When Anusuya Singh Estevez, the gifted daughter of Gurbaksh Singh Preetlari, passed away last month in Merida, Venezuela at the age of 84, it created ripples in the literary circuit. Followers of Shiv Kumar Batalvi surfaced on the social media and described Anusuya as Batalvi’s unrequited love, who inspired him to write the timeless gem, ‘Ik kudi jida naam mohabbat gum hai’ (A girl, whose name is love, is lost).
Composer Amit Trivedi used Batalvi’s verse to mesmerising effect in Udta Punjab. Sung by Shahid Mallaya with versions by Diljeet Dosanjh and Alia Bhatt, the song became the defining feature of the film and continues to be a hit with teenagers.
Does a broken heart let one pen great poetry or is it just a myth circulated by fans, and, at times, by writers themselves. There are multiple narratives about how the passionate relationship between Anusuya and Shiv was killed before it blossomed in Preet Nagar, an estuary of liberal thoughts created by Gurbaksh Singh, where Eastern and Western ideas met and found a voice in the much-sought-after magazine Preetlari.
Old-timers say it was a Nehruvian experiment against a conflict-ridden world where creative personalities such as Balraj and Bhisham Sahni, Sobha Singh and Balwant Gargi met and discussed their work. It is said that it was here that the platonic romance between Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam also took shape.
Noted Litterateur Amrita Pritam.
Read the text
Senior critic of Punjabi literature. Prof. Krantipal. advises followers to read the text and to not go by the stories associated with it. “By doing so, you are limiting the vastness of the thought of the writer,” he says, adding that it’s usually teenagers on the cusp of adulthood who are drawn to the incredibly handsome Batalvi, whose stage presence remains unrivalled.
Most writers of romance in Punjab, he says, were inspired by the unfulfilled romance of Shirin-Farhad and Sohini-Mahiwal and Shiv was no different. “According to me, he was not inspired by just one woman or just one situation,” says Prof. Krantipal, reminding me of Shiv’s interview with the BBC, which is available on YouTube.
In the interview, when he is asked of love and heartbreak, he denies the idea of one image, one love and says, in fact, that it was a combination of experiences and the class structure of Indian society that influenced his poetry. He goes on to say he could not make a complete image of his muse. “It was somebody’s lips, somebody else’s feet that inspired me to write.” But he does admit that every intellectual is dying a slow death. The youngest to win the Sahitya Akademi Award, Batalvi died of liver problems at the age of 35.
In the case of Sahir-Amrita, there is evidence that Sahir Ludhianvi did write at least one song for her that was later used in Bharat Bhushan-starrer Dooj Ka Chand (1964). Akshay Manwani, Sahir’s biographer, says that in her autobiography Raseedi Ticket, Amrita, who was besotted with Sahir for a long time, mentions the evening when she along with Imroz, her live-in partner, went to meet Sahir in his hotel in Delhi. That night, she says, Sahir called up at midnight and sang the nazm, ‘Mere saathi khali jaam’, referring to the empty glasses on his table in which the three had been drinking whiskey that night.
Referring to the conversation, Amrita writes that Sahir told her over the phone, “There are still three glasses lying on the table. By turn, I am sipping from each one of them, and writing.” It resulted in the popular song, ‘Mehfil se uth jaane waalon tum logon par kya ilzam, tum abaad gharon ki vasi main awaara aur badnam,’ composed by Roshan and sung by Mohammed Rafi.
The passing caravan
As for stories around Sahir writing ‘Chalo ek baar phir ajnabi ban jayen hum dono’ (Hamraaz, 1967) for singer Sudha Malhotra, Manwani says it is in the domain of gossip. “I asked Sudha Malhotra and she denied that the song was written for her. These are urban legends that fans hold on to with great relish and when somebody clarifies that there is no actual proof, the followers feel devastated,” he chuckles.
On the same lines, it is said that poet Gopal Das Neeraj wrote, ‘Carvan guzar gaya gubar dekhte rahe’ when he felt desolate after watching the marriage procession of his beloved pass by. Years later, the song was composed by Roshan and sung by Mohammed Rafi in Nayi Umar Ki Nayi Fasal (1966). When this journalist once asked the poet about the story behind the song, he only said that karuna (compassion) is an essential ingredient of his life and the song is one of the better examples of it. He was not too happy with its picturisation though.
The story of poet Asrar Ul Haq Majaz is no different. As handsome as Neeraj and Shiv, he was also a darling of the stage with a huge female fan following. Like them, he also faced heartbreak and wrote the nazm, ‘Ae gham-e-dil kya karoon, ae vehashate dil kya karoon’ (Oh sad heart, what shall I do? Oh frustrated heart, what shall I do?), titled ‘Awaara’ by him.
Many years later, it was composed by Sardar Malik and used in Shammi Kapoor’s Thokar (1953). The film flopped, but the song lives on, courtesy Talat Mahmood’s voice.
Suhaib Sherwani who co-produced a feature film on the life of Majaz says the Lucknow-based poet had suicidal tendencies and found himself a misfit in Bombay where many of his progressive writer friends had migrated.
Guru Dutt in ‘Pyaasa’
It is said that Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa also had elements of his life. In fact, in the scene where Vijay (Guru Dutt) is serving drinks before a poetic soiree, a lanky young man with wavy hair recites a couplet:
Roodad-e-gham-ulfat unhe kya kehte aur kyoon kehte
Ik harf bhi na nikla honthon se, aur aankhon main aansoon aa gaye
(What sad love stories shall I tell her and how. Before I could utter a word, I saw tears in her eyes) The couplet is taken from a Majaz’s ghazal and sets the tone for ‘Jaane woh kaise log the jinke pyaar ko pyaar mila.’
As Majaz was once friendly with lyricist Sahir and scriptwriter Abrar Alvi, it is said that the couplet and the image of the young poet was their tribute to the poet who passed away in 1955, two years before Pyaasa made it to theatres.
Wine and woman
Sherwani, who taught English Literature at Aligarh Muslim University, says the image of the poet was not necessarily of Majaz. “It reflected a global trend after World War II when creative souls were questioning where humanity was headed.”
Wine and woman, he says, are metaphors in Urdu poetry which should not be taken literally. “Many eminent poets resisted the film world because it often does a literal translation of their words through images. It is like legends and myths which are essentially meant to explain human behaviour and have a spiritual value but the ignorant treat them as mere stories.”
However, over the years, he says, it has been proven that images can wear off but verse continues to evoke new meanings for a new generation.