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Jan Nisar Akhtar – Of Romance and Hope

February 18, 2023 | By

For a poet who was part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Jan Nisar Akhtar’s lyrics for Hindi film songs were delicately shaded with the disparate colours of romance, writes Anuradha Warrier

Jan Nisar Akhtar

Jan Nisar Akhtar

The ‘Golden Age’ of Hindi film music gave us a treasure trove of melodies that continue to be popular today. While many of these sequences in films were only added to invite footfalls into theatres, great directors like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, V Shantaram, Chetan and Vijay Anand, etc., used songs effectively to push the narrative forward. Music directors, too, demanded great lyrics that would adorn the melodies they so lovingly created. Naushad, for instance, a poet himself, is said to have made Shakeel Badayuni write 17 iterations of lyrics for a song before he was satisfied. In such an age, it was but natural that the film industry turned to poets who were not only fluent in word play in Hindi and Urdu, but also well-steeped in the idiom and cadence of image-rich verse. One such poet-lyricist was Jan Nisar Akhtar.

He was born Syed Jan Nisar Hussain Rizvi on 18 February 1914 in a family of writers and Islamic scholars. His father Muztar Khairabadi was a well-known Urdu poet and he grew up surrounded by literature and poetry.

Thanks to the emphasis on education in his erudite family, the young man soon earned his B.A Honours and M.A degrees from Aligarh Muslim University. Unfortunately, financial constraints cut short his doctoral studies and he returned to Gwalior to take up a teaching job, and later, moved to Bhopal where he taught at Hamidia University. By this time, he was an integral part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement and a staunch communist.

Jan Nisar Akhtar and Dilip Kumar

Jan Nisar Akhtar and Dilip Kumar (Pic courtesy: Film History Pics)

When the Communist Party of India was banned, Akhtar lost his job and like many of his compeers, went into hiding. He was married by this time, to Safiya Siraj-ul-Haq, the sister of poet Majaz Lucknowi, and had two children, Javed and Salman. When Akhtar moved to Bombay to seek better prospects, Safiya stayed back in Bhopal with their sons. [Her correspondence with Akhtar would be posthumously published as Harf-e-Aashna and ­Zer-e-Lab.]

Jan Nisar Akhtar with sons (Pic courtesy: Lucknow FB)

In Bombay, Akhtar soon became friends with other progressive writers like Majrooh Sultanpuri, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Ismat Chugtai, among others. Though he began to write lyrics for films as a means to complement his meagre income, it wasn’t until he wrote songs for Yasmin (1955) that he tasted a small measure of success.

His songs for Hindi films were painted in familiar shades of love, loss and longing, but his poems continued to reflect his socialist leanings and emphasized the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb that looked beyond man-made divisions of region, religion and language.

On his 109th birth anniversary, I’d like to take you on a journey through his oeuvre. Please not that these are very subjective choices.


Hema Malini in Ae dil-e-nadan

Ae dil-e-nadaan
Razia Sultan (1983)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Khayyam

In yet another Kamal Amrohi film that took years to complete comes this song that is the pièce de resistance of a score that harked back to the 50s in its melodies. Picturized on the Empress of the Delhi Sultanate as she ponders the call of duty over the pull of her heart, Akhtar’s words paint a vivid portrait of a love that can have devastating consequences.

Ae dil-e-naadaan, aisi raahon mein kitne kaante hain
Aarzuuon ne har kisi dil ko dard baante hain
Kitne ghaayal hain, kitne bismil hain

Jan Nisar Akhtar died nearly seven years before the film released (Kaifi Azmi, Nida Fazli and Kaif Bhopali took over to write the remaining songs) but this one song is enough to cement his position in the pantheon of great poet-lyricists.

Watch Ae dil-e-nadaan on YouTube


Piya piya piya mora jiya pukaare

Chand Usmani and Kishore Kumar in Piya piya piya mora jiya pukare

Piya piya piya mora jiya pukare
Baap re Baap (1955)
Singers: Asha Bhosle, Kishore Kumar
Music: OP Nayyar

From the sublime to the not-so-serious – if proof were needed for Akhtar’s versatility, then there can be no better testimony than this. One of Akhtar’s earliest songs for OP Nayyar, this song is filled with the euphoria of romance, not its confusion. It also proved that he could write to a given metre, even if that meant word repetition.

Ye chhip-chhip humse chale ho kahaan sainyaan
Main laaguun tore painyaan na chhod mori bainyaan
Ye chhab matwaari ye mukh gora gora
Na dekho dekho aise ki jiya dole mora
Bhole bhaale naina mere jaane kya ishaare
Tum to basi ho gori man mein hamaare

In an interview, Asha Bhosle recollected how she had made a mistake while recording the song, singing out of turn. In those days, it would have meant re-recording the whole song, but Kishore, who was also acting in the movie, assured her that he would take care of it while filming the song. And indeed, he did. During the picturisation, Chand Usmani sings Asha’s line, and Kishore silences her mid-word by placing his hand over her mouth, as he continues to lip sync to his own line of verse.

Watch Piya piya piya mora jiya pukare on YouTube


Johnny Walker in Gareeb jaanke

Johnny Walker in Gareeb jaan ke

Gareeb jaan ke
Chhoo Mantar (1956)
Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Music: OP Nayyar

It is hard to think of Johnny Walker as a hopeless romantic. He’s usually up to some mischief or the other. But in this film, stricken by love for a princess, he waits outside her palace so he can sing to her of his love, hoping that she will soften towards him. Akhtar’s verses could almost become an anthem for lovelorn youth everywhere.

Gareeb jaan ke hum ko na tum mita dena
Tum hi ne dard diya hai tum hi dawa dena
Lagi hai chot kaleje pe umr bhar ke liye
Tadap rahe hain muhobbat mein ik nazar ke liye
Nazar milaake muhobbat se muskuraa dena…

Anyone who has ever been in love can empathize with the desperation of wanting their beloved to look at them, smile at them, just once!

Watch Gareeb jaan ke on YouTube


Aankhon hi aankhon mein

Shakila and Dev Anand in Aankhon hi aankhon mein

Aankhon hi aankhon mein
C.I.D. (1956)
Singers: Mohammed Rafi, Geeta Dutt
Music: OP Nayyar

If Gareeb jaan ke is the voice of the romantic, then Aankhon hi aankhon mein has surely distilled the essence of flirtation. When hurt and angry eyes meet contrite ones, what else can one expect?

Apna woh zor hai apna woh shor hai
Hum ko hai sab pata dil mein jo chor hai
Ye chor kaise gawaara ho gaya?

To all her queries, all he can say is:

Aankhon hi aankhon mein ishaara ho gaya
Baith baith jeene ka sahaara ho gaya…

Her eyes give him a reason to live.

Watch Aankhon hi aankhon mein on YouTube


Meena Kumari in Meri neendon mein tum

Meena Kumari in Meri neendon mein tum

Meri neendon mein tum
Naya Andaz (1956)
Singers: Shamshad Begum, Kishore Kumar
Music: OP Nayyar

A relatively entertaining film with a plethora of songs (given that both Meena Kumari and Kishore Kumar play stage entertainers), Naya Andaz was only a moderate success and therefore the songs – and their writer – languished.

Meri neendon mein tum is a sweetly romantic number that captures the feeling of being in love.

Dil pe chhaayi khushi hai labon par hansii hai
Khili hai tere pyaar ki chandni
Jhoomti hai nigaahein nasha chaa raha hai
Ke dil gaa raha hai teri raagini
Haule haule sajan mera kehta hai mann
Ab to laagi lagan

In one of her rare interviews, Shamshad Begum recalled Kishore Kumar as a dishevelled lad who was always full of fun. He often wondered whether he would be as famous as his elder brother, and would pester Shamshad for encouragement. “Destiny is a great thing,” she recalls telling him. “Tomorrow, you may be more popular than anyone else.” Prophetic words, indeed!

Watch Meri neendon mein tum on YouTube


Prem Parbat

Prem Parbat poster (Pic courtesy: Cinestaan)

Ye dil aur unke nigaahon ke saaye
Prem Parbat (1973)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Jaidev

A not-very-well-known film* (that suffered due to an altercation between the financiers and producers), an underrated composer, a handful of beautiful songs… that’s Prem Parbat in a nutshell. With the prints of the film destroyed, all that remains are these songs, of which, Ye dil aur unke nigaahon ke saaye is perhaps the best known. Akhtar’s lyrics lend a sweet simplicity to this beautiful melody that sings of the freedom that love brings in its wake.

Dhadakte hain dil kitni aazaadiyon se
Bahut milte julte hai in waadiyon se
Muhobbat ki rangeen panaahon ke saaye
Ye dil aur unki nigaahon ke saaye
Mujhe gher lete hain baahon ke saaye

Watch Yeh dil aur unki nigaahon ke saaye on YouTube

*Edited due to clarification in comments


Sangat poster (Pic courtesy: Saregama)

Balma mora aanchra
Sangat (1976)
Singers: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Salil Choudhury

The only film for which Akhtar wrote for Salil Choudhury, Balma mora aanchra is a beautiful melody that should be better known than it is. Unfortunately, this Basu Bhattacharya-helmed movie starring Rakesh Pande and Kajri languished in the cans for years until it was released in 1992 as Kabhi Dhoop Kabhi Chhaon. And the songs, beautiful as they are, were forgotten.

 Dil ko mere chhoo le tere badan ki ye khushboo suhaani
Dekho dekho chupke naache lahuu mein umangein deewani

Such evocative lyrics!

Watch Balma mora aachra on YouTube


Dilli ka Dada poster

Dhoondhe nazar nazar
Dilli ka Dada (1962)
Singers: Mahendra Kapoor, Asha Bhosle
Music: N Dutta

Many songs, like Thomas Gray’s flowers – ‘born to blush unseen’ – are ignored because they were written/composed for films that weren’t worthy of them. An obscure film like Dilli ka Dada had some lovely melodies composed by the underrated music director, N Dutta.

This one, written by Akhtar, is a lilting romantic ballad that sings of different facets of love, including the lovers’ fear of being discovered.

Keh do ke hum ko na dekhe koi,
Aise ke ye dil dhadakne lage
Main kya karoon mere seene mein jab
Ik aag meethi bhadakne lage
Dil ko bachaake,
Khud ko chhupaake,
Aakhir kahaan ab le jaayen hum

Watch Dhoondhe nazar nazar on YouTube


Jan Nisar Akhtar and Mohammed Rafi

Jan Nisar Akhtar and Mohammed Rafi (Pic courtesy: Twitter)

Gham ki andheri raat mein
Sushila (1966)
Singers: Mohammed Rafi, Talat Mahmood
Music: C Arjun

Yet another beautiful melody in yet another obscure film; in the absence of video clips much less the film itself, it is impossible to know who the song was picturized on. However, this is a song that is rendered beautifully by Rafi and Talat.

Akhtar turns his hand to alternating between hope and despair.

Jis se na dil bahal saka
Aisi khabar se faaidaa
Raat abhi dhali kahaan
Khwaab-e-sahar se faaidaa
Fasl-e-bahaar aayegi
Daur-e-khizaan guzaar kar
Subah zaroor aayegi
Subah ka intezaar kar

This obscure film has a rather chequered history. According to Geet Kosh, the music for Sushila was released in 1963, while the film itself was certified, possibly released, only in 1966. A decade later, in 1977, this film was re-released as Subah Zaroor Aayegi (which is part of this song’s refrain – ‘Subah zaroor aayegi, subah ka intezaar kar’).

Watch Gham ki andheri raat mein on YouTube


Ragini and Padmini in Tu hai mera prem devata

Tu hain mera prem devta
Kalpana (1960)
Singers: Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey
Music: OP Nayyar

This song is as unlike an ‘OP Nayyar song’ as can be. Moving away from his signature tonga beats and his Punjabi roots, Nayyar composes a melodious classical tune, rendered beautifully by two of the greatest male singers of all time. Onscreen, two gifted dancers dance in a duel to the end. And Akhtar rose to the occasion with verses that compared the love of a woman for her beloved to that of a devotee towards the Lord.

Main Gauri tu Kanth hamaara
Main Ganga tu mera kinaara
Ang lagaao pyaas bujhaao
Nadiya hokar pyaasi hoon main
Man ki pyaas bujhaane aayi
Antarghat tak pyaasi hoon main
Tu hai mera prem devta…

Watch Tu hain mera prem devta on YouTube

And so, a poet, whose poems reflected his socialist, leftist ideology, was also a lyricist who delicately tinted his verses in the disparate shades of romance. This seeming contradiction reflected a personality whose innate romanticism fuelled his idealism and his ideology. Jan Nisar Akhtar died nearly five decades ago, but his words – whether poetry or lyrics – lives on, a legacy to a man who was, in his son’s words, “a real poet – the word ‘shaayar’ was made looking at him.”

More Must-Reads in Silhouette

Kaifi Azmi: A Poet for the Ages

‘If Raj Uncle Liked a Song, He Would Give Baba a Gold Coin’: Amla Shailendra Remembers Her Father ‘Kaviraj’ Shailendra

Sahir Ludhianvi: The Rebel, The Lover

‘Tu Jahan Jahan Chalega, Mera Saya Saath Hoga’ – The Everlasting Songs of Raja Mehdi Ali Khan


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Anuradha Warrier is an editor by profession, a writer by inclination, and is passionate about books, music and films, all of which she writes about on her blog, Conversations over Chai.
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12 thoughts on “Jan Nisar Akhtar – Of Romance and Hope

  • N.S.Rajan

    “It wasn’t until he wrote songs for Yasmin (1955) that he tasted a small measure of success.”
    I saw ‘Yasmin’ during my College days and can vividly recall actor Suresh (miscast in the role against Vyjayanthimala) strumming the Mandolin while singing “Bechain nazar, betaab jigar, yeh dil hai kisika deewana”; Talat doing the playback honours.
    I loved this song and would often sing it myself. Although it was the C Ramchandra’s tune and Talat’s rendition that rivetted my focus on it, the lyrics stayed in my sub conscious and the entire song was etched in my mind forever.
    Choo Mantar, C I D, Baap re Baap were all films I saw then, and their songs, enriched by entering the ‘Binaca Geet Mala’, became memorable.
    This write up on Jan Nisar Akhtar is a splendid bridge for me to recollect those days.
    Kudos to Anuradha Warrier for making my day. 👌🏻

  • A Bharat

    A nice compact write up. Jan Nisar was known more by the large number of popular songs he created than by his name like Majrooh or Sahir. A favorite of O P Nayyar and Bulo C Rani and later by the latter’s Sishya C Arjun his lyrics are aptly described by this writer as being “delicately shaded with the disparate colours of romance”. Two of my favorite Asha songs created by Bulo C Rani and C arjun respectively perfectly illustrate that phrase-
    “Mast adayen mast kharam”(Haseena ) and “Aye ho to jaaneka bahana na milega” (Main Aur Mera bhai”

    1. Anuradha Warrier Post author

      Is that so? You may be right; all that I read about the film suggested that it had been a casualty of the fight between the financiers and producer. I will make the change in the article accordingly. Thank you.

  • Songs Of Yore

    A very nice post on a great master. For good many songs his name was tagged with OP Nayyar, which means he had his share of commercial success. But the basic question remains: What plays a more important role, the words or the music? ‘Pyasa’ which established Sahir Ludhiyanavi is not a good counter-example. There are many trite lyrics of good poets being turned into superhit songs. Such songs are there in your list too.

    I can’t help associating this family with an interesting controversy. ‘Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hun’ was thought to be a ghazal of Bahadur Shah Zafar for ages. Some years ago Javed Akhtar ‘discovered’ this ghazal in the old papers of his grandfather Muztar Khairabadi. I don’t know if the Urdu Adab has finally settled the Na kisi ki-question in favour of Javed Akhtar’s claim. But if he ‘discovered’ it for the first time in his grandfather’s trunk (in 2015?), how did it enter the film ‘Laal Quila’ (1960)? I discussed it long ago on my blog when SSW also entered the discussion. I also mentioned that Jan Nisar Akhtar was a well-established lyricist/poet and he would not have allowed misappropriation of credit. Would you be able to throw some light on this?

    1. Anu Warrier

      What plays a more important role, the words or the music?
      I think Khayyam said it best when he was complimented on his beautiful compositions [and I paraphrase here]: “You call my songs beautiful, but they become beautiful only when the lyricist writes beautiful lyrics, the musicians play the notes, and the singer adds the magic of his voice. No one person can take credit for a song.”

      Very subjectively, it is the melody and singing that pulls me in, but it is the lyrics that keep me going back to listen to a song. Sometimes, one is better than the other. We have all heard beautiful melodies that have been spoiled by bad singing; we have heard wonderful vocals on a great composition, but the lyrics are nothing to write home about; or the lyrics and singing are wonderful but the composition sounds like the music director dashed it off in his sleep… But when everything – composition, music, lyrics, singing – meld together, then, to me, that song is a classic. 🙂

      Short answer? I don’t think one is more important than the other, especially not for a Hindi film song.

      Re: Na kisi ki aa.nkh ka nuur hun, I’m not knowledgeable enough to form an opinion, but I do know that even before 2015 when Javed Akhtar claimed the credit for his grandfather, there was enough doubt raised about the ghazal’s authorship in Urdu literary circles. Here is a good analysis of the question of credit in this article in the Business Standard:

      Rekhta credits it to Muztar Khairabadi, but I don’t know whether it was done before or after Javed Akhtar’s claim. However, this is not the only ghazal with questionable antecedents;another very famous ghazal that is attributed to Bahadur Shah Zafar:
      Umr-e-daraaz ke laa.ii thii chaar din
      Do aarzuu me.n kaT ga.e do intizaar me.n

      – is actually written by Seemab Akbaraabadi.

  • Songs Of Yore

    Thanks a lot for your response and for sharing the article. It is an interesting story, these papers travelled to a Khairabadi’s friend to Jan Nisar Akhtar to Javed Akhtar, until he got time to browse through these papers and was wonderstruck to stumble upon ‘Na kisi ki’. The article concludes, it is advantage Khairabadi for the time being, but I remain a doubter.

    Rekhta does credit it to Muztar and mentions his compilation ‘Khirman’ (2015), published by Javed Akhtar (2015). To my mind, there is a bit of circularity here.

    This controversy is similar to the Bhasa-question (भास प्रश्न) in Sanskrit. Known as the First Playright of Sanskrit, his works were lost until Mahamahopadhyay Pt. Ganpat Shastri discovered some manuscripts in Travancore royals’ library in Trivandrum and got them published in 1913 as ‘Bhasa Plays’. This discovery was made 2000 years after Bhasa. In this case there was no third party attribution. Based on similarity of style and other factors the Sanskrit literary world has generally accepted these 13 plays as Bhasa’s. A very well-known one is ‘Swapnadatta’. Another one is ‘Charudatt’. Based on the same story Shudrak later wrote a more accomplished play, ‘Mrichchhakatikam’.

    Anu, you can be proud that a scholar from your state has this singular achievement. 🙂

    Re: Umre daraaz maang ke. The maqta goes:

    Kitna hai badnaseeb ‘Zafar’ dafn ke liye
    Do gaz zameen bhi na mili koo-e-yaar mein

    But I find the controversy on this too quite interesting. It has prompted me to pick the brains of some of my knowledgeable friends.

    1. Anuradha Warrier Post author

      AK, I think, as the article posits, and as eminent Urdu scholars have theorized, there was always a doubt about Na kisi ki aankh ka nuur huun being Zafar’s. In fact, when it was first collated and published – not in a magazine – but as a literary work, the curator filed it under ‘Alleged’. Unless there’s another claimant, it appears that academia and literary circles acknowledge Khairabad’s authorship. I would assume that the claim would have been thoroughly vetted.

      As far as Umr-e-daraaz is concerned – you misunderstood me. I’m not saying that Lagta nahin hai dil mera was not written by Zafar. It is this particular couplet:
      Umr-e-daraaz ke laa.ii thii chaar din
      Do aarzuu me.n kaT ga.e do intizaar me.n
      that is usually inserted into this ghazal that is Akbarabadi’s. The other four couplets are indeed Zafar’s.

      (I smiled at the Bhasa story.)

  • Songs Of Yore

    I had posted my doubts in a somewhat strident tone. As I had indicated, I have since sounded some of my knowledgeable friends, who in turn checked up with Urdu scholars. Now I am more tempered. I have to thank you for making me more aware.

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