:: The Urdu Marsiya ::

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.

Dr. Saadat Saeed

The writer is a professor of Urdu Literature at Government College University Lahore

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 listeners.

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 self-pity.”

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.’