Jon Elia

December 1, 2002

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By Zulqarnain Shahid
“This is the poetry of a person who was always a failure,” Jaun Elia, who died on November 7, wrote in the foreword to his poetic collection. “Why should I shy away from the fact that I wasted myself. In fact, it was my destiny to waste myself. A son, whose imaginative and idealist father had taught him no skills to lead a successful practical life, and had instead instructed him that knowledge is the finest honour bestowed upon a person, and books the dearest treasure, was bound to waste himself.”

In one of his couplets, Jaun, the innovative master says:

Scenes become heavy on the eye/ Stay often away from where you live

Jaun Elia was blessed with a most influential nexus of the traditional and the modern verse. His ghazals had the golden touch of that most sensitive short-meter master, Meer Taqi Meer, after whose sehl-i-mumtana Jaun fashioned his couplets.

How will life pass?/ When love has no appeal left

Meeting me so cordially/ Have you totally erased my memories?

Jaun looked at life from his own scholarly trajectory, but wished to converse with the common man. This incredible difference of elevation made him reach out with his particular vocabulary, to touch terra firma from his literary desk. He loved his people, he felt their innate sadness, but at the same time, he despised the levels of mediocrity to which the people had descended. Thus, the eternal romantic poet with a vision, and a grasp of historic realities, endeavoured to take along that layman in his literary pursuits. That produced something very fresh, tinged with the same bitterness that revolves excruciatingly in the heart of the afflicted mankind.

Strange has become the city of mystics of late/ Of majesty everyone is wary, you heard?

The youngest son of Allama Shafiq Elia, a respected scholar and writer, Jaun who had been named Jaun Asghar at birth, took his father’s pen name when he started his literary career. Of his brothers, Jaun himself tells us in the preface of his collection, Shayad: “Both my elder brothers (Raees Amrohvi and Syed Mohammad Taqi) were nationalist communists and wore khaddar clothes. If I had been mature at that time, I would also have been a nationalist communist.” Being a nihilist and an anarchist, he flouted the norms of the conformists in his poetry.

All the brothers from this distinguished family of Amroha carried the cultural essence, literary flourish and a distinctive imprint of a rich heritage. This is a very important feature of their contribution to Urdu language and literature, making their works a treasure trove for posterity. The departure of this last member of this family of brilliant litterateurs has left a vacuum in our cultural life.

In Pakistan, the major disciples of Meer were Nasir Kazmi, Ibn-e-Insha and Jaun Elia. Both Nasir and Jaun were gifted with their own distinctive styles, although they wrote the same school of verse. Nasir Kazmi, for most part, can be called a poet of the shehr aoshob (urban sensibilities), while Jaun Elia fully encompassed the existential essence of the universe. Nasir Kazmi’s tragic world had taught him to store all his pathos in the depths of his thoughts, putting them into poetic words with spontaneity, but with the delicacy of an artisan. Jaun Elia had the poetic license of being bitterly critical of his surroundings.

Nasir said:

Where will you go in this city of no lights?/ Night of separation, come home with me

Jaun exclaimed:

Recitals, at the palace of pleasure last night, Jaun/ Were all the treasures belonging to the poor

Jaun Elia, with his immense potential and fascinating capabilities, has a standing of his own. His poetry collection, Shayad, holds enough masterpieces to prove that. This will soon be further affirmed when his next collection, Ya’ni storms the market shortly. As for the test of time, his 60-year-long career is crowned with almost perpetual applause. Wherever he appeared in a mushaira, throughout the country, he literally dominated and startled the listeners with ghazal after ghazal.

In this context, it must be said that Jaun bhai, as he was lovingly known throughout the literary community, wrote brilliant poems, which reflected his ideological views. In the fame and hype built around his ghazals, it is quite unfortunate that his poems were neglected. A man with socialistic ideals, Jaun was forever hung between the two literary poles, like most of the literary people are prone to be. The existential underpinnings of his poetry slowly nudged him towards nihilism and anarchism, which is always noticeable in his poems like “Saza”, “Aziyyat kee yaddasht”, “Burj-i-Babul”, “Shehr Aashob”, “Jashn ka aaseib”, etc.

A very pertinent point revealed through his prose in the preface of his only collection is that Jaun was highly addicted to theatre in his teens. According to him, in 1943, when he was 12 years old, he wrote poetry and idolized Kahlil Jibran. There was a small drama club in Amroha, named Bazm-i-Haq, where stage plays based on Islamic history were presented regularly. Jaun also got involved in it, and would memorize the dialogues of some of the Islamic heroes who were portrayed.

He was so influenced by it that he tried to establish his own drama club, and even wrote and presented his play for it. Jaun wrote many strongly vocal, socialistic poems in those days, and admitted later that the dialogue and conversational element that had become his style in his poetry, was drawn from his involvement in drama. Those who saw him closely through life would know that his personality was attuned to theatre.

What people thought to be his antics were actually his love for timing and spontaneity, with even punchlines for the occasions, and above all, a most exciting conversation that mesmerized the people. In the mushairas, he would make a small introductory speech before reciting his poetry. This never failed to reinvigorate the listeners, even during the most boring of proceedings. To his credit, he never used this theatre in a negative pursuit, to undermine or bring down anybody.

But neither did he shower praises on the top men in office. His cheerful remarks made the mushaira a pleasure for the listeners. During one such function, when he started to recite his poetry, he felt he should take off his glasses. To fill that awkward moment, he said: “Ainak kee zuroorat naheen. Jamaliyat par claim khatam ho jata hai”

Despite all such evidence, he boldly declared: “Very respectfully, I’d comment that drama, in all its potential manifestations, is a secondary genre to poetry!”

And talking of his boldness and commitment, one can’t forget the most unfortunate incident during a mushaira, when some ruffians of a local ethnic party beat him up, for saying, “mushairay ke kuch adab hotay train. Kalam ke beech mein yeh kya hullarbazi hai?” (Mushairas have an etiquette. What is this raucousness in the midst of recitation). Everybody knows what a thin and weak man he was, and such physical violence could hurt him fatally. Those who were present during the incident, tell us that when he was rushed to the hospital, he was bleeding profusely.

Jaun was a man of principles and would not compromise on them. Even though he knew that his elder brother, Raees Amrohvi, to whom he was greatly devoted, was killed holding his fort, Jaun never faltered. He boldly voiced his dissent when he didn’t agree with the ways of society and its so-called guardians.

During the mushairas, he would address his colleagues, contemporaries and young poets to draw their attention to the couplet he was reciting. “Bhai Mohsin, yeh maqta dekho” or “Himayat bhai aap kee nazar hai” were his typical lines to liven up the proceedings. His style of reciting poetry became such a rage that many young poets tried to imitate him. One could detect a hint of theatre in that as the rhythm of his verses cast a spell on the audience.

At times this spell was broken when having had one too many he lost control and uttered abuses which he didn’t mean. Like some of his ilk, he was also ready to spark a controversy, but again, not without any substantive reason behind his claims. Due to his fondness for thought-provoking discourse, he was always surrounded by youngsters with whom he conversed like a friend. Only that we had such literary figures around so that the youth of this country would develop an interest in literature.

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