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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 14, New Delhi, March 20, 2021

On Sahir Ludhianvi’s 100th Birth Anniversary: Reading the Political in the Poetic Imagination of Sahir Ludhianvi | Naren Singh Rao

Friday 19 March 2021


by Naren Singh Rao

No one would disagree that Sahir Ludhianvi is one of the most cherished progressive poetic geniuses in the galaxy of Indian literary and culture firmament. He was a huge phenomenon in progressive aesthetics, though, in the initial years, when he was relatively young and primarily writing for cinema, many old-fashioned, classicist literary figures and critics refused to take him seriously. In fact, a large section of the contemporary Urdu literary world of that time dismissed him as a ‘popular romantic poet who basically catered to the sentimental quotient of the restless youth.

However, he continued to remain immensely popular across a wide cross-section of people. Gradually, with the consistent production of poetic works of substance, he cemented his reputation for being a progressive and radical poet who uncompromisingly remained committed to the ideals of justice and egalitarianism and produced solid poetic works.

The following passage from the prologue to his collection of poems titled Parchhaiyan (Silhouettes) is a reminder of his unflinching commitment to progressivism and literary honesty:

‘‘This poem is a part of the ongoing worldwide movement to endorse peace (aman) and civility (tehzeeb). I understand that every generation should strive to pass on to the next generation a world that is better and more beautiful than the one they inherited, my poem is a literary manifestation of the same effort.’’

Sahir’s poetic imagination was deeply imbued with progressive aesthetics and socialistic quest. His poetry, regardless of its form, whether literary or cinematic, unfailingly reflected progressive romanticism and socialistic rebellion and optimism in an equal measure. For instance, hundreds of poets of various hues, prior to Sahir, wrote about the varied intrinsic aspects of the majestic medieval architectural wonder, the Taj Mahal; but none could touch upon the most significant and critical question- that of labour, and the invisible masses who toiled to create this architectural wonder. In Sahir’s view, Taj Mahal is nothing more than a site of unnecessary opulence which smacks of the misplaced indulgence of the ruling elite and the profound exploitation and social alienation of workers. He poetically asserts,

‘‘Taj tere liye ik mazaar-e-ulfat hi sahi,
Tujh ko iss vaadiye-rangeen say aqeedat hi sahi
Ik Shahenshah nay daulat ka saharalekar,
Hum garibon kee muhabbat ka udhaya hai mazaak, 
Mere mehboob kahin aur mila kar mujhse!’’

[‘‘The Taj may be a shrine of love to you,
You may hold this beauteous vale in high regard
By splurging wealth on building this monument,
An emperor has mocked the love of us ordinary mortals
Let us meet somewhere else, my beloved!’’]

Sahir was one such rare literary figure whose avowed commitment to modernity and secularism was absolutely non-negotiable. At a personal level, he left Pakistan and opted for India, the nation which was formed on the foundation of secularism. He showed the same zeal and commitment to secularism in his professional work. A testimony to this is the fact that even in the commercial, run-of-the-mill cinema in Bombay, he would ensure that the deeper and nuanced message of secularism is woven into the larger social canvas of the lyrics.

For instance, in Hum Dono, which is essentially an anti-war film, there is a bhajan sung by actress Nanda seeking the well-being of her husband who has gone to war, and all those who are suffering because of the war. In this song, there was really no ‘‘situation’’ for the message of secularism. Yet, Sahir superimposed the social context of secularism operating in the backdrop of post-partition India wherein a prayer of an individual becomes secular in a public space; this is also a tribute to new secular nation. Indeed, it is one of the finest examples of literary assertion by a poet of conviction. He writes,

‘‘Allah tero naam,ishwar tero naam, 
Sabko sanmati de bhagwan
Allah tero naam Ishwar tero naam...’’

[‘‘Your name is Allah, your name is Ishwar
Bless everyone with equanimity, God
Your name is Allah, your name is Ishwar’’]

Indeed, Sahir was one of the very few literary figures of his generation who was a true feminist. His writings consistently spoke against the oppression being systematically perpetuated upon the entire class of women whose identity has been reduced to that of the ‘second sex’. He laments,

‘‘Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko, mardon ne use bazaar diyaa
jab jii chaahaa kuchalaa masalaa, jab jii chaahaa dutkaar diyaa
mardon ke liye har zulm ravaan, aurat ke liye ronaa bhii khataa
mardon ke liye laakhn sejen, aurat ke liye bas ek chitaa
mardon ke liye har aish kaa haq, aurat ke liye jiinaa bhii sazaa’’

[‘‘Women begot men; men sold them in the market
Exploited, used and then kicked them aside at will
Men’s entitlement to abuse unquestioned; women cursed for wailing their plight
Men free to choose, women doomed to be burning log on a pyre
To indulge men’s right; a women’s life an unending ordeal’’]

Like a classical, scientific-socialist thinker, Sahir quite radically looked at the question of gender and understood it in relation to the larger question of political economy. He believed that the bodies of women are perceived as commodity due to the exploitative economic and political structures which essentially exist to reproduce the exploitative conditions in service of surplus, private property and accumulation of capital. He states,

‘‘Kaho ki ab koi tajir idhar ka rukh na kare
Ab is ja koi kavari na bechi jayegi
Yeh khet jag pad, uth khadi huyi fasalein
Ab is jagah koi kyari na bechi jaegi’’

[Now ask traders not to come here anymore 
Now no girls will ever be sold 
Fields have woken up to a new season of crops 
Now no fields will ever be sold here] 

Sahir is altogether unique compared to many of his progressive fellow-travelers in the sense that he did not subscribe to Nehruvian developmentalism. It seems, he understood the inherent limitations of the Nehruvian brand of socialism. And as it turns out, he was prophetically right in believing that the middle-of-the-road political-economic stance adopted by Nehru’s regime squarely failed to pave the way for a true free, just and egalitarian society. He asked the political rulers,

‘‘Aao ki aaj gaur karen is sawaal par
Dekhe the humne jo wo haseen khwab kya huye
Mujrim hun main agar toh gunehgar tum bhi ho
Aye rahabarna-e-kaum, khata-kar tum bhi ho’’

[‘‘Let us ponder over this question
Whatever happened to those beautiful dreams that we had dreamt
If I am the culprit, you are no less a sinner 
O leaders of the nation, you too are guilty’’] 

Sahir remained a committed voice of socialistic conviction, courage and dissent. He consistently wrote against the oppressive structures of power and status-quo without any fear of retribution. He called upon the power elites, in a revolutionary appeal:

‘‘Zara is mulk ke rahabaron ko bulaao
Yeh kooche yeh galiyan yeh manzar dikhaao
Jinhen naaz hai hind par unko laao
Jinhe naaz hai hind par who kahan hain
Kahan hain, kahan hain, kahan hain’’

[‘‘Just summon the leaders of this country
Show them these dismal alleys, streets, the scenario
Where are they who were proud of India
Where, where, oh where are they’’]

Despite what appears as his harsh, cynical criticism of the oppressive reality, Sahir knew about the natural historical progression of civilization pretty well, and, therefore, remained steadfastly optimistic. He unwaveringly continued to cherish a dream of creating a just and egalitarian world. The following poetic expression bears the best testimony to this:

‘‘Wo subah kabhi to aegi
Maana ke abhi tere mere aramaanon ki qimat kuchh bhi nahin
Mitti ka bhihai kuchh mol magar, insaanon ki qimat kuchh bhi nahin
Insaanon ki ijjt jab jhuthhe sikkon men na toil jaaegi
Wo subah kabhi to aegi’’

[‘‘The day will surely dawn
Though your dreams mean nothing now
Even the soil has value, though humans none
When a man’s worth won’t be reckoned in coins
The day will surely dawn’’]

Indeed, hypothetically, it is worth asking, what if Sahir were writing in today’s India. No prize for guessing, given the all-pervasive political atmosphere of fear, intimidation and vengeance, and the fact that dissenting Muslims, students, intellectuals and activists (and protesting farmers) are being systematically hounded with the full might of the state, in all likelihood, Sahir would have been branded as a ‘‘Muslim urban naxal’’. And, then, he would have been forced to unjustly incarcerate in prison, the way hundreds of prisoners of conscience have been languishing in jail for months after months on fake charges, without any evidence, and without any recourse to justice.

(Naren Singh Rao is a Delhi-based media critic, educator and social commentator.)

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