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Sacred traditions

Along with Muharram come the venerated Marsiyas making one wonder how long it will take modern international trends to influence this age old practice

Sacred traditions

In the day and age that we live in, the boundaries between the sacred and the profane have become very blurred. The line that separates the local from the national, and then the national from the international too has similarly become fuzzy which adds to the cultural and intellectual confusion that we find ourselves in.

This is life, as lived these days, and we have started to consider it inevitable but when something like Ashura or the month of Ramzan arrives the awareness of switching from the one state to the profane becomes suddenly more dramatised. We wake up to it as if it is something that has happened for the first time or has started to happen recently. Actually it is only the manifestation of how life is being lived in an age when television channels and the internet rule our lives.

Similarly many of the artistic forms that have developed over centuries related particularly to a ritual or a custom too are under threat from these changes. The intonation of the note, the making of imagery and the line as it has developed in music, literature and the visual arts too is under great pressure to change.

These days something that is more susceptible to change is probably welcomed more than what is bound by the dos and don’ts of its formal aspects. Many of the marsiyas, soz and salams are being rendered by those who are more prone to following the recent changes in tonal applications rather than sticking to more formal rules that also included high level of training and a certain dedication to the cause.

The tradition of reciting and chanting the religious or quasi religious text is quite ancient even in areas where Muslims lived, scattered references are found in various sources. Due to the binding clause of being quasi religious there is greater possibility of the marsiya, hamd, naat recitation and the qawali rendition being less susceptible to change. Most of the qawwali, hamd, naat, marsiya, soz, salam is rendered in the traditional manner, composed in modal structures where the application of the note is specifically in accordance with the indigenous ang. Even when Nusrat Fateh Ali rendered the tragedy of Karbala in the qawali format he did so in the most traditional ang.

 The tradition of reciting and chanting the religious or quasi religious text is quite ancient even in areas where Muslims lived, scattered references are found in various sources.

A few years ago there was no proliferation of the media and one or two channels functioned, usually under the auspices of the government functioned, the most prominent being radio followed by television. When something like an event or a sacred occasion came about, the entire focus of the programmes was on that particular event or a happening. It was not just possible to escape the ubiquity of that one particular channel or the radio network, and it brought about a more culturally contained environment.

Now as one watches television switching mostly between programmes that are crassly entertaining in nature like dance, music, fashion or the talk shows that dominate our telescape — mostly creating the impression of do and die consequences of things which are either non issues or issues blown out of proportion.

Similarly the television channels too have created an environment where the entire world is exposed to us in our living rooms. If some unrest takes place thousands of miles away, the natural disaster that strikes some other continent or war in an area on the other side of the globe, the media exposure creates the impression that it is happening in our lives.

Similarly the exposure to the cultural traits or development in other countries that we are exposed to also make inroads in our lives. The easy accessibility to cultural forms all over the world has created two levels of existence, one here and now and the other generated by the media. There is every possibility of the two colliding and the conflicts in the worlds can also be seen in this context — growing out of cultural confusion about what is right and wrong.

There is yet no internationally acceptable definition of right and wrong because it grows out of the particularity of the situation. The imposition of a universally right and wrong criteria can result in great upheavals, breakdown of structures, loss of life and property on a massive scale. This has been happening in the world for the past many years as values taunted to be non self-evident are being thrust upon societies with varying degrees of development.

The traditional format may change if the wholesale changes that have been experienced in the recent past in other forms of art, music in particular, are quoted as examples. The entire application of the note, the intonation has undergone a change and in the popular forms of vocalisation is acceptable.

It appeared that the marsiya, soz, noha, salam became more specialised forms as a distinct community of marsiya goh or soz khawans emerged. From the writings of Abdul Halim Sharar on Lucknow, it appears that during the Nawabi rule in Awadh, soz or marsiya khawan specialists, almost comparable to the best known vocalists or singers, were instrumental in evolving the form of recitation prevalent now. The style using one lead vocalist while the rest identify the tonic note or at best recite the refrain seemed to have been perfected in 19th century Awadh.

In various regions like Southern Punjab and Sindh, distinct marsiya recitation are rendered in Punjabi and Sindhi while in urban areas the leading vocalists have been the main reciters of the marsiya. Noor Jehan, Mehdi Hassan, Chotey Ghulam Ali Khan, Amanat Ali, Fateh Ali, Hamid Ali Bela, Nusrat Fateh Ali, Ghulam Ali, Hamid Ali, Ghulam Abbas may not have been professional marsiya reciters but they all partook of this religious obligation.

But one wonders how long it will take for the barrier of tradition and veneration to break. Hopefully it will take some time, only after a more wholesome synthesis of style has evolved.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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