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Jan Nisar Akhtar — Bollywood lyricist who was ‘poet in a real sense’

On his 106th birth anniversary, ThePrint explores the life and love of Jan Nisar Akhtar.

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New Delhi: “The word shayar was made looking at him,” Javed Akhtar, prominent lyricist and poet jokingly said in an interview about his father, Jan Nisar Akhtar. “He had the personality of a shayar. With his long hair, half closed eyes, smoking and looking at the smoke. He was lost in imagination most of the time. He would forget important things and would remember old things. He was a poet in a real sense.” 

Jan Nisar Akhtar, a celebrated Urdu poet, ventured into the Hindi film industry and gained popularity as a lyricist in the 1950s. 

On 14 February 1914, Akhtar was born into a family of prominent writers and Islamic scholars. He completed his post-graduate from Aligarh Muslim University and started teaching in the 1940s. After Independence, he moved to Bhopal and taught Urdu at Hamidia University but never stopped writing poetry. In 1949, he quit teaching and left for tinseltown. 

Speaking about the financial difficulties faced by Urdu poets at the time, music historian Raju Bharatan once said, “Once you came from the mushaira down to film poetry, your intellectual level had to be brought down to several notches. It was never easy but it was a question of sustenance… After all, in Urdu writing, how much could you make outside the fold of film. In film they found a medium through which they could give expression to political thought also.”

Facing these difficulties, Jan Nisar Akhtar ventured into the Hindi film industry and created a niche for himself as an Urdu poet who seamlessly reinvented himself as a Bollywood lyricist.

On his 106th birth anniversary, ThePrint revisits his life and work.

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Simplicity of language was his hallmark

“A thing that is noticeable about his poetry is the simplicity of language,” Javed Akhtar said.

“I remember he told me it is very easy to write in difficult language and it is very hard to write in easy language. This is because when you are writing in a totally transparent language, you have to be sure of your idea and your thought,” he recalled in an interview

Javed Akhtar revealed that his father was one of the few Urdu poets who went beyond the classic style of poetry that involved pining for the protagonists’ beloved. “All romantic poetry is either of pining or of meeting. But one day, lovers have met and they are married. The poetry ends there, there is no poetry after that. Jan Nisar Akhtar has written a complete book called Ghar Aangan. This book of verses is only about the poetry seeing the romance of marital life. It is from the point of view of the husband and the wife.”

Jan Nisar Akhtar was also part of the Progressive Writers’ Association, part of a larger anti-colonial literary wave that engulfed the country at the time. The association was decorated with many other names in the world of literary giants Faiz, Majaz, Krishan Chander, Ismat Chugtai, Kaifi and Majrooh. 

He has over 150 Hindi songs to his name, but Akhtar first became a household name with the film Yasmin in 1955. His poems in the film were set to tune by C Ramachandra.

Through the course of his Bollywood career, Akhtar maintained a strong partnership with music composer O.P. Nayyar. In 1956, he wrote just one song for the Dev Anand-starrer CID, but it was enough to cement his place in the history of Indian cinema. Aankhon Hi Aankhon Mein went on to become a metaphor for flirting.

The lover 

Akhtar was no stranger to love and romance in his personal life either. He had heard of Safia through his cousins. Curious, he went to visit her at her college and they were struck by love at first sight. Soon, Akhtar’s family sent a marriage proposal to Safia’s family, and they were quick to respond with an approval. However, after a prolonged silence from Akhtar’s family, Safia expressed her interest to Jan Nisar herself, through a letter. “If I hadn’t succumbed to my superfluous desire and blithe audacity in daring to write to you, who knows where our lives would be drifting now?” Safia wrote in 1950. 

While Akhtar struggled in his initial years in Bombay, Safia supported him financially too. Thanks to his Bollywood ambitions, the two kept in touch through letters. On 20 July 1950, Safia wrote, “Come Akhtar! Let me flow in your veins. I have prayed long and hard to make you mine. Seven years have gone by and for the most part we have been separated. My yearning grows with every passing day. I cannot live away from you much longer…Akhtar, I desire your companionship and you want to send me a million miles away! I am truly scared of your lyrical style of love. My very own Akhtar! Come, take me to you, hide me within you in such a way that I may not exist outside of you. Let there just be you and me within you.” 

When Safia died of cancer, a heartbroken Akhtar, on his way from Bombay to Lucknow, wrote a poem titled Khaak-e-Dil  (Ashes of the Heart). 

Lucknow mere vatan mere chaman-zār vatan
tere gahvāra-e-āġhosh meñ ai jān-e-bahār
apnī duniyā-e-hasīñ dafn kiye jaatā huuñ
tū ne jis dil ko dhaḌakne kī adā baḳhshī nahīñ
aaj vo dil bhī yahīñ dafn kiye jaatā huuñ
dafn hai dekh merā ahd-e-bahārāñ tujh meñ
dafn hai dekh mirī rūh-e-gulistāñ tujh meñ 

(Lucknow my home, my lush green home!
In your rocking embrace
I bury the beauty of my world
The heart that beats to your rhythms
That heart too I bury here with you) 

Jan Nisar was felicitated with the Sahitya Akademi award for Khaak-E-Dil in 1976. 

A few years after many successes in the Hindi film industry, his health deteriorated and he died after a heart attack on 19 August 1976. 

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