Born as Abdul Hayee in Karimpura, Ludhiana 92 years to the day, on 8th March 1921, he would single-handedly ignite my love for Urdu poetry, and ensure that I also learned the intricate Urdu script entirely on my own. I was in college in the late 60’s, and Abdul Hayee had by then metamorphosed into Sahir Ludhianvi.
Being in our teens, it was naturally the intensity of romantic poetry that really drove us. At Fergusson College, we had formed a society much like the Dead Poet’s Society of the Robin Williams film. Ayn Rand’s highly rightist literature, the intensity of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s verses, and the sheer passion of Sahir Ludhianvi – these were animatedly discussed and shared in the college amphitheatre, or over dosas and coffee at Vaishali.
The greats – Ghalib, Meer, Iqbal and Faiz were far too obtuse, and would come much later. It was Sahir and Kaifi Azmi and Balraj Sahni of the Indian People’s Theatre Association and the Progressive Writer’s Association who were our soldier heroes of the day.
In 1969, the Ghalib Centenary was being observed/celebrated all over India, and there was a mushiara being held at Bal Gandharva Theatre, Poona. Sahir was to attend. We managed to wrangle our way into the theatre, and seeing the great Sahir stride into the auditorium was the highlight of my college years (yes, dad – I know, that’s the reason I didn’t do too well, and had to settle for a career in the Army!)
Whereas every other poet on the dais recited glowing eulogies to Ghalib, Sahir stunned the audience by reciting his nazm `Who toh Urdu zubaan thi’ which lambasted the step-motherly treatment given to Urdu, while deifying Ghalib.
Ghalib jisay kehtay hain Urdu hi ka shaayar tha
Urdu pay sitam dhaa kar Ghalib pe karam kyu’n ho
The hall was aghast, and the moderator Ali Sardar Jaffri got into an open tiff with Sahir, right there on the stage! It was scandalous, and of course raised Sahir’s stature to that of a demi-God in our eyes!
Those were pre Internet days, there wasn’t even TV in Poona – so all we had was books. And woe betide me, Sahir’s poetry collection `Talkhiyan’ was available only in the Urdu script! I grabbed it, and got either my father or my brother-in-law to read it out while I furiously copied the verses in Devanagri. Since my father obviously considered this a total waste of time, and since my brother-in-law was based in Bombay, the exercise was frustrating in the extreme. So I said, hell with it, I’m going to learn the Urdu script!
Sahir was an out and out communist. Even in the Johnie Walker song in `Naya Daur’ he says `Aaya hun main bandhu Roos aur Cheen mein ja ke, kaam ki baat bata di, main ne comedy gana gaa ke!’ Or in this fabulous parody of Iqbal’s Tarana-e-Hind – `Cheen-o-Arab hamara, Hindustan hamara, rehne ko ghar nahin hai, sara jahaan hamara’ from `Phir Subah Hogi’. Note the rueful shrug as Raj Kapoor waves at the beat constable, calling him `woh santri hamara, who paasbaan hamara..'
An avowed atheist, Sahir wrote bhajans like `Allah tero naam, Ishwar tero naam’ (Hum Dono), and in the days when it was fashionable to be super patriotic, he wrote `Jinhe naaz hai Hind par who kahan hai’ (Pyaasa).
Sahir’s contribution to Hindustani cinema was colossal. Take away Sahir Ludhianvi, and what is left of `Pyaasa’? His poetry, of course, outlives him, and still stirs passions. Listen to the soulful `Chalo ek baar phir se ajnabi ban jayein hum dono’, or what became my anthem in life `Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya’ – and you just marvel at the sheer genius of the man!
For himself, he just shrugged it all off, and modestly wrote in his introduction to `Talkhiyan’…
Duniya ne tajurbaat-o-hafadiz ki shakl mein
Jo kuch mujhe diya hai, lauta raha hun main…