Ten Avatars of a Magician: The Genius of Sahir Ludhianvi

I am leery of attaching ‘best’ and ‘most favourite’ appellations to anybody or anything, no matter how much I may be fond of the person/creation/whatever in question. I tend to say that so-and-so song or film, for instance, is among my favourites; the same goes for actors, singers, directors, and so on. There are some whom I especially like, there are some for whom I will watch a film just because they’re in it. There are none whom I idolize and place on a pedestal and see no wrong in.

Sahir Ludhianvi may be one of the exceptions. This is one man whose genius blows me away. If I were to list my favourite Hindi songs from the Golden Period, based purely on the sheer memorability of their lyrics, the one lyricist who would lead the pack would be Sahir Ludhianvi. His versatility; his hard-hitting, often brutal, honesty; his occasional humour and his exquisite expressions of romance: all come forth in many, many songs composed across the three decades or so that he was actively writing songs for Hindi cinema.

Today is the birth centenary of Sahir (‘sahir’, aptly enough, means ‘magician’). Born Abdul Hayee on March 8, 1921 in Ludhiana, Sahir has been feted on this blog earlier as well; he was the first lyricist for whom I did a ‘ten favourites’ post. Today, I couldn’t possibly have not posted a Sahir song list, so here’s a different list. A list of Sahir in ten moods, ten songs showcasing the versatility of this brilliant poet.  A PDF of these song lyrics, transliterated and with a translation into English by me, can be downloaded or accessed here.

To differentiate this list from my earlier Sahir post, I’ve made sure that none of the songs in this post overlap with those of my earlier Sahir post. Also, none of these songs are from the same film.

Other than that, these songs are (as usual) from pre-70s Hindi films that I’ve seen. In no particular order, the ten avatars I choose to see Sahir’s voice in are as follows.

1. The Secularist. Kaabe mein raho ya Kashi mein (Dharmputra, 1961): Dharmputra was one of those films that really brought home the sad truth of Hindu-Muslim communalism (and secularism) in a way that most Hindi films only mentioned in passing. While other films tended to have a Hindu and a Muslim as best friends, at the most, Yash Chopra took the bull by the horns in Dharmputra and told the story of a young man who is brought up in a Hindu home, grows up a rabid Hindutvavaadi, and only discovers—at the height of his Muslim-bashing—that his biological parents are Muslims.

While Yeh kiska lahu hai kaun mara is rather more ‘typical’ Sahir style in its brutal, no-holds-barred shouting out of the truth, I also love this gentler assertion of what secularism really is. Whether you go to Kaaba or Kashi, whether you think of your God as Ram or Rahim, it doesn’t really matter. Your relationship is with your god, and if your heart is filled with love, blessings will be yours. Such a simple truth, and so simply expressed.

2. The Pacifist. Khuda-e-bartar teri zameen (Taj Mahal, 1963): In 1962, for the film Hum Dono,Sahir Ludhianvi wrote what has probably become not just one of the most popular old film bhajans around, but also one of the most popular anti-war songs from Hindi cinema: Allah tero naam. But in a film that released the following year, Sahir repeated the same sentiment, in slightly more Persianized Urdu (appropriate, given that the character singing the song was Mumtaz Mahal). Khuda-e-bartar addresses God and asks many questions, rhetorical questions about why humankind seems to have completely deserted its humanity. Why this lust for blood, why this greed for power and land. Why, why, why. Both a prayer and a cry of pain, this song deserves to be better known than it is.

3. The Cynic. Aasmaan pe hai khuda aur zameen pe hum (Phir Subah Hogi, 1958): Phir Subah Hogi, like Pyaasa, gave Sahir Ludhianvi the opportunity to showcase some of the progressiveness he was so known for, some of the anger against a cruel, biased establishment. On the one hand, it allowed him to write a wonderfully uplifting song of hope and comfort (Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi), and on the other, a satire about homelessness in the midst of plenty (Cheen-o-Arab hamaara).

Plus, it had this song, a cynical look at how one half of the world goes on being hedonistic while the other half falls apart at its very feet. The impact, I think, is increased by the way the words clash with the picturization and the music: the music is upbeat, the picturization full of revelry and joy, while the words are bitter. And the lyrics, so everyday and uncomplicated, but so hard-hitting in their own way. I especially love that ‘Aadmi hain anginat, devtaa hain kum’ bit.

4. The Carpe Diem-ist. Marna toh sabko hai (Taxi Driver, 1954): Yes, I know that’s not a grammatically correct description of a person, but I think it best describes the character Sheila Ramani portrays not just in this song, but also in another (Ae meri zindagi aaj raat jhoom le) in Taxi Driver and somewhat in Dil se milaake dil pyaar kijiye. Somewhat of a hedonist, perhaps, but more a person who believes strongly in the idea of seizing the day, of living life to the fullest and not depending upon a precarious future. Not pinning one’s hopes and dreams on something that may never come to pass.

This, interestingly, was also the theme of several other songs written by Sahir, including Aage bhi jaane na tu and to some extent Main zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gaya.

5. The Lover. Yeh ishq ishq hai (Barsaat ki Raat, 1960): No lyricist who ever wrote for Hindi cinema could have got away with not writing a single love song; romantic love is too ubiquitous an emotion onscreen to allow for that. Sahir was no different, and wrote many love songs, including some poignant ones like Tum mujhe bhool bhi jaao and Tum apna ranj-o-gham. For me, of all Sahir’s love songs, this one is epic. In its length, of course: it’s a really long song; but also in its scope. Sahir talks of love in all its many manifestations: from the madness of Majnun to the pure, all-encompassing love of the prophets and messiahs. From the devotion of Meera and Radha, to the popular Urdu poetry trope of the shama and parwaana (the flame and the moth). He assigns to love the standard of a religion, and makes it the bravest, most enduring, most powerful of emotions: an emotion which can make a god of a man.

A brilliant paean to love, and Sahir shows just how comfortable he is with Persianized Urdu, khadi boli, as well as Punjabi!

6. The Nature-Lover. Parbaton ke pedon par (Shagoon, 1964): I personally think that among Sahir’s greatest areas of expertise is his talent at writing about nature. In fact, the first poem of Sahir’s that I ever remember coming across outside of Hindi cinema was in my school textbook in middle school: it was Pighla hai sona, which of course is actually a song from the Dev Anand-Geeta Bali starrer, Jaal.

Parbaton ke pedon par is another fine example of Sahir’s skill as a nature poet. While the song’s final message is of romantic love, the rest of it is all about the beauty of evening. The darkness and the light melding into one (and taking on each other’s shades, the way two lovers do). The fragrant breeze, the whispering waves, the stars and the mountains. A lovely, romantic setting, and a setting that makes the song.

7. The Comforter. Raat bhar ka hai mehmaan andhera (Sone ki Chidiya, 1958): In my earlier list of Sahir songs, I had included one song that always brings tears to my eyes in the hopefulness and comfort it offers: Woh subaah kabhi toh aayegi, from Phir Subaah Hogi. The singer offers encouragement and bolsters his own courage to last a little longer, to wait for that dawn that will come, someday…

The sentiment is the same in this song too. Balraj Sahni, lip-syncing to the voice of Mohammad Rafi, sings of the dawn that is inevitable; of how the night, no matter how gloomy and grim, cannot possibly last forever. Because dawn will come. The hope inherent in these words, the beacon that is held out of an end to the misery, is very poignant.

8. The Philosophical Clown. Oonche sur mein gaaye jaa (House No 44, 1955): Sahir Ludhianvi’s early career was very closely linked to the Anand brothers’ Navketan Films, and Navketan, with its offbeat cinema, often had Dev Anand playing a character who was not above fooling around. Dancing in an uninhibited way, playing the fool—and yet, despite the silliness of his song, expressing a philosophy. Whether it’s Taxi Driver’s Chaahe koi khush ho chaahe gaaliyaan hazaar de, Funtoosh’s Denewaala jab bhi deta, or this one. Dev Anand’s character may seem footloose and fancy-free, but his song has a jubilant hang-the-world tone to it. A realization that this world is an ugly, exploitative one, and the only way to survive in it is to kick it. Sahir’s words are light-hearted (and the occasional English one, like band or damn fool, or the popular reference to Bata ka boot, work to make the song more populist). And yet, despite the cheery tone, there’s that philosophy. This is not nonsense for the sake of it.

9. The Despondent Idealist. Tang aa chuke hain kashmakash-e-zindagi se hum (Pyaasa, 1957): If there was one film which really allowed Sahir Ludhianvi to shine, to show just what he was capable of, it was Pyaasa. And Pyaasa’s Vijay (Guru Dutt), being an idealistic poet, a man who wrote poems of cynicism and despair rather than fluffy love songs, was the perfect conduit for Sahir’s words. This song (which also appeared, though with slightly different stanzas, sung by Asha Bhonsle in Light House, 1959) is one of my favourite Sahir poems, as well as one of my favourite Mohammad Rafi songs. The despair, the despondency, the utter loss of hope that Vijay sings of here as he looks about him, at the unfeeling nature of the society he is part of yet cannot identify with: this is something I find resonating in me every time I’m really down in the dumps.

Interestingly, this song wasn’t composed by SD Burman, who composed the music for Pyaasa. Rafi sang the lyrics impromptu while Abrar Alvi and Guru Dutt recorded him on a tape recorder. 

10. The Patriot. Yeh desh hai veer jawaanon ka (Naya Daur, 1957): For people who know Sahir mostly as the cynic, asking uncomfortable questions, lambasting the establishment and penning songs like Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hain or Cheen-o-Arab hamaara, this song may come as something of a surprise. (Though I must say that I think both Jinhe naaz hai Hind par and Cheen-o-Arab hamaara are also reflections of Sahir’s patriotism, for a true patriot is one who wants his/her country to be better, not one who glosses over all the shortcomings and insists that nothing is wrong).

Anyway, on to this song, a paean to India. And, as I’d expect of Sahir, a song that is not jingoistic and chest-thumpingly nationalistic in its fervour, but more grounded, more earthy. This is about people loving their land, loving the beauty of the seasons, the simplicity and innocence of the villagers. A simple pride and joy shines forth here, and it’s very beguiling, very much the sort of thing you might expect a villager to sing. No pretensions to India’s glorious past and its fearless freedom fighters or any such thing. Pure, simple everyday patriotism.

Thank you for the poetry, Sahir Sahib. May your words live on.

36 thoughts on “Ten Avatars of a Magician: The Genius of Sahir Ludhianvi

  1. A brilliant poet, what beautiful songs he has written. As you said ‘Thank you for the poetry, Sahir Sahib. May your words live on.’ Thank you for the compilation of his songs, was great to hear them.

  2. It is very difficult to not shed a tear or two listening to Sahir’s songs particularly Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi, which is listed here . Lyricist is both the mother and father of a song. Music, singing & directors’ picturization are important, but they are like the proverbial leavening. No amount of great music or singing or picturization can compensate for unattractive lyrics. Warts and all the Hindi “cinemadom” did not treat Sahir well and he not only died young , but also in penury

    • Yes, he wasn’t treated well. But on the other hand, at least he didn’t go down without a fight! Sahir’s insistence on getting paid a decent sum for his songs helped other lyricists too, I think. And his refusal to compromise, to lower the quality of his work to kowtow to film-makers… I think that must also be credited to Sahir. He was as fearless as his poetry.

      I totally agree with your assertion about no amount of great music or singing or picturization being able to compensate for unattractive lyrics. There are so many songs I can think of which have everything going for them but the lyrics, and that’s what lets them down.

  3. Wow! Talk about a labor of love. You really have excelled yourself here. And thanks for the pdf. Very useful.

  4. When I first saw the title on my side bar, I initially thought you had done a post on the various ‘jadugar’ songs in Hindi films. I’d completely forgotten that it was Sahir’s birth centenary. (Kicking myself for that!) But reading your post made up for any disappointment that I hadn’t written one, Madhu. I doubt I could have matched this theme – you’ve captured the essence of his poetry so beautifully.

    There isn’t a single song I would change in this list – perhaps just add more to some of the sub-heads because his oeuvre is so vast, you could easily make another post with songs that fit just as well into the facets you have chosen to highlight.

    Beautiful! And like Soumya said – this *is* a labour of love. This pdf and an earlier one you had posted share a folder together.

    Thank you so much.

    • Thank you so much, Anu. You’re too kind! (Oh, and thank you for something completely unconnected to this: I finished watching Knives Out yesterday, and loved it. Such a delightful movie, and actually such a good example too of a whodunnit movie done well).

      Yes, Sahir’s ouevre is really vast, isn’t it? He seems to have been able to write with conviction and power on just about any emotion. If I hadn’t already put Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko in the earlier list, that would have appeared here under the head of ‘Feminist’, for one. And there are plenty of other songs too, and other avatars…

  5. Oh!
    As usual I forgot completely about Sahir’s birth centenary year. So foolish of me, and so pathetic!
    (Sigh…. :-( )
    Anyways, an excellent post Madhuji.
    So well written and well crafted. Sahir was really a genius, no doubt.
    Loved it!
    Congratulations for this one! Top class writting.

  6. Sahir saheb ‘s shayri is not only for the present but the generation to come. He is been favorite shayar since childhood.

  7. Thanks Madhu for rekindling emotions of many for Sahir; out pouring here is a proof of that if proof was needed at all . Imagine Hindi movie industry without Sahir, Majrooh, Shakil Badayuni, Neeraj & Anand Bakshi. It is also our ill -luck that father time ran both Sahir& Shakeel out much before their time .

    • Very true. To that list, I should also add Shailendra and Kaifi Azmi – two other great lyricists. And you’ve reminded me; I really must do a post on Shakeel Badayuni some day. And Majrooh… really, Hindi cinema would not have been half the success it is without its lyricists. So ironic too that its lyricists have always been shortchanged.

  8. Among your best blog posts – both for the subject matter and the writing. And I say this as a fan of several of your posts. Sahir was one of those lyricists who evokes emotions – something about his turns of phrase, in some cases just the simplicity with which he says things. There is only one other lyricist who I find equally beautiful and that is Kavignar Kannadasan in Tamil film music.
    I love every selection you have made above – the way you have categorized them – absolutely fantastic.

  9. Ah the many voices of Sahir Ludhianvi saab!

    His sorrowful songs really resonate with me. Whether it’s “Maine jazbaat nibhaye hain usulon ki jageh, Apne armaan piro laya hoon phulon ki jageh…” or “Kiska raasta dekhe aye dil, aye saudai, meelon hai khaamoshi, barson hai tanhaayi, Bhuli duniya kabhi ki, tujhe bhi, mujhe bhi, phir kyon aankh bhar aayi” (although the later is outside of the scope of this blog), each elicit strong emotions within me.

    I also like the romantic songs penned by him as there is nothing mundane about them, in my opinion. Lines such as “Jo baat tujh mein hai teri tasweer mein nahin…Bejaan husn mein kahan raftar ki ada? Inkar ki ada hai na iqrar ki ada. Koyi lachak bhi zulf-e-girahgeer mein nahin” or “Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayal aata hai, ke jaise tu mujhe chahegi umr bhar yun hi, uthhegi meri taraf pyar ki nazar yun hi. Main janta hoon ke tu gair hai magar yun hi…” are very hard to forget.

    • Wonderful examples there, Wuthering Willow. Another song, also a love song, which was on my shortlist, is Yeh raat yeh chaandni phir kahaan from Jaal. How seductive the words of it are, too!

      • All the songs mentioned in these comments both by Wuthering Willow and Dustedoff – all so beautiful. And I agree about the song from “Jaal” – so beautifully written – and the scene does justice to the lyrics.
        I am not sure if it has already been mentioned above – but I love the lyrics of “Kashti ka khamosh safar hai shaam bhi hai tanhaai bhi” – it has that very Indian (not always attractive) coyness with respect to all matters of love – that it is somehow that which cannot be acknowledged. But Sahir converted into a cutesy love long – I have not seen the scene, but the lyrics convey a vivid image.

        • Oh, yes. Kashti ka khamosh safar is a wonderful song. I only had a vague recollection of the lyrics, so listened to it again.

          I agree about the lyrics conveying a very vivid image.

  10. Madhuji, a great compilation of the myriad moods of Sahir! Sahir, I feel, was one lyricist who would subtly bring in his own experiences – especially his failed romantic relationships – in his songs. That is perhaps the advantage that an ace lyricist like him would have. In Pyaasa, it was after all his poetry (through Guru Dutt) that steals the show.
    I did not pen a separate blog post on Sahir, but in the last post I wrote on Songs that Shun Love – https://anitamultitasker.wordpress.com/2021/03/07/songs-that-shun-love/- which you have read too – five out of ten songs were of Sahir! That 5 out of 10 songs were of Sahir’s was purely coincidental! His conversational style of writing, his ability to cater to the masses and the connoisseurs, his ability to be both an optimist and a pessimist – sometimes in the same song – set him apart from the rest.

    • Thank you so much, I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. That last sentence of yours – “His conversational style of writing, his ability to cater to the masses and the connoisseurs, his ability to be both an optimist and a pessimist – sometimes in the same song – set him apart from the rest” – really sums it up.

  11. Madhuji,
    Good selection and write up of an iconic movie personality. Particularly liked your classification of songs this time: the comforter, the pacifist, the philosophical clown etc. When you hear these songs, the realisation that this lyrical genius is no more hits me very hard. The world seems to be empty.

    • Thank you, I’m so glad you liked this list. It’s such a shame that Sahir passed away so young; the world of Hindi cinema truly lost one of its geniuses far too early.

      • thanks for the article .wonderful write up on the great Sahir saab.he was really a different lyricist.particularly loved are his songs for Hum Dono, Gumrah. meaningful
        & giving a hidden message. I liked his song from gumrah – chalo ek bar phir se. what a messge he conveys to his beloved about the dangers & limitations of ilicit relations. superb.

  12. This post of yours is in a league of its own. No words can be sufficient to praise it. Tang Aa Chuke Hain is a (small) ghazal listened to n number of times by me and is going be listened to further countless number of times. Hum Ghamzada Hain Laayen Kahaan Se Khushi Ke Geet, Denge Wahi Jo Paayenge Is Zindagi Se Hum are the words which always shake me externally and churn me internally. I have found this fact as quite an interesting one that Rafi had sung it impromptu ( without any music composed for it).

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