DAWN Tuesday Review, Jan 3-5, 1995
PROFILE: JUAN ELIA
"Ideas Lose Vitality When Personified"
Ghazal is more suited to express the complexities of the modern age than nazm and Mir Taqi Mir, by virtue of being more ancient, may be appreciated more by the present generation as compared to Ghalib who is some sixty years closer to our times.
It is very interesting, at times quite shocking, to listen to Jaun Elia – one must admit this whether agreeing with him or not. It may be due to the fact that he is one of the few remnants of a culture now on the verge of extinction – the Urdu speaking society which is located close to its Arabic and Persian roots. Jaun Elia is unique phenomenon in being a rebel of that society, one who has discarded some of the dearest beliefs of his culture and yet lives up to remain a true and loyal representative of its intellectual heritage – an embodiment of its ethos. Know for his dispersed poetry more than for his one belated anthology published four years back, Jaun Elia speaks about his poetry, his influences – and his unrequited love affair with classical Arabic literature:
“As I was growing up to appreciate poetry I began to like the Persian poets better than the Urdu poets. Raudki (the father of Persian poetry), Firdousi, Urfi, Nazeeri, Hafiz, Moulana Roomi … these were considered to be masters. I studied them like a student – an exercise I did not undertake with any of the Urdu poets. I considered the latter group to be a “group of friends” – it was partially because I knew that they had themselves studied the same masters as myself. In a way looked at all of them as fellow students belonging to the same university. Some of them could have been my senior, no doubt. For instance, I could have been a class ninth student as compared to Mir and Ghalib who seemed like final year students – but ‘college mates’ nevertheless. The great Persian masters were a different matter altogether. They were the murshids, the mentors. And all of the great Urdu poets have themselves acknowledged their debt to these Persian masters. Ghalib, for instance, mentions Firdousi as the poet par excellence in one of his letters. In the same letter he mentions Avicena as the greatest philosopher. Indeed this was the general ethos of the Muslim society up to our times: the Persian poets to be the prime examples of achievement in poetry and the Arabic philosophers (‘Arabic’, not ‘Arab’), since most of them were non-Arabs writing in the Arabic language) to be the masters of thought. Avicena and Farabi hold a position in our tradition which is parallel to Plato and Aristotle in the western system of philosophy. Right from Quli Qutub Shah, all Urdu poets have admitted the same feelings of indebtedness and gratitude towards their Persian mentors. Only during the last fifty years has this influence begun to fade out – apparently due to the decline of Persian language.
“I did slightly change, however, my viewpoint on the Urdu poets later on. I began to appreciate Ghalib and became quite impressed by him, extracting a lot of pleasure from his poetry. I think Ghalib influences you more if your social problems are simple and straight, and if your feelings of alienation are more theoretical rather than being an intense personal experience. However, when you grow up more, and go through the real agony of being ‘the outsider’, then you are likely to appreciate Mir better. Before 1947, our problem was simple and the answer was clear: obtain freedom from the British. However, the problems became more complex after we became independent.
“As I went deeper into the mires of ‘industrial loneliness’ and came across extremely painful experiences of solitude, I too began to like Mir Better than Ghalib.
“Ghalib had, in fact, foreseen the defeat of his society and accepted it as a rational conclusion to the decline of society. This was evident from his attitude to the fighters of 1857 which included his best friend Moulana Khairabadi. His sarcastic remarks on the new edition of Ain-e-Akbari prepared by Syed Ahmed Khan too reflected that stance. To both of themhe said that the Mughal India has to go, and the British Raj is destined to come because it is a superior system. The case was different with Mir, who lived two generations earlier to Ghalib. The fate of the Mughal India had not become evident by his times, and therefore he still had hope in the order under which he was living. His agony came from the genuine anxiety of seeing the worse things happening before him, and yet wishing from his heart for the best to take place. That sounds familiar to us; the intellectuals of the post-British period. Our sorrow is more complex and deeper than Ghalib’s, more like Mir’s. And just like Mir we have not given up hope – we won’t like the British or the Americans to take over the country again.
“And yet there is another great reason to like Mir. He is the only Urdu poet who is ‘unique’. I say this because virtually all other Urdu poets have their equivalent – actually their ‘betters’ – amongst the Persian masters. Ghalib, for instance, owes his repertoire to his formal thoughtfulness, wit and a holistic approach to life. But this can be found in his Persian precedent Nazeeri, whom we may consider as his ‘original’ in a way. One can easily do away with Ghalib, saying ‘why should I read Ghalib when I have access to Nazeeri’. In the same way, Iqbal can be more than replaced by his ‘mentor’ Roomi. Josh, who is known for his rhythm, melody and a kind of grandeur, loses some of his originality when we discover these very qualities treated to a greater perfection in the poetry of Q’ani.
“Mir, on the other hand, is a different case altogether. He is a purely Indian poet who has absorbed the richness of Persian, moulding it especially for Urdu. He has that ‘Indianness’ which is missing in Ghalib. Consider, for instance, the following couplet:
“It reflects a tone which is definitely not borrowed from Persian at all – an example of the essentially Urdu element in his poetry!
“And yet it is difficult for me to say which one of these great poets has most affected my tone and diction. In my poetry I have reflected three or four different tones which may be represented by the following couplets:
“Perhaps a critic who may sit down to analyse my poetry will be better entitled to say which poets have affected my diction more.”
Just as he chooses Mir to depict the sentiment of the present age, he points out ghazal as the genre which is best suited to express the problems of the contemporary words…
“Throughout 1960s I kept on writing poems on social and political issues, mostly against the martial law imposed by field Marshal Ayub Khan. Also, in 1962, I started what I intended to finish as a long epic poem.The working title was Nai Aag Ka Ehednama or The Testament of the New Fire. I have now changed the title to Ramos but the poem remains unfinished.
“I do not have any bias against either ghazal or nazm. I just follow my inspiration, which keeps shifting from nazm to ghazal and back. However, I feel that the complicated problems of the present day call not for a simple language, and therefore ghazal rather than nazm.
He is somewhat reluctant about the publication of his poetry I the form of anthologies. “About six of seven volumes are already prepared for publication and one of them may appear by April. My well wishers want all of them to be out soon but I would rather like some of my prose work to be published first.”
These “prose works” certainly deserve some detail here. For although Jaun Elia is better known as a poet, he is also a scholar of no less metal. Among his achievements are his translations and studies of classical Arabic literature, including Hallaj and Ikhwan us Safa. The latter was an assignment he first accepted as part of his services for the Research and Publications Department of the World Ismaili Centre in the ‘60s. It has now become a labour of love. “I used to work at the Centre on Islamic history and philosophy. I suggested Urdu translation of the 52 volumes of encyclopedia compiled by the secret brotherhood of Ikhwan us Safa. They lived during the Fatimid period, and for some reason they kept their names unknown. However, they are generally believed to be Ismailis, and the Ismailis own them too. These encyclopedia are supposed to have inspired such revolutionary French thinkers as Rousseau and Voltaire, and also the French encyclopedists and lexicographers of the eighteenth century. Indeed these 52 volumes cover wide range of topics from numbers and mathematics to astrology, music and occult sciences, etc. I had translated up to twenty volumes when the Ismaili Centre was moved from Karachi to London in the late ‘60s. Thus it left the project unfinished. And then I lost the manuscripts of my translation except for five of them. Recently, when I made up my mind to publish them privately, I discovered to my dismay that the very first volume, Numbers, was missing! Now I want to begin with the first volume in any case. I think I shall have to translate it again, and that I can accomplish in twenty-five days but the non-availability of the original text is posing a great problem.”
The other major topic of his study was Hallaj, the mystic martyr of the 3rd century of the Muslim era. The study spanned a period of 18 years and over 300 sources. With tears in his eyes he states that the fruits of this labour – his manuscripts on Hallaj – are lost due to some mishaps of his private life.
“What was the significance of Hallaj in your mind when you chose him as a topic of study?” I asked this question to find out any parallel that he might have drawn between the spirit of the Sufi rebel of the early Muslim period and the ethos of our age.
“Hallaj was a sufi, as you know, and love of humanity is the essence of Sufism along with the concepts of a ‘holistic religion’ (Deen-e-Kull) and pantheism (Wahdat ul Wujood). Secondly, Hallaj was also known for his radical political beliefs. Most of his approximately thirty books listed in Nadeem’s Al Fehris are about politics rather than anything else. Contrary to popular belief, I think he was executed for the political threat that he had become for the Abbassid rulers. The charge on him that he declared himself to be the Lord by saying ‘Ana al haq’ was merely a cover. The Muslim society was never so bigoted as to have a man executed just for saying something like that. The same society had tolerated for more offensive ‘blasphemies’ of the earlier Sufi Bayazid. He is even reported to have said on one occasion, ‘I am greater than God’. Hallaj, on the other hand, had only said something which could easily have been translated as ‘I am the truth’. By the way, this statement rather reads like a translation of a sentence from the Upanishads, i.e., ‘aham Brahma’ or ‘I am Brahma’. Hallaj would never have been taken to the gallows if he had not desired certain political changes contrary to the interests of the rulers of his time. My interest in this great mystic was mainly due to his political activities and beliefs.”
No description of Jaun Elia can be considered complete if it does not mention drama – his second choice among art forms. “I first became famous in my home town (Amroha) while still in my early teens – not as a poet but as a playwright and performer. I used to write my own plays, and then stage them with other boys of my age. These were usually historical plays, set in the early centuries of the Muslim period. My practice of writing plays has definitely left a mark upon my poetry, including my ghazal for my verses often acquire the tone of a dialogue. Indeed, if I were not a poet I would have expressed my sentiments through drama (mostly historical) and my thought through history and philosophy.”
Yet he has allowed poetry to become his first obsession. What he says here about drama may serve as a background for what he has written in the preface to his anthology, Shayad, published in 1990: “ I would venture to say that drama is an art form of a second category as far as its poetic essence is concerned …. My argument is this: drama is the art of personification and an idea loses its vitality when personified. In drama, the idea is confined in the form of a character, thus dissolving into well-defined but limited time and space – a holistic thought of innumerable applications thus turns into what is nothing more than part space, part time and part manifestation."
It is very interesting, at times quite shocking, to listen to Jaun Elia – one must admit this whether agreeing with him or not. It may be due to the fact that he is one of the few remnants of a culture now on the verge of extinction – the Urdu speaking society which is located close to its Arabic and Persian roots.