I grew up in a house that resonated with the sound of Hindi film music. My maternal grandfather had worked many years for HMV; my father, whose elder brother was a guitarist in Bombay’s film industry, had inherited his love for music. And, with a large collection of gramophone records (later to be supplemented with cassettes and even later CDs), there was hardly a waking moment when we weren’t listening to music. Even if we didn’t put an LP on the turntable, we’d turn on our radio and listen to film songs.
Looking back, I realise now that for many years I didn’t really pay attention to the words. It wasn’t till I was well into my twenties that I finally began to notice—really notice—how words went, what they meant. I discovered that Allah tero naam was not merely a bhajan, but also a plea against war. I found that Sar jo tera chakraaye had strains of socialism running through it.
Slowly, as I got to know more and more about the works of different lyricists, a strong favourite emerged: Sahir Ludhianvi. Sahir, who wrote songs so widely differing in tone as the boisterous, country-loving Yeh desh hai veer jawaanon ka and the quietly defiant Jurm-e-ulfat pe humein, the bitter Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko and the harshly cynical Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai. Sahir, who was a brilliantly brave poet and an equally brilliant and brave lyricist.
It is this man—poet, lyricist, son, friend, rival, colleague, in all his many avatars—who is the subject of Akshay Manwani’s biography, Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (Harper Collins Publishers India, ISBN 978-93-5029-733-9, Rs 399, 320 pages). I had been introduced, online, to Akshay a couple of months before the book was released—in December 2013—and had been all enthusiastic eagerness when asked if I’d like to read and review the book.