Of Urdu marsia

Most books about Muharram are either collections of marsia elegies or discuss the modern Urdu marsia as a genre.

Intezar Hussain February 09, 2011
Most of the new books I have received in the Muharram context are either collections of marsia elegies or discuss the modern Urdu marsia as a genre.

Sadly, few if any books have been published in decades about the Karbala tragedy that represent historical research. I remember a book by some Egyptian scholar Maktaba-i-Jadeed had printed and which became very popular as an objective account of the tragedy. The publisher used to print a fresh edition almost every year. Ever since Maktaba-i-Jadeed closed down the book has disappeared from the market.

This aside is not meant to deny the significance of marsia or belittle it. The least one can say for it is that in Mir Anees it has produced one of Urdu’s greatest poets. While Anees and Dabeer’s was the golden age for the genre, the glorious tradition is alive and robust. The modern marsia writers have shunned the temptation to blindly follow in the footsteps of Anees and Dabeer.

Two of the latest works I have seen are collections of marsias by Syed Waheedul Hassan Hashmi and Qaiser Barahwi. Dr Syed Shabihul Hassan, who has compiled both, has also done a good job of critical appraisal.

One of the challenges modern marsia faced was the change of roles at the mourning sessions. Unlike the times of Anees and Dabeer when the marsia poet practically monopolised the pulpit, the central role now belongs to the preacher. A few stanzas from a marsia may be recited ahead of the main speech but that’s it. Waheed Hashmi was first to recognise this. There was no point really to writing 150-250 stanza elegies like the old masters if the mourners lacked the time and patience to sit down and listen. Thus started the short marsia; an innovation that has made its mark.

But I have serious reservations about some other ways proposed for marsia poets. One of these is for a greater appeal to reason. This, I believe, is the preacher’s job. Should the marsia poets take the advice, all they will be doing will be versifying the preachers’ address. This, I believe, is a project to exclude marsia from poetry for such a marsia would refrain from creative expression and strive instead to proselytise. Preaching and poetry are opposites.

Qaiser Barahwi, I feel therefore, was wiser. He never worried about how to modernise the marsia and yet his works have a distinct place among contemporary writings. His innovation was to extend the scope of marsia by going beyond the Karbala episode and writing about themes and persons others had not focused on. Who, among traditional marsia writers, had highlighted the significance of Bilal, a companion of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) as proof that Islam did not brook social distinction based on race and colour? Barahwi received much acclaim for his elegy of Amna (the prophet’s mother) and it is indeed an outstanding work, but to my mind the poem about Bilal is unique in the history of Urdu marsia in that it celebrates making a black slave an equal participant in a community with a dominant majority of pedigreed Arabs as the declaration of Islam’s social revolution.

Hilal Naqvi’s too are wonderful marsias. He also deserves praise for his research on the development of the 20th century marsia and insights like the following:

“In every epoch marsia was seen as moral poetry. However, should moralising be seen as its objective, the marsia will decline in poetic value. The key to its survival lies in poetic brilliance, not a penchant for preaching.”
Intezar Hussain An eminent Urdu fiction writer who writes short stories and novels, and also columns for newspapers in English.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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