:: The Urdu
The heroes of
marsiyas are tragic and they are unblemished by negative human qualities, such
as cowardliness, submissiveness, passivity, trying to seek refuge and
acknowledging what is wrong in order to save themselves.
The writer is a professor of Urdu Literature at Government College University
The Urdu marsiya (verses written in memory of the martyrs of Karbala) was an
effective source of depicting the passions of people, passing through miserable
conditions created by feudal lords in the past. In comparison to the ghazal, it
is more collective and broad in its expressions. The marsiya on the one hand
represents people’s religious faith and on the other portrays the calamities of
their psychological and emotional life. Its range of experience is wider than of
the ghazal. Mir Anis and Mirza Dabir have richly reflected in their marsiyas
every pain felt even by commoners belonging to their age. Quite contrary to
simple and general styles prevalent in many other forms of poetry, marsiyas
contain dramatic voices and has epic dimensions. In marsiyas poets express the
saga of objective oppression experienced by great martyrs of the Islamic world.
Why has it always remained popular among readers and listeners in spite of its
mournful and gloomy character? The reason for this popularity is not the poetic
experience as such, but the noble reason behind this poetic form. This poetry
idolises the martyrs of Karbala and highlight qualities of bravery, boldness,
courage and a spirit of sacrifice for what is right, even to the extent of being
degraded, vilified and losing everything for the sake of the truth. Muslims
related to various periods of Islamic history have always revered these moral
values. Poets who write marsiyas interpret Karbala’s mournful incident and the
persecution and sufferings of the holy protagonists in such a way that people
through the ages have been deeply affected.
Every period in human history has necessitated raising a voice against tyrants.
The marsiya writers virtually fulfill this requirement. Critics of the marsiya
claim that this form of poetry only focuses on lamentation, unmitigated tragedy
and weeping and it has nothing to do with hope and a positive approach. This
proposition is not fair at all. Marsiya writers inspire the passion of sacrifice
in people. When this passion gains roots in the human psyche it drives out all
tendencies of lust, selfishness and greed. Indeed, the marsiya is a religious
form of mourning that adds a deeper dimension of grieving for Muharram. On
another level, the marsiya, like other forms of formalised art, follows its set
epic pattern and this is what elevates and gives grandeur to it and this verse
form particularly exalts the concept of sacrifice. The listeners rather
participants, have a ready, keenly felt perception of the human pain, suffering,
loss and misery chanted in the poem. An important point to note is that in the
past marsiyas, though referring to one specific incident, symbolized the spirit
of all the wars fought for a right cause, in the frame of reference of the
Muslim national freedom movements have also benefited by the great traditions of
sacrifice hand down to us by Muslim culture. The heroes of marsiyas are tragic
and they are unblemished by negative human qualities, such as cowardliness,
submissiveness, passivity, trying to seek refuge and acknowledging what is wrong
in order to save themselves. These heroes remain steadfast despite adversity.
Though they fall on the battlefield their spirit carries them through to achieve
their ideals. They become the torchbearers of a great collective sacrifice for
noble objectives. The marsiya in the initial stage could not achieve a literary
standard. So poets were reluctant to write them. Later when Mir Taqi Mir and
Muhammad Rafi Sauda wrote marsiyas, this form became popular and renowned poets
also began to adopt this poetic idiom. Mir Zamir sublimated the genre with his
poetic skills. Mir Anis and Mirza Dabir took it to its height. Their artistic
and ideological concepts were so strong that their poetic expressions and ideas
governed Urdu poetry for about a century.
Anis and Dabir dawned on the horizon of Urdu poetry in early 19th century. This
era belongs to the decline of Mughal Empire in India. But as far as Urdu poetry
is concerned, it can be safely said that it one of the richest periods in terms
of creative development. Ghulam Hamadani Mushafi, Insha Allah Khan Insha,
Qalandar Baksh Jura’t, Momin Khan Momin, Shah Naseer, Mirza Asadullah Khan
Ghalib, Ibrahim Zauq, and Bahadur Shah Zafar were poetic stars shining brightly
in the firmament of North Indian Literature. In this period the introduction of
a new political system was in the air. The replacement of old feudalism was
inevitable. New Western feudalism was taking its place. Muslims were in great
trouble. They wanted to get rid of the real rulers, the traders associated with
the East India Company. In this era of conflict and tyranny it was appropriate,
in fact necessary to remember the great heroes of Karbala. So the marsiya became
popular. Local kings and Nawabs were adopting the policy of compromise at the
cost of their freedom. People wanted to remember those heroes from the history
of Islam who fought for freedom and secured their national and personal honour.
So apart from many other religious and non-religious reasons, they remembered
Hazrat Imam Hussain’s sacrifice, who instead of compromising with Yazid (the
symbol of tyranny) chose death, and the great mystic Khawaja Moeen-ud-Din
Chishti has stated that Imam Hussain deeply understood the authentic meaning and
the basics of Kalama-e-Tauheed. Analysing Urdu marsiya in the period of Anis and
Dabir, Dr Muhammad Sadiq in his book A History of Urdu Literature says, “Some
marsiyas emphasise the heroism of the protagonists and are on an epic plane.
Others stress the generosity, forbearance, and forgiveness of al-Hussain, and
are ideal in character; while others still are marred by tearfulness and
We should admit that marsiya writers in this age were not philosophers. They
expressed their passions which obviously were charged with feelings and
imagination. In an age when even kings were privately caught in the throes of
self-pity and tears; where were commoners to find inspiration for courage, hope
and conviction of what is right? In spite of the grievous situations faced by
people, the poets tried to portray feelings of bravery, righteousness,
resistance and struggle.
Jura’t wrote: Don’t call the rulers Nawabs;
the Englishmen have made them prisoners.
They speak their language.
They are like starlings from Bengal.
Mushafi wrote: Non-Muslim Englishmen have pocketed all the wealth and splendour
of India by their policies.
And remembering the bravery of Hazrat Imam Hussain the famous marsiya writer
Mirza Dabir says: With the appearance of the King of Martyrs,
The enemies are disillusioned.
It is not the Imam, but Hazrat Suleman is coming,
The opponents are terrified behind their shields.
Moses has come to destroy the progeny of the pharaohs.
The marsiya is a social form. It is written for reading in majalis (gatherings
held to remember Hussain’s martyrdom) basically. In majalis it is used for
religious purposes. It also could be used for the development of political and
social consciousness in and outside majalis. Allama Iqbal, Faiz Ahmad Faiz,
Akhtar Hussain Jaffery, Josh Malihabadi, Iftikhar Arif and many other poets used
the metaphors related to the tragic incident of Karbala for the development of
political and social consciousness.
Putting aside the opinions of religious or non-religious critics about marsiyas
we can easily claim that it arouses the passion of sacrifice.
Dr Sadiq and critics like him have ignored the fact that the idea of weeping and
lamenting in marsiyas is not to merely make people sad, but they inspire them
with courage to face the tyrannical and severe realities of life. Marsiyas
remind people that worrying about the inconsequential problems of life is not
the be-all and end-all of existence. We should remember the difficulties and
sufferings of the family, massacred in Karbala and gain the courage to live for
the glorification of some noble cause. Be ready for sacrifice.
Mir Anis writes in a Rubai:
Shah (Imam Hussain) used to say, ‘I am the beloved of God,
I am the height of the Empyrean.
Listen, oh! Army men from Syria,
I am the star which provides light to the world.’