WRITING a book on a titanic figure in Urdu poetry — who excelled in both the verses he penned for publication and the ones he wrote for films — is quite a challenging assignment, particularly if someone wants to do a complete job by also recalling the bard’s highly eventful life. And to say that Akshay Manwani, despite the fact that Urdu is not his first language, emerges successfully by writing a well-researched book on Sahir Ludhianvi is to state the obvious. Over the years, Manwani has not only interviewed a large number of people who had known the man and his poetry, but has also delved deep into the poems of Sahir as well as the writings on the poet by others.
Reviewing Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet, brimming with information, some known and some not, is a rewarding, though in a way quite an unenviable assignment. The big question that haunts you is ‘where to begin?’ The best bet, you conclude, is to start with the man and his life, mainly because his poetry is inspired by the unusual experiences which the sensitive soul went through. It’s a fact he highlighted when he wrote:
Duniya ne tajurbaat-o-havadis ki shakal mein / Jo kuch mujhe diya hai, lauta raha hoon mein.
(Whatever the world by way of experiences and accidents/
Has given me, I am returning now)
Sahir was born Abdul Hayee. His father, Chaudhri Fazl Mohammed, was a landlord who married 12 times, and Hayee was the only child from Sardar Begum, his eleventh wife, whom the feudal lord maltreated. She walked away from the sprawling house with her child in her arms. The husband was incensed; he wanted to have Hayee back and threatened to have him kidnapped. When the threat didn’t work, he filed a suit against his wife. The judgement went against him the moment he said that the mother was putting her son through a lot of trouble by educating him. He argued that with so much wealth that he was destined to inherit, the boy need not have gone through the rigours of education.
The story of the young man’s experiences, both as a romantic young man and a revolutionary, make the narrative absorbing, not to mention how he acquired the pen name, Sahir. His first love was a girl called Mahinder, who reciprocated his feelings but their affair was cut short when she died of tuberculosis, a disease not entirely curable in the 1930s. His second lady love was Ishar Kaur, who backed out when she realised that she would be faced with insurmountable odds if she continued to respond to the young poet’s love.
Manwani devotes one entire chapter to the “stunningly beautiful” Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam and her deep-rooted feelings for Sahir. They met for the first time at a mushaira in Preet Nagar, a village between Lahore and Amritsar. “I do not know whether it was the magic of his words or his silent gaze, but I was captivated,” Pritam wrote in her memoirs. She was trapped in an unhappy marriage at that time.
But a few years after Partition, Sahir shifted to Bombay (and Pritam to Delhi), where he was infatuated by the singer Sudha Malhotra, who owed her film career to Sahir; Pritam was naturally quite distressed.
However, the one woman he clung to all his life was none other than his own mother. He took her to mushairas even in far-flung places. Her only grouse against him was his excessive drinking — she told friends to make him kick the habit. Her death devastated him completely; he became quiet and his poetic inspiration also dried up. He outlived her by merely four years, when he had a fatal heart attack at the age of 59 in October, 1980, leaving behind a treasure trove of poetry.
It was during his Lahore days, in 1943 to be precise, that his first anthology of poems — Talkhiyaan — was published. In those days he was editing the prestigious literary magazine Adab-e-Lateef. Some of his poems were later used as film songs or as parts of film songs.
His beautifully written song ‘Pyar per bus to naheen hai mera lekin…’ soulfully rendered by Talat Mehmood and Asha Bhosle, has the following stanza added to it:
Kaheen aisa na ho paaon mere thar-raa jaiyen / Aur teri marmari baanhon ka sahaara na miley
Ashk behte rahein khamosh siyah raaton mein / Aur teri reshmi aanchal ka kinaara na miley
(I only hope my feet don’t begin to stumble / And that I do not get the support of your beautiful arms.
My tears begin to flow unabated in the silent dark night / And I don’t even
get the edge of your silken scarf to hold on to).
Back to his non-film poetry, his most widely-applauded anti-war poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ was published in 1956. This was to Sahir what ‘The Waste Land’ was to T.S. Eliot. Going through Sahir’s collection of selected film songs, aptly titled Gaata Jai Banjara, one realises that his film lyrics are by no means inferior to his published poems. He may have had to write what can be called ‘comic songs’ but their contents were not meaningless.
While on film songs, one can’t help but recall that together with eminent composer S.D. Burman he wrote songs for 15 movies, which are all studded with popular numbers. The team broke up after the release of Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, when Burman was stung by Sahir’s remark that Burman’s songs’ popularity rests more on the meaningful lyrics than on their tunes. Javed Akhtar, though a fan of Burman, finds Sahir’s claim to be based on facts.
Leading composer O.P. Nayyar with whom Sahir partnered the same year in Naya Daur, is known for his inflated ego too. The only thing they agreed on was that they won’t work together. Lata Mangeshkar, the queen of melody, had a row with Sahir too, because he was not willing to accept the supremacy of singers over lyricists. It is to his credit that he substituted Lata with Bhosle and Malhotra who sang some memorable numbers for him.
In the 1960s, Sahir wrote songs for several second string composers, such as Khayyam, with whom he joined hands to give such remarkable musical scores as those of Phir Subah Hogi and Kabhi Kabhi, which garnered the composer his first, and the lyricist his second Filmfare award. A significant point here is that Sahir’s lyrics often substituted for dialogue and the songs moved the plot of the films.
Then there was Jaidev with whom Sahir collaborated on Hum Dono. What lovely numbers they created: ‘Mein zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya’, ‘Kabhi khud pe kabhi halaat pe rona aya’, ‘Abhi na jao chod kar ke dil abhi bhara nahi’ and ‘Allah tero naam ishwar tero naam’. One can’t ignore Sahir’s fruitful collaborations with such music directors as Roshan, Ravi and N. Datta either. Among the filmmakers, Sahir became a regular lyricist for all films produced by Yash Chopra. The team prospered till it broke up after Sahir’s death.
Manwani has collected some rare photographs featuring Sahir, his friends, the women in his life, and his associates, which make the book all the more invaluable. Adding to its worth is the list of the songs that he wrote, along with the name of the film, and the composers he worked with in those films. The book’s only weakness is that some words are wrongly transliterated in Roman script. Also, some words have been incorrectly translated.
The reviewer is an author and freelance journalist.
Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet
By Akshay Manwani