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He was the numero uno poet and lyricist of his time who could argue both sides of the argument if need be. He could write on everything from first flush of love to green revolution and had the same empathy for the farmers as he did for lovers…
Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon/ Pal do pal meri kahani hai/ Pal do pal meri hasti hai/ Pal do pal meri jawani hai… I’m a poet of the moment, for the moment, I won’t outlast the moment, and my tale will be as short… wrote he but his words have transcended death and have become immortal, firing up imaginations long after he’s gone. Sahir Ludhiyanvi was a people’s poet and yet a poet’s poet. Every lyricist past or present wanted to emulate the consummate ease with which he turned out lines which were simple and yet wove a web of delicate meanings.
The versatile poet was born 8 March, 1921 in Ludhiana as Abdul Hayee and continuing the long held practice, he took the nom de plume of Sahir Ludhianvi, which literally means he was a poet from Ludhiana – ironically one of the busiest industrial hubs in India. He was said to have been born to a family of rich landowners. His mother reportedly divorced his father when he took a second wife. His father wanted his custody but lost. He was just 13 at the time and the domestic crisis, as well as the loss of financial security, affected him greatly. It may have led him towards commitment phobia at later life as all his various affairs never really fructified into a steady relationship.
He started writing while still in school and was active as a writer and a poet throughout school and college, winning accolades not only from his peers but from those senior to him as well. After passing out from Khalsa High School in Ludhiana S. C. Dhawan Government College in Ludhiana from where he was rumouredly expelled for sitting in the lawn with a girl. He then shifted to Lahore where he took admission in Dayal Singh College. The move proved fateful as he was inducted into Lahore’s literary circle, getting a chance to publish his masterpiece, Talkhiyan – a heady mix of poems reflecting on the bitterness of love and life, while still a student.
His mastery over Urdu was noticed and at a very young age he was appointed as the editor for progressive Udru periodicals Shaahkaar and Savera as well as Pritlari, where his fierce writing and deft editing helped up the circulation. He joined the Progressive Writer’s Movement but his literary barbs against Partition in general and the loss of solidarity between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs angered the Pakistani Government. He took the decision to leave Pakistan and shift to Bombay. He took to writing lyrics as a means of earning money and thus a legend got more, more as a byproduct of circumstances than by design.
Bombay’s writers like Shahid Lateef, Krishan Chander, Ismat Chugtai, Kaifi Azmi and others from IPTA and corollary circles knew of him and welcomed him with open arms. He was never bereft of friends and admirers and soon made his debut as a lyricist in Azadi Ki Raah Par (1949). Badal rahi hai zindagi is said to be his first film song. However, it was in 1951, with the release of two films, Naujawan and later Baazi, that he became the favourite of the masses. Thandi hawayein lehra ke aayen from Naujawan and Tadbir se bigdi hui taqdeer bana le from Baazi are still popular today. Both films had music by SD Burman and thanks to that friendship, was inculcated in the Guru Dutt-Dev Anand circle, remaining the lyricist of choice for both filmmakers. Guru Dutt’s poetic side appealed to him and the merging of their sensibilities resulted in Pyaasa (1957) – their best work together as well individually. It’s also said that the poet Vijay’s character from the film was based on Sahir’s own disillusionment of being a sensitive soul in a world which cared more for money than actual merit.
Ironically, it’s said that a rift appeared between him and Dada Burman after Pyaasa as both men claimed it was their work which contributed more to the popularity of the songs. Maybe it was this falling apart which led him to practice the alleged policy of insisting that the composers adapt their tunes to his lyrics and not vice-versa. He was able to form long associations with various composers like Khayyam, Ravi, N Dutta, Roshan and Madan Mohan despite such a close. His pen might not have been as productive as some of the others but what he wrote became the gold standard when it came to lyrics. It became a matter of prestige for filmmakers to have him on board.
As a poet, he never restricted himself just to themes of love. He could turn his hand at every topic and could have his take on both sides of an argument. For instance, he wrote – Woh subhah kabhi to aayegi (when will that dawn come which will change life) and countered that with Woh subhah hami se aayegi – we’ll bring out the change, it won’t come on its own. His love poetry always carried a tinge of sadness as he knew that perfect love can’t be found in this world. It’s said that writer Amrita Pritam was madly in love with him. He used to go to her place and smoke cigarettes after cigarettes, sitting companionably in a smoke-filled silence and later Amrita used to smoke the butts, after he was gone… He was also linked to singer Sudha Malhotra. And maybe this intense friendship led to an alleged rift with Lata Mangeshkar, what with him asking for one rupee more than what the producers were paying the songstress supreme.
He reportedly turned into an intense alcoholic in later life, leading to his untimely death at the age of 59 on 25 October, 1980…