Sahir: Poet-Lyricist Par Excellence
A colossus among lyricists, Sahir was prominent in his dynamic and evocative expression of emotions, values and political opinions
For him, words were supreme. He stopped working with SD Burman and OP Nayyar after classics like Pyasa and Naya Daur. All India Radio and recording companies conceded to his demand for the due acknowledgement of the lyricist along with the singer and composer, besides due royalty. He was Sahir Ludhianvi, the icon of generations for three decades.
Born on March 8, 1921, to a feudal landlord Chaudhary Fazal Mohammad and Sardar Begum in Ludhiana, Sahir was named Abdul Hayee. His father was full of aristocratic vices and his mother was Fazal's eleventh wife. After getting the heir from her, Fazal dumped her and married a twelfth time. He wanted the custody of Abdul but lost a long legal battle to Sardar Begum. Abdul's childhood was naturally devoid of happiness and created bitterness, having witnessed the cruelties of his father who had deprived his mother of any financial support.
Abdul earned his early education from Malwa Khalsa High School and later joined the Government College in Ludhiana. He was drawn to Marxism during his college days, took keen interest in the National movement, and also participated in the activities of the All India Students Federation, a wing of CPI. But that political streak was ably complemented by a strong literary flair, given his attraction to poetry. He had started writing at an early age and sought his ideal in Allama Mohammad Iqbal. In fact, he changed his name from Abdul Hayee to Sahir after reading one of Iqbal's couplets from a poem dedicated to the renowned poet Daagh Dehlavi:
Is chaman mein honge paida bulbul-e-shiraz bhi
Sainkno Sahir bhi honge sahib-e-ijaz bhi;
He added Ludhianvi to the first name as he hailed from Ludhiana. Heartbroken, after his first love Mahender Chaudhary succumbed to tuberculosis, Sahir penned a touching poem, Marghat ki Sarzameen, (Cremation Ground), when she was cremated. But soon enough, the void was filled by another Sikh girl, Ishar Kaur, and he wrote intensely for her. Given the fact that they were from different communities, this affair was a social taboo and Ishar was expelled from college. Thereafter, Sahir also left college and headed for Lahore, where he joined Dayal Singh College. Here too, he was very popular amongst the student community and became the president of Lahore students' federation. As his political activities were closely watched by college authorities, he was not allowed to take his final examination. Nevertheless, in his pursuit to complete his graduation, he joined Islamia College, but got disillusioned by the education system and left this college too.
Lack of formal education was no deterrent, as Sahir now concentrated on his poetry, being naturally gifted. His first collection of poems, Talkhian (Bitterness), was published in 1944. And he became a bestselling poet at 23. Strongly influenced by the Progressive Writers' Movement, the romantic poet was transforming into a revolutionary poet. Now, Sahir's concern was for the oppressed and it was reflected in his poems, Gurez (To avoid), Taj Mahal, Aaj and Ye Kiska Lahu.
Due to his progressive leanings, he got a job in a literary journal, Adab-e-latif, which professed leftist ideology. Sahir was doing well in Lahore, yet he wanted to try his fortune in Bombay films. His contract with Adab-e-lateef was about to expire, so he left for Bombay to write songs for Azadi ki Raah Par in 1946. He penned four of its six songs. The prevalent political upheaval delayed the completion of the film, and when it released, it was barely noticed.
Sahir was missing his mother who was still in Ludhiana. When he reached Delhi, he saw the communal riots in Delhi and was advised to refrain from visiting Ludhiana. After a while, he received the news that she had been sent by the Army from a Ludhiana refugee camp to Lahore, where he finally joined his mother in late 1947.
In Lahore, he edited the magazine Savera, and wrote against the establishment. Soon, an arrest warrant was issued in his name and he fled Lahore for Delhi, where he edited Shahkaar and Preetladi. But his final destination was Bombay, reaching the tinsel town via Hyderabad in 1949.
Sahir was a well-established name in literary circles by now. Talkhiyan had won him several laurels, but his frequent visits to studios and producers didn't fetch any work. Keen to write songs for films, he often told his friend, "Main ek din bada song writer banunga (One day I will become a big song writer)." Mohan Sehgal, whom Sahir knew, advised him to meet SD Burman, who was looking for a new lyricist. He explained a situation to Sahir and the tune composed for AR Kardar's Naujawan. Sahir wrote the lyrics, Thandi hawaien lehra ke aayein. Burman da liked the song and recorded it in Lata's voice. It was an instant hit.
Concurrently, Burman da was composing for Navketan's Baazi, a Dev Anand-Geeta Bali starrer, that was also the directorial debut of Guru Dutt. Burman da had suggested Sahir's name to Dev Anand. Baazi was a silver jubilee hit primarily owing to Guru Dutt's song picturisation, Burman da's music and Sahir's lyrics. And all the songs were chartbusters: Tadbir se bigdi hui taqdeer bana le, Suno gajar kya gaaye, and Aaj ki raat piya.
Those days, composers had their own set of preferred lyricists, just as Naushad had Shakeel Badauni, Husanlal Bhagat Ram enjoyed working with Qamar Jalalabadi and Shankar Jaikishan were teamed with Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri in Barsat. Similarly, Burman da had discovered his lyricist in Sahir. They worked together in eighteen films and gave their best in film Saza, Tum na jaane kis jahan mein kho gaye (Lata) and Aa gupchup gupchup pyaar karein (Hemant-Sandhya Mukherjee); in Jaal, Ye raat ye chandni phir kahan (Hemant); in Taxi Driver, Jayein to jayein kahan (Talat); in House number 44, Teri duniya mein jeene se to behtar hai ki mar jayein (Hemant) and Phaili hui hain sapnon ki bahein (Lata); in Devdas, Kis ko khabar thi aise bhi din aayenge (Talat); in Munimji, Jeevan ke safar mein raahi (Kishore) and Dil ki umange hain jawaan (Hemant-Geeta).
The hallmark of Sahir and Burman da duo was Pyasa, which happened to be Guru Dutt's dream project. Guru Dutt made changes in his story Kashmkash when he heard Sahir's Talkhiyan from Abrar Alvi. So, the original protagonist who was to be a painter in that story was altered as a journalist and eventually a poet. Pyasa's hero Vijay had many shades of Sahir's life. His unsuccessful college love affairs, a loving mother and Sahir's callous father was changed in to two brothers of Vijay. Guru Dutt did full justice to Sahir's poetry and brilliantly picturised all the songs: Hum aap ki aankhon mein (Rafi-Geeta Dutt); in a flashback dream sequence, Jaane kya toone kahi (Geeta Dutt); Jaane wo kaise log the (Hemant Kumar); Ye kooche ye neelamghar dilkashi ke, Ye mehlon ye takhton ye tajon ki duniya (Rafi) and a devotional number, Aaj sajjan mohe ang laga lo (Geeta Dutt), and a light-hearted number, Sar jo tera chakraye (Rafi). In Pyasa's poster, Sahir's name appeared above Burman da's.
After Pyasa, Sahir and Burman da parted ways, and this parting has many versions. Burman da took the credit for Pyasa's music, but for Sahir words were far more sacred, and he also held a grudge that Burman da had changed his progressive ghazal, Tabbir se bigdi hui… to a night club song. Besides, Sahir was not happy with the tunes of Ye raat ye chandni and Jeevan ke safar mein raahi. Burman da also announced that he would never work with an egoistic lyricist whom he had given a break.
The same year, Sahir snapped his ties with OP Nayyar after Naya Daur. All songs of Naya Daur penned by Sahir were superhits: Saathi haath badana, Maang ke saath tumhara, Aana hai to aa rah mein, and a light number, Main Bombay ka babu. Sahir had reluctantly done a film with Nayyar at the request of the noted Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai, who was the producer of Sone Ki Chidiya, directed by her husband Sahid Latif. Sahir's famous poem, Pyaar par bas to nahin hai mera lekin, was included in the film.
BR Chopra and Yash Chopra always opted for Sahir, and after his separation with Burman da, Sahir brought in his assistant N Datta in BR Chopra's film Sadhana. Sahir suggested Khayyam's name to Ramesh Sehgal for his film Phir Subah Hogi (Raj Kapoor-Mala Sinha starrer). There were sharp political comments and a disillusionment of Nehruvian socialism in songs such as, Chino Arab hamara, Aasman pe hai khuda (Mukesh), Woh subah kabhi to aayegi (Mukesh-Asha), and a typical romantic duet in Sahir's style, Phir na keeje meri gustakhion ka gila.
Sahir and Khayyam gave beautiful numbers in Shagun: Parbaton ke pedon per shaam ka basera hai (Rafi-Suman Kalyanpur) and a traditional Gori sasural chali (Jageet Kaur); in Kabhi Kabhie, the title song, Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khyal aata hai, Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon (Mukesh). In Trishul, Yash Chopra wanted opening lines in the song, O sanam hum dono saath rahenge janam janam, gapuji gapuji gum gum kishi ki kishi ki kam kam, but Sahir refused to oblige.
After Burman da, Sahir had a long inning with Roshan. They worked together in film Babar, Tum ek baar mohabbat ka imtihaan to lo (Rafi), Salam-e-hasrat qabool kar lo, Payam-e-ishq mohabbat hamein pasand nahin (Sudha Malhotra), and a qawwali number, Haseeno ke jalwe pareshan rahte (Rafi-Asha-chorus), which became Roshan and Sahir's forte. Sahir had commented that Roshan could amalgamate his words with outstanding compositions.
Sahir never got married. His romantic alliance with poetess Amrita Pritam and singer Sudha Malhotra didn't bear fruition.
I met Sahir Saab in the 1970s in Delhi, when he had come to receive the Soviet Land Award through my friend late Rais Mirza. I remained in touch with him and spent several memorable evenings in Delhi and Bombay. This is when I realised that Sahir Saab was the most misunderstood person. He was called an arrogant man with a bloated ego, but I found him to be a very quiet person, a man of few words, and yaaron ka yaar (friend's friend).
As it was well known that he gave utmost importance to words, Sahir Saab told me that he would stick to his conviction. After the death of his mother, he became reclusive and stopped meeting people or going to mushairas. I visited him in the first week of October in 1980, at his residence Parchhaiyan in Bombay, to request him to participate in an All-India Mushaira that Doordarshan had planned to telecast. He didn't give any assurance and said, "Only if my doctor permits me to go to Delhi." He was ailing. We recorded the mushaira on October 23 without him. Two days later, he died of a massive heart attack at his doctor RP Kapoor's residence, where he had gone for a check-up.
Sahir Saab was buried next to his mother's grave. I still remember his prophetic words that "Words will lose its importance after my death." In the 1980s, words may have lost their pristine purity, but Sahir Saab left a treasure of nearly 750 songs (in 115 films), and those gems are still cherished by music lovers.
He was conferred Padma Shri and won two Filmfare Awards for Taj Mahal and Kabhi Kabhie. A hall in Government College of Ludhiana was named after him on its 50th anniversary in 1970. The postal department too issued a commemorative stamp in his honour.