reviews and essays

Love and Longing in Ludhiana: Poetry from Sahir’s City

Heavily industrialised Ludhiana is also, surprisingly, home to several popular poets

By NIRUPAMA DUTT | 1 May 2010

GODDESS SARASWATI seems to be looking Ludhiana’s way this year with the prestigious Saraswati Samman (awarded annually for outstanding Indian works of prose or poetry) going to a poet of that city, Surjit Patar.

The fact is that there is much more to Ludhiana than the butter chicken that Pankaj Mishra, of Butter Chicken in Ludhiana fame, immortalised. Punjab’s Manchester is known for its hosiery industry, its cycle factories, its business money, the agricultural university, migrant labourers who come by the thousands on trains nicknamed Bhaiyya Express, the filthy sewer that runs through the old town, and rampant pollution. Yet this familiar picture of Ludhiana misses one important aspect—the city has been home to a large number of poets in modern times, with Sahir Ludhianvi, famed Hindi film lyricist who bore the city’s name, topping the list.

MOST OF MY TRIPS to Ludhiana have been related to poetry in one way or the other, except perhaps the first one. But no, I am wrong. The first was possibly the most poetic. Instead of going into the details, I will just quote a few lines from a poem I wrote a decade and a half after visiting the city for the first time:

What couldn’t I have done this season of late rains/ right from singing Raga Malhar/ to penning an epic poem/ I could even have borrowed a flame orange dress from a friend/ worn a pair of dark glasses/ and stealthily boarded a bus to Ludhiana/ just like fifteen years ago when I had returned home desolate…I am desolate these days too from another Ludhiana that has sprung up in Chandigarh…

The first time I visited Ludhiana in 1977, I was thrilled to see the welcome signboard outside the city which read, Jee aaean nu. This is a pure Punjabi greeting and blessing which defies translation into English. It just conveys a very heartfelt welcome, Punjabi style. Many cities in Punjab bear the welcome sign of ‘Jee aaean nu.’ One does not always notice them but sometimes the heart skips a beat and one thinks—this here is an earnest welcome posted just for me.

Since the address that I was looking for that first time in Ludhiana turned out to not exist, I instead visited the home of poet Surjit Patar who, along with other friends, cheered me up with words and food. This celebrated master of the Punjabi couplet then lived in a small bachelor pad near gate number 3 of the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) where he was a research scholar in the Department of Languages and Culture. Senior Punjabi poet Mohan Singh also spent his last decade at PAU, where he was poet emeritus. Singh was a contemporary of Amrita Pritam and is, along with her, considered one of the pillars of modern Punjabi poetry.

Punjabi poetry is trilingual—Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote in Urdu, Amrita Pritam in Punjabi, and Kumar Vikal in Hindi. Regardless of language, however, Urdu poetry greatly influenced Punjabi poetry in the previous century. Sahir and Patar both grew out of the classical tradition of Urdu poetry established by Mir and Ghalib, though Sahir wrote in Urdu and Patar writes in Punjabi.

My first journey to Ludhiana was one of heartbreak but also of poetic acquaintance. Patar is heir to the poetic tradition of this city and is full of Ludhiana lore. He once recounted how, when Sahir was asked how he wrote so many film songs, the poet answered with a laugh that there was not much to a film song, he could write one in ten puffs of a cigarette. Patar added, “Those days he took the princely sum of 10,000 rupees for a song so each puff of his cigarette was worth 1,000 rupees.” Patar is a poet of the classical tradition who chooses contemporary issues as his theme. One of his finest poems was written at the time of the Naxalite movement of which he was a sympathiser: It is difficult to return home now, who will recognise us?/ Death has left its signature on our foreheads/ Friends have trodden on our faces/ Someone else glances back from the mirror…

IT WAS THE SIGNATURE OF DEATH that took me to Ludhiana the next time. The city lost its most precious poet, Sahir Ludhianvi, on 25 October 1981. Sahir had lived for a long time in Bombay and that was where he died, but I felt that to write about him, a journey had to be made to the city of his birth and youth. This time I did not notice any welcome signboards. Instead, there were banners all over town exclaiming, “Hai! Sahir Ludhianvi”. Painter Bawri, a friend from Sahir’s youth, had put up these memorials. Bawri was also an Urdu poet, and a signboard painter by profession. Talking about the time when Sahir published Talkhiyan, his first book of verse at the very young age of 17, Bawri said, “I was older than Sahir and when I read his poem ‘Chakle,’ which was later used as a song picturised on the red-light area in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, I was amazed by the courage of this young poet.” The lines that amazed him were those in which Sahir called a whore a daughter of Eve and of Zuleikha and a sister of Radha. By thus relating a prostitute to the women held sacred by three faiths, he was making a strong appeal against the objectification of a woman’s body.

Abul Hayee (Sahir’s real name) was born on 8 March 1921, just a year after the Government College of Ludhiana was established. He enrolled himself in the college on a hot summer day in May 1937, completing the form in a sensitive and delicate hand. In the form, which is still preserved in the college records, he wrote ‘Law’ in the column for the profession he would like to take up. Though he never became a lawyer, he was an advocate of popular emotions and the dreams for a better tomorrow. Interestingly, a college mate of Sahir’s was the famous Urdu poet Ibn-e-Insha, who migrated to Pakistan at the time of Partition and later chose to live in exile in London until his death in 1978. Insha’s couplets are still quoted widely, such as: Insha ab in ajnabion mein chain se baki umra kate/ Jinki khatir basti chodhi naam na le un pyaron ka (Insha may you live in peace amongst these strangers now/ Do not speak the names of those for whom you fled home).

The Government College of Ludhiana was a hub of budding poetic talent in those days and it was to remain a recurring motif in the poetry of Sahir, which became immensely popular after he became a lyricist for Hindi films. One scene in Ramesh Saigal’s 1958 film Phir Subah Hogi (loosely based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment) apparently draws on Sahir’s time in the college where he fell in love with a Sikh girl called Ishwar Kaur. Interestingly, she was to later name her daughter Sahira, commemorating the infatuation of her youth. In those pre-Partition days of intense communal strife, this romance had little chance of blossoming.

But Sahir had found his muse. When he blossomed as a poet, Iqbal, Firaq, Faiz and Majaz had already made names for themselves. It is unlikely that Sahir was not influenced by them but he also had a natural poetic talent shaped by a rare felicity with language and chiselled by the idealism of the Left. Interestingly, Ludhiana could not retain this young talent and Sahir was expelled from college, the popular excuse being his love for the Sikh girl for whom he had penned the couplet: Phir na keejie meri gustakh nigahon ka gila/ Dekhiye aapne phir pyar se dekha mujhko (Do not blame me for my bold gaze again/ Look, you just glanced at me with love again). It is believed, though, that the real reason for his expulsion was the progressive ideology he was propagating as a poet in colonial times.

Many decades later, when the college celebrated its golden jubilee in 1970, Sahir was the guest of honour and was awarded a gold medal. It was then that Sahir wrote his famous poem ‘Nazar-e-College’ dedicated to his alma mater: Yahin seekha tha phan-e-nagmagari/ Yahin utra she’r ka ilham/ Main jahan raha yahin ka raha/ Mujhko bhoole nahin yeh darobaam/ Ham inhi fizaon ke pale hue to hain/ Gar yan ke nahin yan se nikale hue to hain (It was here that I learnt the art of writing songs/ It was here that poetry came to me/ Wherever I went I always belonged here/ I could never forget these portals, these terraces/ I grew up in these environs/ If I was not owned here at least I was disowned here).

It was my 1981 trip that put me in touch with several poets of Ludhiana. Among them were Ajaib Chitrakar (also a painter) and Krishan Adeeb, a friend and ardent admirer of Sahir. Adeeb had remarkable talent in the Urdu ghazal and nazm, with some of his compositions having been sung by Mehdi Hasan, Mohammad Rafi, Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh. Originally from Phillaur, a small town near Ludhiana, Adeeb was bitten by the creative bug and left home young to wander. In Bombay he stayed with Sahir, who encouraged him to write poetry. Adeeb’s famous ghazal on the heart-wrenching sorrows of love and longing after sunset was sung by both Jagjit Singh and Mehdi Hasan: Jab bhi aati hai teri yaad kabhi shaam ke baad/ Aur badh jaati hai afsoorda-dili shaam ke baad (Whenever I think of you after evening fall/ Sadness of the heart deepens after evening fall).

In fact, my first encounter with Adeeb was in Chandigarh. There was a mushaira there in the last year of the 1970s and my mentor and friend, Kumar Vikal, who had grown up in Ludhiana, requested I go and interview Adeeb. Those were the days when mushairas would go on into the wee hours of the morning and poets would, in turns, step down from the stage for their date with Bacchus. I went backstage and sent word for Adeeb to meet me. He came from the green room into the passage and said, “I have taken some whisky and I do not talk to a daughter after drinking whisky. You come to my house 12/14 on the PAU campus in Ludhiana and I will give you an interview there.”

So it was that some months later, accompanying Vikal to a literary meet in Ludhiana, we visited Adeeb’s home on the university campus, where he worked as the university photographer. As I interviewed him, he and Vikal downed glass after glass of rum. Perhaps talking with daughters after rum was different from talking to them after whisky!

Adeeb was an accomplished poet, whose verse was tender and sentimental; one of his long nazms compared the way his thoughts run to his mistress to how children stubbornly run out of the house barefoot. His love for the Urdu language was all-encompassing and he would say, “Urdu is not just a language. It is a culture: a way of life.” The last time I met Adeeb, he had retired from the university but had been allowed to open an STD booth on the campus. He limped, having damaged one leg in an accident, could no longer smoke as he was severely asthmatic, and could no longer drink whisky or rum as his liver was damaged. But his spirits were still high and there was poetry scribbled on the walls of the STD cabin alongside pictures of him with Jagjit Singh, Sahir and Mehdi Hasan. When he passed away, I was reminded of an ode he had written to poets of the city: Ab na Sahir hai mere paas na Ibn-e-Insha/ Waqt ne chheen liye yaar purane kya kya (Neither is Sahir with me nor Ibn-e-Insha/ Time has snatched away these dear old friends).

APART FROM THESE FAMOUS POETS there have been other, lesser-known Ludhiana poets such as Madan Lal Didi, a trade union leader and friend of Sahir’s, and Satyapal Anand, a professor of English literature who wrote in Urdu and English and now lives in the US. I wonder what it is in Ludhiana’s air that inspired and attracted poets. Perhaps it was a reaction to the growing industrialisation and materialism of the city—the voice of the soul rising to maintain the balance, as it were, between the material and the spiritual. Post-Partition, the most famous Punjabi publisher of those times, Jiwan Singh, set up his Lahore Book Shop in Ludhiana and many writers worked for him. The media hub of Jalandhar was just an hour and a half away by road or rail. The Agricultural University too made an effort to include a literature component in its syllabus. The labour and trade unions were centred in this industrial town and along with them left-wing intellectuals and poets.

Kumar Vikal, the poet dearest to me, is considered one of the most humane and creative poets of Hindi literature. His family moved to Ludhiana after being uprooted from Rawalpindi at the time of Partition. It was Ludhiana which gave him images of retrenched labour, women working in factories, old prostitutes and liquor vendors. He supervised publication at the Lahore Book Shop on a meagre salary and was well-known for his wit, sharp mind and talent for poetry. Students from Sahir’s college would ask him to write them verses for the girls they fancied. There was one particularly attractive girl called Asha, and their deal with Vikal was that each time her name (which meant hope) figured in a poem, Vikal would be given two rupees. Vikal found a smart way to earn his daily half bottle of rum.

Poetry blossoms in times when there are idealistic movements or radical forms of resistance. In Ludhiana, as in the rest of Punjab, we are today living in the era of popular songsters who are part of the Punjabi pop cult. However, the city continues to honour its poets. Every year there is a Mohan Singh mela and Jashn-e-Sahir. In PAU, a special variety of chrysanthemum—Gul-e-Sahir—is named after Sahir, and the Government College has a portrait of him at its entrance.

So when in Ludhiana next to buy woollens or a Hero Honda bike, do spare a thought for this city’s many and accomplished poets.

GODDESS SARASWATI seems to be looking Ludhiana’s way this year with the prestigious Saraswati Samman (awarded annually for outstanding Indian works of prose or poetry) going to a poet of that city, Surjit Patar.

The fact is that there is much more to Ludhiana than the butter chicken that Pankaj Mishra, of Butter Chicken in Ludhiana fame, immortalised. Punjab’s Manchester is known for its hosiery industry, its cycle factories, its business money, the agricultural university, migrant labourers who come by the thousands on trains nicknamed Bhaiyya Express, the filthy sewer that runs through the old town, and rampant pollution. Yet this familiar picture of Ludhiana misses one important aspect—the city has been home to a large number of poets in modern times, with Sahir Ludhianvi, famed Hindi film lyricist who bore the city’s name, topping the list.

MOST OF MY TRIPS to Ludhiana have been related to poetry in one way or the other, except perhaps the first one. But no, I am wrong. The first was possibly the most poetic. Instead of going into the details, I will just quote a few lines from a poem I wrote a decade and a half after visiting the city for the first time:

What couldn’t I have done this season of late rains/ right from singing Raga Malhar/ to penning an epic poem/ I could even have borrowed a flame orange dress from a friend/ worn a pair of dark glasses/ and stealthily boarded a bus to Ludhiana/ just like fifteen years ago when I had returned home desolate…I am desolate these days too from another Ludhiana that has sprung up in Chandigarh…

The first time I visited Ludhiana in 1977, I was thrilled to see the welcome signboard outside the city which read, Jee aaean nu. This is a pure Punjabi greeting and blessing which defies translation into English. It just conveys a very heartfelt welcome, Punjabi style. Many cities in Punjab bear the welcome sign of ‘Jee aaean nu.’ One does not always notice them but sometimes the heart skips a beat and one thinks—this here is an earnest welcome posted just for me.

Since the address that I was looking for that first time in Ludhiana turned out to not exist, I instead visited the home of poet Surjit Patar who, along with other friends, cheered me up with words and food. This celebrated master of the Punjabi couplet then lived in a small bachelor pad near gate number 3 of the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) where he was a research scholar in the Department of Languages and Culture. Senior Punjabi poet Mohan Singh also spent his last decade at PAU, where he was poet emeritus. Singh was a contemporary of Amrita Pritam and is, along with her, considered one of the pillars of modern Punjabi poetry.

Punjabi poetry is trilingual—Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote in Urdu, Amrita Pritam in Punjabi, and Kumar Vikal in Hindi. Regardless of language, however, Urdu poetry greatly influenced Punjabi poetry in the previous century. Sahir and Patar both grew out of the classical tradition of Urdu poetry established by Mir and Ghalib, though Sahir wrote in Urdu and Patar writes in Punjabi.

My first journey to Ludhiana was one of heartbreak but also of poetic acquaintance. Patar is heir to the poetic tradition of this city and is full of Ludhiana lore. He once recounted how, when Sahir was asked how he wrote so many film songs, the poet answered with a laugh that there was not much to a film song, he could write one in ten puffs of a cigarette. Patar added, “Those days he took the princely sum of 10,000 rupees for a song so each puff of his cigarette was worth 1,000 rupees.” Patar is a poet of the classical tradition who chooses contemporary issues as his theme. One of his finest poems was written at the time of the Naxalite movement of which he was a sympathiser: It is difficult to return home now, who will recognise us?/ Death has left its signature on our foreheads/ Friends have trodden on our faces/ Someone else glances back from the mirror…

IT WAS THE SIGNATURE OF DEATH that took me to Ludhiana the next time. The city lost its most precious poet, Sahir Ludhianvi, on 25 October 1981. Sahir had lived for a long time in Bombay and that was where he died, but I felt that to write about him, a journey had to be made to the city of his birth and youth. This time I did not notice any welcome signboards. Instead, there were banners all over town exclaiming, “Hai! Sahir Ludhianvi”. Painter Bawri, a friend from Sahir’s youth, had put up these memorials. Bawri was also an Urdu poet, and a signboard painter by profession. Talking about the time when Sahir published Talkhiyan, his first book of verse at the very young age of 17, Bawri said, “I was older than Sahir and when I read his poem ‘Chakle,’ which was later used as a song picturised on the red-light area in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, I was amazed by the courage of this young poet.” The lines that amazed him were those in which Sahir called a whore a daughter of Eve and of Zuleikha and a sister of Radha. By thus relating a prostitute to the women held sacred by three faiths, he was making a strong appeal against the objectification of a woman’s body.

Abul Hayee (Sahir’s real name) was born on 8 March 1921, just a year after the Government College of Ludhiana was established. He enrolled himself in the college on a hot summer day in May 1937, completing the form in a sensitive and delicate hand. In the form, which is still preserved in the college records, he wrote ‘Law’ in the column for the profession he would like to take up. Though he never became a lawyer, he was an advocate of popular emotions and the dreams for a better tomorrow. Interestingly, a college mate of Sahir’s was the famous Urdu poet Ibn-e-Insha, who migrated to Pakistan at the time of Partition and later chose to live in exile in London until his death in 1978. Insha’s couplets are still quoted widely, such as: Insha ab in ajnabion mein chain se baki umra kate/ Jinki khatir basti chodhi naam na le un pyaron ka (Insha may you live in peace amongst these strangers now/ Do not speak the names of those for whom you fled home).

The Government College of Ludhiana was a hub of budding poetic talent in those days and it was to remain a recurring motif in the poetry of Sahir, which became immensely popular after he became a lyricist for Hindi films. One scene in Ramesh Saigal’s 1958 film Phir Subah Hogi (loosely based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment) apparently draws on Sahir’s time in the college where he fell in love with a Sikh girl called Ishwar Kaur. Interestingly, she was to later name her daughter Sahira, commemorating the infatuation of her youth. In those pre-Partition days of intense communal strife, this romance had little chance of blossoming.

But Sahir had found his muse. When he blossomed as a poet, Iqbal, Firaq, Faiz and Majaz had already made names for themselves. It is unlikely that Sahir was not influenced by them but he also had a natural poetic talent shaped by a rare felicity with language and chiselled by the idealism of the Left. Interestingly, Ludhiana could not retain this young talent and Sahir was expelled from college, the popular excuse being his love for the Sikh girl for whom he had penned the couplet: Phir na keejie meri gustakh nigahon ka gila/ Dekhiye aapne phir pyar se dekha mujhko (Do not blame me for my bold gaze again/ Look, you just glanced at me with love again). It is believed, though, that the real reason for his expulsion was the progressive ideology he was propagating as a poet in colonial times.

Many decades later, when the college celebrated its golden jubilee in 1970, Sahir was the guest of honour and was awarded a gold medal. It was then that Sahir wrote his famous poem ‘Nazar-e-College’ dedicated to his alma mater: Yahin seekha tha phan-e-nagmagari/ Yahin utra she’r ka ilham/ Main jahan raha yahin ka raha/ Mujhko bhoole nahin yeh darobaam/ Ham inhi fizaon ke pale hue to hain/ Gar yan ke nahin yan se nikale hue to hain (It was here that I learnt the art of writing songs/ It was here that poetry came to me/ Wherever I went I always belonged here/ I could never forget these portals, these terraces/ I grew up in these environs/ If I was not owned here at least I was disowned here).

Page 1 of 212
View as  
Single Page
Multiple Page

Nirupama Dutt is a poet, short story writer, journalist and editor in Punjabi and English. Based in Chandigarh, she has published collections of poems and short stories.

READER'S COMMENTS

21 thoughts on “Love and Longing in Ludhiana: Poetry from Sahir’s City”

Wonderful piece…appreciate your work. Keep it Up. Hope next time you will write more on urdu poets with good old pictures. Sami Ullah

Is there any friend of Sahir still alive ? I am a big fan of Sahir and interested in knowing more about his personal life, he was a genius .

An excellent piece! Congratulations Nirupama! I wish I could know more about Ibne Insha, my favourite poet and satirist.

Though the generations never met… but you almost accomplished my meeting with Krishan Adeeb and the inspiration that must have been thick in the air that hung over Ludhiana. Industrial smoke must have found a perfect opponent in the verse that lingered. Sahir is a poet I have explored all my growing years…. And you have added information that completes a very important vaccuum on the canvas. Yes…. Ludhiana is so intriguing for its duality. And Caravan sounds very promising. Cheers and thanks for the piece. It’s precious. Balpreet

Hi are you the balpreet I know from day and news channel ? And yes this is indeed a very well written piece by you Nirupama!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *