Thirty-nine years after his death, poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi (1921-1980) continues to enjoy public interest in his life and work. In 2013, Akshay Manwani presented an in-depth and insightful analysis of the poet and his writings in Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (HarperCollins). Now, a new biography titled Sahir: A Literary Portrait (Oxford University Press) by US-based Surinder Deol, 79, looks at his life through the prism of his poetry. He has translated about 90 nazms, ghazals and bhajans in English. Deol, in 2014, had also translated Mirza Ghalib’s Diwan-e-Ghalib and had called it Treasure: A Modern Rendition of Ghalib’s Lyrical Love Poetry. Deol has also co-authored Gopi Chand Narang’s classic treatise, Ghalib: Innovative Meanings and the Ingenious Mind (2017). Excerpts from an interview:
What are some of the cornerstones of Sahir’s poetry that accord him a singular status among the Progressive poets?
All Progressive poets shared some common themes — they were anti-war, pro-Independence, they opposed the excesses of the colonial-capitalistic system, and exploitation of the farmers and workers. Sahir had all of this, and he brought forth a lyrical style which he used to craft little stories within his poems. Taj Mahal, written in 1964, is a story of the meeting place that belongs to two lovers. Parchhaaiyaan (1955) hints at the misfortune of two lovers caught in the midst of a much bigger war. There are many other examples too. Secondly, Sahir was a communist sympathiser, but he never became a member of the Communist Party of India or an agenda-pushing poet. He always expressed his true feelings. There was never the pressure to toe the pro-Soviet line. So, we have this freshness in his poetry, which we don’t find in many other Progressive poets. He also had the most significant impact on the hearts and minds of people because he entered the film industry just at the right time, and he was much more successful than his peers.
The book also draws the parallel journey of another Progressive poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who, like Sahir, got early acclaim.
I talk about some of the commonalities between these two extraordinary poets in my book. In both the cases, there was one poem that worked for them like magic. For Faiz, it was Mujh se pehli si muhabbat mere mahboob na maang and for Sahir it was Taj Mahal. Another thing that both of them shared was the unique quality of ghazaliyat (lyricism) and taghazzul (versification). They were both nazm poets who also wrote beautiful ghazals, but they were the only ones who used the art of ghazal writing in producing great nazm poetry. In terms of differences, Faiz is definitely more political or we can say that the circumstances of life left no choice for him. Sahir kept his politics within certain undefined boundaries of progressivism. After Independence, he showed great reverence for Nehru and his socialist vision for India. We can also call Sahir an enlightened nationalist; his love for India as a country was unbounded; he admired the valour of men in uniform and they loved him in return. Although both were atheists, Faiz shows, at places, the influence of tasavvuff (Sufism) and Sahir, because of his heart-touching bhajans, became an exponent of Rama and Krishna bhakti, and a voice for the divine light. His words Allah tero naam, ishwar tero naam are permanently etched in Indian consciousness.
Is translating Sahir easier than other Urdu poets, like Ghalib?
Urdu poetry, in general, is difficult to render into another language because there are metaphors and similes that Urdu poets use, which are hard to describe meaningfully in English. Like Ghalib, Sahir is easy in places and also very difficult and abstract. There is no way we can bring his lyricism to its full flowering in another language, but anyone who is not familiar with Urdu can get a feel of his poetry. Most people love Pablo Neruda after reading him in English. I am sure people around the world will enjoy Sahir’s poetry because there is lot that is common between these two poets.
Do you see Sahir as a poet, a lyricist or a romantic? Or all rolled into one?
Sahir did something which no film lyricist did before. He transitioned his literary poetry from his book Talkhiyaan (1945) into film songs. Thus, Hindi cinema gained songs that were literary masterpieces. Pyaasa (1957) was a fusion of good cinema and great literature. Another good example is Kabhi Kabhie (1976). Sahir is always romantic on the surface and still hides a lot of bitterness underneath (exploitation of women in our society, income inequalities and violence).
What drew you to his poetry?
Going to college in the early ’60s was not a great time. India-China war was a great disappointment, followed by Nehru’s death. Then, there were wounds of the Partition that had not yet healed. The future didn’t seem very bright. Sahir showed us the mirror but also gave the message of hope and optimism. His snug romanticism, coupled with the coming ‘dawn’ (social and political revolution) that would take care of all our ills, appealed to young people of my generation. His words have the potential to inspire the young generation of today as well.
Do you think Sahir’s life and work were defined by the women in his life?
Sahir never talked about his romantic life. What we know comes from his friends or secondary sources. We can draw conclusions based on our understanding, but there are aspects of his life, for which we have conjectures but no clear answers. Sahir was a complex human being. His psyche was shaped by challenging circumstances — growing up in the care of a mother who faced grave financial and social constraints, disappointments in early romantic entanglements, an uncertain future; his inability to complete his college education. I agree with his friend Ahmad Rahi’s assessment: ‘In his entire life, Sahir loved once, and he nurtured one hate. He loved his mother, and he hated his father’.
How do you look at the legendary love story of Sahir and Amrita?
We only know one part of the story — Amrita fell in love with him at a young age; this love became a fire that slowly consumed her; she wrote about it in both prose and poetry. But Sahir never said a word about it. He liked Amrita immensely. He admired her talent. But whether he was in love with her is something for which we have no definite answer. I have tried to psychoanalyse him but have ended my pursuit with questions. Was he a man who was unable to get into a stable, romantic relationship? Was there something he found within himself that made him reluctant to initiate a relationship, knowing that it would go nowhere? Was his deep love and affection for his mother a roadblock? I wish we had answers.
What lessons can we get from Sahir’s poetry today?
Looking back, I can say that Sahir’s poetry never lost its relevance. He touched upon issues like poverty, inequality, gender gap, environment, the threat of a war that has not gone away. Some of the challenges are even bigger today than in his time. India’s natural beauty that was a sugary mix in his love and nature equation is more in danger today. India’s secular tradition faces its most significant test. Religion, which was our high strength, is being used to tear us apart. There are historic elections, and great victories are won in the midst of much jubilation, but what happens to democratic institutions and respect for peoples’ rights later are matters of concern. Sahir’s poetry is a beacon of hope. After the dark night, there is dawn. Things may look bad, but the future is always sunny and bright as long there are men and women of goodwill who aspire to create a better future. Woh subah kabhi to aayegi (that dawn will arrive some day) can never lose its magic.