March 8, 2021 marks the birth centenary of Sahir Ludhianavi, legendary songwriter of a number of iconic Bollywood songs such as ‘Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai?’ ‘Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon’, ‘Chalo ek baar phir se ajnabi ban jayen hum dono’. However, I wonder if many will remember the lyricist on this day or mark the occasion in any meaningful manner, except for a small band of die-hard fans.
Part of a small clutch of highly talented lyricists like Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Shailendra, Shakeel Badayuni and Rajendra Krishan, who ruled the Hindi film world in the 50s and 60s, the golden era of the Hindi film song, Sahir has written some brilliant songs that are difficult to forget. The Hindi film song, though not always great poetry, still needs to be taken seriously, if for no other reason than that it has touched and influenced millions of ordinary Indians, uneducated and illiterate though they may have been and has connected with listeners who may not even have watched the movie to which the songs belonged. Hindi film songs have a vibrant existence, quite independent of their context in the films, furthered in the good old days by radio, which then ruled the air waves.
Even though the Hindi film song is no longer looked down upon as it once was, the lyricists of these songs still get short shrift. A clutch of books on the Hindi film song, released in the last decade or so, have brought some respectability and seriousness of approach to a genre otherwise overlooked and dismissed easily (remember the banning of film music on All India Radio by B.V. Keskar, India’s minister for Information and Broadcasting in the Nehru government?).
However, most studies still discuss mainly the music, the music directors or the singers. The lyricists are usually dismissed in a page or two, usually collectively. Even those devoted exclusively to the lyricists generally concentrate on their life and times, rarely discussing their ouvre as poets.
The few dedicated to Sahir mostly list the songs and poetry. When the poetry is discussed, it is in the context of his IPTA connection and his progressive-socialist outlook, which gave us landmark songs like ‘Jinhe naaz hai Hind par who kahn hai’ and ‘Woh subah kabhi to aayegi’. Lately Akshay Manwani, in his book Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet has taken a comprehensive look at Sahir and his poetry, giving us an excellent chapter on his songs in Guru Dutts ‘Pyaasa’.
However, it is Javed Akhtar, the poet-critic, who has made the most perceptive comments on Sahir’s poetry, pointing out that Sahir ‘merged his poetry and social conscience in all his songs’.
He also highlights his tendency to escape into nature in practically every successful romantic song he wrote. ‘He would turn the romance between the couple into some kind of universal dance. Because of nature’s participation, the affair would become ethereal and larger than life.’ This is true of course, but I also think that by doing so he could suggest rather than state, paint the emotion in delicate strokes and convey at the same time the transience and ephemeral quality of both life and love, which is a major theme in his poetry.
Many of Sahir’s songs are in chaste Urdu yet they connect easily with the masses. He writes within the broad traditions of the Urdu nazm and the Hindi film song but within that he manages to strike a distinctive note and articulate a unique voice. In this tradition, the dil (heart) and the nazar (eyes) are independent entities and the individual must negotiate with them to be allowed into one’s own interiority and to express one’s feelings and desires.
Take a song like ‘Ai dil mujhe bataa de/ Tu kis pe aa gaya hai/Wo kaun hai jo aakar/Khwabon mei chhaa gaya hai’/Tell me, dear heart, who has enamoured you/Who it is who has swamped your dreams?’. By making the dil into a persona in its own right, the lover can address it in the third person and create a distance between himself and his feelings. This allows for greater dramatization and also conveys the sense that the individual is at the mercy of forces other than and greater than him/herself.
In keeping with the tradition in Urdu ghazals, the entire focus in such songs is on the face: the eyes, the lips and mouth, and the tresses, which then become extended metaphors in the songs. A case in point is the song in the film ‘Pyaasa’ ‘Hum aap ki aankhon mein is dil ko basa dey toh?’. In this enchanting song Sahir takes the metaphor of eyes, a staple of the Urdu ghazal, and turns it into an extended word play, a conceit, as in John Donne’s extended metaphors.
The entire song hinges on the idea of the eyes being a gateway to love and thus accepting or rejecting love by keeping the eyes open or shut. When the lover suggests that he can make his heart the object of her adoration by filling her vision with it, the beloved retorts that she can close her eyes and prevent him from doing any such thing. When he threatens to torture the beloved in his dreams, she cleverly warns him that she will whisk away sleep itself from his eyes. Another example is the song ‘Dekhiye aap ne phir pyar se dekha mujhko’, where the word dekhiye is used twice, once with the meaning of ‘to please notice’ and then with the meaning of ‘to look’ so that it reinforces the complaint in the first line: ‘Complain not of my impudent gaze, for look you, it is you who has looked at me with love/longing’ to which the lady replies ‘Aap ke dil ne kayi baar bulaya mujhko/your heart called out to me several times’.
At his best, Sahir could elevate the humble Hindi film song to the level of high poetry. Look at the hauntingly beautiful ‘Yeh raat yeh chandni phir kahan’ which captures not just the mood of the changing seasons but the fleeting glory of youth and the fragility of passion:
Tere khayalon mein khoyi khoyi chandni/Lost in thoughts of you, this moonlight
Aur thodi der mein thak ke laut jayegi/Will tire out in a while and retrace its steps
Raat yeh bahar ki phir kabhi na aayegi/This night of effulgence will never ever return
Do ek pal aur hai ye saman/But for a moment or two do we have this mood.
And the realization that it requires the fortuitous combination of nature, youth and the ability to fire the imagination (‘spin tales’), for the fire of passion to be ignited:
Jati baharen hai, uthati jawaniyan/ Spring recedes, youth wanes
Taron ki chhaon mein keh le kahaniyan/ Under the shadow of the stars, let us spin a few tales
Ek baar chal diye gar tujhe pukar ke/ For having called after you once,
Laut kar na ayenge kaphile bahar ke/ If this caravan of spring departs, it will never ever return
In another song from Pyaasa ‘janey kya tu-ne kahi janey kya maine suni/Baat kuchh ban hi gayee/Who knows what you said; who knows what I heard/yet, things fell into place’, Sahir captures the hesitancy and uncertainty of the first steps in love. In keeping with the thrust of the opening lines of the song, the verses concentrate on the obliqueness of the experience: ‘sarsarahat si huyi; thartharahat si huyi/ jaag uthe khwab kayi baat kuchh ban hi gayee/A rustling . . . and a tremor . . . led to many desires blossoming’.
Another song from the same film, ‘Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo, janam safal ho jai/Possess me O beloved so that my life is fulfilled’ is written as a bhajan in the Bhakti tradition, practically in the voice of Meera Bai, the predominant Bhakti poet of North India. So authentic is this voice, and it is definitely a woman’s voice, that for a long time I was convinced that, written in chaste Hindi, it was a true Meera bhajan that Sahir had adapted. However, when protracted searches did not yield a match, I had to concede that it was an original Sahir rendition. Within the Bhakti tradition, which broke with all institutionalised forms of religion and society, the conflation of romantic love with divine love is a given and Meera’s songs, like those of Jayadev, are a prime example of it. In this song, just as we feel that the yearning of passion is so strong that it will drown the pull towards the divine, Sahir delicately restores the balance so that even as the earthly woman pines for her lover, burning in unquenched desire (Karoon laakh jatan morey man ki tapan, morey tan ki jalan nahi jaaye/No matter how hard I try the heat in my heart and the fire in my body are not quenched), the seeker of divine love longs to be drowned in the sea of love (Prem sudha… morey saanwariya, prem sudha itni barsa do jag jal thal ho jaye/Drown the world in the ambrosia of love, O Dark One). Fire and water maintain a delicate balance so that the song remains both, romantic and devotional at the same time.
As a lyricist, Sahir has a vast range. Besides romantic songs he has written songs of protest, comic songs, nonsense verse, lullabies, bhajans, qawwalis and ghazals, in mellifluous Urdu, chaste Hindi and everyday bambaiyya (Pyaar ka hove jhhagda ya business ka ho ragda/sab lafdon ka bojh hatey jab pade haath ek tagda/All headaches, whether of love or business disappear with one tight massage from me). This level of creativity needs to be heard, appreciated and celebrated with due respect and attention.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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