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Sahir Ludhianvi

April 6, 2024
- Ayan Shree

In this world dominated by lyrics of Taylor Swift, Anuv Jain or Prateek Kuhad, I bring to you a man who writes a poem on Taj Mahal saying,

एक शहंशाह ने दौलत का सहारा लेकर 
हम ग़रीबों की मोहब्बत का उड़ाया है मज़ाक़।

This was Sahir, a man who wrote things that no other soul had ever imagined. Today, in this article, I’m trying to reopen the dust-laden books of Sahir’s magic. To the uninitiated, Sahir might be a name they haven’t heard before. But still, they must have, at least once, heard songs like “Kabhi Kabhi mere dil mein khayaal aata hai” or “Jaane woh kaise log the jinke pyaar ko pyaar mila” and directly or indirectly appreciated the brilliance of Sahir’s poetry. Sahir’s writings reflect the stark reality of the tragedy called “Life”.

Sahir, born “Abdul Hayee”, was the eleventh child, but secretively, the first child of Chaudhary Fazal Mohammad and his illegitimate wife Sardar Begum. He had an abusive father, with stories suggesting that he was named ‘Abdul’ because they had an irritating neighbour of the same name. His father used to yell slurs at Sahir to curse the neighbour indirectly. His mother, upon insisting that their relationship be made official and later being denied the same, took Sahir and separated from her husband. The son of a wealthy businessman in Ludhiana was now being raised by a single mother who had to sell her ornaments to protect her child from the goons her ex-husband sent to kill them. This marked the beginning of a journey that shaped Sahir into a man whose very first book was published under the title of “Talkhiyaan” (meaning bitterness).

Sahir: The Lyricist

Back in the 50s and 60s, Hindi film songs were taken very seriously. Though not great poetry, these songs reached, touched, and influenced millions of Indian lives. There’s proof! Try remembering any rickshaw driver or a labourer you have employed. In their Nokias, they always have songs installed. Which songs are these? 70% of these are Kishore Kumar, Md. Rafi or Mukesh classics written by greats like Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Shailendra, Shakeel Badayuni, Rajendra Krishan and, of course, Sahir. In such a star-studded lineup, if there was one man admired and adored by all, it was Sahir. What made Sahir special? Well, if we knew what made Michelangelo special, there would be millions of Michelangelos roaming around the streets of Rome. But still, Javed Akhtar has pointed out a few things that define Sahir and his writings:

  • Sahir was a voice of the youth. Everything that he wrote felt like it had been written by a 20-year-old passionate young man, and thus, it resonated well with the masses. His song “Kabhi-Kabhi”:
कभी कभी मेरे दिल में ख़याल आता है 
की ज़िंदगी तेरी ज़ुल्फ़ों की नर्म छाँव में 
गुज़र ना पाती तो शादाब हो भी सकती थी 
  • These lyrics reflect the passion and devotion of a young lover who is missing his love.

    Unlike other lyricists, Sahir as a shayar and Sahir as a lyricist weren’t two different people. Thus, his lyrics had the power to woo the masses.

अभी अभी तो आई हो 
बहार बन के छाई हो 
हवा ज़रा महक तो ले 
ये दिल ज़रा बहक तो ले 
ये शाम ढल तो ले ज़रा
ये दिल संभल तो ले ज़रा
मैं थोड़ी देर जी तो लूँ 
नशे के घूँट पी तो लूँ

Take a minute to understand these lyrics, and you’ll automatically know why this has been an evergreen song stuck in our minds.

  • Sahir’s songs always had a different angle to explore, leaving the audience in awe. A very simple expression “I miss you” when written by Sahir comes out as: तुम मुझे भूल भी जाओ तो ये हक़ है तुमको मेरी बात और है मैंने मोहब्बत की है Things like these led the listener to think that there exists an aspect they had neglected before which has now been brought to light.

Sahir: The Lover

Sahir and Amrita Pritam’s love story is a tale written on the paper of unattainable love. There are many aspects to this tale. But before we dive into this, let’s take a moment to talk about Sahir’s first and (maybe) only love, his mother. Despite being born into a prosperous family, Sahir was deprived of love and understanding, especially from his father. When his parents were separating, a young Sahir was asked in court who he would like to stay with and without any hesitation, Sahir was happy to give up on his life of Wealth with his father and chose to stay with his mother. This marked the beginning of a life full of hardships. But, this also strengthened his bond with his mother. There was nothing in this world this man would do without consulting his mother. This was not a relationship stemming out of fear; rather this was respect and affection that he had for her. In the movie “Trishul” Sahir wrote a song “तू मेरे साथ रहेगा मुन्ने”:

तू मेरे साथ रहेगा मुन्ने 
ताकी तू जान सके
तुझको परवान चढ़ाने के लिए 
कितने संगीन मराहिल से तेरी माँ गुज़री।

This song obviously suits Amitabh Bachchan’s character in the movie, but it also fits perfectly with Sahir’s story. Do listen to the song to understand the feelings involved here.

Returning to the more famous and talked about love story “Sahir & Amrita”. The credibility of this story is questionable. Believe it or not, it is up to you, but the story does give a lot of meaning and depth to many of the Nazms and Ghazals that Sahir wrote.

Sahir and Amrita first met when they were in college in 1939. It is believed that before falling in love with the man, Amrita fell in love with his poetry. Sahir’s heart also reciprocated the feelings, but society and circumstances separated these two love birds. Forever? No. Years later, they met in a mushaira in Lahore. The embers of the forgotten love reignited when Amrita heard him there. By then, Amrita had separated from her husband, Pritam Singh, and was living with her friend Imroz. Imroz loved Amrita, but her heart oscillated between Mumbai and Delhi, Sahir and Imroz. The famous tales of Sahir leaving half-burnt cigarettes at Amrita’s place and not rinsing the cups and glasses she drank from at his place exist. But these are anecdotes. Their love was incomplete, is a fact. Sahir never expressed this, but his poetry did:

वो अफ़साना जिसे अंजाम तक लाना न हो मुमकिन 
उसे एक खूबसूरत मोड़ दे कर छोड़ना अच्छा।

Or, go listen to the famous song “Kabhi Kabhi” again and try relating it to Sahir’s love story.

Sahir: The Rebel

Sahir has always been viewed as a cynic, and there’s nothing bad about it. If a man who fled his home at a young age, had a toxic father, lived a life full of hardships and failed in love would not be a cynic, then who would be? In his own words:

तंग आ चुके हैं कशमकश-ए-ज़िंदगी से हम 
ठुकरा न दें जहां को कहीं बे-दिली से हम।

हम ग़मज़दा हैं लाए कहाँ से ख़ुशी के गीत?
देंगे वही जो पाएँगे इस ज़िंदगी से हम।

Sahir has always been vocal about the plight of the poor and the exploited classes of India. The rage and the fearless questions posed in his poetry are what appealed to the masses. In Guru Dutt’s “Pyaasa”, when the protagonist reaches a brothel, this is what Sahir wrote for the scene:

ज़रा मुल्क के रहबरों को बुलाओ,
ये कूचें, ये गलियाँ, ये मंज़र दिखाओ
जिन्हें नाज़ है हिन्द पर उनको लाओ।
जिन्हें नाज़ है हिन्द पर वो कहाँ हैं?

This song became the reason for an uproar in the Parliament of India when “Pyaasa” was released. There are several other such examples where Sahir has written about the malpractices, taboos and the sick side of society without any hesitation. In real life too, Sahir was a man who could stand against any force. Upon his arrival, he took the Hindi Music Industry by storm. He disregarded the giants like S.D. Burman, and produced big hits with newbies like Khayyam and Jaidev. Filmmaker Ramesh Saigal once asked Sahir to write songs for his upcoming movie “Phir Subah hogi”, loosely based on “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky. Sahir agreed on only one condition that the composer must have read and understood the book. Such was his personality. Upon being asked why he used such difficult-to-understand Urdu in his songs, he would say, “Every couplet has two lines. If a person is able to understand at least one, my meaning will be conveyed”.

Sahir’s daring attitude was not only limited to the music industry. On the birth centenary of Mirza Ghalib, he was invited to a mushaira with the then Minister of Information and Broadcasting as the chief guest. There, he recited a poem on how this nation has “killed” Urdu as a language:

ग़ालिब जिसे कहते हैं उर्दू ही का शायर था 
उर्दू पर सितम ढा कर ग़ालिब पर करम क्यों है?

I think this is the point where I stop and let you guys open another tab and let you cherish the creations of a great poet in Urdu whom you and I know as SAHIR LUDHIANVI.