Hindi-, Urdu-speaking middle classes of northern India post-Independence. The partition of the country, the bloodiest in the history of the 20th century, out of which two nations, India and Pakistan, were carved out, left people of the Hindi-, Urdu-speaking north in a mood of chronic despondence and, therefore, sorely in need of psychological relief. He knew how to provide it.

Among his first hits were songs from Baazi like “Aaj Ki Raat Piya”, “Suno Gajar Kya Gaye”, “Tadbeer Se Bighadi Hui Taqdeer Bana Le” all sung in the sensual voice of Geeta Dutt. The first of these three songs carried the traditional Punjabi idea of romance in which the woman asks her beloved to accept her pleas of conciliation on the night that promises bliss. The second song is about time passing unnoticed by those who live for the moment; the third is an exhortation to the man who is down on his luck to pick himself up and change his fortune. These three songs, perhaps without even the lyricist being aware of it, were an inspiration for the Punjabi refugee to look forward and build a new life which he/she did with considerable success. Baazi was a film about gamblers and gambling. Life in a new land—India—was a gamble; you had to play to win.

Sahir's poetry

Akshay Manwani’s book Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet is one of hero-worship, though a sincere one. He tries to place Sahir amongst the most profound thinkers among Hindi film lyricists and also as a much underrated Urdu poet. He was neither. He was a romantic lyricist with quite a bit of technical skill who did write many songs for leading music directors of his day such as Sachin Dev Burman, Roshan, O.P. Nayyar, Jaidev, Ravi, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, and R.D. Burman. He had a career span of just over 30 years. His poetry had its moments, but most of it was rhetoric though often highly polished. Only rarely was he capable of introspection in his poetry. His film songs were a different matter, of course. Take this verse from the song from Jaal, 1952, directed by Guru Dutt:

Pedon ke shakhon pe soyee soyee chandni

Tere khayalon mein khoyi khoyi chandni

Aur thodi der mein thak ke laut jayeegi

Raat ye bahaar ki phir kabhi na aayegi

Do ek pal aur hai yeh samaa

Sun ja dil ki dastan.”

(The moonlight rests on the branches of the trees

It is lost in your thought

It shall go away in some time, tired of waiting for you

And this night of romance shall never return again

This ambience is of a few moments,

Come, listen to the tale of the heart.)

Akshay Manwani’s translation of the song is awkward, to say the least. Translating the lyrics of a Hindi film song with a degree of fidelity is a difficult task. It requires skill and empathy in two languages as well as an awareness of the craft of song writing. The purpose of quoting from this verse is to suggest Sahir’s awareness of this passing show called life in which the sensual experience of a given moment must be grasped right then or it is lost forever.

S.D. Burman was the composer for Jaal as he was for Sazaa. A song from this film is more typically Sahir:

Tum na jaane kis jahan mein kho gaye

Hum bhari duniya mein tanhaa ho gaye

The song is a cry from the heart, albeit an adolescent’s heart. While he was a student at Government College, Ludhiana, Sahir fell in love, first with Mahinder Chaudhry, the daughter of a prominent lawyer and Congressman. He lost her to tuberculosis, a killer disease in the early 1940s before the discovery of streptomycin, the wonder drug. Then, he fell in love with a Sikh girl, Ishar Kaur, also a college contemporary. His love for her went unrequited, perhaps because she could not swim against the tide of religious sanctimony and become his wife.

The two lines cited from Sazaa speak of being bereft in a world full of people because the loved one has gone away. The song, as a whole, combines more powerfully his feelings for Maninder and Ishar, than the lovely but decidedly adolescent poems he wrote on losing them. A film song is written and composed to meet a particular situation in a given story. It can, however, express in a compressed form deep emotions and thoughts. Sahir may not have been aware of what he had achieved in the economic, perceptive beauty in the lyrics to this song.

Mother’s son

Born Abdul Hayee to the debauched, wealthy landlord Chaudhri Fazl Mohammad and Sardar Begum, a pious woman, on March 8, 1921, Sahir was brought up by his mother who, unable to take the immoral life of her husband, decided to separate from him. The evil Chaudhri Fazl Mohammad cast a long shadow; he even threatened his estranged wife that he would have Sahir, his own son, murdered! Sardar Begum, a woman of courage and substance, sought help from her brothers and managed to protect her beloved son from her malevolent husband. Sahir’s childhood, adolescence, early manhood, indeed his whole life, was skewered.

Sahir adored his mother. She lived to see him become a luminary of the Hindi film world, build his own house in Versova, a quiet suburb of Bombay (now Mumbai), and live in financial comfort.

After her death in 1976, he was left all alone. His literary and professional colleagues were there but there was no deep relationship with them. He could discuss politics and literature with them but his real bonding was only with his mother. Sahir sought Sardar Begum’s approval in all that he did. With her gone, he, an outgoing man, became a virtual recluse.

Although a vigorous heterosexual, he could never have a fulfilling relationship with any woman. He was certainly sweet on the famous Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam; their long-distance relationship—she lived in Delhi—remained platonic, despite speculations to the contrary. His name was also linked with an up-and-coming playback singer, Sudha Malhotra. He wrote some lovely songs for her, including the gentle and sad “ Tum mujhe bhool bhi jao, toh yeh haq hai tumko/ Meri baat aur hai, maine toh mohabbat ki hai” (If you happen to forget me, it would be your right/ My lot is different, I have chosen to love you). According to Sudha Malhotra, there was nothing in her mind except the deepest regard for Sahir, who was both a terrific lyricist and a thorough gentleman.



Socialist side

The socialist side of his artistic personality endeared him to millions of filmgoers and, therefore, to film producers in the Hindi film industry located in Bombay. He formed a lasting attachment with producer-director B.R. Chopra, and later his brother Yash Chopra. In 1957, Chopra directed the golden jubilee hit Naya Daur, a film with a sincere but illogical message. There is a scene where a tonga beats a bus in a race! Be that as it may, Sahir’s songs were at the top of the Radio Ceylon hit parade, Binaca Geet Mala, conducted by Ameen Sayani. The romantic duet sung by Mohammad Rafi-Asha Bhonsle, “Mang ke saath tumhara” aside, other popular songs from the film included “Saathi haath badhaana, saathi haath badhaana/ Ek akela thak jayega, milkar bojh uthaana”, with its overt socialist message of working together to share the burden of toil.

He wrote for B.R. Chopra’s Dhool Ka Phool, a melodrama about unwed motherhood in which the lovers belong to different communities. A song, “Tu Hindu banega na Musalmaan banega/ Insaan ki aulaad heye insaan banega” (Neither Hindu nor a Musalmaan shall you be son/From humankind you spring and there you shall belong), became very popular over the radio. Sahir also wrote the songs for Dharamputra which was Yash Chopra’s debut.

It had a strange, interesting story about a Muslim boy adopted as an infant by a Hindu family, who becomes a Hindu fanatic on growing up. The qawwali-like composition, “Chaahe yeh maano chaahe woh maano”, speaks of the nature of religious belief in which purity of purpose and humaneness are paramount.

The one personal favourite from his humanist oeuvre is the three-part “Woh subah kabhi to ayeegi” (Mukesh-Asha Bhonsle) from Ramesh Saigal’s Phir Subah Hogi, a sentimental adaptation of Fyodor Dosteyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It is also difficult to forget “Do boondein saawan ki” (Asha Bhonsle) and “Phir na kije meri gustaakh nighaahi ka gila” (Mukesh-Asha Bhonsle). Khayyam composed the exquisite melodies in the film.

Sahir was never bothered by the reputation of the music director he was supposed to work with, rather he was intrigued by the latter’s talent. Khayyam and Jaidev are important examples. With Khayyam he worked as late as 1976 on Yash Chopra’s super hit, Kabhie Kabhie. “Meri ghar aayee ek nanhi pari” with its lullaby-like lilt still moves, a particular line, “Maine poocha kaun heye tu/ Haske booli meye hoon tera pyaar” (I asked ‘who are you?’/ She laughed and said ‘I am your [old] love’) brings back memories of the unwed mother from Dhool Ka Phool.

His two memorable collaborations with Jaidev are Hum Dono and Mujhe Jeene Doh. The Rafi-Asha duet “Abhi naa jaao chodh kar/ Ke dil abhi bhara nahin” (Don’t go just as yet) brings back memories of lost youth. There is also the Lata Mangeshkar solo “Raat bhi hai kuchh bheegi bheegi” from Mujhe Jeene Doh that remains the acme of romantic love from times gone by.

Mention has not been made of Sahir’s lyrics from many films, including Pyaasa, Barsaat Ki Raat, Taj Mahal and Gumrah. They still hold the discerning listener in thrall.

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