In the 1940s, Lahore was in ferment. College students took to the streets with dreams of a free India, while poets, singers, dramatists and other artists provided the narrative to the rebellious spirits.
It came as no surprise then that Amrita Pritam, who had made a name in the literary circles of Lahore, fell for the young, strapping poet Sahir Ludhianvi, whose first work Talkhian, set the city on fire. In her twenties then, the Punjabi poet anchored a radio show, and the lyricist edited Adab-e-Lateef, an Urdu magazine.
Every bit of a rebel, Amrita stopped believing in god after her mother’s death when she was 11 and got married to one of her admirers, Pritam Singh, son of a hosiery merchant, when she was 16. However, the two could never develop a deeper connection as partners. Her love for Sahir, however, unrequited as it was — and maybe because of it — remained with her forever.
Eventually, Amrita Pritam, Sahir Ludhianvi, the man she loved, and Imroz, a painter and the man who loved her, all celebrated artists in their own rights, became the three ends of a triangle, who loved differently, but deeply.
“Amrita first met Sahir Ludhianvi in 1944 in a place called Preet Nagar during a mushaira and was immediately smitten by him,” says Akshay Manwani, author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet. Amrita wrote about their meeting once, “I do not know whether it was the magic of his words or his silent gaze, but I was captivated by him.”
She was proud of her love for Sahir and was courageous enough to talk about it openly, even unabashedly, in her first autobiographical work, Raseedi Ticket. “Posing for a picture of me at work, I was asked to sit and write on a paper with a pen in my hand. When I saw the paper later, I realised that absentmindedly I had written Sahir, Sahir, Sahir across the sheet,” she wrote.
She smoked Sahir’s leftover cigarettes, wished that her unborn child from her husband resembled him and likened various characters in her works to him. “When I would hold one of these cigarettes between my fingers, I would feel as if I was touching his hands…,” she wrote.
It is not known if Sahir felt the same way about Amrita. “Amrita’s love story with Sahir was one-sided. He may have cared for her, but he was never ready to commit,” says writer Nirupama Dutt.
Krishan Adeeb, wrote in Sahir: Khaaban Da Shehzaada, a book published by Punjabi University, Patiala, in 1988, “He loved her madly… Even if it was for brief periods, Sahir loved every woman madly. Countless women came into Sahir’s life.” Amrita was neither the first, nor the last.
Sahir had grown up seeing his jagirdar father ill-treat his mother, and his peers say he developed a “mother fixation”, and could never commit himself to any woman. “He did not believe in taking love to any logical conclusion. He only craved for the pain that lost love left him with. He wanted to write from the depths of that anguish. And his best works reflect that,” wrote Adeeb. “So far as I understand, poetry was Sahir’s only love to which he remained true till his last breath,” he says. Sahir once admitted to Adeeb, “It would be good if a woman came into my life and left, for it would help me write two-three beautiful songs.”
Amrita wrote in a later edition of the book, “He read Raseedi Ticket, but never spoke about it. Neither did I mention it (to him) ever.”
Sometime in the 1950s, Amrita’s hopes came crashing. Sahir, the famous poet, reigning over Bollywood as its highest-paid lyricist then, had found another love. “I was about to pick up the phone and call Sahir, when I saw the latest issue of Blitz. It had Sahir’s picture and a story that said he was with another woman. My hands froze…,” wrote Amrita.
Soon after, Amrita “cursed” herself to a hopeless and loveless loneliness, which was broken by Imroz in 1957, when she was looking for a designer for the cover of her book.
“Imroz is God… He accepted me with my past which was great enough. But what was even greater is that he made my pain his own. A pain starkly opposed to his happiness. Once when Imroz was painting the cover of Sahir’s work, Aao ki koi khwaab bune, Imroz said, ‘The scoundrel! Talks about weaving dreams when he could not become one’,” she wrote.
Amrita admits that “Imroz’s love was a gift” to her. “The helpless habit of years of writing only one name on papers, walls, hands made me trace Sahir’s name with my fingers on Imroz’s back when I would be sitting behind him on the scooter. Imroz would know the words and keep quiet about it. How he bore the weight of these words on his back I do not know.
I only knew he accepted me, my madness.”
When Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) was being made, Imroz was commissioned to design the publicity poster, which had Dutt and Waheeda Rehman. “Jinhe naaz hai hind par, woh kahaan hain,” a poem by Sahir was also part of the publicity material. Imroz had received two tickets for the premiere and wanted to take Amrita along. But when he went to ask her, she said she was already going for the premiere with Sahir. “I asked him if he felt bad and Imroz said, ‘Why should I feel bad? She has had a deeper friendship with him’,” says Dutt.
Pouring himself out in his letters to Amrita (put together by Uma Trilok in Amrita and Imroz: In the Times of Love and Longing), he expresses the tragic heroism of his love for her: “I did not know they would take away so much from me — the meaning of my existence, my manliness, my peace, my enthusiasm for life — just everything is lost. But I will not lose heart. I will not remain quiet. I will earnestly look for the one who has taken all that away — maybe I will go to the limit of courage, till the limits of sight, till the limit of imagination and even till the limit of life. I will try and find her and I am sure of my success.”
“Whenever you see my unfinished paintings, do have a good look at them — the moment your eyes fall on them, they become ‘paintings’, otherwise they are nothing but dead lines going from nowhere to nowhere,” wrote Imroz in one of the letters.
Imroz wrote to her regularly, trying to win her love during their years of separation in the early 1960s, before they finally started living together, without marrying, not to be separated for the next four decades. It was a unique relationship that transcended social sanctions and the formal legitimacy of law. And, perhaps, that is how it was meant to be. Amrita once wrote for Imroz, “I feel that the fourteen years that I spent pining for Sahir’s love were just a prelude to my passion for you….”