A small band of prominent people, including women and children, refusing allegiance to the ruler, were forcibly confined on a dusty plain for over a week, refused access to water, and eventually all the men were massacred. But it didn’t end there, with the episode causing an irrevocable split in a new religion, unleashing further cycles of violence (which haven’t abated even now) and still capable of raising strong emotions even 13 centuries later — due to a poetic form which recreates the victims’ agony.
There was no doubt about the outcome of the Battle of Karbala, outside the eponymous Iraqi town, around 100 km south of Baghdad, in 681 A.D as Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, with 70-odd men, faced a huge force sent by Umayyad Caliph Yazid. It culminated eventually with Hussain’s death on the 10th of Muharram (October 10, 681) — subsequently termed ‘
Ashura’ and sombrely marked by all Muslims, both Sunnis and Shias — though the latter have special congregations and processions — and even others. (Ashura, in India, is on October 12 this year).
There are many fascinating stories associated with Karbala, not the least about the band of Hindus involved in the conflict, or rather its aftermath — that of forebears of my own community, the Datts/Dattas, who take pride in being termed Hussaini Brahmins, and some of whom still follow Muharram traditions.
More pervasive is a poetic form which keeps alive the tribulations and fate of Hussain and his followers — the Marsiya (an elegy with an element of the dirge), which derives from ancient Arabic and Persian literary traditions, but came into its own during the Safavid era (1524-1722) in Iran.
In the Indian subcontinent for ages, they were first reported from the Deccan in the 17th century where they were not only composed by the penultimate Qutub Shahi ruler of Golconda, Abdullah Qutub Shah, his Adil Shahi contemporary — and also penultimate ruler Ali Adil Shah II of Bijapur, but also Ram Rao ‘Saiva’ Bijapuri, and Swami Prashad ‘Asghar’, among others.
When the tradition reached the north, it was initially not thought of much. As Lucknow’s incomparable biographer Abdul Haleem ‘Sharar’ dryly notes that “Marsiyas were so scantily valued in the world of poetry that there was a saying, ‘a down-at-heel poet turns to composing marsiyas'”.
But two poets of Lucknow changed the perception and took the form to unsurpassed heights. And then the saying became, “Aan ki aan, Mir Ali marsiya-khwan.”
Near contemporaries, Mir Babar Ali ‘Anis’ (1802-1874), and Mirza Salamat Ali ‘Dabir’ (1803-1875), were born outside — Faizabad and Delhi — but raised and flourished in Lucknow. But behind them were two other men: Anis’ father Mir Khaliq and Dabir’s “ustad” Mir Zameer, who developed the standard — a prolonged collection of six-line verses in an AAAABB rhyme-scheme.
These two are also credited with devising the constituents – “Chehra” (or prelude, with descriptions of the night before or morning of the battle, or the hardships); “Sarapa”, a description of the hero; “Rukhsat”, the leave-taking; “Aamad”, the entry onto the battlefield; “Rajaz”, martial prowess of Hussain, or his half-brother Abbas; “Jang”, or the battle itself; “Shahdat”, the martyrdom, and finally, “Bain” or lament.
Anis and Dabir proved to be worthy successors. Unfortunately, space doesn’t allow citing examples as a Marsiya would be twice the length of this piece and isolated couplets will not make sense.
Urdu scholar Mohammad Hussain Azad, in his “Aab-e-Hayat” (1880), the first history of Urdu letters, holds Anis was distinguished by “limpidity of speech, beauty of description, and pleasure of idiom”, while Dabir displayed “grandeur of words, high flight, and newness of themes”.
For Sharar, while Dabir displayed a “grandeur of language, lofty ideas and great erudition”, Anis had “fine attributes of simplicity, frankness and human allurement that cannot be learned but are obtained only from the Almighty”, and also excelled in recital.
Both Anis and Dabir also gave an Indian touch, especially Anis, who freely used Persian, Hindi, Arabic, and Sanskrit words, while the heroic protagonists have the speech and appearance of Lakhnavi nobles.
While Anis’ fame has outlasted that of Dabir, both, right from their times, had their own devoted adherents. And not only was the tradition continued in their own families for generations, but inspired many others including the likes of Munshi Channoo Lal, Raja Balwan Singh, son of ousted Maharaja of Benares, Chait Singh, Lala Ram Prasad “Basha”, who is even buried in Karbala, and Lala Har Prashad who didn’t write, but had recited Marsiyas passionately.
Closer to our time was Kalidas Gupta “Raza”, an authority on Ghalib but also on Marsiyas and its Hindu exponents.
Karbala is perhaps the best example of how religious martyrs can unite, not divide.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)