Sahir Ludhianvi: A magician of words
A true ‘Sahir (Magician)’ of words, Sahir Ludhianvi was a popular Urdu poet and Hindi lyricist and songwriter who won the Filmfare Award twice and was also awarded the Padma Shri. He was born into a wealthy Muslim Syed family as Abdul Hayee on March 8, 1921 in Ludhiana, Punjab in India. Sahir Ludhianvi is his pseudonym. An eminent film lyricist, Sahir Ludhianvi was slightly different from his contemporaries.
Unable to praise God or Beauty, his pen was, at its best, pouring out bitter but sensitive lyrics over the declining values of society, the senselessness of war and politics, and the domination of materialism over love. He could rightly be called the underdog’s bard; close to his heart were victims of society such as the farmer crushed by debt, the soldier fighting someone else’s war, the woman forced to sell her body, the youth frustrated by unemployment and the family living on the streets.
Sahir’s parents had a very estranged relationship and in 1934, when he was thirteen years old, his father married for the second time and his mother decided to take the bold step of leaving her husband, forfeiting all claims to the financial assets. Sahir’s father then sued his mother for child custody but lost. Hence, fear and financial deprivation surrounded his formative years.
Sahir studied at and graduated from Khalsa High School in Ludhiana. Upon matriculation, he joined the Satish Chander Dhawan Government College for Boys, Ludhiana where he was quite popular for his ghazals and nazms. However, he was famously expelled from the college within a year for ‘sitting in the Principal’s lawn with a female class-mate’. In 1943, after being expelled from college, Sahir settled in Lahore where he completed his first Urdu work, Talkhiyaan (Bitterness). After his work was published, he began editing four Urdu magazines, Adab-e-Lateef, Shahkaar, Prithlari and Savera, which became very successful.
Then, Sahir became a member of the Progressive Writers’ Association. However, inflammatory writings in Savera resulted in the issuing of his arrest warrant by the Government of Pakistan. So, in 1949, Sahir fled from Lahore to Delhi. After a couple of months in Delhi, he moved to and settled in Mumbai. And thus, a most memorable career for one of Indian Cinema’s beloved poets started – a career that spanned 31 years and gave Indian films over 200 golden songs, ghazals and nazms. His words will always be hummed to and identified with by generations to come.
Sahir Ludhianvi’s most famous love affair was with Amrita Pritam, who became his most ardent fan. She has openly acknowledged her love for Sahir in interviews and her books. Apart from Amrita, several other women came in his life but he did not marry any of them and remained a bachelor all his life.
Sahir Ludhianvi made his debut in films writing lyrics for the film Aazadi Ki Raah Par (1949). However, with Naujawaan (1951), for which S.D. Burman had composed the music, he gained recognition. His first major success came the same year with Guru Dutt’s directorial debut, Baazi (1951), again pairing him with S. D. Burman. Sahir Ludhianvi worked with many music composers, including Ravi, S.D. Burman, Roshan and Khayyam, and left behind many unforgettable songs for fans of the Indian film industry and its music.
Admirers and critics rate Sahir’s work in Guru Dutt’s ‘Pyaasa’ as his finest. Some say that ‘Pyaasa,’ bears resemblance to Sahir’s early years as a poet. The onscreen poet, Vijay played by Guru Dutt, bears a strong likeness to the man whose poetry gave the film its soul. Sahir Ludhianvi’s work in the 1970s was restricted to films mainly directed by Yash Chopra. ‘Kabhie Kabhie’ (1976) saw him return to sparkling form. These songs won him his second Filmfare Award for Best Lyricist, the first being for ‘Taj Mahal’ (1963).
Sahir Ludhianvi fought for, and became the first lyricist or songwriter, to get royalties from music companies. Sahir insisted on writing the songs before the song was composed, against the Indian film industry norm. At the height of his popularity, Sahir is known to have demanded a rupee more than what was paid to Lata Mangeshkar for singing it. It was on Sahir’s insistence that All India Radio started crediting lyricists along with singers and music composers for songs it aired.
Sahir Ludhianvi’s poetry had a “Faizian” quality. Like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, he too gave Urdu poetry an intellectual element that caught the imagination of the youth. Sahir asked questions and roused people from an independence-induced smugness. He would pick on the self-appointed custodian of religion, the self-serving politician, the exploitative capitalist, and the war-mongering super-powers.
Sahir will always be remembered as a multifaceted poet who made his creation a lesson for all ages of Urdu poetry to come. He wove fascinating images in songs and ghazals, spellbinding his listeners and readers for decades. Sahir’s most remarkable contribution is that through his lyrics, he catapulted the standards of Hindi film songs to a level that became the benchmark for quality poetry. He never minced words and expressed thoughts clearly and directly. He was angry and sarcastic, and at the same time he was a dreamer.
On 25 October 1980, at the age of 59, Sahir Ludhianvi suffered a massive fatal heart attack. He was buried at the Juhu Muslim cemetery. However, his tomb was demolished in 2010 to make place for new bodies. He will always be remembered along with Kaifi Azmi as the poet who brought Urdu literature to Indian motion pictures. Sahir Ludhianvi’s poetry and lyrics remain an inspiration for lyricists of the day. Composers and singers of Sahir’s time swear by the depth, intensity and purity in his poetry.
In recent years there have been many attempts to chronicle his life and times. Many books about him have been published both in India and Pakistan. In 2010, Danish Iqbal wrote a commercially successful Stage Play ‘Sahir’ which was directed by Pramila Le Hunt and enjoyed a dream run in Delhi. For perhaps the first time in the history of Indian Theatre, songs were used as narrative to recreate the life and struggles of Sahir Ludhianvi. Later, the M S Sathyu directed Stage Play ‘Amrita: A Sublime Love Story’ had the first part of the narrative built around Sahir’s enigmatic presence.
The house where Sahir was born, a red sand-stone haveli, stands in Karimpura, a Muslim neighbourhood of Ludhiana, with a small plaque announcing its importance upon the arched mughal darwaaza — the only effort by the city to remember him. Till his death, Sahir lived in Parchaiyaan (Shadows), a posh bungalow in Mumbai. Journalist Ali Peter John, who knew the poet personally, says real-estate sharks have been eyeing Sahir’s abode after the death of his sister and that his belongings and trophies are in a state of ruin.
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