Monday, 30th October 2017

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Anthems of love and resistance

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By Featuring Sahir Ludhianvi's film poetry. By Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir in Ludhiana
  • Published 17.03.06
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Eeshwar Allah tere jahaan mein,
Nafrat kyoon hai jang hai kyoon;
Tera dil to itna badha hai,
Insaan ka dil tang hai kyoon

?

Is duniya ke daaman par
Insaan ke lahu ka rang hai kyoon

?

Dil ke darwaazon par taale,
Taalon par ye zang hai kyoon

(O Eeshwar, O Allah, why this hatred, / This war in your world? / Your heart knows no bounds, / Why are the hearts of humans so small and petty?

?

Why is the garment of the world / Stained with human blood?

?

Why are the doors of hearts locked, / Why are these locks rusted?)

So goes the hauntingly beautiful song from the 1988 film Earth. Written by Javed Akhtar and set to music by A.R. Rahman (and incidentally, put to good use by Gauhar Raza as the recurring theme of Evil Stalks the Land, a documentary on the 2002 Gujarat violence), the song is obviously a homage to another one that was written earlier by Sahir Ludhianvi:

Khuda-e-bartar, teri zameen par,
Zameen ki khaatir ye jang kyoon hai;
Har ek fath--zafar ke daaman pe,
Khoon-e-insaan ka rang kyoon hai

?

Jinhen talab hai jahaan bhar ki,
Unheen ka dil itna tang kyoon hai

?

Saron mein kibr--ghuroor kyoon hai,
Dilon ke sheeshe pe zang kyoon hai

(O great God, why do people of your earth wage war over land?
Why is the garment of every conqueror stained with human blood?

?

Why are the hearts of those who desire the whole world so small and petty?

?

Why are their heads swollen with pride and arrogance, / Why are the mirrors of their hearts rusted?)

Do these two songs represent bookends of a line that ran from Sahir through Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh Sultanpuri to Javed Akhtar? Is there a generational continuity of progressive sentiment that Urdu poets deployed in the arena of popular culture through their Hindi film lyrics? After all, one can, without much effort, recall a number of progressive film songs written by the Urdu poets of the PWA.

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While writers and directors belonging to the Progressive Writers’ Movement made a number of films that exhibited a political consciousness and a desire to precipitate social change, it took a while for the Urdu poetry of the movement to enter the arena of film lyrics. Although Sahir Ludhianvi made his debut in 1941 (in Naujawan) and Majrooh Sultanpuri in 1946 (with Shahjahan), their early lyrical output belonged to the traditional genre of love poetry.

For reasons that are too complex to go into detail, the leading Hindi poets of the time had shied away from writing film lyrics. The leadership of the Hindi poets was at that time dominated by an orthodoxy which insisted that its members refuse to degrade their art by writing for popular cinema or theatre in the common or bazaari language of Hindustani. As Yogendra Malik points out “literary traditions in Hindi tended to be dominated by Hindi revivalism, nationalism and romanticism”. The leading Hindi writers and poets of the time frowned upon socialism as “an alien philosophy unsuitable for the Indian context as well as upon popular culture as a medium for their work”.

The Urdu poets, on the other hand, were more than eager to explore this new medium of expression. Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and perhaps most significantly Sahir Ludhianvi started writing for cinema and dominated the landscape of its lyrical production for the next few decades. Other progressive poets such as Shailendra, Ali Sardar Jafri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Neeraj and Gulzar joined the fray in due course.

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Sahir strode on to this stage like a giant, writing songs for movies like Naya Daur (1957) and Phir Subah Hogi (1958) in a manner that was in keeping with his reputation as a revolutionary poet.

Saathi haath badhaana, saathi haath badhaana / Ek akela thak jaayega mil kar bojh uthaana / Saathi haath badhaana

(Comrades, lend your hand! / One alone will tire soon, let us bear this burden together / Comrades, lend your hand!)

Maati se hum laal nikaalen, moti laaen jal se / Jo kuchh is duniya mein bana hai, bana hamaare bal se / Kab tak mehnat ke pairon mein daulat ki zanjeeren / Haath badhaakar chheen lo apne sapnon ki tasveeren / Saathi haath badhaana

(We are the ones who extract rubies from the earth, pearls from the sea / All that is of value in the world has been created by us / How long will labour be chained by those who own wealth? / Reach out and snatch that which you have always dreamed of / Comrades, lend your hand!)

Pyaasa (1957), of course, is the movie best remembered as Sahir’s vehicle. A Guru Dutt film about a struggling poet coming to terms with post-Independence India, the story gets its radical edge mainly from its songs. The poet-protagonist of the story, after an agonised search for meaning, offers this disdainful take on the current times:

Ye mahlon ye takhton ye taajon ki duniya / Ye insaan ke dushman samaajon ki duniya / Ye daulat ke bhooke rivaajon ki duniya / Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai?

(This world of palaces, thrones and crowns / This world of societies that hate humanity / This world that hungers for nothing but wealth
Even if one obtains this world, so what?)

And as the poet, played by Guru Dutt himself, wanders through the red-light district and observes the desperation that forces women to sell their bodies, he sings a song that is a minor reworking of a poem that Sahir had written earlier (called Chakle, or Brothels) which went:

Sanaakhaane tasdeeq-e-mashriq kahaan hain?

(Where are those who praise the purity of the East?)

The story goes that Nehru had given a speech in which he remarked, “I am proud of India.” Guru Dutt asked Sahir to work this line into the refrain of the song. The result was:

Ye kooche, ye neelam-ghar dilkashi ke / Ye lut-te hue kaarvaan zindagi ke / Kahaan hai, kahaan hain, muhaafiz khudi ke / Jinhen naaz hai Hind par voh kahaan hain?

(These streets, these auction houses of pleasure / These looted caravans of life / Where are they, the guardians of self-hood? Those who are proud of India, where are they?)

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The lyrics of Phir Subah Hogi were considered so radical that two songs from the film were banned in India. One was:

Aasmaan pe hai Khuda aur zameen pe hum
Aaj kal voh is taraf dekhta hai kam
Kis ko bheje voh yahaan khaak chaan-ne
Is tamaam bheed ka haal jaan-ne
Aadmi hain anginat, devta hain kam

(God is in the heavens while we are here on earth / These days, He does not pay us much attention / Who can He send here to sift through these sands, / To figure out the condition of these teeming masses? / For there are too many people, not enough deities)

And the other was a parody of the famous Iqbal poem, Saare jahaan se achcha Hindostaan hamaara (Our India is better than rest of the world):

Cheen--Arab hamaara,
Hindostaan hamaara
Rahne ko ghar nahin hai,
Saara jahaan hamaara

(China and Arabia are ours, / So is India / Yet we have no home to live in / The whole world is ours)

Jitni bhi buildingen thin,
Sethon ne baant li hain
Footpath Bambayi ke / Hain aashiyaan hamaara

(The wealthy have distributed all / The buildings among themselves / While we are left to take refuge /On the footpaths of Bombay)

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But Sahir did more than just write in and for the moment. He not only left behind an oeuvre that still plays on our radios and stereos, but also inspired a whole lot of others like Shailendra, Hasan Kamal, Javed Akhtar, and occasionally, even the not-quite-progressive Anand Bakshi to follow in his footsteps. Listening to a tape of songs from the 1971 movie Dushman (lyrics: Anand Bakshi), we did a double-take when a song, Dilli ka Qutub Minar dekho, / Bambayi shahar ki bahaar dekho; / (Look at Delhi’s Qutub Minar, / Look at Bombay’s spring) suddenly sprung the lines:

Logon ko paise se pyaar dekho
Zaalim ye sarmaayaadaar dekho

(Look at how people love wealth
Look at the oppressive capitalist)

The word sarmaayaadaar sticks out because it is a legacy of the progressive poets, their contribution to our popular vocabulary. Its explicit use reminds us of the time when lyrics and poetry were defined by the PWA, and when film songs could, almost unselfconsciously, offer a critique of social conditions.

Perhaps because he recognised his influence, or perhaps merely in hope, Sahir, in a rare moment of self-assertion, added a coda to his Kabhi Kabhie song that in our opinion is an apt comment on the generation of PWA poets:

Main har ek pal ka shaayar hoon
Har ek pal meri kahaani hai
Har ek pal meri hasti hai
Har ek pal meri jawaani hai

(I am a poet for all times
My story is forever
My life unending,
My youth eternal!)

Extracted from Anthems of Resistance: A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry by Ali Husain Mir & Raza Mir; Indiaink/Roli Books; Rs 295