Born Abdul Hayee a 100 years ago, he called himself Sahir when the world started taking note of the magic of his words. As was the literary tradition those days like most Urdu poets Mazrooh (Sultanpuri), Josh (Malihabadi), Firaq (Gorakhpuri), Daag (Dehlavi), he added the city of his birth as takhllus (pen-name) and a magician was born. In the preface to his book, “Sahir: A Literary Portrait (2019)”, Surinder Deol calls him ‘a mystery wrapped in an enigma’.
Akshay Manwani, who authored his biography, “Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (2013)”, the first-ever comprehensive one in English, agrees. “He wasn’t a vanilla character. His life story was full of dramatic elements.”
Raised in poverty by a single mother, the man who couldn’t acquire a college degree, despite enrolling in three institutions, yet went on to become a noted poet and a film lyricist with a cult status in an industry not known to celebrate lyricists till then; the man who had numerous affairs yet had no lasting love in his life. A Marxist and an atheist, despite his unequivocal condemnation of religion particularly after witnessing the horrors of Partition, he gave us some of the most beautiful bhajans. Sahir’s life was full of dichotomies – the man who has no descendents, yet his poetry inspired complete strangers to carry forward his legacy.
A baffling love story
However, the biggest mystery that has, at times, overshadowed even the literary merit of his works has been the Sahir-Amrita Pritam’s incomplete love story. The tragic tale has been the subject of numerous plays and even a likely biopic that would have been a perfect centenary tribute had Covid-19 not struck.
Deol, who has critically appraised and translated a selection of over 90 of Sahir’s poems, nazms, ghazals and bhajans in his book, tries to explain the mystery. Quoting Ahmed Rahi, Sahir’s friend from Lahore, he says “Sahir only loved one woman, his mother and had only one hate, his father.”
Says Deol, “Sahir never openly acknowledged his relationship with Amrita due to many reasons. When they initially become friends in Lahore, Sahir had no money, no job and Amrita was a rich man’s wife, used to all comforts of life and he could offer her nothing. Later, when he came to Bombay and achieved material success, he knew how much he loved Amrita and was perhaps afraid that it would create a conflict in his relationship with his mother.”
Sahir has also often been accused of moving away from pure literature after he achieved fame and wealth. Prof Gopi Chand Narang, former president, Sahitya Akademi and Professor Emeritus, Jamia University, says, “Sahir stopped writing new poetry, or contributing to literary magazines after he moved to Bombay. His maiden work, Talkhiyan, written when he just 23 and later Parchhayian (1956) remained his only two major literary works.” Talkhiyan which contains his famous poem “Tajmahal” (Ek shanshah ne banwa ke haseen Taj Mahal hum garibon ki muhabbat ka udaya hai mazak) sold 23 Urdu editions within two years of its publishing. He would say, ‘I didn’t get anything from my poetry but my film lyrics gave me everything.’
“His childhood was spent in poverty. When he succeeded
Sahir became arrogant.” Deol agrees,“This arrogance cost him many friends and successful professional relationships such as those with SD Burman, Jaidev and Lata Mangeshkar. Despite Pyaasa’ huge success Burman and Sahir never worked together again.”
Manwani, however, is quick to defend the poet-lyricist. “He was a man of contradictions. If he was quick to insult, he would apologise as quickly. If he alienated best of music directors, yet there were many others like Khayyam, Ravi, who found fame because of him.”
His friend and publisher, Delhi-based Amar Verma agrees. “During a visit to Bombay, I requested him to introduce me to some established authors. Sahir personally took me to Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi. At another visit, Gulshan Nanda was with me. Nanda asked me to request Sahir to recommend him to film directors. When I asked Sahir, he himself came to meet Nanda and later helped him in getting work.”
The atheist bhajan-writer
Sahir was a member of Progressive Writers Movement. A staunch secularist, he did not practice any religion, yet the bhajans he wrote remain popular — “Allah tero naam”, “Tora mann darpan kehlaye”, “ Aan milo Shayam”, “ Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo”. Deol shares an interesting anecdote. “Sahir had heard gurbani in school. To him, it meant that only gurus could write hymns. Once a producer asked him to write a bhajan. In panic, Sahir called his friend, Firak Gorakhpuri to come to Bombay to help him. Firak, who was fluent in Sanskrit, taught him the rudiments. For Sahir, it was more of a challenge than any devotion on his part but in the process, he created some beautiful bhajans.”
Like his bhajans, has his poetry stood the test of time and resonates with today’s youth? While some of his ardent admirers and followers like to believe so, others differ. Ludhiana-based Dr Kewal Dhir has been celebrating Sahir’s poetry and legacy for half-a-century now as an annual mushaira called “Jashn-e-Sahir”. “There has been an increase of young audience in the past three to four years.” However, an octogenarian, what worries him is the absence of young torch-bearers to pass on the baton of “Jashn-e-Sahir”.
Literary canons change with time, adds Professor Narang. Manwani agrees, “Language of every era is different. Tastes have changed. Deol puts across an even more valid reason — the diminishing popularity and reach of Urdu among youth in India. “In Pakistan, Sahir is well-known name. His Talkhiyan is part of the curriculum.”
But we should let Sahir have the last word:
“Kal aur aayenge…
Mujhse behtar kehne wale, Tumse behtar sun ne wale…”
Let’s say Amen to that!