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On the Poetry of Sahir Ludhianvi: The Personal and the Political

It was in the Post-Independence Era, a period of colossal chaos, that Sahir found himself struggling to align his stance and his literary point of view. Interestingly, Sahir chose the middle path rather than going for the extremes. He kept himself aloof from becoming a complete advocate of revolution or love and chose to express the anguish of both; the personal and the political.

The India of the Post-Independence, contrary to what popular culture has entrenched in our minds, was a land of disillusionment, chaos, and hopelessness. It was an era where the abominable ghost of our colonial past was still lingering heavily on our shoulders, and the romantic thought of a Gandhian utopia seemed a distant dream of yore. In the words of the poet Faiz – “vo intezar tha jiska, ye vo sehar to nhi” (“It was not the morning [of independence] that people have wished for.”)

The reason for the despondency was the abdication of the British, which created two immediate socio-political impacts in the subcontinent, one political and the other personal. Comprehending them will help us gain a better insight into the times which informed, in part, the genius of Sahir’s literary oeuvre.

The first impact was the haste to fill the power vacuum left in the wake of the British by the dominant upper-class Indians, which gave rise to the establishment of yet another stratification of society into a social hierarchy. This led to the political disillusionment of millions of Indians who beheld with horror of the slow death of their cherished idea of an equal India, which was on the brink of being shattered by the same people who once promised its fruition. Politically, therefore, it was a time of utter disappointment.

The second impact, which is perhaps a reaction to the first, was the feeling of deep, personal tragedy and mass alienation. The horrors of the Partition and the World Wars were still fresh in people’s minds, which compelled them to reconsider their identities and existence itself. Moreover, the technological advancement, which the country embarked on as part of its Five-Year Plans, created a profound dilemma for the individual to reconsider his relation to the materialistic outer world regarding his spiritual salvation. Thus, it was a time of immense personal suffering coupled with immense political disenchantment.

It was in this period of colossal chaos, that Sahir, a perceptive poet, found himself struggling to align his literary point of view and find his poetic voice. Interestingly rather than going for the extremes, Sahir chose the middle path. He crafted his poetry not merely as a voice of revolution, neither entirely as a heart-stricken song of unrequited love, but rather as a bitter cry expressing the anguish of both; the personal and the political. He expressed his neutrality and abhorrence for extremes in the poem Rajat Pasand: –

Rajat pasand hun ke taraqi pasand hun mai

Is behas ko fazool-o-abas jaanta hun mai

Aaina-e-havadis-e-hasti hai mere sher

Jo dekhta raha hun vo kehta raha hun mai”

(“Am I conservative by nature, or a progressive mind?

This controversy is a trifle, I regard it a sort of bind

My verses are a mirror, to reflect the vagaries of nature

I have penned what I have seen, without an axe to grind”)


This characteristic of assimilation lent to his verses a fascinating and exceptional quality, which is, simply put, the innate capacity to merge the political and the personal into the same verse. It was the ability to move from one’s afflictions to the sorrows of the lowly and the downtrodden and vice-versa within a single poem. It expressed the sensitivity of a poet to experience and then react to the suffering of the world as poignantly as one’s own.

In other words, Sahir in his poems is not just a heart-broken poet who sees nothing but love in every facet of the earth, nor a complete revolutionary whose sense of transformation makes him consider the upturning of the status quo as the only thing that makes life worthwhile. On the other hand, he is a person who sees both the personal and the political in one facet of life, that is, bitterness, since he faces betrayal by both. As he expresses in this couplet,

“Ham gham-zada hai laae kahan se khushi ke geet

Denge vahi jo payenge is zindagi se hum”

(“I am grief-stricken, from where will I bring the songs of joy.

I only possess the songs of sorrow,

Because that is all that this life has given me.”)

Because Sahir, like millions of Indians of that era, found no security in the outer world and discovered the same desolation in his heart, he resentfully decided to forsake them both in his poetry. He wrote about this anguish as,

“Tang aa chuke hai kashmakash-e-zindagi se hum

Thukra na de is jahan ko kahin be-dili se hum.”

(“I have turned weary of the sufferings of life now,

It’s not long, that someday I will cast this world aside heartlessly.”)

We notice this juxtaposition of the eternal struggle of the modern man between adjusting and reacting to the materialistic outer world and the emotional inner world consistently across Sahir’s entire literary output. More intriguing and evident of Sahir’s literary genius is that he brought this unique sensibility of his to the mainstream Hindustani cinema as well.

To substantiate this claim, one can quote countless examples from Sahir’s lyrics from the cinema that are nothing short of exquisite poetry imbued with meaning and written in perfect rhyme and meter. The most quintessential example, I believe, is the evocative song – ‘ye duniya agar mil bhi jae to kya hai’ from the movie – Pyaasa (1958).

Here, we notice that, in the song, he expresses the pain of the individual on realizing the hollowness of human relations as,

“Ye duniya jahan aadmi kuch nhi hai

Wafa kuch nhi, dosti kuch nhi hai,

Yahan pyaar ki qadr hi kuch nhi hai

Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaae to kya hai”

(“This is a world, where life has no value

Where faith and friendship are meaningless

Where love has no respect,

Such a world is worthless to me, even if I possess it all.”)

And in the second last stanza of the same song, he sums up the disenchantment with the moral and political order of the world in the cathartic exclamation,

“Jala do ise phoonk dalo ye duniya,

Tumhari hai tum hi sambhalo ye duniya

Mere saamne se hata lo ye duniya

Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaae to kya hai”

(“Light a fire and burn down such a hollow world

It is yours; you keep it and revel in its madness.

I am tired of it, take it away from my sight

Such a world is worthless to me, even if I possess it all.”)

Therefore, Sahir aesthetically weaved the tensions of the individual and his political anxieties into the fabric of a single verse. This added a dimension of the duality of meaning to his work and transformed his poetry from mere tales of unreciprocated love to exquisite verses, where love became a social phenomenon, a form of revolution. He was, evidently, aware of this unique quality he brought to his words, as he summed up this philosophy in this couplet, from his poem – Nakami,

“Maine har chand gham-e-ishq ko khona chaha

Gham-e-ulfat gham-e-duniya me samona chaha”

(“I tried to forget the woes of love every moment, and for that

I tried to merge the pains of life and love into one.”)

One does not know whether he achieved success in implementing this in his life, but as we now realize, in his poetry, he was able to achieve so.

Vinay Rajoria is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Maryam Hassan

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Written by Vinay Rajoria

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