Shaped by life’s trials and tribulations, Sahir worked on his own terms. Remembering the people’s poet on his 102nd birth anniversary.
Enamoured by a couplet of Allama Iqbal, a young Abdul Hayee adopted Sahir (wizard) as his takhallus – nom de plume. True to the word, Sahir rose to become a wizard of words, overcoming several setbacks in his early life, including a troubled childhood inflicted upon him by his depraved feudal father.
Duniya Ne Tajurbaat-o-Havaadis Ki Shakl Mein
Jo Kuchh Mujhe Diya Hai Wo Lauta Raha Hoon Main
(Whatever the world threw at me
I am only giving it back)
Born on March 8, 1921, Sahir saw his mother Sardar Begum divorced when he was just eight years old. They lived in extreme poverty which became a source of Sahir’s hate against his rich father and reverence for his mother.
After doing his matric in 1937, Sahir got enrolled in Government College, Ludhiana.
Being an industrial town, Ludhiana had a sizeable body of working class families. This was also a time when social discontent against the British was simmering. Sahir became a member of the All India Students Federation and a vocal communist supporter. At college, he fell in love with Mahinder Chaudhary, but destiny had other plans. Mahinder died after a bout of tuberculosis and Sahir was left to nurture his wounds by delving deeper into poetry which now had a strong element of sorrow and loss.
After a while, he was to find another love: Ishar Kaur. Soon, their story became part of the college gossip circles that made Kaur reluctant to go further.
A Sikh girl seen in a relationship with a Muslim boy could create trouble back in the day and she might have sensed the improbability of the two of them coming together for life.
This submission to social norms and reluctance to revolt is reflected in Sahir’s poem Yaksuee – The Sulk.
Jab Tumhe Mujhse Zyada Hai Zamane Ka Khayaal
Phir Meri Yaad Mein Yun Ashk Bahaati Kyon Ho?
Tum Mein Himmat Hai Toh Duniya Se Baghawat Kar Lo
Warna Maan Baap Jahaan Kehte Hain Shaadi Kar Lo
(When you’re more worried about what the society says
Why shed tears for me?
Have the courage to stand up to the world
Or marry the man your parents choose for you)
Kaur was married off to a distant relative, leaving Sahir with a recurrent theme of a disloyal /unfaithful girl and a despondent, defeated lover in his several poems and songs. These two failed relationships and his political activism seems to have become the reason for Sahir to leave the college before the completion of his degree in 1941.
Sahir left for Lahore in 1943, a city that was vibrant with cultural and literary activities, much like Paris of the twenties and the thirties. He got admission in Dayal Singh College and became the president of the Lahore Students Federation. His socio-literary activities became more intense in a charged political atmosphere and he was forced to leave his academic curriculum midway by the college authorities once again because of his non-academic pursuits. He left Islamia College as well without appearing in his bachelors examination, finding consolation in the publication of his first collection of poems, Talkhiyaan (The Bitterness) in 1943-44 at the age of twenty three.
Talkhiyaan transformed Sahir into a people’s poet and it remains one of the largest selling collections of Urdu poems with translations in several languages. Moving away from the themes of love to more compelling social issues, Sahir articulated in his poems questions about the world around him.
This journey from gham-e-jaana (the beloved) to gham-e-dauran (concerns of the time) defined Sahir in this phase of his career.
The revolutionary tone with a critique of the society and nation, disillusionment with capitalism, the plight of a layman and sympathy for the downtrodden made Sahir a great voice of his times. This defines his perspective of the everlasting symbol of love, Taj Mahal. The eponymous poem remains a landmark in Urdu literature, enough to give Sahir his eternal, immortal place. Juxtaposing the use of state power, the wealth of a ruler to create a monument for his beloved to that of a poor man, a labourer who might have worked in the creation of this edifice with his sweat and blood having the same intensity for his beloved as the emperor, but not the resources, Sahir made us see the reality behind the creation of the marble marvel.
Taj Mahal created anuproar and a divide in the rightwing Muslim papers as also in certain progressive quarters, but it also gave Sahir a well-deserved recognition and a bigger following. He was already the editor of Adab-e-Lateef, a popular progressive magazine.
Sahir accepted an offer to write songs for the film Azaadi Ki Raah Par and came to Bombay in early 1946.This gave him the opportunity to mingle with some of the most popular and eminent names of Urdu literature who had assembled under the umbrella of Progressive Writers Association and Hindi films. Sahir was at the forefront of their weekly meetings and regular mushairas.
His lengthy poem Parchhaaiyaan, an anti-war masterpiece, is incomparable to any other poem on this theme. Lives of two ordinary lovers caught up in the turmoil of a war fought by the Indian soldiers for others, the control over war and peace, highlighting its horrors on the society as a whole against the backdrop of a relationship between two individuals makes it special.
Parchaiyaan was close to Sahir’s heart and he named his Juhu house after it and stayed there till his death in 1980 at the age of 59.
The trauma of partition made Sahir leave for Lahore to fetch his mother. But Lahore then was different from the pre-Partition city and Sahir with his editorship of Savera became a target of the new regime and he had to flee after an arrest warrant against him in 1948. Now in Delhi, Sahir worked in Shah Raah and Preetladi publications only to finally leave for Bombay in 1949, this time with his mother in tow. The two got an accommodation in the outhouse of Krishna Chander’s Coover Lodge.
After his first unsuccessful stint as a lyricist, Sahir got a big break with SD Burman in Naujawan with thandi hawaayein, lehra ke aayen sung by Lata Mangeshkar in 1951 that changed the way lyrics were penned. Using the metaphor of nature for blossoming of love, Sahir brought in a breezy freshness. His next hit with SD Burman was Guru Dutt’s directorial debut Baazi. Tadbeer se bigdi Hui taqdeer bana le was the ghazal that was composed as a cabaret number and worked big time in making Burman-Sahir a popular combine. This pair would go on to give songs in many more films culminating with Pyaasa (1957). Based on the story of a poet, Pyaasa became a show window for display of Sahir’s social concerns in his lyrics and poetry. Using some of his published poems and some new ones for the film, Pyaasa had Sahir’s poetry in the foreground with rare expressions in lyrics of a film song like jinhe naaz hai Hind par vo kahan hain or yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai. Under the inspired picturisation of these poems by Guru Dutt, Pyaasa redefined the role a song could play in the narrative of a film. The climax of Pyaasa with yeh duniya agar remains a cinematic landmark enhanced by Sahir’s poetic flourish.
Pyaasa (1957) was rated by Time Magazine as one of the 100 greatest films of all times. The enormous success of the film and its music with Sahir reportedly claiming that his lyrics played a bigger role, while Burman believed it was his score that worked, brought an end to their relationship. Having a great deal of self-respect bordering on a massive ego, Sahir started demanding a rupee more than the music director of his films. With faith in the power of his lyrics, Sahir chose to work with lesser known but capable music directors like N. Dutta, Burman’s assistant, in Milaap, Chandrakanta, Saadhna and Yash Chopra’s directorial debut, Dhool Ka Phool (between 1955-59). The popular song of Naya Daur (1957), Saathi haath badhaana, gave composer O.P. Nayyar his first Filmfare Award. Sahir’s work with Roshan comprised several important musical films like Barsaat Ki Raat (1960) for which Sahir penned the famous qawwali na to karvan ki talash hai that brought a new charm to this form in a film song. Later Taj Mahal (1963) won Sahir his First Filmfare Award for jo vada kiya.
Hum Dono (1961), with another SD Burman assistant Jaidev, had some evergreen numbers like main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya, kabhi khud pe kabhi haalat pe, abhi na Jao chhod kar. In Ghazal (1964), three versions of rang aur noor ki baaraat was another creative triumph in collaboration with Madan Mohan. With Waqt (1965), Sahir and Ravi became a permanent combination with B. R. Films. Yash Chopra was another avowed admirer of the poet who never made a single film without Sahir till he was alive. Sahir got Khayyam to give music for Kabhi Kabhi (1976) after Lakshmikant Pyarelal refused to compose kabhi kabhi mere dil mein. Earlier, Khayyam had worked with Sahir for Ramesh Saigal’s Phir Subah Hogi (1958)and Shagoon (1964). The title ‘Phir Subah Hogi’ was based on a poem Sahir had written in his first published work, Talkhiyan. The Kabhi Kabhi album had Sahir’s poetry with elements from the poet’s unrequited love. Kabhi Kabhi got Sahir his second Filmfare Award. Sahir’s work in other films around that time is mediocre by his standards.
Romances and Rumours
Sahir’s romances and subsequent partings find echo in his poetry and songs but have also become a matter of intrigue for those who follow his life and times. Every week or month you find something on Sahir – Amrita Pritam unrequited love story in some magazine or social media. Several earlier poems are attributed to their reported affair. Sahir seems to have developed a commitment phobia or did not want a woman in his house apart from his mother. These have been some of the opinions expressed by several people. But it is pertinent to note that Sahir was no ordinary man to allow circumstances to dictate his course of life. He could have stood up, proposed and married Amrita Pritam had he wanted to. But he did nothing of the sort. Amrita Pritam’s fascination for Sahir bordered on madness from the time she met and heard him in 1944 by her own admission. Already married, she was captivated by him and would frequently meet him in Lahore socially. Her autobiography, Raseedi Ticket, gave wind to the grapevine and became the subject of coffee-shop gossip of literary circles with her admission of unabashed love for Sahir. Singer Sudha Malhotra found herself linked with Sahir too. On the remark of a music director that without Lata’s voice your songs will be ineffective, Sahir took a pledge not to write songs for films where Lata Mangeshkar would be a playback singer and went for Sudha Malhotra for songs that made her a popular singer. Sudha Malhotra gave credit to Sahir for her career and success, but maintained that it was a professional relationship of mutual respect and nothing more. But that too remains a speculative story. Though they remained in touch, Amrita-Sahir-Imroz relationship remained friendly and dignified till the end. For someone like Khushwant Singh, most likely reasons for these failures were linked to Sahir’s ‘mother-fixation’ or that the poet-lyricist probably drank himself to impotency.
Sahir remains one of the most popular Urdu poets and would be remembered for giving the dignity to Hindi film lyricists. In a career of 30 years, Sahir wrote 718 songs for 111 films. He incorporated many of his poems and ghazals in films. He believed in the power of a film song that made poetry accessible even to illiterate cine-goers. Most of the poets who took to writing lyrics had to accept the medium, but the medium of film songs accepted Sahir on his terms and that gives him a unique place among lyricists.
Salim Arif is a National School of Drama (NSD) alumnus credited with bringing Urdu back into the mainstream Indian theatre.