The climax of Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) features the piece de resistance song of the film, Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye Toh Kya Hai. Filmed on the poet character Vijay (Guru Dutt), the song laments the unabashed materialism that has taken hold over humanity.

Lyrics such as “yeh daulat ke bhookhe rawaajon ki duniya” (this world governed by greed and facile rituals) and “yahaan pyaar hota hai byaapaar bann kar” (here love is nothing but a business) hold a most unflattering view of contemporary society. The song works on a slow boil as the singer Mohammed Rafi plumbs the depths of pain and pathos for much of its duration. Unable, though, to contain his discontent and disillusionment for too long, the poet ultimately hopes that this world burns down entirely. The musical arrangement, correspondingly, reaches a crescendo. Vijay’s pent-up rage gives way as he sings, “jalaa do, jalaa do, jalaa do, isey phoonk daalo yeh duniya”.

The Pyaasa song is as good an example as any of the songwriter Sahir Ludhianvi’s fiery poetic temperament. Although the term “Angry Young Man” was given to Amitabh Bachchan for the anti-establishment roles he played in the 1970s films written by Salim-Javed, it was Ludhianvi who actually deserved the epithet before Bachchan. With his incisive poetry and characteristic plainspokenness, Ludhianvi consistently raised uncomfortable questions and expressed bitter truths through his verse. The anger in his writings is palpable as he strove to awaken the masses into changing the status quo.

Ludhianvi admitted to this objective in the closing lines of his nazm, Mere Geet Tumhaarey Hain:

Aaj se mere fann ka maqsad zanjeerey pighlaana hai,
Aaj se main shabnam ke badley angaarey barsaaoonga

(From today, my art will strive to break the chains
From today, I will rain embers instead of dew drops)       

March 8, 2021, will mark Ludhianvi’s centenary year. Be it the songs of Pyaasa, Phir Subah Hogi, Naya Daur, Hum Dono or Chitralekha, Ludhianvi never held back. He attacked the aristocratic elite for exploiting the marginalised, oppressed classes. He turned on the custodians of religion when they threatened to tear asunder communal harmony by peddling hate.

Think of his immortal lines for the song in Yash Chopra’s Dhool Ka Phool, where he begins on a sarcastic note – “jis ilm ne insaanon ko taqseem kiya hai, uss ilm ka tujh par koi ilzaam nahin hai”. His wrath towards hate-mongers at the end of the song is unmistakable:

Yeh deen ke taajir, yeh vatan bechney waaley
Insaanon ki laashon ke kafan bechney waaley
Yeh mehlon mein baithey huey qaatil, yeh lootere
Kaanton ke ewaz rooh-e-chaman bechney waaley
Tu inke liye maut ka elaan banega,
Insaan ki aulaad hai, insaan banega

(These merchants of faith, these traitors of the motherland
These people who profit over dead bodies
These murderers, these thieves who rejoice in palaces
These people who trade a peaceful environment for hate
You shall come sounding their death knell
You are the child of man, you will become a human being)

Ludhianvi’s stature as a respected poetic figure predated his phenomenal rise as a lyricist in the Hindi film industry. The poems from his first anthology, Talkhiyaan (published around 1943-1944), are an early primer of the strident revolutionary tone that would become a hallmark of his writings. Consider his poem Tarah-e-Nau (A New Foundation), where the radeef (ki khair) of every second line is, literally, a dire warning to fascist oppressors as highlighted in this instance:

Faaqa-kashon ke khoon mein hai josh-e-inteqaam
Sarmaaya ke fareb-jahaan-parvari ki khair

(The starving millions are thirsting for revenge
 Beware the treachery of the capitalistic setup)

A careful consideration will reveal a dialogue-like quality to these lines by Ludhianvi. Similar examples are seen in other feisty couplets or lyrics such as “Ek shahenshah ne daulat ka sahaara lekar hum gareebon ki mohabbat ka udaaya hai mazaak” (Taj Mahal), “Takht na hoga, taj na hoga, kal thaa lekin aaj na hoga, jismein sab adhikaar na paaye, vo sachcha swaraaj na hoga” (Aaj Aur Kal, 1963), “Zulm ki baat hi kya, zulm ki auqaat hi kya” (Khoon Phir Khoon Hai) and “Khatam huyee afraad ki shaahi, ab jamhoor ki saalaari hai” (Tulu-e-Ishtiraakiyat).

Speaking out against any form of tyranny in the social order allowed Ludhianvi’s poetry to go beyond the immediate context for which it had been written. A case in point is his poem Yeh kiska lahu hai?, based on the 1946 naval mutiny. Yash Chopra found the poem suitable enough to reformulate it for a hard-hitting song at the climax of his National Award-winning production Dharmputra (1961). The film dealt with the subject of religious fanaticism and communal hatred.

‘A pamphleteer, a sloganeer’

While many cheered Ludhianvi for his incendiary style, this very quality also earned him his share of detractors. He was dismissed as a pamphleteer, a sloganeer, a man whose poetry was capable of whipping up passions, but devoid of heft. There wasn’t the same layering in his writing as in the works of other noted Urdu poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, his critics commented.

While perhaps there is an element of truth to this criticism hurled, it also points to the unnecessary shackles that have been imposed on poetry. The obvious question here is, why must an art form conform to any one style? Must it always be subtle to enjoy high praise? Surely, the fact that the poet connects with the aspirations and emotions of millions through a single line or a couplet says something about his unique ability to inspire.

In more recent times, we have seen the effect of Rahat Indori’s “sabhi ka khoon hai shaamil yahaan ki mitti mein”, or Aamir Aziz’s Sab Yaad Rakha Jaayega on a vast cross-section of people. This ability to galvanise the masses should never be undermined nor underestimated.

Ludhianvi’s poetry was in a similar vein. He may not have attained the lofty standards of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Mir Taqi Mir, but as the literary scholars Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir noted in their book Anthems of Resistance

“Sahir’s work does not allow the serious critic to wave it off, not simply because it is so popular, nor because it offers its own best defence through periodic references to its raison d’etre, but because of the fact that Sahir pushed the boundaries of an explicitly political brand of poetry that served as an aesthetic experiment of the time.”

Ultimately, Ludhianvi was a maverick. He brought an avowed inquilaab to shaayari that spared none in its path. He called out those who took empty pride in the disappointing state of the nation (“Jinhe naaz hai Hind par vo kahaan hain”) and launched sharp attacks on the almighty as well (“Aasman pe hai Khuda aur zameen pe hum”). When the need of the hour was to speak up and shake a stupefied audience into action, Ludhianvi’s poetry was the perfect elixir. His was not the voice to drift quietly into the night.

As he stated:

Ab ek raat agar kam jeeye, toh kam hi sahi,
Yahi bahut hai ki hum mashaaley jalaa ke jeeyein

(Even if I lived a night less, let it be so
I lit a spark, at least, while I lived)

Akshay Manwani is the author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (HarperCollins India, 2013) and Music, Masti, Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain (HarperCollins India, 2016). He tweets @AkshayManwani.

Also read:

‘I have lit fires with songs of rebellion’: Memories of Sahir Ludhianvi’s college years

The unspoken passion of Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam