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What set apart Kaifi Azmi from his peer and contemporary Sahir Ludhianvi?

Peers, competitors, friends, and fellow men, Kaifi Azmi and Sahir Ludhianvi were among the most popular and powerful lyricists of their generation. On the birth anniversary of Kaifi Azmi today (16 January), we look at what set the lyricist apart from his great peer, Ludhianvi. 

Shriram Iyengar

Some time after the death of Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi was invited to the former's alma mater, Ludhiana College for a function. Speaking on the occassion, Azmi composed a ghazal that recalled his fellow's searching spirit 

Tumhaare Shehar Mein Aaye Hain Hum, Sahir Kahan Ho Tum
Yeh Rooh-Peshi Tumhaari Hai Sitam, Sahir Kahan Ho Tum?

(We have arrived in your city, Sahir, where are you? 
This soul searching is your sense of tragedy, where are you?)

In many ways, Ludhianvi and Azmi were two sides of the same coin. Among the leading faces of the Progressive Writer's Movement, which changed the lexicon of poetry in Hindi cinema, their work as lyricists is unparalleled. However, the key difference lies in their desire to do so. In Akshay Manwani's Sahir: The People's Poet, the writer points to an incident where on being asked what he wants to become, Ludhianvi replies "Main ek bahut bada geetkaar banunga (I will become a great songwriter)." In contrast, Azmi belonged to the generation of writers who purposely dedicated themselves to the cause of socialism. For many years, he and Ali Sardar Jafri continued to work as the official poets of the Communist Party of India, a sign of their commitment to the cause. 

It would be, in many ways, futile to define Azmi through his film lyrics. Never questioned for the quality of his work in cinema, Azmi was never too proud of it either. Speaking to Cinestaan.com, Javed Akhtar said of the difference between the two great poets, "I think Kaifi saab..In fact, if you see both of them were great poets, but at the same time Kaifi saab was not too keen to become a lyricist. Maybe he did at a time because it was his economic need. He did not take his role as a lyricist as his main body of work. No, he was busy in many things. He was occupied with Indian People's Theatre Association, he was involved with the issues of society." At the other end of the spectrum was Ludhianvi. Akhtar says, "Sahir was totally focussed on lyric writing. That is what he opted for, and enjoyed doing. He worked with tremendous responsibility (towards his lyrics)." 

Another key difference lies in the style of their writing. While Ludhianvi idolised the great socialist progressive and poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and evoked his philosophy through his ghazals, it was Azmi who adopted his form. While Ludhianvi's penchant for ghazals made it easier for music directors, Azmi's greatest strength lay in his nazms, blank verse poems that flowed with an innate rhythm. His cinematic work often reflects his more romantic side, one that his serious poetry is far away from. Take for instance, this beautiful song from Mahesh Bhatt's Arth (1983)

Incidentally, after Ludhianvi's fallout with SD Burman on Pyaasa (1957), it was Azmi to whom Guru Dutt turned to write the lyrics for Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). The film is certainly one of the hallmarks of his poetry. From the burning 'Ud Ja Pyaase Bhanwre' which decries the hypocrisy of the world, or the soul searching 'Dekhi Zamaane Ki Yaari' which reflects the world's fickleness, his lyrics match up to the pathos and realism of Ludhianvi's best works in Pyaasa.

Akhtar explains his success saying, "Obviously, he wrote great songs, because he was a very good poet. (laughs) His average (of hits) is very very high." His lyrics were most effective when combined with a story that matched up to their calibre. Garm Hava (1974), Haqeeqat (1964), Anupama (1966). In Anupama's 'Ya Dil Ki Suno Duniyawalo', you can almost feel the pain of the poet's personal struggle through his lyrics. 

Like much of his work, Azmi looked at cinema as the medium to bring about the change that he was working towards seriously. A secular socialist through and through, he worked tirelessly for ideals far higher than the commercial success of films. Yet, he worked in cinema as a means to an end. As Akhtar's poem, Ajeeb Aadmi Tha Woh (He was a strange man) written as a tribute says, 

Ajeeb aadmi tha woh
Mohabbaton ka geet thaa, 
Bagavaton ka
raag thaa,
woh sirf phool thaa,
woh sirf aag thaa