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16 January 2020

Flawed Genius

Like many avid readers, I buy more books than I can read. Each year, when I go to India, there’s a list of titles by Indian authors that I order beforehand, so it will be there waiting for me when I land. And each year, I bring back at least a dozen books, of which I may have had the time to read two. The rest? Well, what are book shelves for? And after all, I will eventually read them. Or at least, that’s how I justify my recurrent expenditure. Alas, what with one thing and the other, many of them languish unread on those very same book shelves. I console myself with the thought that my retirement will give me enough time to eventually read every single one of them.

Last week, however, I was dusting and tidying my bookshelves – which, if you have seen them, is – or should be – one of Hercules’s labours. And, of the many books that are neatly arranged alphabetically according to genre and author is one that stared accusingly at me. Call myself a lover of poetry? And ignore a book on a great poet-cum-lyricist? One of my favourite lyricists, in fact?  In fact, in my post on Sahir, I had written: My instinctive reaction to a song is not to its music, though that matters a lot, but to its lyrics. It is the sentiments that the words express that call to me. So, it seemed a shame that I’d shelved this book and forgotten about it.
I have to confess that I initially opened the book – Akshay Manwani’s Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (Harper Collins Publishers India; ISBN: 978-93-5029-733-9; Rs.399; 320 pages) - with trepidation. Biographies – especially celebrity biographies – tend to be hagiographies. One is never satisfied unless the subject is anointed with a halo, and placed on a pedestal far above mere hoi polloi. Not for them the common frailties of humanity; no flaws shall besmirch their pristine reputations; and they shall, above all, be worshipped as much for the 'goodness' of their souls as for their genius.

Fortunately for me – and the book – I’d already read Manwani’s Music Masti Modernity –The Cinema of Nasir Hussain. While I had my reservations over some of the fan-boying over the subject, I’d found the book to be a satisfying read overall. It was well-researched and well-written, and whatever flaws there were, were minor. I sat back, prepared to enjoy reading about a well-known, well-loved poet-lyricist.  So, wishing all my readers a belated Happy New Year, here’s a belated review of a… well, read on, and you shall see what I think of it.

Sahir Ludhianvi was many things all at once – a failed romantic, a bitter cynic, a master egotist, a generous mentor, a firm friend. Above all, he was a stellar poet and master lyricist. This, then, is the man on whom Manwani shines a spotlight.

Manwani begins with an explanation of his great love for Hindi film music and how he had chosen the subject of his first book, whittling his choices down to Shailendra and Sahir Ludhianvi. Shailendra’s family members were planning a book on the reluctant lyricist, and Sahir, unlike Shailendra, wanted to write songs for films. With his mastery over languages, dexterity with words and a delicate turn of phrase, Sahir was definitely one of the luminaries who graced the golden era of Hindi film music. So Sahir Ludhianvi it was. 

Unlike his book on Nasir Hussain’s cinema, Manwani chooses a linear narrative beginning with the birth of Abdul Hayee on March 8, 1921 to a wealthy zamindar named Chaudhri Fazl Mohammed and his eleventh wife, a Kashmiri lass named Sardar Begum. In the chapter titled A Bittersweet Inheritance, Manwani chronicles young Abdul’s childhood, which was marred by his father’s rejection of his mother, and therefore, of himself. Her husband’s degenerate and licentious behaviour caused Sardar Begum to leave the household within six months of Abdul’s birth.

She moved in with her brother, where she busied herself in educating Abdul and protecting him from his father's wrath. These early experiences led to a strong bond between mother and son, but also ingrained in the young lad a bitterness towards the wealthy, and a cynicism towards the ways of the world – sentiments that coloured much of his own poetry.

In fact, Sahir says as much. In his own words:
Duniyā ne tajrabāt o havādis shakl meñ
Jo kuchh mujhe diyā hai vo lauTā rahā huuñ maiñ 
(Whatever the world has, by way of experience and accident
given to me, l return those now.) 

Yet, in that earlier chapter, Manwani also highlights the bitterness that was ingrained in Sahir as exemplified in this couplet from the poem Farar (Talkhiyaan):

Mere maazī ko andhere meñ dabā rahne do 
Merā maazī merī zillat ke sivā kuchh bhī nahīñ
(Let my past remain shrouded in darkness
My past is nothing but my disgrace)

This first chapter also chronicles how young Abdul came by his ‘takhallus’ or nom-de-plume – ‘Sahir’ from a line in Mohammed Iqbal’s eulogy of the great Urdu poet, ‘Daag’ Dehlavi. Following the common practice, he added ‘Ludhianvi’ – a nod to Ludhiana, the town of his birth.

Of Poetry and Progressive Literature’ continues to chronicle the progression of ‘Sahir’s’ writing, and attempts to explain how the ‘Progressive Writers’ Movement’ drew Sahir into its fold. His romantic poetry took on a more cynical bent, and he began to critique the nation state, while at the same time offering Communism as the better alternative to people’s woes.

The best part of the book – at least for me – is perhaps Sahir’s journey as a lyricist. It was his songs that had led me to his poetry, after all. And so, the chapters titled ‘Partition Woes’, ‘Bada Songwriter Banoonga and Pyaasa – The Lyrical Platinum Standard were of great interest to me. Sahir’s initial break as a songwriter with Badal rahi hai zindagi (and three others) in Azaadi ki Raah Par (1948), didn't cause any waves. However, Fate was beckoning from around the corner. It led him to SD Burman, a film titled Naujawan (1951), and the beginning of a new, professional relationship that would leave a musical legacy for the ages. The song? Thandi hawaayein. Its success was followed by Tadbeer se bigdi hui in Baazi that same year. It was a partnership that would last until egos clashed and the tremendous success of a film – Pyaasa (1957) – would sound its death knell.

Manwani charts Sahir’s professional relationship with the Anands, Chopras and others, and the course of his work as a lyricist, quoting copiously from Sahir’s own poetry and lyrics as well as nuggets from previously published works. He does not shy away from quoting Sahir’s colleagues and friends on the less savoury parts of his character. Interviews with Dev Anand, Yash Chopra, Javed Akhtar, Khayyam, Ravi, etc., form a good part of this book, and by quoting them verbatim, Manwani lends veracity to the episodes he narrates, whether it is the fallout with SD Burman and Neeraj, or Sahir’s obsession with Sudha Malhotra. 

In the case of the latter, Manwani not only speaks to Khayyam who knew Sahir well but also gives Sudha a chance to tell her side of the story, to clear the air once and for all (snippets of his interview with her are reproduced in the book). Sudha’s bitterness at the price – both personal and professional – she had to pay as a result of this supposed ‘love affair’ is heart-breaking. Similarly, while Amrita wrote intensively about her love for Sahir, Manwani manages to talk to Imroz, the man with whom the poetess spent the last years of her life.  

Manwani spends a good deal of time chronicling the highs and lows of Sahir's career and his personal life. Using books previously published on Sahir, as well as interviews with friends, contemporary writers and the film makers and music directors with whom Sahir worked, he paints the picture of a complicated, conflicted man – a poet who had already made a mark (with an anthology of poetry titled ‘Talkhiyaan’ published when he was just 24) but was adamant that ‘bada songwriter banoonga’; a generous friend, who could nevertheless cruelly skewer his friends when he was in his cups; a poet who could write the romantic, seductive ‘Ye raat ye chandni phir kahan as well as the bitter, cynical Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai’; a progressive poet and a celebrated lyricist; a passionate romantic and an embittered cynic. Sahir was witty, acerbic, egoistic, eccentric… a man who fought for lyricists to be credited on radio but also insisted that lyricists were greater than composers – in short, a bundle of contradictions.

What also made me do a happy dance is that there is much of Sahir himself in this book – in the couplets that Manwani quotes, for instance, and sometimes, the complete lyrics of songs that he wrote. Manwani also analyses Sahir’s poetry and lyrics, and his use of language – Urdu, Hindustani and even Punjabi, offers a comparative analysis of his poetry vis-à-vis that of his peers, and addresses Sahir’s in-depth knowledge of plot and character while writing lyrics. A comprehensive list of Sahir’s songs in films, some rare photographs, and a list of sources are a welcome addition to this work.

Translations add to the book’s readability, because it allows a reader not familiar with either Urdu or Hindustani to appreciate Sahir's writing. Be warned, however, that the translations are not literal – which is, in my opinion, a blessing. However, Manwani strives to give us an understanding of Sahir’s ‘voice’ and the essence of his poetry.

But this is also where Manwani falters – he does acknowledge his very basic knowledge of Urdu poetry in his introduction, but there are some places where the errors are glaring (in the translation of Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai, ‘murda parast’ is translated as ‘half-dead individuals’ instead of ‘worshippers of the dead’), others where the transliteration leaves one bewildered. But these are mistakes that can be rectified in future editions.

A bigger problem was with Manwani’s summation of the Pyaasa debacle, where he states as his opinion that Sahir’s lyrics trumped SD Burman’s music in the film because the latter brought nothing new to the table. However, Manwani salvages himself in my eyes by quoting Dev Anand on the subject: “A song becomes a hit because of the tune also. Otherwise, a book of poems can also be a big hit.”

There's also one factual error – Manwani quotes Yash Chopra on the song Chand madham hai from Railway Platform (1955) based on Sahir's poem Intezaar, where Chopra wonders why Sahir would use such rich language for a character who couldn't count more than twenty. Chopra then goes on to state that director Ramesh Saigal liked the poem so much, that he incorporated it into the film. However, as far as I know, Chand madham hai is not there in the final version. 

But these are minor peeves about an otherwise entertaining and informative narrative about an enigmatic man who gave us reams of poetry and lyrics which not only resonate with us, but force us to think about the world in which we live. Perhaps Sahir’s enduring legacy is that his words are even more relevant today. This review may have come seven years too late, but if you haven’t read it yet, do give it a try. Honest biographies are usually an oxymoron but this book will give you a glimpse into the life and work of a man who was a genius no doubt, but above all, was human, with all the frailties that that entails. Lovers of good poetry, and especially Sahir’s poetry will find much in Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet to keep them engrossed.

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