Sahir Ludhianvi was one of those rare talents who not just maintained the vulnerability of Urdu in his lyrics but also perfectly captured the essence of the situation.
It seems to be a thing of some mystical era when emotions were weaved into words to form songs, when lyricists were much more than song-writers and when songs were much more than a string of words.
We look back to the Golden Era of Bollywood, graced by some exceptional talents and songsmiths, including Shailendra, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Hasrat Jaipuri, Gulzar, Anand Bakshi, and Sahir Ludhianvi who struck chords and touched hearts with not just every song they crafted but with every word they weaved.
One of the legendary lyricists and magical poets stood apart from the rest in this Golden Era of Bollywood, for creating poetry that spoke of the anguish, agony, confusion and dejection of the present day generation that was struggling to find its feet in a fast-changing social scenario and yet spark a ray of hope amid the pervading gloom, was Sahir Ludhianvi.
Sahir was a victim of troubled childhood due to his parents’ divorce which pushed him to poverty and struggle when he was just 13. The early experiences with conflict and adversity made him express his angst in ghazals and nazms which made him quite popular, right from his school and college days.
Sahir published his first Urdu work, Talkhiyaan (Bitterness), in 1945 which established him as a notable Urdu poet. He debuted in Bollywood as a lyricist with Azadi Ki Raah Par (1949). He wrote four songs for the film with ‘Badal rahi hai zindagii’ being his first song.
He was one of those rare talents who not only maintained the vulnerability of Urdu in his lyrics but also perfectly captured the essence of the situation.
Sahir gained recognition with Naujawaan (1951) for which S. D. Burman composed the music. The lilting Lata Mangeshkar number “Thandi hawayein” became a trend-setting composition.
Thandi Hawayein Lehra Ke Aaye (Naujawan,1951)
But he shot into fame with Guru Dutt’s directorial debut, Baazi (1951), ironically with a ghazal that was turned into a club song by the maverick S D Burman.
Writes HQ Chowdhury in Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman, “It is not clear which particular song Sahir wrote first for Dada (SD Burman) as both Naujawan and Baazi went on the floors around the same time; the films were also released the same year. It is true, Dada took Sahir to AH Kardar and also spoke to Dev Anand about him. Not that Sahir had not written for films earlier. But with Dada it was the beginning of a highly successful combination at the same level as Naushad-Shakeel and Shankar-Jaikishan-Shailendra.
The Baazi songs were scintillating and perfect to match India’s first ‘Film Noir’ Hollywood. Sahir wrote the ghazal, Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana le that Dada converted into a night club song. An aghast Sahir protested. But that did not deter the stubborn Dada to change the tune; he never liked interference in his work. There was Aaj ki raat piya, Yeh kaun aaya and Suno gajar kya gaye by Geeta who now came out of her melancholic world to float freely in the world of Hindi film music. Dada thus converted his wailing Geeta to a lively, sensuous singer.”
Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana le (Baazi, 1951)
The “anguish” of “Jaayen toh jaayen kahaan” (Talat Mahmood singing for Dev Anand in Taxi Driver, 1954) and “Teri duniya mein jeene se toh behtar hai ki mar jaayen” (House No. 44, 1955) – sung with deep pathos by Hemant Kumar (the Taxi Driver song had an equally melancholic Lata version too); the dreamy masti of “Phaili hui hai sapnon ki baahein” in Lata Mangeshkar’s dulcet voice (House No. 44) – all these songs transport you to a different world altogether, creating a mood that lasts.
Phaili Hui Hain (House No. 44, 1955)
“Jhoola dhanak ka dheere-dheere hum jhoolen,
Ambar toh kya hai taaron ke bhi lab chhoo len,
Masti mein jhoolein aur sabhi gham bhoolein”
The passionate romantic beckoning of “Yeh raat yeh chandni phir kahaan” (Jaal, 1952), again by Hemant Kumar, became a cult song and the Sahir-Burman partnership spun a string of powerful lyrical poetry bound in melodies that perfectly captured the mood of the situation in which the songs were placed.
Yeh raat yeh chandni phir kahan (Jaal, 1952)
Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) saw these two geniuses touch the peak of their partnership with songs that went beyond the film’s script to touch the pulse of a nation that was trying to find answers to its changing social landscape, post independence.
Jaane woh kaise log thhe jinke pyaar ko pyaar mila speaks of an agony and dejection that is not only personal but also social in its context.
Jaane woh kaise log the jinke pyar ko pyar mila (Pyaasa, 1957)
The songs and poetry spoke of an impending gloom that was setting in following “the disillusionment of India’s poor with Nehruvian socialism in “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par voh kahaan hain,” besides castigating the crass materialism prevalent in society with “Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai” (Bollywood Melodies: A History of the Hindi Film Song).
Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai (Pyaasa, 1957)
The overtly “leftist ideology” apparent in the songs of Pyaasa, continued to sparkle through some of the later films of the 1950s including “Saathi haath badhana” (Naya Daur, 1957) and the clear stand against religious fundamentalism in “Tu Hindu banega na Mussalman banega, Insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega” (Dhool Ka Phool, 1959).
Says Akshay Manwani, author of the book Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet, “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 story goes that Sahir claimed that the songs of Pyaasa were popular because of their lyrics which understandably did not find favour with Burman dada. This brought this amazingly creative partnership to an abrupt end.
“His name evokes awe and respect on par with Lata Mangeshkar or Naushad, something no other lyricist has quite managed. Sahir did not write lyrics of songs; he wrote intense poems that composers gladly accepted for their tunes,” writes Ganesh Anantharaman.
Take for instance, Jaidev, who scored music for very few films but his compositions perfectly suited the depth of Sahir’s poetry.
“Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya,
Har fiqr ko dhnooye mein udata chala gaya”
Or the introspective
“Kabhi khud pe kabhi haalat pe rona aaya
Baat nikli to har ik baat pe rona aaya”
Or the refrain of every lover after a romantic rendezvous
“Abhi na jao chhodkar, ke dil abhi bhara nahin”.
Sahir next went on to strike up another enriching association with Roshan, and the duo came up with Roshan’s career-best songs such as “Zindagi bhar nahin bhoolegi woh barsaat ki raat” (Barsaat Ki Raat, 1960), “Jurm-e-ulfat pe hammein log sazaa dete hain” (Taj Mahal, 1963).
His command over Hindi was just as powerful as his mastery over Urdu, and these lines of “Sansar se bhaage phirte ho, bhagwan ko tum kya paaoge” (Chitralekha, 1964) portray that
“Ye bhog bhi ek tapasya hai,
Tum tyaag ke mare kya jano,
Apmaan rachaita ka hoga,
Rachna ko agar thukraoge…
Music director Khayyam too created some of his best compositions with Sahir, from the early “Jaane kya dhoondti rehti hai yeh aankhen mujh mein” (Shola Aur Shabnam) to “Kabhie kabhie mere dil mein khayal aata hai” and Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon (Kabhie Kabhie).
“Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon” (Kabhie Kabhie, 1976)
On a concluding note, we revisit Sahir’s words that spoke of the bitter reality as it was razor-sharp – verses that were used without orchestra as poetry recital in Pyaasa, giving them the value they deserved – as pure poetry and not as poetry cloaked in the garb of a song.
Tang aa chuke hai kashmakashe zindagi se hum
(with inputs from Pankaj Sharma)
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