Bay Area Remembers Sahir Ludhianvi on His 83rd Birthday
By Usman Qazi

Yaum-e-Sahir, an event to pay tribute to Sahir Ludhianvi, a major poet and lyricist from South Asia, was held at the ICC in Milpitas, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area. The event, which fell close to the 83rd anniversary of Sahir’s birth on March 8, was attended by over 200 people and the two hours that it lasted were educational as well as entertaining for the attendees.


L to R : Ms. Chopra, Ali Hasan Cemendtaur, Rajni Dubey, Sulekha Choudhary, Anil Chopra, Hamida Chopra, U.V. Ravindra, Sabahat Ashraf and Tariq Rahman


Yaum-e-Sahir was the latest in a series of successful literary evenings arranged in tribute to the masters of Urdu literature by Hamida Chopra, who has taught Urdu at the University of California, Berekely, and is a relentless patron of the Urdu language and literature. Previous events have included “Jahaan-e-Ghalib” and “Darbar-e-Zafar”, the latter devoted to the major poets associated with the last Mughal court in Delhi.
The proceedings started with Ms. Chopra’s recitation of a poem in which Sahir describes his writing and the moving spirit behind it:
Dunya nay tajurbat aur havadis kee shakl mein
Jo kuchh mujhay diya hai, lota raho hoon mein
She then introduced Dr Tariq Rahman, a linguist who holds the Quaid-i-Azam Chair in Pakistan Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr Rahman presided over the meeting. The microphone was then passed on to local writer and multimedia artist, Ali Hasan Cemendtaur, to emcee the program. Cemendtaur has seven books in Urdu and English to his credit and is currently working on an animation film and a documentary.
The evening proceeded with a recollection of the milestones in Sahir’s life and achievements, and recitations of his poetry.
Prem Joshi, a retired engineer originally from Allahbad, sang ‘Pyar per bas to nahin hain mera laikin phir bhee, Tu bata daay tujhay pyar karoun ya na karoun’ in a mellifluous voice that appeared to be much appreciated by the audience.
Rajni Dubey, who originally hails from Delhi and who has sung on radio and TV in India, sang both “Havis naseeb nazar ko kahin qarar nahi” and “Kon kehta hai muhabbat kee zuban hotee hai”.
Sulekha Choudhary, a scientist by profession, who was introduced as Bulbul-e-San Jose, sang “Khuda kaay wastay ab bay rukhee saay kam nah lay”. Her beautiful rendition visibly moved the audience.
Anil Chopra, a professor at UC Berkeley, in his presentation said that sentimentalism and a desire for revolution were the two important themes of Sahir’s poetry. He read Sahir’s “Teri Awaz” to illustrate the sentimental side of Sahir’s poetry:
Raat sunsan thee bojhal thee fiza kee sansain
Rooh peh chhaaay thaay bay-nam ghamon kay saay
Mr Chopra then read Sahir’s famous poem on the “Taj Mahal” as an example of a poem soaked with a desire for revolution:
Yeh chaman zar yeh jamna ka kinara yeh mahal
Yeh munaqqash dar-o-deevar yeh mehrab yeh taaq
Aik shahanshah nay daulat ka sahara lay ker
Hum ghareebon kee mohabbat ka uraya hai mazaaq
Sudha Jauhar, born in Gujarat, Pakistan, sang “Tang aa chukay hain kash makash e zandagi saay hum”.
Rajni Dubey, in her second appearance on the stage, sang Sahir’s famous poem “Chuklay.” This poem is not for the faint-hearted. Sahir packs more than a few powerful punches in it. He challenges the “eulogizers of the sanctity of the East” or “Sanaakhwaan-e-thaqdhees-e-mashriq” (who are often also the strongest critics of the West’s immorality) to go and see for themselves the exploited women in the brothels of our Eastern lands:
Yeh koochay yeh neelaAm ghar dil-kashee kay
Yeh lut-thay hoay karvan zindagi kay
Kahan hain kahan hain muhafiz khudee kay?
Sana-khwan-e-taqdees-e-mushraq kahan hain?
It is hard to read or listen to Sahir’s ‘Chuklay’ without a stream of tears flowing down one’ cheeks.
Madad chahtee hai yeh Hawa kee bai tee
Paighambar kee ummat, zulekha kee baitee
In the prose section of Yaum-e-Sahir, running in parallel to the recitations, the poet’s life, his achievements and peculiarities were noted by Cemendtaur, Hamida Chopra, U. V. Ravindra (Ravi), Sabahat Ashraf (iFaqeer), and Tariq Rahman.
Cemendtaur presented a rather interesting comparison between Sahir and Saadat Hasan Manto. He said that writers and poets are supported by their pen only when these creative artists are able to be compensated for their labor, and the market for their writing is directly dependent on the literacy level in a country. “Because of the overall low literacy in South Asia, people who live by their pen, in general, don’t seem to live a comfortable life. But writers and poets are supposed to be proud of their creativity, so how come these creative artists of our lands don’t find creative ways to be financially strong?” Cemendtaur said that Sahir and Manto took diametrically different paths. While Sahir moved from Lahore to Bombay, Saadat Hasan Manto moved from Bombay, where he was pursuing a successful career in writing, to Lahore to ultimately die in poverty. In Cemendtaur’s view Sahir made the right choice by creatively finding a way to live off his pen. “When the general population in our region is not reading books and instead watching movies, then our creative artists should fit in somewhere in the production of the movies.”
Hamida Chopra read an informative paper on Sahir which delineated the life history of the man who was born as Abdul Hai in a landed family in Ludhiana, now in the Indian part of the Punjab; saw poverty in his childhood as his mother decided to move out of his father’s house when the father married a second wife; his unrequited love in the college; the move to Lahore during the Partition of the Subcontinent; finding out a few years later that an arrest warrant had been issued for him for his ‘rebellious’ writings in the newspaper ‘Sawera’, moving back to India and then ultimately ending up in Bombay and working for the film industry. Chopra peppered her paper with interesting anecdotes that gave a glimpse into the idiosyncrasies and private life of the great poet. She said that Sahir was not happy writing film songs because he didn’t believe this was what a true poet should do. However, Sahir never hesitated to fight for his own or other peoples’ rights, among other things serving as the President of the Film Workers’ Union.
Mr U.V. Ravindra, usually known as “Ravi”, read a paper that focused on Sahir’s career in the film industry. Ravi chronologically described most of the films Sahir wrote songs for, informing the audience that the first film Sahir wrote for was “Azadee kee rah peh”, released in 1948, before he moved to Bombay. He said that whereas Sahir spent quite some time in Lahore his longest stay was in Bombay where the film industry made great use of Sahir’s talent in poetry. “Sahir’s first superhit movie was ‘Bazee.’ The last film Sahir wrote songs for was ‘Jio aur Jeenay do’ posthumously released in 1982 (Sahir died in 1980)”, along the way forming very productive partnerships with such musical greats as SD Burman, OP Nayyar, Roshan, and others.
Sabahat Ashraf, a Silicon Valley writer and activist who blogs extensively under the name “iFaqeer” (his blog is at http://ifaqeer.blogspot.com) paid his homage to Sahir from the point of view of a person who grew up in the 70s, when such movies as “Kabhi Kabhi[]”, named after a poem by Sahir, were popular. In his homage to Sahir, Sabahat said that poets give people the words and sentences that people use to express themselves. Mr. Ashraf said that everybody is affected by things around him but only the poets and the writers have the skills to portray their experiences in words, and the rest of the community uses these descriptions to help others - and sometimes, themselves - understand the experiences and feelings that they go through. He said that for several generations of South Asians, the first exposure to Sahir, and often to Urdu literature itself, was through the movie lyrics that Sahir wrote. He added that because of the fact that Sahir did not compromise the standards of language or depth of thought that is usually associated with Urdu poetry, he served as a bridge between pop culture and the world of Urdu literature. His closing thought was that that this bridge is a very important one, serving to raise the level of discourse in pop culture while at the same time providing the community that identifies itself with the Urdu language a seat at the table in the 21st century’s media-dominated society.
Tariq Rahman, presiding over the literary evening, acknowledged his ignorance about Urdu literature itself, but said that he had studied Sahir and his poetry from the point of view of its importance in the development of political movements and political thought in South Asia.. Dr. Rahman said that whereas Sahir himself was not a philosopher, his poetry was often used by the philosophers, especially by the thinkers of the Left. For example, the quatrain quoted above from Sahir’s famous poem “Taj Mahal” were often quoted in progressive and communist circles in the context not only of the imperialism of the Mughals, but as a powerful statement about all kinds of imperialism.
Tariq Rahman said that whereas at one time he had thought that it was a great loss for Pakistan to have driven Sahir Ludhianvi away, his thinking had evolved to where he understood that poets and artists do not belong to any particular country their work enriches the life of all who are reached by their art. Even though Sahir left for Bombay what he produced is now enjoyed by and edifies Pakistanis just as much as it would have if he had lived in Pakistan itself. To that this writer adds that had Sahir not left Lahore, he probably would not have become the part of the popular culture the way he did become, and consequently would not have reached the multitudes he now reaches.
The evening ended with Hamida Chopra thanking the audience and announcing about the next program in the series - an evening on Jigar Muradabadi and Asghar Goandvi, to be held on June 25 at the ICC. She ended the evening by reciting Sahir’s poem “Hiras”.
Teray honton peh wo-h tabassum kee halkee see lakeer
Mairay takhayul mein reh reh ker chhalak uththee hai
It was not only the sweet memories that the attendees were able to take home with them. An audio CD of Hamida Chopra reciting Sahir’s poetry from his book “Parchahian” was also available for sale at the event.

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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