Jan Nisar Akhtar: Much more than Javed’s father & Farhan’s grandfather

One of Lata Mangeshkar’s personal favourite songs was Aap yun faaslon se guzarte rahen dil se qadmon ki awaaz aati rahi from the film Shankar Hussain.

She would often talk about this song: “It is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve sung. It is commonly known that Khayyam Saab composed it and I sang it. But the fact Jan Nisar Akhtar wrote the song is not so well known. He was a very accomplished poet who never got his dues. Another favourite song of mine Ae dil-e-nadaan aarzoo kya hai justajoo kya hai was also written by Jan Nisar Akhtar Saab. The mood of stillness, thehrao, that the poetry creates in this song is unparalleled.”

Ae dil-e-nadaan in Kamal Amrohi’s Razia Sultan was the last song that Jan Nisar Akhtar wrote before his voice was stilled. He was known for his sharply uncomplicated film lyrics like Khwab bann kar koi ayega to neend aayegi (Razia Sultan), Yeh dil unki aur unki nigahon ke saaye (Prem Parbat), Gham ki andheri raat mein dil ko na beqaraar kar (Sushila), Behkudi hadd se jab guzar jaaye (Kalpana).

Jan Nisar Akhtar who was born on February 19, 1914 was an Urdu poet of stalwart stature. His foray into lyrics writing gave him an opportunity to conquer poetic peaks that were not accessible to many other renowned poet-lyricists of the era. Jan Nisar Akhtar wrote meagerly for movies, not because he was not profilic but because he didn’t know how to sell himself to the film industry. He belonged to the old school. He didn’t believe in peddling his poetry to producers. He considered it beneath his dignity to approach people for work. He only spoke to people he was comfortable with. His poetry was revered but not marketed properly.

Jan Nisar Akhtar’s relationship with his son Javed Akhtar went through very troubled times. Jan Nisar was of Communist ideology. An arrest warrant was issued against him and he went underground in Mumbai while his wife was left behind to look after two very small children. She was ill and bed-ridden in Lucknow, while Jan Nisar Akhtar lived as a paying guest in Mumbai. After Jan Nisar’s wife’s death, Javed and his brother couldn’t be taken to join him in Mumbai, as the little work their father got in Hindi cinema was not enough to look after the children.

When Javed was 18, Jan Nisar recognised the poet in his son and encouraged him to write. Jan Nisar would recite to Javed what he wrote and they would discuss his poetry.

Jan Nisar Akhtar’s endeavour was to make the Urdu language as transparent and accessible to the common man as possible. There is a difference between the Lucknow and Delhi schools of Urdu expression. The Delhi school uses a lot of Arabic and Persian words. But Lucknow, because of its proximity to the Awadhi culture, didn’t allow the Urdu to be influenced by Arabic and Persian. The Lucknow Urdu poets like Jan Nisar Akhtar avoided Arabic and Persian words. His poetry was pure simple and very Indian. Javed Akhtar has inherited his father’s lucidity and transparency of expression.

Jan Nisar Akhtar’s collection of poems entitled Ghar Aangan is about the middle-class married life when there is supposed to be no poetry in married life. Javed didn’t get much wealth as inheritance from his father. But he inherited his father’s poetic talent. Jan Nisar Akhtar wrote not only ghazals but also thumris and folk songs. Like his father, Javed’s poetry is rooted to the mitti of the land .

Javed Akhtar’s better-half Shabana Azmi has this to say about her illustrious father-in-law: “I love Akhtar Saheb’s poetry. His imagery is so striking and the romantic in him exists side by side with the revolutionary. He wrote, “Jab raat gaye koi kiran mere barabar chup-chap se so jaye to lagta hai ke tum ho” on one hand and “Sharm aati hai ke us shehar mein rehte hain jahan na mile bheek to lakhon ka guzara hi na ho” on the other. His vocabulary was immense but he used to tell Javed that it is easy to write difficult language but it’s difficult to write easy language. A lesson I think, Javed learnt well from his father.”

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.

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