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.)
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.
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.”