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I got introduced to Sahir Ludhianvi through a book by Prakash Pandit. The book was a part of my elder brother’s collection in Kota. My brother adored Sahir and in his youthful imagination also believed that he looked like him. The book contained a brief biographical sketch of the poet and some of his nazms, ghazals and geet. I remember two things from the book. The first is Sahir’s “sher” quoted as an introduction to the book- “Duniya ne tajurbat- o-hawadis ki shakl main, jo diya tha woh lauta raha hoon main”. The second is that he was so indecisive that you could actually make him have an ice cream for breakfast!!! This was Sahir Ludhianvi. He suffered the pain and sorrow of this world as Abdul Hayee from a Muslim gurjar zamindar family of Punjab. He returned those experiences in his poetry as Sahir Ludhianvi- a poet who straddled the two worlds of Urdu literature and Bombay films in his own way, on his own terms.

He was a tall man, not particularly good looking. He was arrogant. He was reticent. He was an enigma - a difficult person to fall in love or to work with. But Sahir was not just another talented poet in the town. He was a magician as his name meant. He created magic with words. Music composers had to set his lyrics to tune - and not the other way round, which was the usual way. He is also credited with establishing the significance of the lyricist in Hindi film music by making All India Radio announce the name of the lyricist, along with that of the singer and the music composer, in the music programmes.

Sahir’s aesthetics as a poet can be assessed by the vast range of emotions, thoughts, themes and subjects which found expression in his language. The canvas of his imagination was multi-colored. In a way he can be compared with Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Both Faiz and Sahir wrote about personal and social/political issues with the same intensity, finesse and conviction.

Sahir started off with Navketan and Sachin Dev Burman. The combination of Sahir and S. D. Burman produced some of the finest film songs of the 1950s. Hindi films were undergoing change from late 40s onwards. Chetan Anand, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand were experimenting with new themes and ideas in Hindi films. S.D. Burman, Anil Biswas, Shankar Jaikishan, Vasant Desai. C.Ramchandra were transforming Hindi film music like never before. Along came an extremely talented bunch of poets - Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Hasrat Jaipuri, etc. What set Sahir apart from his contemporaries was the spectrum as well as the intensity of his lyrics. He was a tormented person. The anguish caused by his traumatic childhood and unsuccessful relationships with women stimulated his creativity. His Leftist leanings gave him a perspective to see things and make sense of them. He wrote with an unmatched poignancy, subtlety and insight. Writing songs for Hindi films was not an easy task. The world of Hindi film songs was dominated by the music composer and the film director. The song writer had to literally play second fiddle to the music composer. In such a situation it was difficult to write songs on one’s own terms. But that is what Sahir did and he did it beautifully. His songs on love range from the sensual to the philosophical. From “yeh raat, yeh Chandni phir kahan sun ja dil ki dastan” ( Jaal-1952 ) and “ Abhi na jao chodkar… “ ( Hum Dono-1961) to “ Man re tu kaahe na dheer dhare…”( Chitralekha-1964), Sahir traverses almost the entire landscape of the man-woman relationship. But before reaching the philosophical plane of “Mann re tu kaahe na dheer dhare…” he resolves the dilemma of a drifting love affair -“Woh afsaana jise anjaam tak lana na ho mumkin, usey ik khoobsurat mod de kar chodna achcha…” ( Gumrah-1963).

An example of Sahir’s evocative use of the Vaishnav devotional imagery is “Aan milo aan milo Shyam saanware…” from “Devdas”(1955). Sahir’s poetry and S.D.Burman’s Bengali folk tune make this bhajan memorable. However, the songs of “Devdas” are remembered more for their music than for their lyrics. Although “Manzil ki raah main…” (brilliantly sung by Mohammed Rafi) or “Mitwa laagi ye kaisi unbujh aag…” ( Talat Mehmood’s soft lament of longing) or “Woh na aayenge palatkar…”( Mubaraq Begum ) are noted for their lyrical quality but the directorial craft of Bimal Roy and the music of S.D.Burman overshadow the poetry. “Pyaasa”(1957), however, proved to be a turning point in more ways than one. “Ye kooche ye Neelam ghar dilkashi ke…”, “Ye mehlon ye takhton ye taajo ki duniya…”, “Aaj sajan mohe ang lagaa lo…”, “ Jaane woh kaise log the jinke…” are the pinnacle of Hindi film song writing. The rebel in Sahir comes out as strongly as the romantic.” Pyaasa”, in some ways, marks the peak of Sahir’s poetic excellence. It was not a mere coincidence that Sahir’s creative acme came through Guru Dutt. Dilip Kumar might have played “Devdas” for Bimal Roy but it was Guru Dutt who in his defeatist streak of self-pity and self-destruction was quintessentially Devdas - the tragic hero. Did Sahir see some of his own self in Guru Dutt? Bot to forget that most songs of “Pyaasa” were simplified version of his original poems, as were some songs in Kabhie Kabhi twenty years later. The poems, Vijay, Guru Dutt’s character uses in the film are also original verses of Sahir.

“Pyaasa” also saw the end of Sahir’s very fruitful and successful professional relationship with S.D.Burman. But the very next year, Sahir teamed up with Khayyam to create “Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi…” and “Cheeno Arab hamara…” for “Phir Subah Hogi”(1958). The hero this time was Raj Kapoor- a complete anti-thesis of Guru Dutt. The songs of “Phir Subah Hogi” reflected the growing disenchantment of the people of India with the Nehruvian establishment. In the 60’s, Sahir mostly worked with N.Dutta, Roshan, Khayyam, Ravi, etc. Roshan’s qawwali “Na toh karvaan ki talaash hai…” in “Barsaat ki Raat” (1960) is arguably the best qawwali ever written, composed or sung in Hindi films. Sahir’s creative genius touches new heights in the qawwali. The qawwali encapsulates a wide range of emotions, images and metaphors. From a personal, existential note of “Naazo andaaz se kehte hain ki jeena hoga, zeher bhi dete hain toh kehte hain ki peena hoga, jab main peeta hoon toh kehte hain ki martaa bhi nahi, jab main martaa hoon toh kehte hain ki jeena hoga…” to the divine love of Lord Krishna and Radha, the exile of Sita, the devotion of Meera, the Farman of Rasool, the message of Gautam Buddha and Jesus Christ……the qawwali’s canvas is as broad as the excellence of its singing.

A film song writer has to write for a given situation in the film. In the 60’s and 70’s, Sahir created extraordinary songs for not so extraordinary film situations. “Jis tarah se thodi si tere saath kati hey,baaqi bhi isi tarah guzar jaaye toh achcha…” (Kajal-1965), “ Aage bhi jaane na tu ‘( Waqt-1965), “Man re tu kaahe na dheer dhare”( Chitralekha-1964) are examples of good poetry which also became popular. It is a matter of conjecture that what would have been the outcome if Sahir had worked with Shankar – Jaikishan, the way Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri did. May be the musical effervescence of S-J did not suit the finely nuanced poetic sensibility of Sahir. Sahir, after his break up with S.D.Burman , worked with a number of composers ranging from Khayyam, N.Dutta, Roshan and Ravi to R.D.Burman, Lakshmikant Pyarelal and even Rajesh Roshan (Kala Pathhar-1979). His brief association with RD and Rajesh Roshan could not produce the same magic as it had with their fathers. The same could be said about Lakshmikant Pyarelal. “Tera mujhse he pahle ka naata koi…”( Aa Gale Lag Ja - 1973), “Mere dil main aaj kya hey…”, ‘Hum aur tum khush hain yoon aaj milke…”( Daag-1973) and “Ik raasta hai zindagi…”(Kala Pathhar-1979) are good songs for a car drive. The reason was not any decline in Sahir’s poetic worth. The reason was the kind of films which started getting made from the early 70 onwards. The concept of the Hindi film hero itself changed after Rajesh Khanna. Sahir could write meaningfully as long as the shadow of the Devdas-image lingered on the Hindi film hero. With the exception of Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor, the majority of Hindi film heroes (Dilip Kumar, Bharat Bhushan, Rajendra Kumar, Manoj Kumar) were subconsciously playing Devdas in various manifestations and situations. Rajesh Khanna was the last hero who could drink himself to death wearing a dhoti.

Sahir had a long professional and personal association with the Chopras (Baldev Raj and Yash Raj). Khayyam and Sahir’s contribution in the success of “Kabhi Kabhie” (1976) requires no reiteration. However, “Kabhi Kabhie”was an exception which gave Sahir an opportunity to dip into his unfathomable pool of creativity. And I think it was only because of his loyalty to the Chopra family that he agreed to write for “Deewar” (1975). Otherwise, I am sure that Sahir himself would have liked to forget that he wrote something as trite as “Koi mar jaaye kisi pe ye kahaan dekha he, chodiye, chodiye, humne bhi jahaan dekha he…”

All creative people have some kind of an “intangible unease” which drives them. (I have borrowed this phrase from Gustave Flaubert who uses it as a key to unravel the persona of Madame Bovary). Sahir never married. It is said that he could not love any woman other than his mother. His concern for the condition of women in the Indian society is visible in songs like “Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko, mardon ne usey bazaar diya…” (Sadhna-1958) and “ Jinhe naaz hai Hind par who kahaan hain…” ( Pyaasa-1957). But whether it was the love for a woman or the angst against an insensitive, inhuman system or the restlessness of a troubled soul, all these emotions found their best possible expression in Sahir in the limited context of Hindi film songs. The aesthetics of his songs go beyond the movies for which they were written.

Throughout his life Sahir suffered from the “unbujhi aag” which he himself had ignited. Poetry and alcohol could not douse it. He reaches his denouement in an aptly named movie “Dastaan”(1972), eight years before he abruptly left this world - “Na tu zameen ke liye hai na aasmaan ke liye, tera wajood hai ab sirf dastaan ke liye…”

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