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Sahir at 100: The ‘pal do pal ka shayar’ who doesn’t fade even 41 years after his death

Sahir Ludhianvi would’ve been 100 this March, and his lyrics and poetry still resonate for their philosophical tinge, symbolism & social consciousness.

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New Delhi: Last August, when India’s legendary cricketer and captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni announced his retirement as an international player in an Instagram post, he chose a song to play in the background that conveyed his emotions. The song aptly summed up his journey from then-cricketing backwater Ranchi to the helm of the Indian team.

It was ‘Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shaayar Hoon’ (I am a poet of a moment or two), the song voiced by Mukesh and picturised on Amitabh Bachchan in Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie (1976).

The man who penned this song was, like Dhoni, considered a ‘magician’ with his poetic talent. And that was only fair, since his name meant magician in Urdu. Sahir Ludhianvi would’ve been 100 if he had lived till 8 March this year, but a heart attack cut his life short on 25 October 1980.

But even 41 years later, the spell of Sahir’s words still lingers on the minds of Hindi film music fans. ThePrint looks back at the enduring legacy of Sahir and his lyrics and poetry.

Also read: Sahir’s poetry in Kabhi Kabhie and our forever connection with them

The ‘poet’ in the lyricist

Sahir’s fan-following exceeded that of his contemporaries like Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri and Anand Bakshi. Others had their unique traits too — Shailendra was known for the simplicity of his lyrics, Majrooh for versatility, Anand Bakshi for catching the audience’s pulse, but Sahir had the poet’s touch.

Through the 1950s, his partnership with S.D. Burman established the trend for poetic songs that was later expanded and further popularised by Burman’s son R.D. and Gulzar in the 1970s.

“Why is it that there are many actors, but one actor becomes the heartthrob? Same with poets; some of them have a different kind of magic,” Javed Akhtar, also a poet-lyricist, once said of Sahir.

Sahir had a falling out with S.D. Burman over the success of Guru Dutt’s melancholy masterpiece Pyaasa (1957), and they never worked together again. But Sahir went on to work with many other top music directors like Khayyam, Roshan, Ravi, Jaidev and N. Datta (Datta Naik), with the rare distinction of a lyricist enjoying greater standing than a composer.

Sahir’s philosophical gift

In the aforementioned ‘Main Pal Do Pal’ that Dhoni used to bid farewell, Sahir seeks to provide comfort to those stricken by existentialism, alluding to the ephemeral nature of life. It is perhaps a lesson not to take oneself too seriously.

The song is placed near the beginning of Kabhi Kabhie, establishing Amitabh Bachchan’s character as an up-and-coming but superb shayar, propounding that fame is temporary and poets are replaceable — the world is too busy to remember one who is gone. “Masroof zamana mere liye, kyun waqt apna barbaad kare,” it says.

This is among many songs in Sahir’s repertoire that carry a strong tinge of existentialism and other philosophical lines of thought.

Pyaasa is the culmination of his philosophical gift — the lead character played by filmmaker Guru Dutt himself is a misanthropic shayar who ponders:

Yeh mehlon, ye takhton, ye taajon ki duniya

Yeh insaan ke dushman samaajon ki duniya

Yeh daulat ke bhookhe riwaazon ki duniya

Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai…

(This world of palaces, thrones and crowns

This world of societies that are the enemies of human kind

This world of money-hungry rituals

Even if one gets this world, so what?)

Another classic from the same movie states:

Jaane wo kaise log the jinke pyaar ko pyaar mila

Humne to jab kaliyaan maangi, kaanto ka haar mila…

(Wonder what sort of people were those whose love was returned

When I asked for flowerbuds, I only got back a necklace of thorns)

In Chitralekha (1964), a love story between the eponymous courtesan (Meena Kumari) and Prince Beejgupt (Pradeep Kumar), in which Chitralekha renounces the world, but finds her guru charmed by her, Sahir questions the hypocrisy of spirituality through ‘Sansar se bhage phirte ho, bhagwan ko tum kya paaoge?’ (you run away from the world, how will you attain God?).

The very next line then curses: “Is lok ko bhi apna na sake, us lok mein bhi pachtaaoge” (you could not accept this world, you will have regrets in the other world too).

Another gem from this film, which was set to music by Roshan, is ‘Man re tu kaahe na dheer dhare’ (heart, why do you not keep your patience), in which Sahir again points towards ephemeral life and permanent death.

Utna hi upkaar samajh koyee, jitna saath nibha de

Janam-maran ka mel hai sapna, yeh sapna bikhraa de

Koyee na sang mare…

(One should be grateful for the company one gets from someone

Togetherness in life and afterlife is a dream, let this dream vanish

No one dies with you.)

Also read: In Hum Dono, lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi turns melodrama into a meditation on love, war & life

Symbolism, metaphors and social consciousness

Sahir’s ‘Laga chunari mein daagh’ from Dil Hi To Hai (1963) showcases another aspect of his poetic lyricism — his mastery of symbolism and metaphors. With Manna Dey’s brilliant classical-based vocals set to Roshan’s music, Sahir compares life to a woman’s marital home saying “wo duniya more babul ka ghar, ye duniya sasural” (that world is my father’s house, this world is my in-laws’ house).

Another shining example is ‘Main zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gaya’ (I went on being a companion to life) from Hum Duno (1961). The song, composed by Jaidev, says in its next line “har fiqr ko dhuein mein udaata chala gaya” (I kept smoking away the worries of life), as Dev Anand smokes a cigarette.

As a poet associated with the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Sahir wrote many nazms and songs, which stand out for how they speak truth to power.

There’s a dose of social consciousness in lyrics such as ‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega’, from Dhool Ka Phool (1959), in which a Muslim man is bringing up an “illegitimate” Hindu child he found abandoned in a forest — an allegory for communal tensions in India.

While ‘Saathi haath badhana’ from Naya Daur (1957) is a reflection of the spirit of camaraderie in Independent India, the songs of Phir Subah Hogi (1958) are indicative of a growing restlessness and despondency, reflected in ‘Wo subah kabhi to aayegi’.

The song ‘Cheen-o-Arab humara, Hindostan humara’ mocks Allama Iqbal’s ‘Tarana-e-milli’ — written for Pakistan and his ‘Saare jahan se achha hindostan humara’ written for undivided India — while turning its critical gaze on the problem’s plaguing the young and the destitute in India.

Sahir’s poetic masterpiece is the nazm Taj Mahal, in which he accuses Shah Jahan of mocking the love of the poor. A part of the poem is used in the film Ghazal (1964):

“Ik shehenshah ne daulat ka sahara lekar

Hum gareebon ki muhabbat ka udaaya hai mazaaq…”

Interestingly, fellow lyricist Shakeel Badayuni responded to Sahir by penning a song in the movie Leader (also 1964), expressing the opposite emotion:

Ik shehenshah ne banwa ke haseen Taj Mahal

Saari duniya ko muhabbat ki nishaani di hai…

(An emperor, in making the beautiful Taj Mahal

Has given the entire world a symbol of love)

Sahir also questioned social ills in songs such as ‘Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko, mardon ne use bazaar kiya’ (Woman gave birth to men, and men sold her off) in Sadhna (1958).

(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)

Also read: Sahir Ludhianvi’s hard-hitting, haunting words make ‘Phir Subah Hogi’ relevant even today


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