Finding Sahir Ludhianvi, the people's poet

Akshay Manwani has documented Sahir’s life in an exhaustive biography


Among the numerous song writers of Bollywood, Sahir Ludhianvi stands tall. Born as Abdul Hayee in pre-partition India, he adopted the pen name Sahir, an enchanter, apt enough for the emotions he conjures up in his poetry. During partition, when many were migrating to Pakistan, Sahir was the one who fled to India, and the rest is history.

Akshay Manwani, an NBA commentator and a freelance writer has documented Sahir’s life in his book Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet. The exhaustive biography traces the poet's life, from his troubled childhood and relationships, to his rise as one of the pre-eminent personalities of the Progressive Writers' Movement and his journey as a lyricist.

ALSO READ: Sahir Ludhianvi: The poet who lived ahead of his time

In an interview with THE WEEK, Akshay Manwani narrates his understanding of the people’s poet.

The people’s poet’ is a title you chose for the biography of Sahir Ludhianvi, which has been used for other poets as well. Why do you think it is justified for Sahir?

The kind of songs that Sahir has written and the issues he has raised in his writings are issues faced by common man. For instance, gender injustice in aurat ne janam diya mardon ko, mardon ne usey bazar diya; his demand for an equal and just society post-independence in jinhe naaz hai hind par wo kahan hain; injustice against marginalised in ye duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai and of quality politics in takht na hoga taj na hoga, kal tha lekin aaj na hoga. Reflecting upon these qualities of his work, we decided to select the title. I believe that the type of political song writing Sahir did, nobody else could do.

Is this the reason for his contemporary relevance?

In 1961, when Patrice Lumumba was assassinated, Sahir wrote a poem khoon phir khoon hai, tapkega to jam jaega (blood is still blood, if spilt it will clot). Such poems are relevant for ever. Sahir’s poetry matters for anyone who has seen injustice. I have also mentioned this in my book that once a judge while dismissing a case quoted Sahir’s lines in his verdict: wo afsana jise anjam tak lana na ho, use ek khubsurat mod dekar chorna acha. His songs like ye duniya agar mil bhi jaye in the movie Pyaasa or wo subah hami se ayegi have a sense of timelessness.

Being his biographer, is there any aspect of Sahir you would like to see emphasised more?

I think we should have more people studying his poetry. I got interested in him for various other reasons. But when I was in school or college, I had no idea who this man was. We had no introduction to such progressive poets like Majrooh, Kaifi, Jan Nisar Akhtar and more in our schools. The literature of such poets and writers like Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chander should be made more accessible. Their literary output should be introduced at a basic level so that if tomorrow someone wants to study them, it is possible.

Was there a shift from activism to romance in Sahir’s poetry later in life?

I do not think so. In fact, Sahir was one of those poets who always discussed politics and activism in his songs and poems. As a poet progresses, he starts writing more on the social upliftment and angst among the masses. If you take a look at Kala Pathar, one of his later films, you will sense the socialism he was known for. Even the songs he has written for a comical context have a dash of activism.

What do you think was the reason for his abortive love affairs?

One can only speculate the reason he never married. He believed that there are many other things in this world other than love, which he has mentioned in some of his songs as well. In a song from the film Didi, pictured on Sunil Dutt and Shubha Kote, the female character complains of the neglect from the male to which he replies:

Zindagi sirf mohabbat nahi kuch aur bhi hai

Zulf rukhsar ki jannat nahi kuch aur bhi hai

Bhuk aur pyas ki maari is duniya me

Ishq hi ek haqiqat nahi kuch aur bhi hai

Tum agar ankh churao to ye haq hai tumko

Maine tumse hi nai sabse mohabbat ki hai

This is an example of Sahir confirming himself to the humanitarian problems. Maybe because he thought if his love comes in the way of his writing, he will not be able to keep the two intact. He also shared a special bond with his mother. The reason he never married could be that he never wanted to give the place reserved for his mother to somebody else.

Is there an anecdote about Sahir you would like to share?

I interviewed Yash Chopra for my book. He narrated an incident—when he arrived in Bombay, his elder brother B.R. Chopra was already an established filmmaker. B.R. Chopra asked young Yash Chopra if he would like to meet any superstar of that time among Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand or the likes. Yash Chopra’s reply was: “I want to meet a songwriter, and his name is Sahir Ludhianvi.” This shows how popular he was at that time. In Punjab, where his roots were, he was already a well known poet. Thus, Sahir was introduced to Yash Chopra through B.R. Chopra and what followed was his lifelong association with the Chopras.