The Curious Case of Sahir Ludhianvi
By Asif Javed, MD
Williamsport , PA
Sahir Ludhianvi’s car was once intercepted by a notorious gang of dacoits near Gawaliar; he was forced to spend the night at their abode where he was treated like royalty, lavishly entertained overnight and asked by his hosts to read his poetry. It turned out that a popular lullaby written by Sahir for a Sunil Dutt movie “Mujhay jeenay do” had so moved the desperadoes that they were on the lookout for the poet. Deathly afraid at the time, Sahir may have realized belatedly the extent of his popularity. Sahir himself narrated that incident to his friend Hamid Akhtar.
Oct 25, 2010 will mark the 30th death anniversary of Sahir Ludhianvi. The lyricist par excellence may not be known to the present generation; but for those whose youth was spent listening to his melodies from All India Radio, his memory lives on. A lot has been written about his poetry by people a lot more qualified than me. It will suffice to say that he wrote for the poor and the oppressed and had leftist tendencies. It is Sahir the person that this article is all about.
Sahir did not come from an educated family; his father was illiterate as was his mother. He spent his youth with his mother in Ludhiana, went to college in Ludhiana from where he was expelled and then was admitted in Islamia College, Lahore where he hardly spent any time. His interest lay in poetry and so he began to move in the literary circles of Lahore and gained fame early. His first collection of poetry, Talkhian, was published in 1944. It brought him early recognition. After Partition, he shifted to Lahore along with his mother and lived at Abbot Road. Hamid Akhtar, the famous writer who was his friend, lived with him. Within a few months, however Sahir vanished from Pakistan and was never to return.
What made him leave Pakistan? It turns out he had been followed and harassed by the secret police since he was seen as a communist. A letter addressed to him by Shiekh Abdullah of Kashmir did not help. It was intercepted by the police and they were after him.
Sahir, despite his revolutionary ideas, was not known to be a man of strong nerves, and was overly afraid. To disguise himself, he is reported to have covered himself in an overcoat , muffler and a hat in the month of June and managed to board a flight of Orient Airways from Walton airport for Dhaka from where he went on to Bombay; he was never to return to the city of his beloved Amrita Pritam. And so one of the finest poets of his generation was lost to Pakistan; and he was not the only one to leave the country. Some time earlier, Lahore had lost Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who was disgusted by the treatment meted out to him and had moved on to India where he was received by Murarji Desai, the future PM of India, at the airport.
Sahir found enormous success in Bombay's film industry after a brief struggle and the rest is history. It would suffice to say that he almost revolutionized the way songs were written and the lyricists were treated. He demanded and received Rs 5000 per song when Lata was getting this amount for singing; he insisted that a lyricist's name should be announced with the song rather than the name of just the singer and composer; he was also the first to demand and receive the royalties for his songs. He got away with all this because he was in great demand and his filmi poetry brought a freshness, literary excellence and intensity that was lacking before. He teamed up with SD Burman and the two of them produced what was described as hit music for numerous movies in the 50's. The pair eventually fell out but Sahir continued to write and remained successful with many other composers like N. Dutta, Roshan and Khayam. Two Filmfare and a Padm Shree awards followed. In later years, he worked sparingly and imposed a Greta Garbo like seclusion upon himself. He died of heart attack in 1980 in Bombay.
Sahir led a strange life; hence the title of this article; he remained a bachelor all his life despite numerous love affairs. Some of these were high profile and well publicized like his ongoing affair with talented and equally successful Amrita Pritam. It began in Lahore -- she was already married -- and continued on and off for years in India. There was an engagement with the famous writer Hajra Masroor that was broken off by Sahir. The other names linked to him were Lata, Sudha Malhotra and Ashwar Kaur, a girl from his college who left home for Sahir but when the time came to make the decision, he lost nerve and could not decide. She married a distant relative instead.
There have been numerous theories about Sahir’s unwillingness to marry and lead a normal life.
The most intriguing aspect of Sahir’s later life was his reclusiveness. He seemed to have broken off most of his social contacts and hardly ever left home. Sahir’s admirers should be indebted to Hamid Akhtar again for some insight into the bizarre behavior of this eccentric genius. Hamid reports going to India in 1979 with the sole purpose of visiting Sahir who had survived a major heart attack some time earlier. The two of them had been close friends before Partition and would have been reuniting after 32 years. Mutual friends Kaifi Azmi and Ali Sardar Jafry had warned Hamid Akhtar about Sahir’s erratic behavior and suggested not staying with him. Hamid Akhtar proceeded nevertheless. This is what he reports: “Sahir that I saw had reached the zenith of popularity and success, had made millions but as a person, he had changed; he was ill-tempered, became a recluse, had detached himself from his past and all social contacts. He was leading an unnatural life and began to drink heavily. His companions drifted away slowly until no one was left to share his evenings; he was a lonely man”.
Hamid Akhtar’s portrait of Sahir is of a man who had attained every thing that he wished for—wealth, respect, power and popularity---but who was at a dead end. The success that he longed for had not brought any happiness; his friends avoided him and there were all kinds of funny stories about him. Sahir was a sensitive person, an idealist but not a practical man; he lacked self-confidence and had a peculiar theory of women; he had convinced himself that while women loved poets, they preferred to marry for money. In later life, this conviction may have prevented him from marrying.
He may have been lonely in life, but after death, he had the satisfaction of joining the greats of Indian cinema; his neighbors in the cemetery included Naushad, Rafi, Madhubala and Kaifi Azmi. A recent article in the Times of India reports that the remains of the above, as well as scores of others, have been disposed off and their tombs demolished to make space for new bodies. This may be painful for the fans of Sahir but the sensitive poet who famously wrote,”Pal do pal mayree hasti hay,” might have foreseen such an end and, perhaps, preferred it that way.
(The writer is a physician in Williamsport, PA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)