Sahir Ludhianvi: The personal in political and the political in personal

On the occasion of the birth centenary of Sahir Ludhianvi a quick glance at what made his lyrics special and links to a personal collection of favourites from Hindi cinema for the readers to listen on

Sahir Ludhianvi: The personal in political and the political in personal

Namrata Joshi

Hindi and Urdu poetry and lyrics lovers would have a favourite Sahir Ludhianvi creation. Mine is “Man re tu kaahe na dheer dhare...” from Chitralekha (1964). It’s a metaphysical take on life which talks of how nothing is quite in human control, that eternal companionship is just an illusion and the only absolute truth is that we depart from this world alone—“Utna hi upkaar samajh koi jitna saath nibha de; Janam maran ka mel hai sapna, ye sapna bisra de; Koi na sang mare”. The song spoke to me even more during the pandemic-necessitated lockdown and the concomitant lack of human touch, more so as I read several accounts of painfully secluded deaths, final farewells with family members and funerals conducted over Zoom calls.

In retrospect, another song of Sahir’s, “Aage bhi jaane na tu..” from Waqt (1965) unintendedly explains our pandemic induced fears of the unknown, while offering a reconciliation with the altered reality and the sudden existential crisis. The solution is simple: since we don’t know what lies ahead, just live in the moment.

While the two songs have held a rare urgency and relevance for me during the pandemic, they are perfect illustrations of the deeper meaning Sahir’s words hold in their simplicity. For anyone, at any place, during any age or time. Profound thoughts have been rendered with rare clarity and immediacy, transparency and intimacy that make them comforting, validating as well as uplifting.

It’s impossible to sum up his huge expanse of work that spreads across literature and popular cinema, only some personal choices to share from Hindi, specially Pyaasa (1957), Phir Subah Hogi (1958) and Hum Dono (1961).

His words have been adept at communicating the beauty of love. The exhilaration of togetherness has never been more intoxicating as in “Abhi na jao chhod kar...” from Hum Dono (1961).

Nature blooms in full glory and time comes to a standstill as lovers meet and become one with the milieu in “Parbaton ke pedon par, shaam ka basera hai..” in Shagoon (1964)

His songs were as mature and effective in communicating the end of romance and the importance of letting go when relationships cease to hold meaning and become burden than a thing of joy. Like in “Chalo ik baar phir se, ajnabi ban jaayein hum dono...” in Gumrah (1963).

Above all else, Sahir’s life and times and his body of work rested on his humanitarian politics. His politics was rooted in a personalised, individualised space and anything personal to him was never bereft of the political. There was an innate empathy for the marginalised and the disenfranchised which roared with fierceness in his poetry. No wonder he could even situate love in the context of a starker reality. You hear him tell the beloved in the poem to not meet him at Taj Mahal which, for him, is as much a reminder of exploitation of the poor, as it is a symbol of love—“Ek Shahenshah ne Daulat ka sahara lekar, hum garibon ki muhabbat ka udaya hai mazaak... Mere Mehboob kahin aur mila kar mujh se”.

His ode to secularism “Tu Hindu banega na musalman banega..” from Dhool Ka Phool (1959) acquires an added poignance what with the regressive, divisive “love jihad” politics and jingoism looming large. “Maalik ne har insaan ko insaan banaya, hum ne use Hindu ya musalmaan banaya”.

He could question God on the plight of humanity in “Aasman pe hai khuda, aur zameen pe hum...” in Phir Subah Hogi (1958).

Yet he also wrote the most spiritual invocation urging God to show the right way to the wielders of power in “Allah tero naam...” in Hum Dono (1961)—“O saare jag ke rakhwale, nirbal ko bal dene wale; Balwaano ko de de gyaan”.

As much as Sahir’s politics was acutely individual, it was also a shared, community thing. In the Golden Age of Hindi cinema, in the 50s and 60s, when educated, erudite, forward thinking stalwarts presided over the industry (Sahir himself belonged to the Progressive Writers’ Association), the films reflected a modernity and sensitivity across all the disciplines. Filmmaking was a creative and compassionate collaboration. Sahir himself formed great teams with the likes of composers like Roshan, S.D. Burman, Khayyam and filmmakers like Guru Dutt, Chetan, Vijay and Dev Anand and Yash and B.R. Chopra. His lyrics were rooted in the grammar of the films and carried their probing narratives and thoughts of the filmmakers forward.

Right now, any questioning can instantly deem you anti-national but back then in Phir Subah Hogi (1958) who could bring the plight of the homeless, dispossessed, poor, uneducated and unemployed to the light—“Taleem hai adhoori, milti nahin majoori; maaloom kya kisi ko dard-e-nihaan hamara; Chin-o-Arab hamara, Hindostan hamara; Rehne ko ghar nahin hai, saara jahan hamara”.

He could sharply critique the materialism underlying the most intimate of human relationships and denounce the society with “Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai...” in Pyaasa (1957).

In the same film Sahir could ask—“Jinhein naaz hai Hind par wo kahan hain?” The indictment was damning, holding society, system and leaders of the nation responsible in suppressing and exploiting women.

His feminism was inspired from his mother, Sardaar Begum, who back then had the guts to divorce her rich zamindar husband and bring up Sahir on her own. Another strong woman who left a lasting impact on him was poet-litterateur Amrita Pritam.

The feminist critique grew more direct and trenchant in “Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko, mardon ne use bazaar diya” in Sadhana (1958)

At the same time Sahir could evoke the female desire by getting the sacred and profane together in “Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo” in Pyaasa (1957).

What made his poetry particularly moving were the occasional windows of hope like how he writes about perseverance, togetherness and sharing in “Jahan mein aisa kaun hai ki jisko gham mila nahin...” in Hum Dono (1961).

Or hope with a dash of melancholy in “Wo subah kabhi to aayegi...” in Phir Subah Hogi (1958). A hope and optimism we still believe in and hold on to, even as we wonder when the tide will turn and times will change.

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