Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet
Sahir Ludhianvi is probably the only songwriter in Hindi films whose poetry was accepted in its purest form. So great was his stature as an Urdu poet that he never had to mould his poetry to suit the demands of film songwriting; instead producers and composers adapted their requirements to his poetry.
A Progressive poet who loved and lived the good life; a ‘revolutionary poet’ who wrote some of the most enduring love songs of Hindi cinema; an atheist who created several remarkable devotional songs; an egotist who alienated several big-ticket music directors, yet stood up for a number of immensely talented newcomers; an idealist who waged a lone battle to have the contribution of lyricists acknowledged… Sahir Ludhianvi was an enigma: a difficult man to understand, and even harder to sympathize with, but one who has never ceased to fascinate.
Sahir Ludhianvi is probably the only songwriter in Hindi films whose poetry was accepted in its purest form. So great was his stature as an Urdu poet that he never had to mould his poetry to suit the demands of film songwriting; instead producers and composers adapted their requirements to his poetry. His songs in films like Pyaasa, Naya Daur and Phir Subah Hogi have attained the status of classics. (Read more about the songs of Sahir)
Akshay Manwani’s well-researched biography Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet includes an in-depth analysis of his poetry and songs, translations of some of his finest works, both in cinema and out of it, and interviews with a galaxy of luminaries like Javed Akhtar, Yash Chopra and Dev Anand.
It traces the poet’s rich life, from his troubled childhood and equally troubled love relationships, to his rise as one of the pre-eminent personalities of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, and tracks his journey as lyricist through the golden era of Hindi film music, the 1950s and 1960s.
In conversation with Learning and Creativity, Akshay Manwani talks about the inspirations that led him to explore the life of this path-breaking poet and why Sahir’s poetry transcends the barriers of time and continues to appeal to even the present-day generation.
L&C: What made you think of writing a book on Sahir Ludhianvi?
Akshay: Way back in 2008, I was doing some freelance work for a website where I was asked to write some short profiles of film lyricists. It was then that I discovered that there was very little written about the likes of Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Shailendra – all of who are giants of Hindustani songwriting. However, Sahir’s personal life – his dysfunctional childhood, his failed romantic liaisons – stood out in contrast to the others and that’s what made his life worth documenting. His was an interesting story to tell.
L&C: Does the book deal primarily with Sahir’s association with cinema or also his poetry per se, which was outside of the film industry?
Akshay: The book is a wholesome perspective of Sahir’s personal life, his non-film poetry and his film songwriting. The reason one has to discuss Sahir’s personal life and his non-film poetry while talking about his lyrics is because a lot of Sahir’s personal life and his non-film poetry found its way into his songwriting. For example, the reason Sahir could be so scathing in a song like ‘Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko’ from Sadhana (1958) is because he had seen how his mother had been treated by his father. Similarly, one has to be familiar with Sahir’s poem ‘Chakley’, which was later turned into ‘Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hai’ for Pyaasa.
Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hai (Pyaasa, 1957)
L&C: What do you think made Sahir stand apart from other contemporary lyricists?
Akshay: The heavy socialistic/social flavor of his lyrics and very blunt style of writing made him peerless. He didn’t say things in a round about kind of way. If he had to criticize the nation, he wrote ‘Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hai’.
When he had to preach the message of communal harmony, he wrote ‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalmaan banega’. He was also unafraid of criticizing the Almighty in a song like ‘Aasmaan pe hai khuda aur zameen pe hum’ from Phir Subah Hogi (1958).
The other thing about him is that he was able to give some of the lesser commercially successful directors their best work because of their association with him. For example, Khayyam sa’ab himself told me that it was only with Phir Subah Hogi that he got acceptance in the industry. Similar was the case of Sahir’s association with music directors like Ravi, Roshan, N Dutta and Jaidev.
Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko (Sadhana, 1958)
L&C: With which music director would you say he did his best songs – SD Burman, Roshan, Khayyam or Ravi?
Akshay: This is difficult to say because with each one of them Sahir produced beautiful compositions. Before Pyaasa with SD Burman, he produced some beautiful romantic and philosophical songs in films like House No. 44, Funtoosh, Baazi, Devdas and Munimji.
With Khayyam he had Phir Subah Hogi, Shagoon and Kabhi Kabhie. With Roshan he produced unforgettable classics in films like Barsaat Ki Raat, Taj Mahal and Chitralekha.
Similarly, with Ravi he had Gumraah, Aaj Aur Kal, Waqt and Humraaz. But yes, after Sahir fell out with Burman da following the success of Pyaasa, and the two did not work with each other again, Sahir’s lyrics had greater social flavor than in his work with Burman da.
Chalo ik baar phir se (Gumraah, 1963)
L&C: In other words, it means that Sahir’s lyrics became more rooted in the social context, after his fall out with Burman da?
Akshay: Yes, I mean that after Sahir fell out with Burman da, his songwriting became more political. His social comments more incisive. If you look at Sahir’s work with SD Burman in films like Baazi, Jaal, House No. 44, Devdas, Munimji, Funtoosh or Taxi Driver – the songs are either romantic (Yeh raat yeh chandni phir kahaan, jeevan ke safar mein raahi) or philosophical (Jaaye to jaaye kahaan, Dukhi mann mere).
If he had to say something important, he would incorporate it in a fun, satirical way – like ‘Duniya ki gaadiyan chalti hain jhooth par, duniya ko maar de baate ke boot par‘ (from the song ‘Oonche sur mein gaaye ja’ from House No. 44).
But after his work in Pyaasa, where the songs became more popular because of the lyrics, Sahir’s songwriting became more direct. Take his songs in Naya Daur or Phir Subah Hogi or Sadhana or Hum Dono or Taj Mahal. He would just say what he had to.
Jurm-E-Ulfat Pe (Taj Mahal, 1963)
L&C: How challenging was it for you to source material and facts on Sahir during your research?
Akshay: Tracing Sahir’s early life – his childhood, his college years was the most difficult part. This was because there were no family members or friends left from Sahir’s early years to speak to me. Also, whatever material is there in the Urdu language on Sahir’s initial years, there is very little factual information in it.
For example, in which year and month did he go to Lahore for the first time? When did he write his acclaimed poem Taj Mahal? Compared to this portion of his life, researching his film work was much easier because people like Yash Chopra, Dev Anand and music composer Ravi were still around at that time when I was researching the book.
However, the problem in meeting film personalities is getting appointments from them and that was indeed a difficult process for me.
L&C: What makes Sahir’s poetry relevant to even the present day generation?
Akshay: There is an eternal quality to Sahir’s poems. In March 2011 when Delhi’s chief metropolitan magistrate Vinod Yadav went on to discharge Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi from the two-decade-old Bofors pay-off case, the magistrate quoted Sahir’s song from Gumraah (1963), ‘Chalo ik baar phir se’, using the lines, ‘Woh afsaana jisey anjaam tak laana na ho mumkin / Usey ek khoobsurat modh dekar chhodna achchha,’ to explain that the country could not afford to spend hard-earned money on Quattrocchi’s extradition, which had already cost Rs 250 crore.
Sahir’s poems or songs address issues from female emancipation (Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko or Jinhe naaz hai Hind par), to world peace (Parchhaiyaan), to increasing materialistic values in society (Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai?), to communal harmony (Tu Hindu banega na Musalmaan banega), to speaking out against injustice and the killing of innocents (Khoon phir khoon hai).
Have any of these issues been successfully addressed in our societies? No. Sahir’s poetry is a tug at society’s collective consciousness and a reminder that if things are to improve, then ‘Woh subah humhi se aayegi‘.
Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi (Phir Subah Hogi, 1958)
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