What exactly is the status of Sahir Ludhiyanvi, as a poet and as a film lyricist? A debate currently raging at Kafila pits two radically different views about Sahir against each other.
Against the conventional view, which sees him as a towering icon in the poetic movement of India as also in our cinema, Panini Pothoharvi maintains that Sahir was an ordinary versifier, who cannot even be placed along side Shailendra and Majrooh Sultanpuri, as a film lyricist.
Lest I do some injustice to Mr Panini’s views, I will quote the relevant paragraph in its entirety.
“It must be remembered that Sahir’s reputation rests largely — go around asking the cognescenti (and who care about them, anyway) what they think of Sahir’s poetry and you would know a thing or two you wouldn’t wish to hear in your adolescent exuberance — on his film songs. And I must say that I am not greatly enamoured of his Chin-o-Arab Hamara — the refrain may be catchy but the stanzas simply do not work.
To a large extent, the same holds true for Woh Subah… I would prefer a Majrooh Sultanpuri and a Shailendra to Sahir any day. Kaifi simply wouldn’t make the grade.”
It is true that Sahir’s poetry today evokes much less enthusiasm than it did in the heydays of the “movement”.
It is also true that in those days, any ordinary rhetorician could be celebrated as a cult poet.
At the best of times, the Urdu critical establishment, when it ceased to be controlled by the progressives that is, did not treat Sahir with the same seriousness that he was accorded within the party.
At the same time, it is difficult to sustain criteria that can simply be called purely literary, as if politics is something that taints the pristine gestation of art.
It is difficult in the case of poets, as equally in the case of other artists, to determine whether their popularity rests purely on their artistic merits or whether there is something about their writing, or personality, that catches the imagination of the public.
Is Neruda a great poet because he wrote great poetry about human suffering and inequality? Is he a great poet because he wrote with noble aims? Is he great because he was so famous and popular?
Is he great because he was patronised by the then powerful communist parties all over the world? Or is he great because a variety of reasons combined to create an appeal for him that transcended his particular origins?
We are now much wiser to the hidden biases that always determine the constitution of a canon.
For years, S R Faruqi, the formidable Urdu critic, has been pontificating about the relative lack of artistic merit in Faiz’s oeuvre.
If a list of five great Urdu poets who came after Iqbal were to be composed, Faiz, he has vociferously maintained, would be the last name on it, after Miraji, Rashid, Majeed Amjad and Akhtarul Iman, names, which have never really caught the popular imagination.
Yet, there is something to be said for popular imagination after all, for there are figures, especially artists, who come to stand for far more than the body of their work. Faiz became a metaphor for dissent and for enlightened politics in a country, where such symbols were as rare as they were needed.
His importance, as an icon, or as a poet, cannot simply be reduced to whether his ghazals or nazms had the same groundbreaking freshness as some others.
It is the same with Sahir in one sense. He might have been an ordinary versifier (as compared to whom?), but for a variety of reasons, he came to stand for an attitude and as a proponent of instrumental uses of art in a cultural arena that went much wider than the literary community, which he addressed.
Even today, in places like Rajasthan or Himachal Pradesh or even in the peninsular, young men find in Sahir an attitude and a resonance that allows them to challenge authority and to create a present for themselves that is politically more radical than the existing set up.
Some months ago, I wrote a piece on Kaifi Azmi, where I urged that instead of seeing Sahir or Kaifi or Majrooh, as poets who strayed into film writing, we should instead see them as film writers who also wrote very good poetry.
It is not given to every literary figure to become successful in films. Long as is the list of successful Urdu writers, who wrote for cinema, the numbers of those who tried to write for cinema but failed is even longer, Manto, Taban, Josh, Miraji and so on and so forth.
As a film writer, it would be a naïve judgment that would assert Sahir to be of less importance than Majrooh or Shailendra.
Sahir was such a successful writer in part because he collaborated very closely with certain figures — S D Burman and N Datta at first, Yash Chopra later on — including composers. One Pyasa and one Kabhi Kabhi — main pal do pal ka shayar hoon — is enough to immortalise him.
Choice of language
Mr Panini also wonders why Sahir never wrote in Punjabi? Alas, why did Kalidas write in Sanskrit and not Apbhransha? Why did Abul Fazal write in Persian? Why does Rushdie write in English and not Kashmiri? Why does Kashinath Singh write in Hindi and not Bhojpuri?
Why does Mr Panini himself write in English and not in some other language? Why a writer chooses a particular language has many reasons from among which, cultural prestige and financial returns being two very important ones.
But this is hardly a question we can put to individuals. Perhaps Sahir’s entire generation, as well as his own entire generation might be able to satisfy Mr Panini on that front.
[First published in Mid-Day]