Book Review: Akshay Manwani’s ‘Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet’

I grew up in a house that resonated with the sound of Hindi film music. My maternal grandfather had worked many years for HMV; my father, whose elder brother was a guitarist in Bombay’s film industry, had inherited his love for music. And, with a large collection of gramophone records (later to be supplemented with cassettes and even later CDs), there was hardly a waking moment when we weren’t listening to music. Even if we didn’t put an LP on the turntable, we’d turn on our radio and listen to film songs.

Looking back, I realise now that for many years I didn’t really pay attention to the words. It wasn’t till I was well into my twenties that I finally began to notice—really notice—how words went, what they meant. I discovered that Allah tero naam was not merely a bhajan, but also a plea against war. I found that Sar jo tera chakraaye had strains of socialism running through it.

Slowly, as I got to know more and more about the works of different lyricists, a strong favourite emerged: Sahir Ludhianvi. Sahir, who wrote songs so widely differing in tone as the boisterous, country-loving Yeh desh hai veer jawaanon ka and the quietly defiant Jurm-e-ulfat pe humein, the bitter Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko and the harshly cynical Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai.  Sahir, who was a brilliantly brave poet and an equally brilliant and brave lyricist.

It is this man—poet, lyricist, son, friend, rival, colleague, in all his many avatars—who is the subject of Akshay Manwani’s biography, Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (Harper Collins Publishers India, ISBN 978-93-5029-733-9, Rs 399, 320 pages). I had been introduced, online, to Akshay a couple of months before the book was released—in December 2013—and had been all enthusiastic eagerness when asked if I’d like to read and review the book.

Sahir Ludhianvi: The People's Poet, by Akshay Manwani

Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet, by Akshay Manwani

Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet begins with an introduction by the author, in which he talks about how his love for Hindi film music inspired him to write a biography of a lyricist: and how, because of various reasons—not least the fact that Sahir, having died a bachelor and not leaving behind anybody to chronicle his life—decided that Sahir it would be. And also because Sahir remains one of the greatest lyricists Hindi cinema has ever known.

The biography itself, the story of Sahir’s life, begins with his birth—on March 8, 1921—in the town of Ludhiana, Punjab. Born to a wealthy zamindar named Chaudhri Fazl Mohammad and his Kashmiri wife (his eleventh wife, to be precise), Sardar Begum, the baby was named Abdul Hayee. Far from being brought up in the pampered luxury of a prosperous household, however, Abdul (as Manwani refers to him until the chronological point where this individual finally takes on the takhallus ‘Sahir Ludhianvi’) was fated to a childhood marked by angst and rejection. His father was an utter debauch, a man so degenerate that Sardar Begum, supposedly within six months of Abdul Hayee’s birth, left the house and moved to her brother’s, where she brought her son up.

Abdul Hayee’s early life—chronicled in the chapter A Bittersweet Inheritance—was to embitter him to the selfishness and depravity of the wealthy and powerful: a sentiment that stayed with him and is obvious in a lot of his poems and lyrics. On the other hand, it also brought him very close to his mother, in whom Abdul Hayee saw womanhood in all its vulnerability and its strength at close quarters. For instance (and this is the very example Manwani gives), Tu mere saath rahega munney from Trishul (1978) is all about the struggles of a woman who has to bring up her son on her own; her fears, her woes, but her undying love, too, for her child.

This, and similar other instances where Manwani shows how Abdul Hayee/Sahir Ludhianvi drew extensively from his own life and experiences, are among the most satisfying aspects of this book. For example, Manwani—in the second chapter, Alma Martyr—discusses Abdul Hayee’s stint as a student at Government College, Ludhiana. This was where he came in contact with the All India Students’ Federation (AISF), and became an ardent communist. This was also where he first fell in love—first with one classmate, then with another, both romances ending tragically, one more than the other.

From both—Abdul Hayee’s involvement with left-wing ideology as well as his doomed romances—Manwani shows how his poetry, both at the time as well as later (in the form of film songs) drew inspiration.

Sometime in 1937, the young Abdul Hayee, having given his matriculation exams, chanced upon a poem by Mohammad Iqbal, a eulogy of the Urdu poet Daagh Dehlvi. From a line in this work: “Is chaman mein hongey paida bulbul-e-shiraz bhi, saikdon sahir bhi hongey, sahib-e-ijaaz bhi…’ the young man picked up the first half of what was to become his takhallus, his nom de plume, so to say: sahir, a magician. To that (as was not uncommon) he tagged on the name of the town of his birth and formative years: Ludhiana. Thus, ‘Sahir Ludhianvi’.

Sahir Ludhianvi

Sahir Ludhianvi (1921-80)

From sources as varied as books on Sahir (Fann aur Shaksiyat, Sahir Ludhianvi: Hayat aur Shaayari, Sahir: Khaaban da Shahzaada, etc) to interviews with Sahir’s friends and colleagues (occasionally, not even people who were especially close to the man, such as writer Khushwant Singh), Manwani builds up not just the story of a superb poet, but also a man who was intriguing, a bundle of contradictions (his generosity and loyalty seemingly at odds with his egoism and moodiness).

This, we learn, was the man who, while still very young, had not just published a brilliant collection of poetry (Talkhiyaan), but had also succeeded in ruffling a lot of feathers by writing a poem that, instead of following the trend of praising the beauty of the Taj Mahal and its status as a ‘monument to love’, had lashed out with ‘Ek shahenshah ne daulat ka sahaara lekar, hum gareebon ki mohabbat ka udaaya hai mazaak’(‘An emperor has used his wealth, to mock the love of us impoverished souls’).

This was the man who made up his mind pretty early on: “Bada songwriter banoonga” (“I will be a great songwriter”). The man who, in the wake of Partition, spent a brief while in Lahore before moving to Delhi and then finally to Bombay, where—after a fairly subdued start with the film Aazadi ki Raah pe (1948)—he finally made it big with a song, and a partnership, that was to be pivotal in not just Sahir’s life, but in the history of Hindi cinema. With Baazi (1951) and Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer banaa de, Sahir launched a partnership with SD Burman that was to last till their magnum opus, Pyaasa, to the lyrics of which Manwani devotes an entire chapter: Pyaasa: The Lyrical Platinum Standard.

More than half of the book consists of charting Sahir’s progress as a lyricist, his relationships with those he worked with—music directors, producers, directors, etc; —his highs, his lows. There are (as would be inevitable in a book about Sahir) chapters about the two most famous loves of his life, the writer Amrita Pritam and the singer Sudha Malhotra (Manwani even managed an interview with Sudha Malhotra, which is reproduced in part in the book).

It is these interviews—with people as varied as Dev Anand and Javed Akhtar, Khayyam, Ravi, and Yash Chopra among the better-known names—that make Sahir come alive, with all his quirks and eccentricities, his genius and his wit. Manwani makes it a point to quote verbatim, which makes for even better and more lively reading.

At the book launch of Akshay Manwani's 'Sahir Ludhianvi: The People's Poet'

At the launch: Manwani, Gauhar Raza, Jai Arjun Singh.

I have to admit I approached this book with a little trepidation, despite being such a fan of Sahir’s. I tend to steer clear of biographies—especially of celebrities—because I believe strongly in the privacy of certain matters; gathering gossip about the personal lives of people isn’t my cup of tea.

To my relief, even though Akshay Manwani does touch upon some of Sahir’s personal life, this book is really about the man as poet and lyricist, a revolutionary who insisted that All India Radio announce the lyricist’s name too when a song was played; an egoist who insisted that the lyrics were more important than the music of a song, and so he—Sahir—should always be paid a rupee more than the music director he worked with.

There is much that makes this book readable and enjoyable. The author doesn’t, despite his admiration for Sahir, shy from exposing the less than likable facets of Sahir’s personality. The language is down to earth (at times, when quoting people, actually using a mix of English and Hindi/Urdu—though with a translation provided). Also, Manwani takes the trouble of not just making this a chronological listing of all that happened in Sahir’s life, but also analyzing Sahir’s work. For example, he shows—through examples like Parbaton ke pedon par shaam ka basera hai, or Yeh raat yeh chaandni phir kahaan—that Sahir’s romantic songs are invariably set against a backdrop of nature in all its glory, with nature being an intrinsic part of the union (or not) of the lovers.

There are interesting comparisons between Sahir and other contemporary lyricists; there are analyses of Sahir’s language and the way he adapted it to suit different characters and milieus, ranging from the highly Persianised Urdu of Na toh kaarvaan ki talaash hai to the rustic Udein jab-jab zulfein teri. There are plenty of black-and-white photos of Sahir, his family and friends. There is, at the back of the book, a comprehensive listing, in chronological order, of all the film songs Sahir wrote for Hindi cinema.

Very importantly, there is lots of Sahir’s writing here. There are poems of his, excerpts of songs (in some cases, entire songs), each of them with a translation provided. As I’d expected, the translations are not always literal (after all, literal translations from Hindi or Urdu can result in some very unpoetic and clunky English). They, however, convey the tone and essence of Sahir’s work mostly quite well.

The translations were also what caused me to wince at times. Oddly, it’s not the more difficult Urdu poetry that is badly transliterated or translated; it’s the Hindi film songs. And there are problems galore here. One is with the transliteration. Through many of the songs, there’s confusion between where an n (denoting a nasal sound: hain, sholon, duniyawaalon, etc) should be inserted, and where it shouldn’t. There are places where Urdu words have been completely misspelled (fenka instead of phenka, and one instance where haanpna is not merely spelled haanfna, but is followed by an explanation of what haanfna means).

There are other glitches in the translations, too, of the occasional song: Yeh basti hai murda-paraston ki basti (from Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye, Pyaasa, 1957) is translated, not as ‘This is a ghetto of the worshippers of the dead’ (murda-parast means ‘worshipper of the dead’) but as ‘This is a ghetto of half-dead individuals’.

In the classic qawwali, Yeh ishq ishq hai (Barsaat ki Raat, 1960), while Jab-jab Krishna ki bansi baaji nikli Radha saj ke, Jaan ajaan ka gyaan bhulaake lok-laaj ko tajke (and a subsequent line, Darshan jal ki pyaasi Meera pee gayee bis ka pyaala) have been correctly translated, with the proper religious connotations included, the line between—Ban-ban doli Janak dulaari pehenke prem ki maala—omits the reference to Hinduism (Janak-dulaari meaning Janak’s daughter Sita, who wandered through the forests, following her husband into exile because of her love for him). Instead, this gets watered down into a ‘She wandered, this cynosure of every eye, wearing the garland of love’.

Sahir might have cringed. On the other hand, he may just have forgiven these minor lapses and appreciated this biography for what it is: a good, absorbing, informative and entertaining read about a man who led an interesting life—and was behind some of Hindi cinema’s most enduring songs.

If you like Sahir’s poetry, do read Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet. There’s lots of Sahir’s work to revel in here, and there’s lots about the man who wrote it all.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Akshay Manwani’s ‘Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet’

  1. We bought this book recently; the spouse has read a lot of it, I am yet to do so. Your review is inspiring me to do so with moderate expectations, but great enthusiasm! Thank you.

  2. And what does the spouse have to say? :-)

    Even though it has its hiccups – the problems with transliteration and translation that I’ve pointed out, for instance – I thought, on the whole, that this was an absorbing and interesting book. Plus, of course, there’s the fact that no books about Sahir have been written in English (as far as I’m aware), so this is a good start.

  3. He’s very very fond of Shair’s poetry and lyrics, so he has liked it. Plus, he’s a hopping skipping reader, so not a very enlightening critic at the best of times:)

  4. Ah, I see. :-) Yes, that can make for a slight element of unreliability as a critic! But yes, the fact that the book is chockfull of Sahir’s poetry – as it should be, for a bio of a litterateur – was a big plus for me too.

  5. This is one book I have been meaning to pick up. Na toh Karvan ki talash hai is not an easy song to translate. Yet these mistakes seem very avoidable. Khair, I am sure I will love reading all about Sahir and how so many wonderful songs came about.

    What I like most about Sahir was his vast vocabulary, it seems he always had the most apt word for the occasion.

    People think his criticism of Taj in one of his most famous poems is a form of arrogance, but I feel it is very true.

    • Yes, Na toh kaarvaan ki talaash hai isn’t an easy song to translate, but if one is writing a book (and has the support of a translator for the Urdu poetry – credited in the acknowledgements), then I’d expect a more competent translation. Not necessarily poetic – I would certainly not expect that – but at least accurate.

      But do read this one, Ava. I think you’ll like it.

      And I agree about Taj Mahal – a very valid point that Sahir made. (Interestingly, at the book launch someone – either Gauhar Raza or Akshay Manwani, I’ve forgotten who – pointed out that Sahir does not actually criticise the Taj, or say it isn’t beautiful; he just focusses on Shahjahan’s motives and the consequences of his building this tomb). Also, Sahir hadn’t yet visited the Taj when he wrote the poem.

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