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Sahir Ludhianvi: The Poet Magician Of Ludhiana

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In this feature, Mohammad Taqi remembers the legendary Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi. The recurring theme of his poetry was rebellion, which moves from the elation of romance and revolution to resentment and at times, despair. The poet was a rebel in his personal life too. Among other rebellious things, he testified against his brutal father and sided with his mother before his parents’ divorce.

Birthday of Sahir Ludhianvi – one of the foremost Urdu progressive poets of the 20th century- went largely unnoticed earlier this month. Up until a few years ago when that indefatigable chronicler of the subcontinent’s progressive movement, Hamid Akhtar was still alive, one would see a piece or two from him remembering his compadre Sahir. While the songs he wrote for films pop up on the social radar frequently, Sahir’s life and literary contribution seems to be slowly slipping away from the memory. I recall that as late as the 1980s, Sahir’s first collection “Talkhiyan” (rancor) was an essential reading in the leftist study groups. Anyone initiated in the Marxist circles would almost certainly come across Sahir’s famous lines written at the execution of the Congolese independence leader and socialist icon, Patrice Lumumba:

Zulm phir zulm hai, barrhta hai to mit jata hai

Khoon phir khoon hai, tapkay ga to jam jaiy ga …

(Repression is but repression, it can grow but it won’t last

Blood is still blood, it spills, but repression it shall outlast)

The undivided Punjab’s greater Ludhiana area had given Urdu the three greats Sher Muhammad Khan, Akhtar Ali and Abdul Hai, who became known by their pennames Ibne Insha, Hameed Akhtar and Sahir Ludhianvi, respectively.

Abdul Hai was born on March 8, 1921 in the city of Ludhiana to a feudal Chaudhry Fazal Mohammed and one of his several wives, Sardar Begum. Sahir’s parents had an acrimonious divorce in which he sided with his mother and testified in the court against his quite brutal father.

His mother raised him in abject poverty. Sahir went to the Malva Khalsa School and then the Government College at Ludhiana where he gravitated towards student the politics and joined the All India Students Federation, which was allied with the Communist Party of India (CPI).

Sahir became the president of the student union at the Government College and a progressive poet almost simultaneously.

By most accounts he was eased out of the college for his defiance against the visiting British dignitaries but the precipitating event perhaps was his fling with a girl on which the college officials frowned. Subsequently, he moved to Lahore circa 1943 along with his mother, where he was also joined by his comrade Hameed Akhtar. He continued with the cycle of his student political activism and ensuing expulsion at Dayal Singh College and then the Islamia College, Lahore.

Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam

It was, however, in the same fateful year that his first poetry collection Talkhiyan was published by the progressive outlet Preet-Larri. The short collection, most of it written during his college days, catapulted Sahir into the top tier of the Indian Urdu writers at the age of 22.

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The leftist Progressive Writers Association (PWA) welcomed him as one of the equals and as a poet there was no looking back for Sahir. He had distinguished himself from the other revolutionary poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Josh Malihabadi under whose influence he had initially labored and Allama Iqbal, from whose poem he had apparently adopted his Takhallus (nom de plume) Sahir (the magician).

On the eve of 1947 Sahir was in Bombay participating in the PWA and CPI activities as well was making a rather lackadaisical entry into the song-writing for what is now called the Bollywood. As India was divided he, worried sick about his mother, dashed back via Ludhiana to Lahore.

He joined the editorial staff of the leftist literary journal Savera (dawn), which quickly earned him the ire of the Pakistani officials who ordered his arrest.

Without telling even his buddy Hameed Akhtar and the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) secretary general Sajjad Zahir, Sahir took for New Delhi in 1949 and after a brief sojourn there, ended up in Bombay. Hameed Akhtar had said that Sahir’s concern was not just an arrest but also his rather prophetic assessment that Pakistan would end up being ruled by the “mullah and jagirdar” (clergy and the feudal).

Sahir had to toil without much luck for a good two years before the celebrated musician Sachin Dev ‘SD’ Burman gave him a break. Sahir wrote the song “thandi hawaain, lehra kay aain” extempore to Burman’s tune and virtually never looked back then.

Sahir’s pairing with SD Burman under the cinematic prodigy Guru Dutt produced one after another super-hit score. He wrote hundreds of songs for dozens of Bollywood movies without once compromising on the poetic quality. He set not only the literary but also the intellectual and philosophical benchmark so high that hardly any of his peers could match it.

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Rebellion remains the leitmotif of Sahir’s film and non-film poetry, which moves from the elation of romance and revolution to resentment and resignation and at times despair. Nowhere is this panoply of thought and emotion expressed better than the 1958 film Pyaasa, which Guru Dutt directed and also did the lead role in after Dilip Kumar turned it down.

Pyaasa, ranked 5th among the Time magazine’s top romantic movies of all-time, is unmistakably an imprint of Sahir’s life and work.

Sahir updated his massively popular poem Chaklay (Brothels) from Talkhiyan for Pyaasa by changing the refrain from “Sanakhwan-e-taqdees-e-mashriq kahan hein” (where are those who sing paeans to the east’s sanctity) to “jinhein naaz hai Hind pe woh kahan hein (where are those who boast over India) to inflict a massively bitter reality check in the post-independence India.

The film culminates with Guru Dutt’s signature performance that brings to life not just Sahir’s words but also his deep-seated resentment against oppression and a certain resignation to his fate with the crescendo:

“Jala do isay, phoonk dalo yeh dunya

meray samnay se hata lo yeh dunya

tumhari hai, tum hi sanbhalo yeh dunya

yeh dunya agar mil bhi jaiy to kiya hai?”

(Torch this world, to ashes blow this world

Remove it, I don’t wish to see this world

This is your world; I’ll let you handle this world

For even if I get it, what worth is this world?)

From the Lenin Peace Prize to Filmfare Awards to the Padma Shri have acknowledged Sahir’s socio-political struggle and his poetic genius but he summed up his colossal contribution as:

“ruja’t-pasan hoon keh tarraqi-pasand hoon

iss behs ko fuzool o abus janta hoon mein …

taaron ki anjuman se mujhay naheen

insaniyat pe ashk bahata raha hoon mein

dunya ne tajarbaat o hawadis ki shakl mein

jo kuchh mujhey diya hay, woh lauta raha hoon mein”

(Am I a reactionary or am I a progressive?

This debate to me is so retrogressive

I have nothing to do with the assembly of stars

Tears I shed are for the mankind’s scars

What the world gave me as trial and experiment

I’ve returned with thus with a compliment)

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