The tradition of elegy

July 30, 2023

Marsiya, soz, noha, salaam have a long history in the subcontinent

The tradition of elegy


ur renditions of music are being subjected to a great change, and the greatest pressure for this change is on the way the sur is intoned. However, the more traditional forms, especially those linked to religious rites, have a greater chance of retaining the original form.

The reason the religious rites are more resistant to the changes that are taking place around us appears to be a conscious decision by some who matter to be truthful to the traditional forms and style of rendition.

One of the dominant influences has been the digital media that has brought the world much closer together, exposing people to the various patterns of rituals that are performed throughout the Muslim world.

There were many more levels of mediations in the past as the spread of religion and its collateral cultural expression would synch in with the local manner of expression and forms. The process stretched over a period of time and gradually assumed its autonomous form as it matured on the way. Even the changes within a culture, for example Indian subcontinent, varied greatly in terms of language and the tonal expression. The local forms, patterns, musical stylisation and the poetic forms had a more overbearing impact on the way a form finally flowered or found maturity.

Since we look towards the Middle East in matters of religion, various cultural patterns have been thrust upon us through the new media. We now are participants in the rites and rituals as they are performed thousands of kilometres away and are witness to the way they are done. The rituals that take place in Makkah and Medina are directly communicated to us through the new media. We are no longer exposed to the various levels of mediations as was the case in the past. Similarly, the rituals in Karbala and Najaf and other sites associated with Muharram are now accessible to us. We, while sitting in our homes, become participants.

This has resulted in much more centralisation or uniformity of how the rituals are performed. If there is some variation, it is supposed to be corrected. On the flipside, much that we previously thought was forbidden is found to have been considered legit by those at the centre of these activities.

Islam came to the subcontinent heartland after about four hundred years. Its dominant coloration was in the Persian shade. The various layers that travelled and matured from Arabia to Central Asia and present-day Afghanistan were steeped in Persian hues. These were brought by those who came as conquerors, with travellers in their tow: the Sufis, the poets, the musicians and painters.

The earliest examples of marsiya were Hazrat Fatima’s (with whom Allah was pleased) words following the passing of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Later marsiyas were composed as Imam Hussain’s (with whom Allah was pleased) sisters gave firsthand accounts of the tragedy of Karbala. The martyrdom has been described by many contemporary poets and prose writers. The latter were known as maqatil and were read in the Muharrum assemblies. Books known as Shahdat Nama and Jang Nama were written on the basis of these maqatil and other historical works. Some of these prose accounts were profusely interspersed with verses.

Kamaluddin Husayn bin Ali Waiz Kashifi wrote his Rawzat-ush Shuhada (The Garden of Martyrs) two years before his death (1503). It was first translated from Persian into Turkish by Fazli in about 1534.

The tradition of elegy

In the subcontinent, several translations of this book were made in Deccani poetry. It was also translated into Urdu by Sayyid Ali Wasiti Bilgrami as Dah Majlis and Haydar Bukhsh Hayadari as Gulshan-i-Shahidaan. In 1812, Haydari wrote an abridged version named Gul-i-Maghfirat. The watershed in these Urdu translations was Karbal Katha by Fazal Ali who used the nom de plume Fazli.

It appears that marsiya, soz, noha, salam became more specialised forms as the distinct community of marsiya go or sozkhawaaans emerged. From the writings of Abdul Halim Sharar on Lucknow, it appears that during the Nawabi rule in Awadh, soz or marsiyakhawan specialists, almost comparable to the best known vocalists or singers, were instrumental in developing the form of recitation prevalent now. There is a lead vocalist and the rest identify the tonal note or recite the refrain. The form seems to have been perfected in the 19th Century Awadh.

The Khanqah of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar popularised devotional songs on Hazrat Ali (with whom Allah was pleased) in Sindhi and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai composed heart-breaking elegies for the martyrs of Karbala. Other Sindhi poets too wrote elegies but only Sachal Sarmast could match the elegance of Shah Abdul Latif’s verses.

In some regions of southern Punjab and Sindh distinct marsiya recitation is rendered in Punjabi and Sindhi. In urban areas, the leading vocalists have been the main reciters of the marsiya.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

The tradition of elegy