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In literal sense

The happening of Karbala as written and recited over centuries

In literal sense

Other than the ulema who address muharrum majalis, a whole lot of zakirs across the subcontinent recite or deliver in speech the happenings of Karbala. This switching from the spoken to the recited word is part of an ancient tradition that has characterised the public acts in this part of the world.

Theatre in its more conventional sense was an action on stage as advanced by the exchange between actors. The chorus or the narrator also in some styles presented an aside or a commentary that was considered to be directed more towards the audiences. It was meant to keep the attention of the audience and also presented perhaps the point of view of the director/writer. It was also a kind of summing up in words what had been happening or taking place in action on stage.

In a style or form that may have originated in Awadh or Hyderabad Deccan, an alam-e deen kind of divided his oration based on principles of rhetoric about the tragic happenings in Karbala and its related incidents into two parts — one ‘fazail’ and the other ‘masaib’. The first part much longer dwelled on the great virtues of ahle bait as understood in the light of the Quran and sayings of the Prophet (pbuh) and the second, a shorter part, focussed on the tragedy as unfolded particularly in reference to Karbala.

With the passage of time, soz and marsiya khawans instead of reciting their own verses took to the texts of Anis and Dabir and became specialists of sorts and had a niche following. Urban culture, as it evolved in the last two centuries, has been represented by such a prototype.

The recitation, if any, of the marsia, soz or noha is usually at the very beginning — as a prelude to the actual sermon — with probably the purpose of taking the audiences to a charged state and hence be more receptive.

But a whole lot of majalis mostly in the rural areas of the Punjab and Sindh have just one whole part to their oration — the tragic incidents of Karbala and the fate of the tragic personages involved in it. There is very little of the ‘fazail’, and it is a simple narration of events on what happened at Karbala with plenty of associated references on the express purpose of building a climactic intensity. The narration or the oration or the delivery, whatever it may be called, usually starts with speech, albeit rather heightened, and the persons at the pulpit can be one or more than one perhaps three or even more.

As the narration or the tempo of narration builds up to a significant turn of events, or a moment that holds great dramatic intensity, the principal orator breaks from speech into recitation in local music modes. He is often accompanied by other members, either chanting the refrain or reciting the refrain with him, or maybe just intoning the basic note.

Other than theatre itself, actually this tradition of dramatic narrative is quite ancient in this part of the world, just as in the Arab lands. There seemed to be no great tradition of theatre in the Arab lands; what they have is the dramatic narrative. Usually, the dramatic narrative revolves round one person, the principal narrator, who is playing many roles of principal personages at the same time. It hardly becomes a dialogue between two or three characters as in a play, but stays a narration of events.

Among the Muslim civilizations, there has been a very strong tradition of recitation. This recitation is best exemplified by the recitation of the Holy Quran, and the qira’at is held with a great degree of veneration. If it meets with the strictest demands of holding the note and proper intonation, it can be devastatingly moving. And so indeed can the azaan which in our day and age is often said to be totally ignoring its aesthetic aspects.

In ancient societies, the oral tradition somehow was venerated more than the written word for it was said that oral transmission of knowledge or sentiment is purer is form. It accrues due to some mysterious process where man only becomes an agent of transmitting some divine wisdom. The written word was held in great esteem, also because it involved a meditated process, but still ranked lower than the torrents of pure inspiration.

Recitation was part of the same process where the contents were recited or said and allowed to reach the audience or listener immediately without the intervention of any other medium. There has been great emphasis on recitation or saying something aloud; it has held its own merit without reference to either the medium or text.

In Awadh, marsiya had been recited but Mir Zamir used a popular spoken rhythm called the tahtul lafz. Gradually, marsiya in tahtul lafz replaced the traditional majalis — the Rawzatush Shuhada and Dah Majlis. Mir Zamir’s rival was Mir Hasan’s talented son MirMustahsan Khaliq. Khaliq had inherited his father’s capacity to vividly versify subtle emotions and made his mark on the basis of linguistic artistry.

The characteristics of marsiya created by Mir Zamir were perfected by Mir Khaliq’s son Mir Babar Ali Anis and Mir Zamir’s disciple Salamat Ali Dabir, and both were precursors of the modern Urdu poetry in the following century.

With the passage of time, soz and marsiya khawans instead of reciting their own verses took to the texts of Anis and Dabir and became specialists of sorts and had a niche following. Urban culture, as it evolved in the last two centuries, has been represented by such a prototype.

In Persia, during the Safavid and Qajar rule, there was an established tradition of enacting the whole tragedy of Karbala. Called the tazeah, it is/was a kind of a passion play, a whole enactment of the battle in a field or an area that was big enough for this ritualistic happenings to take place. During the course of the twentieth century, its frequency became less, and one wonders whether it is still held with all its trappings now.

But in the Indian subcontinent, with many local variations of ritualistic mourning, the main emphasis has been only on the word and the offerings do not involve dramatic personages. It is symbolic in its most literal sense.

This article was published in The News on Sunday on October 1, 2017 under the title Symbolic in literal sense .

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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