Sahir Ludhianvi’s many tributes to women

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He gave us the most defining verses about their emotions.

“It is a delicious coincidence that International Women’s day coincides with Sahir Ludhianvi’s birthday (March 8, 1921). Here was a firebrand poet who spoke of the plight of the ordinary people and gave us the most defining verses about women and their emotions.

This was perhaps because a single woman had brought him up. Sahir’s mother had left his father Fazal Mohammad who had remarried, taking with her their son, 13-year-old Abdul Hai (Sahir Ludhianvi was his pen name). The father fought a legal battle for his custody but the mother’s stance prevailed and the Lahore High Court ruled in her favour.

Sahir’s father was a rich landowner, and his mother had to struggle to make ends meet. Perhaps this is what inspired a song in the film Trishul (1978), where the single mother played by Waheeda Rehman battles many a hardship to bring her son up. It gives voice to the struggles of single, working mothers trying to raise their children with hard work and dignity, seeking to equip them to face a harsh world.

Main tujhe reham ke saaye mein na
palne doongi

Zindagani ki kadi dhoop mein
jalne doongi

Taake tap tap ke tu faulad bane

Maa ki aulaad bane

Maa ki aulaad bane

Tu mere saath rahega Munne

I will not let you be brought up in the shade of mercy

I will let you be blazed by the oven that is life

So that you can be moulded into iron

So that you can be your mother’s son

So that you can be your mother’s son

You will forever be by my side, Munne

tere bachpan ko jawaani ki dua deti hun

I pray for your childhood to flower into youth

This lullaby from the dacoit saga Mujhe Jeene Do (1963) is a complete commentary on a woman’s maternal instincts and yet again a reflection on his relationship with his mother.

Whether it was the result of the close relationship he shared with his mother or his initial affair with a classmate ending in tragedy that led to his great empathy for women, or his Marxist leanings, he was the first poet to explore the marginalisation of women, of those forced to enter the flesh trade, and comment on the hypocrisy of those who eulogised the culture of the East yet didn’t think twice about using women. Whatever the reason he penned the most iconic verses, which were later adapted into film songs. His disillusionment with the world still rings true and was used in the film Pyaasa (1957).

Jawaani bhatakti hai badkaar ban kar

Jawaan jism sajte hein bazaar ban kar

Yahaan pyaar hota hai byopaar ban kar

Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai

Youth stumbles around as an evil doer

Young bodies are decorated for sale in the market of lust

Love here is nothing but a trade

So what if I attain this world and make it my own?

This world where society itself is an enemy of humansThis world where greed dictates the customsSo what if I attain this world and make it my own?

These lines from the same song describe the commodification of women:

Jawaani bhatakti hai badkaar ban kar

Jawaan jism sajte hein bazaar ban kar

Yahaan pyaar hota hai byopaar ban kar

Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai

Youth stumbles around as an evil doer

Young bodies are decorated for sale in the market of lust

Love here is nothing but a trade

So what if I attain this world and make it my own?

He visited many brothels in Lahore to understand the oppression endured by the women working there; this took shape as the nazm “Chakle” that he later adapted for the film Pyaasa. I still get goose pimples when I hear these words or watch the picturisation. The original nazm, written before Independence, questioned the custodians of eastern piety:

kahan hain who muhafiz khudi ke?

Where are the custodians of self-respect?

I am using the popular film lyrics, which were written in independent India, where he added the hook line “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par vo kahan hain”?

Ye purapech galiya’n, ye badnaam bazaar

Ye gumnaam raahi, ye sikko’n ki jhankar

Ye ismat ke saude, ye saudo’n pe takrar

Jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kaha hain?

Kahan hain, kahan hain, kahan hain?

These winding lanes, this notorious market

These nameless travellers, this jingling of coins

These sales of chastity, this bickering over the trade

Where are they who pride themselves on Hind?

Where are they, where, where?

He blamed patriarchy and feudalism for the exploitation of women and gave us their most definitive description in Sadhna (1958) where he blames the men for turning women into commodities. This too was his old nazm that he modified for the film. No one had said this with so much clarity before this as it was the women who were disgraced for being in the flesh trade:

Aurat ne janam diya mardo’n ko

Mardo’n ne usse bazaar diya

Jab dil chaaha masla-kuchla

Jab ji chaaha dhutkaar diya

Woman gave birth to men

They placed her in the market

Trampled upon her when they saw fit

Cursed her when they saw fit

Every word of the poem is trailblazing feminist commentary in questioning the double standards of men, in highlighting their role in the exploitation of women.

Mardo’n ke liye har zulm ravaan

Aurat ke liye rona bhi khataa

Every oppression by men is permissible

Even crying by women is deemed a crime

A woman’s desire to be accepted by her lover on her own terms found voice in this song:

jisse tu qabool kar le vo sada kahan se laa’un

tere dil ko jo lubha le vo ada kahan se laa’un

main vo phool hun ke jisko gaya har koi masal ke

meri umr bah gayi hai mere aansu’on mein dhal ke

jo bahaar ban ke barse vo ghata kahan se laa’un

From where do I get that voice which is acceptable to you

Which blandishments do I use that are acceptable to you

I am that flower which everyone trampled on

My life has drowned in my tears

How do I become the clouds of hope for you

Devdas (1953)

Sahir Ludhianvi’s last work as a lyricist was for the BR Chopra film Insaaf ka Tarazu (1980), about a rape survivor’s fight for justice. Here, he reiterates that a woman is not a mere body but a person in her own right.

Log aurat ko faqat jism samajh layte hain

Rooh bhi hoti hai uss mein yeh kahan sochte hain

People see a woman only as a body

They forget that she has a soul too

Sahir’s pen didn’t just write about ordinary women but those who were lost in royal harems too. In his nazm “Nur Jahan ke mazaar par”, he questions how royalty and feudal lords used and discarded women:

Kaise maghroor shahenshaho’n ki taskeen ke liye

Saal-ha-saal hasinao’n ke bazaar lage

To soothe the urges of arrogant kings

Year after year, beauties were put on sale

To soothe the urges of arrogant kingsYear after year, beauties were put on sale

The 1963 film Chitralekha has some of my favourite lyrics. The song

Sansar se bhaage phirte ho Bhagwan ko tum kya paaoge,

How will you find God, if you flee from society?

captures the essence of men who adopt celibacy and live a hermit’s life, while giving the role of the evil influence to women.

The 1959 film Didi talks of the emotions of a woman in love, who does not expect reciprocal feelings of a man who perhaps doesn’t have the same capacity to love, selflessly:

Tum Mujhe Bhool Jao Tumhe Haque Hai

Meri Baat Aur Hai Maine To Mohabbat Ki Hai

Even if you forget me, you have the right

I am different because I have loved you

While there is rebellion, social commentary and the typical male attitude of considering women inferior in his earlier poems, playwright Danish Iqbal says that Sahir used the clichéd nurturing attitude of women in this song and that is why, perhaps, the song from the 1964 film Shagoon is very popular with men.

Tum apna ranj o gham, apni pareshani mujhe de do

Give me you sorrows and disappointments, give me your problems

When India became independent there was a rebellion against the age-old traditions, as reflected in his early poetry.

It’s true his poems spoke of women’s traditional roles, perhaps under market pressure. He was now penning new lyrics, not using his old nazms. The dilemma of women in love has been captured in Aankhen (1968).

Milti hai zindagi mein mohabbat kabhi kabhi

Hoti hai dilbaro’n ki inaayat kabhi kabhi

Only once in a lifetime does one find genuine love

It’s rare to find reciprocation from the beloved

I don’t think anyone except Sahir Ludhianvi could capture the depth of love and the longing of a woman as this song from the film Pyaasa has.

aaj sajan mohe ang lagaalo

janam safal ho jaaye

hRiday ki peeda, deh ki agni

sab shital ho jaaye

Embrace me today, beloved

[so] my birth is justified

the ache is my heart, the fire in my body

are all satiated

Sahir was indeed a man ahead of his time, a man who deservedly shares his day with women.”

— Read on

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