meet the poet

For Sahir Ludhianvi, the best kind of love was unrequited

On the celebrated Urdu poet’s 96th birth anniversary, a reminder of his contradictory attitudes towards women and relationships.

The poetry of Sahir Ludhianvi was deeply empathetic to women, and yet, Ludhianvi remained single and, as they say, unfulfilled throughout his life. His early poetry spoke of unrequited love, never more evident than in his film songs. When Ludhianvi wrote from a woman’s point of view, it felt as though he had been able to get under her skin.

He authored the celebrated song Aurat Ne Janam Diya Mardon Ko (It is the woman who has given birth to the man) in the film Sadhna (1958), in which the protagonist was a prostitute played by Vyjayanthimala. The songs he gave to so-called fallen women – cabaret dancers, street singers and molls – are rare gems of grace and reflection. He penned a Vaishnav bhajan for the character of the street walker Gulabo, played by Waheeda Rehman, in Pyasaa (1957). In Baazi (1951), Geeta Bali lures Dev Anand by singing the philosophical song “Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana le, apne pe bharosa hai to yeh daon laga le” (Gather the resolve to change your fate, if you have faith in yourself then take a bet.)

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Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui from Baazi (1951).

The qawwali singer played by Shyama in Barsaat ki Raat (1960) could have been a gopi or Radha herself, when she sang in Na To Caravan Ki Talaash Hai, “Bahut kathin hai dagar panghat ki, Ab kya bhar laoon main Jamuna se matki” (The path to the water’s edge is difficult, but should I fill my pot at the river Yamuna?)

Ludhianvi’s mother was a strong woman, forced to leave her feudal landlord husband so that she could raise her son away from the depraved environment at home. She lived on meagre means, on an allowance provided by Ludhianvi’s grandfather, and received constant threats from her husband that he would kidnap their son.

The only wish of hers that Ludhianvi did not honour, was that he marry her niece. His relationship with the poet Amrita Pritam ended when she returned disillusioned from Mumbai, where she had gone to build a life with him. Pritam could not bear Ludhianvi’s use of abusive language, which frequently undermined women.

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Na To Caravan Ki Talaash Hai from Barsaat Ki Raat (1960).

For Ludhianvi, desire remained restricted to his verse. The poet accepted the fact that consummation of a relationship, whether it was serious or a fling, was simply not to be. This became evident in his early poem Kabhi Kabhi, included in his first anthology Talkhian and later in the celebrated title track from Yash Chopra’s 1976 film Kabhi Kabhie. The anthology included Taj Mahal, in which the poet implores his beloved not to meet him at the monument, which he calls an expensive advertisement by an indulgent emperor.

However, it was his poem Chakle, or Brothels, which remained his most emotive ode to womanhood. Chakle was later used as a song in the film Pyaasa. Ludhianvi decries the exploitation and oppression of women across faiths and communities.

After Ludhianvi’s death in 1980, the poet Painter Bawari dotted Ludhiana with cloth banners that read, “Hai Sahir”. Speaking of the old days and Ludhianvi’s youth, Bawari agreed that Chakle was the poet’s most evocative work: “He raises the curtain of the hypocrisy in society, calls prostitutes by the names of most revered women of the three religions of the time and that too in a climate of communal turmoil…there will never be a poet like him.”

Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam.
Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.