Roundabout: Legend of Sahir Ludhianvi, lore of Pyaasa

Updated on Oct 28, 2018 08:59 AM IST

One grew up listening to the songs he penned, truly songs of hope: Yeh subha kabhi to aayegi (It will be morning again).

A rare photograph of Sahir Ludhianvi from the Sajjad Zaheer estate.
A rare photograph of Sahir Ludhianvi from the Sajjad Zaheer estate.
Hindustan Times | ByNirupama Dutt

There are people one likes to visit and those whom one likes to revisit. Poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi (March 8, 1921 to October 25, 1980) was of the second kind. Of course, one grew up listening to the songs he penned, truly songs of hope: Yeh subha kabhi to aayegi (It will be morning again).

Later, when one started associating with poets and poetry of the region so alive, close and real in contrast with the verses of Keats and Wordsworth in the textbooks, one heard many stories of this poet of Ludhiana whose lyrics made a home in people’s hearts: How he was expelled from the college in his hometown and then honoured many years later at the golden jubilee celebrations of his alma mater; how women loved him for his verses, the celebrated Amrita Pritam too!

Of songs and cigarettes

Many were the stories about Ludhianvi’s cigarettes and cigarette butts and I recall poet Surjit Patar, the first living poet I had come across while still in journalism school, telling me: “Sahir used to say that it took him ten puffs of a cigarette to write a film song.

Those days he took 10,000 for a song so each puff was worth a thousand!”

Friends of the poet

Unlike many others, the two poets I met in the past tense were Shiv Kumar Batalvi and Ludhianvi. It was in the last week of October in 1980 that I went to Ludhiana to bring out a memorial page in the newspaper on Ludhianvi by meeting his friends for he had passed away on October 25 that year, leaving a large void in the world of poetry and lyrics. In Ludhiana I had the privilege of having as a guide Urdu poet Krishan Adeeb, well known for Jab bhi aati hai teri yaad kabhi sham ke baad…(Whenever I remember you after the evening), sung by Mehdi Hasan as well as Jagjit Singh.

I wasn’t sure about whom I would meet or the kind of matter I would gather, but because of his friends, it was a rich haul. His friends were there for him in remembrance and at many places in the busy bazaars of the hosiery city hung banners exclaiming ‘Aah! Sahir Ludhianvi’.

These had been painted by a friend of his youth, Painter Bawari. He was a signboard painter by profession but a poet of Urdu too and a few years older than Ludhianvi. I recall him discussing Ludhianvi’s poetry at length, particularly ‘Chakle’ (Brothels) written while he was still in his teens and immortalised later by film-maker Guru Dutt and music director SD Burman.

Talking of this poem, Bawari said: “I was stunned by the line: Madat chahti hai yeh Havva ki beti, Yashodha ki ham-jins, Radha ki beti’ (The daughter of Eve, Yashodha and Radha is crying out for help).

This boy, just 17, had shamed men across religions by describing the fallen woman as the daughter of the most venerated names.”

A ‘Pyaasa’ poster designed by Imroz from the Hindustan Times, Delhi edition, March 24, 1957.
A ‘Pyaasa’ poster designed by Imroz from the Hindustan Times, Delhi edition, March 24, 1957.

A rich haul

Among the other friends of Ludhianvi I met then were well-known painter Harkrishan Lal, trade unionist Madanlal Didi and Punjabi poet Ajaib Chitrakar, who to my joy gifted me Ludhianvi’s books in Devnagri script, which I still have 38 years later when much else is lost to time. Adib, a photographer at the Punjab Agricultural University gave me a bag full of anecdotes and some rare pictures when Ludhianvi had been called to be honoured in his college at the Golden Jubilee Celebrations. It is another matter that he had been expelled from the same college in colonial times!

Coming back to the present, it was revisiting Ludhianvi at the Khushwant Singh Literature Festival in two different sessions: one was on the musical launch of the book SD Burman: The Prince Musician by Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal. The coming together of Burman and Ludhianvi went a long way because the former gave the lyricist a break in films with a song in the film Naujawan (youth) which is evergreen still, when Ludhianvi returned from Lahore where he had migrated at the time of Partition: Thandi havaein lehra ke aayein (the cool breeze comes flowing). Together they gave wonderful music in film after film till the grand climax in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957). Vittal, however, pointed out: “This film proved to be their parting gift to music lovers because Burman would not have Ludhianvi claiming success for the soundtrack and refused to work again with his favourite lyricist.

Love triangle

The other mention of this legendary poet came up in the Hamari Amrita centenary tribute in which the city-based Hindi poet Chander Trikha recounted how Ludhianvi would wait at a paan shop below Amrita Pritam’s house for hours smoking away until the window upstairs opened and he caught a glimpse of her. Of course, there was also mention of the posters Imroz made for Pyaasa with sketches of Guru Dutt and Waheeda as well as the lyrics of Ludhianvi describing them as the songs that stirred a nation. But when he reached Amrita, whom he was wooing, with the two premier tickets he got besides his wages, he learned that Ludhianvi had already invited her!

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