Sahir Ludhianvi’s alleged involvements with poetess Amrita Pritam and songstress Sudha Malhotra found resonance in his work.
Around his death anniversary, we revisit the heartaches he endured.
Born as Abdul Hayee on 8 March 1921 in pre-Partition India, he took on the pen name Sahir, which meant an enchanter. Enchant the world he did with his poetry but Sahir Ludhianvi himself remained uncharmed by the world around him.
While his Abhi na jaa chhodh kar (Hum Dono 1961) is said to be the eternal romantic number, rooted for even by Shah Rukh Khan, his Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi for Phir Subah Hogi (1958), is a reminder that reality is the greatest threat to romance.
Sahir’s embitterment with society and relationships can be traced to his traumatic childhood where love was scarce and abuse aplenty. His mother, Sardar Begum, was the 12th wife of his father Fazal Mohammed, a zamindar in Ludhiana. Greatly harrowed, she left him without seeking financial compensation. Later, Sahir’s father sued her for the custody of his son.
Young Sahir lived in constant fear of being abducted by his own father.
These dark experiences later found an outlet in his works. Like his poem Jaagir was a harsh comment on zamindars while Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko (Sadhna 1958) lashed out against misogyny. So affected was Sahir by the tempestuous marriage of his parents that it’s said to have encumbered his ability to commit in life later.
Romanticism and realism were perennially at loggerheads in Sahir’s writings. Someone who wrote the dreamy Jo vada kiya for Taj Mahal (1963), he also dammed royal indulgence in his controversial poem Taj Mahal (1964). The lines “Meri mehboob kahin aur mila kar mujhse…” from the poem decried Emperor Shahjahan for belittling the sentiments of the poor with his grandiose monument.
A similar cynicism perhaps affected Sahir’s relationships with women as well, denying him emotional stability through his life.
Heartbreak and poetry make for a fine cocktail. Sahir’s apparent romances and estrangement found resonance in his writings.
One such was his alleged relationship with late Punjabi poet/writer, Amrita Pritam and remains the most documented.
Sahir met Amrita at a mushaira in a village near Amritsar around 1944. She was then married to Pritam Singh, an editor. Apparently, theirs was not a happy marriage. When Amrita heard Sahir recite, she was besotted by his idealism.
“Whether it was the magic of his words or his silent gaze, I was captivated by him,” she once wrote. Her relationship with Sahir gradually unravelled through the letters they wrote to each other.
Post Partition, Amrita settled down in Delhi while Sahir came to Bombay.
In her autobiography, Raseedi Tikkat, Amrita wrote, “When Sahir would come to meet me in Lahore… he’d quietly smoke his cigarettes, putting out each after having finished only half of it... I’d light them while sitting by myself. When I’d hold it between my fingers, I’d feel as if I was touching his hands…”
Apparently, Sahir also preserved the cup from which Amrita had sipped tea at his place. A much-in-love Amrita was supposedly ready to give up a defunct marriage to be with Sahir. But the relationship meandered with time…
Author Akshay Manwani, mentions in his book, Sahir: A People’s Poet, that years later Sahir met Amrita when she visited Mumbai with artist/poet Imroz in 1964.
The finality of seeing Amrita with another man, urged Sahir to write:
“Mehfil se uth jaane walo,
Tum logo par kya ilzam
Tum aabad gharon ke vasi
Main awaara aur badnaam…”
This verse found its way in Dooj ka Chand (1964).
Also, the title of Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie (1976) was based on a poem in Sahir’s book Talkhiyan (1945). The Kabhi Kabhie album replete with love, loss and longing is said to be a catharsis of Sahir’s incomplete narrative.
What terminated Sahir’s romance with Amrita was supposedly his growing affection for singer and composer Sudha Malhotra. When Sahir approached young Sudha to sing Mere nadeem, mere hamsafar for Bhai Bahen (1959), she was reportedly 23 to his 38. Apparently, he began to call her every morning to share what he’d written.
Sahir’s Salaam-e-hasrat qubool kar lo, sung by Sudha for Babar (1960), is reminiscent of their creative tuning.
Sudha credited Sahir for being significant in her success but always maintained that it was a relationship of ‘mutual respect’.
Reportedly, Sudha was already betrothed to businessman Giridhar Motwani when she met Sahir.
As a wedding gift, Sahir sent her a nazm asking her to compose and sing it for Didi (1959). Tum mujhe bhool bhi jao toh yeh haq hai tumko… became a souvenir of their association and also her swan song. It also made her one of the rare singers to have composed her own number.
Ishq hi ek haqeeqat nahi kuch aur bhi hai… from the song, again reiterates Sahir’s stance that besides love, there are other realities that beg attention.
It’s also said that once on spotting Sudha at a party with her husband, a wistful Sahir recited Chalo ek baar fir se ajnabee ban jaaye hum dono (Gumrah 1963). The poignant Mahendra Kapoor number, which is about unlearning what was once committed to memory, has today become a requiem of estrangement.
A heavy smoker, Sahir died of a heart attack and also perhaps of a broken heart in 1980.
Decades later, his handwritten nazms, letters from friends and photographs were found amongst the scrap at an old newspaper store. Romance indeed was buried under the mound of reality!