Gitanjali Dang and Khanabadosh curate this series—Invisible Light, of which Jagte Raho is the opening theme and Committing a Dream the second theme.

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Committing a Dream: Chapter I — Inhabiting Urdu with Jaun Elia and Khwaab Tanha

If you haven’t made acquaintance with Jaun Elia yet then you have been living under a big, fat rock. No two ways about it. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s proceed.

Sometime in the '90s, at a mushaira (poetry symposium) in Dubai, Elia whips his long limp hair away from his ancient face — he is by this time a sexagenarian — and launches into one of his more popular shers (verses).

Be-dilli kya yuhin din guzar jayenge / Sirf zinda rahe hum to mar jayenge

Dejection, is this how I must spend my days / Because if I merely live, then I will surely die

The audience applauds wildly. They adore him. He adores them. Elia asks one gentleman, who can’t have enough of his opening verse to come give him a bosa (kiss) on his forehead. He slaps his forehead for emphasis. The gentleman obliges. The crowd cheers, again. Elia continues with flair. Minutes later he pulls a cup, of what looks like tea, to his lips. You can tell from the way the full house laughs, that everyone is on the secret not. There ain’t no tea, tis’ only alcohol.

This gig, like so many others presided over by Elia, is brimming with fantastic poetry, self-deprecating humour, and proclamations where the shayar (poet) insists that he’s no shayar. The video has over one million views, and it isn’t the only Elia video to have garnered such high viewership.

Although Elia’s mushairas, in particular those that came later on, ran to full houses, during his lifetime and for sometime after, Elia was only known within Urdu literary circles, where he was loved and also a great deal disliked.

Jaun Elia was a Marxist poet, philosopher, scholar, dreamer, and charismatic performer. Born in 1931 in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, he died in 2002, at the age of 70 in Karachi, Pakistan. In the interim, Elia wrote hard, loved hard, played hard, drank hard, and pranked hardest.

In responding to the provocation of Committing a Dream, Elias’ was the first name that popped up for Shiraz Husain of Khwaab Tanha Collective.

Husain started Khwaab Tanha in 2015 but the khwaab (dream) of Urdu, as it were, has been around since his childhood.

“My father, who hails from Amroha, taught Urdu at the Anglo Arabic Senior Secondary School, one of the oldest educational institutions in the country,” Husain reflects on the mahaaul (atmosphere) he grew up in. “Urdu was always present. My sister was, and still is, with the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) and I grew up listening to Mehdi Hassan and Begum Akhtar ghazals.”

Khwaab Tanha Collective was started with the intention of visibilising Urdu literary voices in a political and cultural climate, which would rather wish them, and their contributions, away. However, it has since broadened its horizon, to include, Hindi and Punjabi language literature. So firecrackers like Jaun Elia, Ismat Chugtai, Fahmida Riaz and Majaz Lakhnawi are now in the revolutionary company of Pash and Bhagat Singh, among others.

This visibilisation happens through artworks — often a portrait of the author/poet in combination with their work, and in manner such that one is a reflection of the other. These artworks then make their way onto posters, book covers, diaries, and tees etcetera. Then there’s also the steady stream of video works tailor-made for Instagram, plus the lectures and the workshops, like the recently concluded workshop at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.

Although a Collective, Khwaab Tanha is powered for the most parts by Husain.

Tanha here means solitude, and not alone or lonely. The sort of solitude one might feel when dreaming a personal dream that is within reach and, yet not. A dream, both complete and incomplete,” he explains. “Khwaab Tanha started off as a personal dream and along the way many people and energies have joined in and made it a collective process.”

He concludes the thought with a popular couplet by poet and lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri:

Main akela hi chala tha jaanib-e-manzil magar / Log saath aatay gaye aur karvan banta gaya

When I started towards my destination, I was alone / But as I made progress, others joined and we became a force to reckon with

Elia has been one such significant energy that Husain encountered along the way of his personal dream.

“I am drawn to the haunted dream-like déjà vu quality of the words,” says Husain as he unfolds the following lines from Elia’s ghazal Ajab Ek Shor Sa Barpa Hai Kahin ((Somewhere, there is an astonishing commotion in the air).

Hai kuchh aisa ki jaise ki yeh sab kuchh / is se pehle bhi ho chuka hai kahin / Tu mujhe dhundh main tujhe dhundun / koi hum main se rah gaya hai kahin

It seems as if all this has happened / somewhere before / We should keep on searching for each other / one of us is certainly lost somewhere

Jaun - Final

(Above: Shiraz Husain/Khwaab Tanha Collective, Untitled, 2019)

In 2010, the ghazal was published posthumously in a volume titled Lekin (But).

Elia’s poetry is often read as melancholia over lost home and love, and this melancholia is etched finely into Ajab Ek Shor. It’s hard not to read this poem as response to the partition of India and Pakistan.

It's also possible to read it as an ode to a lost love. There are, at least, a couple of pining nazams in Elia’s oeuvre that directly address a someone called Fariha. But then again as Husain clarifies, “It’s not possible to say anything to a certainty because fariha is also the Urdu word for happy.”

And in yet, another reading — by no means the last — love and home become one; home is where the love is, love is where the home is, home is love, love is home.

During his lifetime, Elia published, after substantial coaxing, just the one volume of poetry titled Shayad (Perhaps), 1990. Consequently, the act of reading Elia off a (web)page acquires significance because Elia was forever reluctant to have his work published. The page lends a stillness and pathos to his work, qualities that may’ve seemed unappealing to the mercurial Elia.

Another possible explanation for why he may’ve dodged publishing: he was a romantic. Living up to the image of the shayar that he repeatedly insisted he wasn’t and in the process becoming the ‘quintessential’ shayar. He went pretty far deep down the romantic road too, when for a long time he went missing from the scene. Hit the bottle in a big way, so no mushairas, no nuthin’. At the aforementioned Dubai mushaira, Elia speaks about being tabah (ruined) in 1985, a possible reference to his alcoholism. Dissing Ghalib routinely could not have been beneficial to his health or his career, if one can call it that at all.

The word ‘rockstar’ turns up often when Elia is invoked. Consider this more fuel to the fire: his mobile face does recall a cross between Steven Tyler and Tom Waits. The greatest fueler of this fire, however, was Elia himself.

“The story goes that he spotted the navy uniform at a friend’s and then proceeded to wear it and pose for pictures. This image and a couple of others, including the one of him piggybacking, were sent to me from Amroha,” reveals Husain. “Not much else is know about the Navy uniform photo except that it was taken in Pakistan. In the recent years, because Amrohawallahs know of my work with Jaun, I have occasionally received images and other tips from there.”

Jaun - 2 note book

(Above: Shiraz Husain/Khwaab Tanha Collective, Happy Birthday, Jaun Elia, 2018)

Picking up on the jaunty pulse of the moment, Husain transformed the image fully set up by Elia and released it online last year, on the poet’s birthday, on December 14. Headlining the image is an Elia sher:

Zindagi ek fan hai lamhon ko / apne andaz se ganwane ka

Life is an art of squandering moments / and that too done in one’s own inimitable style

Stylistically this poster is different from the others, the graffiti-like scrawls, in English, Hindi and Urdu, across the picture plane, lend the image a certain pop boombox aesthetic. At the bottom of the image the words Zindagi ek fan hai lamhon ko reappear with a bottle punctuating the end of the sentence. The bottle speaks to Elia’s struggles with alcoholism, i.e. his preferred way of squandering time.

A third possible explanation for why Elia may’ve dodged publishing, would be that his irreverence and insouciance played out best in the performative mode, in which persona and poem fused. Which brings us back to the melancholia, while there’s a bunch of that in Elia’s work, it is far from all that is there to his work.

Elia wore his struggles and losses lightly, and in speaking about them he made them seem almost buoyant. Poetry as resistance against the regimes of regimented misery.

The performative is never just restricted to the domain of the performance. It extends to the habit of everyday. No shak (doubt) about that.

“Later in life when Jaun visited Amroha, and he didn’t visit often, he used to get down on his knees and kiss the ground. He could be full gimmickry and affect,” Husain says affectionately of the man he has come to know closely.

Why then did Jaun Elia leave his beloved Amroha for Karachi?

Sidebar: A little less than a decade before Elia, another Amrohawallah, the artist Sadequain, had also migrated to Karachi, Pakistan.

There are at least a couple of theories about Elia’s migration. “Oral history tells us that he moved because all his relatives were already in Pakistan,” tells Husain. “The other theory, is that he moved to Karachi to get away from a failed loved affair in Amroha.”

Chances are that we will never quite know for sure, which is just as well. Which is to say, this is just the way Elia would have dug it to be. We do, however, know for sure that in 1970, Elia married Zahida Hina, a poet and writer in her own right, and later the twose became parents too.

Jaun maybe gone but Amrohawallahs love him, always have, even when the rest were not feeling the love for him. “I will get into trouble for this… but it seems like everybody who is Shia in Amroha is training to be a relative of Elia,” Husain chuckles. “Not just Amroha, young voices from everywhere aspire to follow in Jaun’s iconoclastic footsteps.”

In addition to all the kissing that has already come to pass, Elia was also know for jumping onto people, mostly for reasons of joy. In the image underneath he’s seen piggybacking on artist Tanweer Farooqi. The sparkling image was made by the poet Siraj Dehalvi, at the studio of the artist Eqbal Medi in Amroha.

Jaun - Khwaab tanha collective

Shiraz Husain/Khwaab Tanha Collective, Apnay sab yaar (Original photograph by Siraj Dehalvi)

Husain turned some nifty tricks on this found image including inserting a very cheeky but apt bit of Elia poetry in there:

All my friends are hard at work / While I am making a name for myself

There’s that self-deprecating humour again. That making of a name refers more to his notoriety, although he wasn’t really even that notorious, just fishing for notorious compliments is all. Playing at being dangerous.

Some of the criticism directed at Elia is predicated around the absence of politics in his writing. In response, recent scholarship has attempted to locate Elia’s Marxist ideologies and commitments in his writing. Outside of this, however, Elia not wanting to publish his poetry can in itself be understood as a political position. Preferring instead, as he did, to speak directly with his audience, if at all. To be a down and out romantic is political in a world that has lost touch with the fine art of sentimentality.

Elia wore his shayar self lightly. The buoyancy in his writing is largely also a result of the way he worked Urdu. His poetic landscapes are penned in a generous and egalitarian Urdu. In striking contrast to most of his contemporaries, who employed a much-hyphenated and polysyllabic Urdu.

“Most of Jaun’s poetry is written in basic Urdu or Hindustani, which is what contributes a great deal to his popularity. As far as new and young readership goes what’s not to like in an Elia couplet like: Tum jo kehti ho chor do cigarette/ tum mera hath thaam sakti ho? (You who ask me to leave the cigarette / will you hold my hand instead?),” Husain rests his case.

In all of this Elia’s love for Urdu shines through consistently. The love of Urdu, a desire to inhabit the language, and in turn allowing it to inhabit them are common to Elia and Husain.

The love of a language is a special love because it unfailing informs our worldview. It makes us who we are. The love of a language, any language, is political because it shapes subjectivities. Linguistic relativity and all that jazz.

If Urdu is the language of poetry, and its syncretic Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb is an act of defiance, then resistance is enshrined in Urdu. The love of Urdu is the love of resistance and poetry.

The word ‘love’ has appeared 21 times in this text.

Despite his familial connection with Amroha, growing up, Husain did not spend much time thereabouts. “About a dozen years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I came across Jaun’s poems online.”

The online space has transformed Elia’s legacy, from not having much of a legacy in the larger public imagination to his current towering status.

The first critical critical step in this direction, even before the surge of his online popularity, was the posthumous publication of Elia’s poetry. The online gatherings went hand-in-hand with people physically gathering around his books.

T2F Café, also known as the Second Floor Café, in Karachi, was one such place of congress. Sabeen Mahmud founded the café as a space for progressive thinking and human rights, and was responsible for highlighting Elia work through its programming. On April 24, 2015, Mahmud hosted a discussion on the enforced disappearances of the Baloch nationalists at the café. That same evening, Mahmud was murdered by a gunman, while she was driving herself back home.

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Artist in Focus:

Shiraz Husain is multidisciplinary visual artist. He obtained his Bachelor and Master of Fine Arts from Jamia Millia Islamia. He uses drawing, graphic design, sculpture and also music to create multiple layers of communication in his work. In 2016, Shiraz founded the Khwaab Tanha Collective. He lives and works in New Delhi. More here.

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Gitanjali Dang is a curator, writer and overall shape-shifter. In 2012, she founded Khanabadosh, an itinerant arts lab. More here.

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