On 8 March, Sahir Ludhianvi would have turned 94. In recent years, the poet-songwriter, whose songs are incisive critiques of the state and other custodians of moral and spiritual authority, has been revived by the arts—from former British politician Pramila Le Hunte’s play Sahir: His Life And Loves, which was staged in New Delhi in 2009, to veteran film and theatre actor Tom Alter playing Sahir in another play on the life and times of the poet in 2014.

Much of this rediscovery has also concerned itself with Ludhianvi’s enigmatic relationship with the Punjabi literary figure, Amrita Pritam. In theatre director Saif Hyder Hasan’s Ek Mulaqat, which was staged in various Indian cities last year, Shekhar Suman and Deepti Naval played Ludhianvi and Pritam and explored the contours of the relationship.

The interest in this chapter of Ludhianvi’s life is understandable. His relationship with Pritam could hardly be termed regular. In her own words, Pritam described it as one defined by “silence". The two never spoke to each other. Ludhianvi himself was never clear about the relationship, and recent portrayals have only added to the enigma.

The speculation surrounding Ludhianvi’s inability to enter into a serious relationship goes beyond Pritam. In his college years, he is said to have romanced a girl named Ishar Kaur, but nothing concrete emerged from that relationship. One of Ludhianvi’s earliest and most romantic poems, Kisi Ko Udaas Dekh Kar, was written for Kaur when she stopped speaking to him after the tumult that the news of their relationship apparently created in Government College, Ludhiana. In later years, Ludhianvi’s name was linked to noted Urdu writer Hajra Masroor and playback singer Sudha Malhotra too.

One of the reasons often propagated to explain Ludhianvi’s inability to commit to women is the presence of his mother, an overwhelming figure in his life. Having rescued her son from the hands of a tyrannical father, Sardar Begum focused all her energies on raising him. Ludhianvi’s upbringing and education became the reason for her existence. The suffering mother or the exploited woman figure that finds mention in so many of Ludhianvi’s songs—“Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hain" from Pyaasa (1957) or “Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko" from Sadhna (1958) or “Tere bachhpan ko jawaani ki dua deti hoon" from Mujhe Jeene Do (1963)—is precisely because Ludhianvi was able to see his mother’s torment from close quarters.

But there is another, possibly more significant reason for Ludhianvi’s dysfunctional romantic endeavours. To him, love became an obstacle in his ability to empathize with the suffering of the marginalized. His willingness to sacrifice love or seek solace in the travails of humanity after a failed romantic episode is a theme that plays out regularly in his poetry. In Kisi Ko Udaas Dekh Kar, he wrote:

“Tumhaare gham ke siva aur bhi toh gham hain mujhe

Nijaat jinse main ek lehza pa nahin sakta…

Yeh oonche oonche makaanon ki dyodhiyon ke taley

Har ek gaam pe bhookey bhikaariyon ki sada…

Yeh karkhaanon mein lohon ka shor-o-gul jisme

Hai dafn laakhon gareebon ki rooh ka nagma…

Yeh gham bahut hain meri zindagi mitaaney ko

Udaas rehkey mere dil ko aur ranjh na do."

(I have other sorrows to tend besides yours

Those from which I cannot free myself even for an instant…

Look outside the gates of these imposing structures

At every step, there are mendicants to see…

In the din of machines operating in factories

The melancholic tales of the poor can be heard…

All these troubles are enough to consume my life

By staying despondent do not burden my heart any more)

Elsewhere, in his seminal poem Kabhi Kabhi, a portion of which was rehashed and adapted for Yash Chopra’s famous film, Ludhianvi wrote:

“Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayaal aata hai

Ki zindagi teri zulfon ki narm chhaaon mein

Guzarney paati toh shadaab ho bhi sakti thee…

Magar yeh ho na saka aur ab yeh aalam hai

Ki tu nahin, tera gham, teri justuju bhi nahin…

Zamaaney bhar ke dukhon ko laga chuka hoon galey

Guzar raha hoon kuch anjaani rehguzaaron se…"

(Sometimes my heart wonders pensively

That had I lived in the warmth of your tresses

My life may have blossomed a lot more…

Alas, this could not happen and now such is my plight

That I no longer yearn to be with you…

I have filled my heart with the sorrows of humanity

As I pass through unknown and unfamiliar terrain…)

In several of his other poems, like Gurez, Taj Mahal, Mere Geet or Khudkushi Se Pehle, Ludhianvi adopts a similar refrain. For him, love and romance could not exist in a vacuum, at a distance from the evils plaguing society. He would adopt this stance in film songs as well. In Didi (1959), after the heroine, Shubha Khote, has sung “Tum mujhe bhool bhi jao to yeh haq hai tumko, meri baat aur hai maine toh mohabbat ki hai" (If you wish to forget me, you have every right to, but I can’t be expected to since I have loved you), the hero, Sunil Dutt, explains: “Bhook aur pyaas ki maari huyi iss duniya mein ishq hi ek haqeeqat nahin, kuch aur bhi hai, tum agar aankh churao to yeh haq hai tumko, maine tumse hi nahin sabse mohabbat ki hai" (In a world besieged by hunger and poverty, love cannot be the only reality, if you wish to shut your eyes to this, so be it, my heart goes out to others too).

Ludhianvi wasn’t merely a revolutionary poet, but a poet sensitive to the human condition. If he died a célibataire, it’s because he found it difficult to divide his emotions between his personal love and his love for mankind.

Akshay Manwani’s biography of Sahir Ludhianvi, Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet, was published by HarperCollins India in December 2013.