Around March 8, 2021, the day Sahir Ludhianvi would have turned 100, an audio clip, similar to a popular movie song, did the rounds on social media saying it was Sahir singing a verse of his own. The claim was false. The singer was, a few days later, identified as music composer Jaidev, who had set Sahir’s lyrics to tune in the 1961 movie Hum Dono. Sahir was not known to ‘sing’ his poetry; he would recite it. Besides, the voice in the clip was not his Punjabi-laced baritone.
Once the air cleared over who the singer was, the discussion veered to the contents of the song. The meter was similar to Sahir’s carefree lyrics in Hum Dono for Captain Anand’s Har fikr ko dhuyen mein udata chala gaya. While some pointed to the meter to say the writer was Sahir, others insisted he would not write “such stuff”. There were some who did research and identified the poet as Abdul Hameed Adam. The jury is out at the time of writing this.
More than a decade ago, somebody wrote on a social media platform that Sahir had appeared in a scene in Guru Dutt’s 1957 masterpiece, Pyaasa. His admirers dug out VCDs of the movie to see how he looked in person. They found no Sahir. That claim was false, too.
Whether it was the audio clip wrongly ascribed to Sahir or the false claim that he had appeared in a movie he wrote lyrics for, many people lapped it up. Thanks to some deft fact-checking, the believers moved on. The loss, they knew, was not Sahir’s.
In 2007, many hearts broke when a Mumbai paper reported that Sahir’s home in Juhu’s Parchhaiyan apartment complex was in a state of ruin. His books, letters and other items were covered with pigeon droppings and engulfed by spiderweb. In 2019, an NGO bought his handwritten letters, diaries, poems and black-and-white pictures – possibly collected from his apartment – from a scrap dealer for ₹3,000. These belongings remind one of Pyaasa, in which poet Vijay’s work is sold to a scrap dealer for 10 annas.
Why is it that a poet dead for 40 years is remembered so fondly that people want to claim him? What leads people to believe unverified stories about him? The easy answer to these questions lies in the scores of immensely popular movie songs he wrote. People find situations from their own lives in his lyrics like Mere dil main aaj kya hai tu kahe to main bata doon (Daag, 1973) and the title song Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayal aata hai. Such romantic numbers are still immensely popular. But they do not adequately represent the grain of Sahir’s thought.
Sahir’s poetry is reflective, often dwelling on the harsh realities of life. One such recurrent theme in his poetry is the temporariness of man, and his happiness, wealth and fame. His advice, even in film lyrics, is to be humble and respectful of time. As in the lyrics of a song from Waqt (1965):
Aadmi ko chahiye waqt se dar kar rahe
Kaun jaane kis ghadi waqt ka badle mizaj
(Man should be fearful of time
For who knows when time’s temperament will change)
In his nazm Kabhi Kabhi (only a part of it was adapted for the 1976 movie), Sahir likens himself to a wave:
Sagar se ubhri leher hoon main
Sagar mein phir kho jaunga
Matti ki rooh ka sapna hoon
Matti mein phir so jaunga
(I am a wave that has risen from the sea
In the sea I shall get lost
I am a dream of soil’s soul
In soil I shall go to sleep)
After receiving the Padma Shri in 1971, at the peak of popularity, Sahir thanked his countless admirers with a poem that almost predicted the loneliness that would engulf him a few years later.
Izzaten, shohraten, chahaten, ulfaten
Koi bhi cheez duniya mein rehti nahin
Aaj main hoon jahan, kal koi aur tha
Aaj itni mohabbat na do doston
Ki mere kal ki khaatir na kuch bhi rahe
Aaj ka pyaar thoda bacha kar rakho
Mere kal ke liye
Kal jo gumnam hai, kal jo sunsan hai
Kal jo anjan hai, kal jo veeran hai
Main to kuch bhi nahin, main to kuch bhi nahin
(Honour, fame, affection, love
None of these things remains in the world.
Somebody else was where I am today.
Do not give me so much love today, my friends,
That nothing of it remains for me tomorrow.
Save some of today’s love
For my tomorrow.
A tomorrow that is nameless, a tomorrow that is deserted
A tomorrow that is unknown, a tomorrow that is desolate.
I am nothing, I am nothing)
“Happiness, like life, is fleeting; grab it before it disappears” was Sahir’s message in a 10-minute-long qawwali from the 1980 potboiler The Burning Train:
Har khushi kuch der ki mehman hai
Poora kar le dil mein jo armaan hai
Zindagi ik tez-rau toofan hai
Iska jo peecha kare nadaan hai
“Nobody knows what tomorrow holds” is a theme heard in a Gumrah (1963) song where a young girl asks her father whether she would be as happy as she is now:
Ik din usne bholepan se poocha ye Papa se jaake
Ab main khush rehti hoon jaise, sada hi kya khush rahungi aise
Papa bole, meri bachchi baat bataun tujhko sachchi
Kal ki baat na koi jaane, kehte hain yeh sabhi siyane
(One day she innocently asked her father,
Will I be as happy forever as I am today.
The father replied, my child, I will tell you the truth:
Nobody knows what the future is, the wise say)
Sahir, hopeful of a future where religion has evolved into a better form, put his thoughts in the mouth of Chitralekha, the courtesan who is the protagonist of a 1964 movie that bears her name. In a searing indictment of orthodoxy, he wrote:
Yeh paap hai kya, yeh punya hai kya
Reeton par dharm ki mohren hain
Har yug mein badalte dharmon ko
Kaise adarsh banaoge
(What are sins, what are virtues?
Religion’s stamps on tradition they are
How a religion changing in every era
Will you make your ideal?)
The same bard who cautioned people about the ephemerality of man’s life and fortune sometimes advocated a carefree, here-and-now approach as a way to beat the vicissitudes of time. For Waqt, Sahir wrote these lines, immortalised by composer Ravi and singer Asha Bhonsle 55 years ago:
Is pal ke saaye mein apna thikana hai
Kal kisne dekha hai, kal kisne jaana hai
Is pal se paayega jo tujhko paana hai
Jeene waale soch le yahi waqt hai, karle poori arzoo
(Our abode is in the shadow of this moment
Who has seen tomorrow, who knows tomorrow?
From this moment you shall get what you want
O living one, think, this is the time to fulfil your wishes)
Sahir’s advice was, “Jo bhi hai, bas yahi ek pal hai” (Whatever is there is this very moment). Wise words from a person who had a troubled childhood and a turbulent youth; one who reached the peak of popularity but wondered what lay ahead; one who was lonely amid people; one who was said to be extremely insecure in his last years.
(The writer is a journalism professor who turned to teaching after working in newsrooms for more than three decades.)