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Volume:7, Number:36
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The Bard for the Underdog

On the 96th birth anniversary of Sahir Ludianvi on March 8, 2017, one of the most popular and prolific poets and lyricists of the subcontinent was remembered by millions of his admirers

Sahir Ludhianvi was born on March 8, 1921, but he still lives in the hearts of Urdu poetry lovers in the world. The lyrics of many Bollywood movies have been penned by him and those songs have immortalized him in the hearts of millions of music lovers in many countries. It is said that the ‘sweetest songs are those that sing of saddest thoughts’ and that could not be truer for anyone than a young boy named Abdul Hai who grew up to become Sahir Ludhianvi in his later life.Abdul Hai had a troubled upbringing. Just at the age of 13, his rich landowner father Fazal Din remarried and his mother divorced him and left her husband’s house. Sahir was born in a red sandstone haveli in Karimpura, Ludhiana, Punjab, India. His mother, Sardar Begum, left her estranged husband thus forfeiting any claim to finan cial assets from the marriage. In 1934, Sahir's father remarried and sued for custody of his son. Sahir, after having spent his childhood in luxury, was now consigned to a life of penury. It was against this struggle that Sahir became a celebrated Indian poet and film lyricist who wrote in the Hindi and Urdu languages. His work influenced Indian cinema, in particular Bollywood films. Sahir won a Filmfare Award for Best Lyricist for Taj Mahal in 1963. He won a second Filmfare Award for Best Lyricist for his work on Kabhie Kabhie in1976 and he was awarded the Padma Shri in 1971. On March 8, 2013, on the ninety-second anniversary of Sahir's birth, a commemorative stamp was issued in his honor by the Indian government.

Sahir was educated at the Khalsa High School in Ludhiana. He then enrolled at the Satish Chander Dhawan Government College for Boys in Ludhiana. As a college student, Sahir was popular for his ghazals and nazms (poetry in Urdu) and impassioned speeches. In his first year, however, he was expelled for fraternizing with a female student on the principal's lawn. In 1943, Sahir settled in Lahore. There, he completed his Talkhiyaan (Bitterness), his first published work in Urdu in 1945. Sahir edited Urdu magazines such as Adab-e-Lateef, Shahkaar, Prithlari, and Savera and became a member of the Progressive Writers' Association. However, when he made controversial statements promoting communism, a warrant for his arrest was issued by the Government of Pakistan. In 1949, after partition, Sahir fled from Lahore to Delhi. He moved to India as he missed his Hindu and Sikh friends who had fled from Pakistan and he preferred to live in secular India over an Islamic Pakistan. After eight weeks, Sahir moved to Bombay. He later lived in Andheri, a suburb of Mumbai. There, his neighbors included Gulzar, a poet and lyricist, and Krishan Chander, an Urdu litterateur. In the 1970s, Sahir built a bungalow which he called Parchaiyaan (Shadows), after one of his works, and lived there till his death.

Sahir's partners were Amrita Pritam, a poet, novelist and essayist, and later Sudha Malhotra, a singer and actress. Although there were other women in his life, he never married. Sahir died after a sudden cardiac arrest at the age of fifty-nine. He had been a smoker and drinker. He died in the presence of his friend, Javed Akhtar. Sahir was buried at the Juhu Muslim cemetery. In 2010, his tomb was demolished to make room for new interments. Sahir's work as a lyricist in the film industry gave him financial stability beyond his earnings as a poet. He made his debut with four songs performed in the film Azadi Ki Raah Par in 1949. One of the songs was Badal Rahi Hai Zindagi. Both the film and its songs went unnoticed. However, after Naujawaan in 1951, with music by S.D. Burman, Sahir gained recognition. Sahir's major success was Baazi in 1951. Again, the composer was Burman. Sahir was then considered part of Guru Dutt's team. The last film Sahir made with Burman was Pyaasa in which Guru Dutt played the role of a poet named Vijay. After Pyaasa, Sahir and Burman went their separate ways due to artistic and contractual differences.

Sahir did work with other composers including Ravi, Roshan, Khayyam and DattaNaik. Naik, a Goan, admired Sahir's poetry and their collaboration produced the score for Milaap in 1955. Sahir also worked with music director Laxmikant-Pyarelal in the films like Man Ki Aankhe, Izzat, Dustan and Yash Chopra's Daag, all of which had fabulous songs. From about 1950 until his death, Sahir collaborated with film producer and director Baldev Raj Chopra. Sahir's last work for Chopra was Insaaf Ka Tarazu. Yash Chopra, an independent director and producer, also engaged Sahir. In 1958, Sahir wrote the lyrics for Ramesh Saigal's film Phir Subah Hogi, which was based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment. The male lead was played by Raj Kapoor. It was presumed that Shankar-Jaikishan would be the composer but Sahir demanded a composer with a more intimate knowledge of the novel. Khayyam composed the film score. The song Woh Subah Kabhi Toh Aayegi with its minimal background music was a big hit and it still remains popular amongst the music lovers. Khayyam collaborated with Sahir in many films including Kabhie Kabhie and Trishul. Sahir was a controversial figure in that he was artistically temperamental. He insisted that the film score should be composed for his lyrics and not the other way around. He also insisted on being paid one rupee more than Lata Mangeshkar and this created a rift between them. Sahir promoted his girlfriend Sudha Malhotra's singing career. He also insisted that All India Radio should credit lyricists.

Sahir was different from his contemporaries in that he did not praise Khuda (God), Husn (beauty) or Jaam (wine). Instead, he wrote bitter yet sensitive lyrics about the declining values of society; the senselessness of war and politics; and the domination of consumerism over love. His love songs, tinged with sorrow, expressed his realization that there were other, starker concepts more important than love. Sahir might be called the "bard for the underdog". Close to his heart were the farmer crushed by debt, the soldier gone to fight someone else's war, the woman forced to sell her body, the youth frustrated by unemployment and the family living on the street for instance. Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, said he was moved by Sahir's lyrics in Pyaasa.

Sahir's poetry has a Faizian quality. Like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir gave Urdu poetry an intellectual element that caught the imagination of the youth of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and reflected the feelings of the people of the age. He roused people from an independence- induced smugness. He would pick on the self-appointed custodians of religion, the self-serving politicians, the exploitative capitalists, and the warmongering super-powers. Sahir wrote with verve about the arrest of progressive writers in Pakistan; the launch of the satellite Sputnik and the discovery of Ghalib by a government lusting after minority votes. He wrote Kahate- Bangal (The Famine of Bengal) at 25 years of age. Subah-e-Navroz (Dawn of a New Day) mocks the way people celebrate while the poor exist in squalor. The poet asks his lover to meet him anywhere else but at the Taj Mahal. He claimed that although the tomb has been a symbol of luxurious monarchy for years, there is no need for beautiful (but not famous) hearts to travel to meet there. Of his legacy, Sahir writes that there will be more who will narrate love poems better than him and asked why should the busy age waste its time for him. Sahir's place of birth is marked with a small plaque on the building's arched entrance. The auditorium of Satish Chander Dhawan Government College for Boys is named after him.

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