The Art of Marsiya Writing and Reciting

What is Marsiya 
The word ‘Marsiya’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘Risa’, meaning a great tragedy or lamentation for a departed soul. It is an elegy, a poem  of mourning which has now come to be  specifically associated with the tragedy of Karbala and to describe the battle fought on the plains of Karbala in Iraq by Hazarat Imam Husain and his supporters against the army of Yazid. 
Even a short poem written to mourn the death of a friend can be called MARSIYA. Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘In Memoriam’ can rightly be called MARSIYA. The sub-parts of MARSIYA are called NOHA and SOZ which means lamentation and burning of (heart) respectively.i ts form the soaz, salam and marsia, with a rhyming quatrain, and a couplet on a different rhyme.
          When a great event like the Tragedy of Karbala takes hold of the religious consciousness of a whole people, it begins to grow like a seed in a congenial soil. In its imaginative development the story of Karbala runs parallel to the story of King Arthur, Charlemagne, and King Vikramaditya in India. It is with the embroideries, rich and varied, which the popular imagination has woven around the slender historical material, that the marsiya deals.  Just as Homer gives an imaginative version of a single episode in the Trojan war in the Iliad, or just as Miltons Paradise Lost is a personal and imaginative version of the Fall of Man, exactly in the same way the marsiya writers have amplified and elaborated a single incident which has come to have a tremendous moral significance for a large section of the Islamic world. (Sadiq, M.; A History of Urdu Literature, Oxford University Press, 1964, pages 150-51)
On 10th of October 680 A.D. / 10th  of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, in the sixty first year since the Prophet’s hijra, or migration, from Mecca to Medina. Hussain was martyred in battle alongside all the male members of his family, except one son who was too ill to fight. Considering it a betrayal the basic tenets of Islam , and of all that his grandfather, the Prophet, pbuh , stood for , Imam Hussain had refused to accept Yazid’s suzerainty. 
 Yazid was the second caliph of the Umayyad dynasty and is widely acknowledged by both the Shia and Sunnis to have been a debauched, amoral tyrant. This act of supreme sacrifice, acceptance of  certain matyrdom of self and family , with knowledge of untold and intense suffering awaiting the surviving women and children of his family Yet steadfast refusal to compromise the principles of his grandfather, became the incomparable metaphor for truth and integrity. 
Composition of Marsiya ( poetic form) 
Marsiya generally consists of six-line units, with a rhyming quatrain, and a couplet on a different rhyme.
It  is characterized by six-line verses in an AA, AA and BB rhyme scheme. They are traditionally either recited by Marsiya-Khwans or sung by a Marsiya-Soz .
 “A classical Urdu Marsiya, usually includes most of the following sections: a prelude (Chehrah) of poems of praise, descriptions of the morning or night before the battle, or a general introduction to the hardships faced by Hussein; a description of the poem’s hero – whether Hussein or one of his companions – and his virtues; the leave-taking or departure for the battlefield (Rukhsat); the entry onto the field (Aamad); a declaration of the hero’s martial prowess (Rajaz); the battle (Jang); the martyrdom (Shahadat); and finally, the lament (Bain). To this one could add the topical focus (Maajrah) and the prayer (Dua).”
Musical Composition of Soz and Marsiya
“The soz and marsiya compositions have two segments : sthayi (the firstling or verse) and antara (the verse that follows). Sthayi employs higher notes. In longer compositions,there is a laghu ( smaller) antara , also called dehur, and sometimes tan- antara called teep.
This term is derived from the Saskrit word tipi, which means rendition of notes in a high register.
The soz compositions are set in those ragas that evoke pathos and are sung from morning to midnight. Although in soz-khwani the khyaal style prevailed the other musical genres were amalgamated. It retained the high pitched vigorous tonal pronunciation of the dhrupad that in Delhi days dominated the marsiya khwani, the zawaid or the glosses of tan-paltas (intricate rhythmic turns)from the khyaal : zamzama ( small melodic phrases marked by repition of notes backwards as well as forward)and tahrir ( swift zigzag melodic turns employed in Persian music)from the tappa. the techniques of bol-banao ( improvisation of rhythmic passages)and ras-bhav ( evoking a sentiment ) are taken from thumri.

There are compositions in a single style but most have a blending of different styles.” Soz took into it   all the musical styles prevalent then in Awadh.  ( The Making of the Awadh Culture – by Madhu Trivedi  )

Kajjan Begum reciting marsiya

Shafqat Amanat Ali recites Mujrai khalq mein

Nauha – Ghabrayegi Zainab and this iconic nauha was written by Chunnu Lal or Chandulal whose takhallus was Dilgeer. In fact my uncle informs me that the marsiya recited on 8th Moharrum in our village Jalali is also by Dilgeer

salaam e aakhir  Marsiya Recittation 

There are two styles of reciting marsiyas : one is 
1. Tah-Tul-Lafz : The manner of reciting a poem; like rhythmic prose i.e. without singing; word for word.

Syed Tanvirul Hasan reciting a marsiya by Mir Waheed


and  2. Tarannum : marsiya is recited, to a tune

Kis Shair Ki Amad hai | USTAAD RAZA ALI KHAN

Hussain Hai – Marsiya – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan written by Hafeez Julundhary 

Marsiya Writers

The art of marsiya writing started in Persia and Arabia but it reached its zenith under the  Nawabs of Awadh. The nawabs were connosieurs of art and literature, but their Shia faith gave great impetus to building of Imambaras (is a congregation hall, used mainly  for purposes of remembrance of the events of Karbala) and the art of marsiya writing 
The famous MARSIYA writers in Urdu are Mir Baber Ali Anis and Mirza Salamat Ali  Dabir. 

In the list of great marsiya gos Mir Zamir, who by common consensus is regarded as the Bani of Jadid marsiya and Mir Anis himself recited marsiya in the fateha majlis of Mir Zamir.
Mir Anis’ father, Mir Khaliq was also a great marsiya go. Mir Anees often remarked ber sare member
“hai mujh ko baba jan ki zaban nahin aai.”
Dulah saheb Rashid was the last exponent of Mir Anees’school of marsiya goi and marsiya khwani.
(contributed by Mamu Mehdi Raza sahib)

Other famous marsiya writers are 

Syed Muhammad Mirza Uns, Syed Sajjad Hussein, Shadeed Lucknavi, Dr. Syed Ali Imam Zaidi and Gauher Lucknavi.
Josh Malihabadi on Mir Anis:
Teri har mouj-e-nafas rooh-ul-amee’n ki jaa’n hai
 tu meri urdu zubaa’n ka bolta Qura’n hai
. Every breath of yours is the life of Gabrielle
 You are the speakin Quran of the urdu language.
Intezar Hussain in his ” Hindu contribution to the marsiya” writes 
” While engaged in his research on Hindu marsiya writers he ( Kalidas Gupta Raza , an authority on Ghalib ahad a lesser known interest in marsiya) had unearthed a number of such writers, which were hitherto unknown to us. An article, which was intended to be the first chapter of his book, Hindu marsiya go is included in his collection, published under the title,Sahv-o-Suragh, in which he has traced Hindu involvement in azadari from the times of Quli Qutab Shah. This ruler, he says, would take care to say goodbye to wine as soon as the moon of the month of Muharram was sighted. Clad in black, he would come out from his palace and proceed to the aza-khana followed by a large number of people, most of whom were Hindus.
The first Hindu marsiya writer, as researched by Gupta Raza, was as Ram Rao, whose pen name was ‘Saiva’. He belonged to Gulberg but migrated to Bijapore in the time of Ali Adib Shah. In about 1681, he translated Rozatush Shuhada in Deccani verse. This translation was in addition to the original marsiyas written by him.
Sri Makkhan Das, and Balaji Tasambak with ‘Tara’, as his pen name are some other marsiyawriters, who flourished in Deccan in the years that followed. Add to them the name of Swami Prashad who wrote marsiyas in Urdu under the pen name of ‘Asghar’, though he also wrote poetry in Persian and Hindi.
As the centre of Urdu shifted from the South to the North and the azadari culture began to flourish in Lucknow. Here, too, we find the Hindu gentry actively participating in the rituals of Muharram and Hindu poets ardently engaged in writing marsiyas. Better known among the earlier poets was Munshi Channoo Lal Lakhnavi, who wrote ghazals under the pen name of ‘Tarab’ and marsiyas under the pseudonym, ‘Dilgir’. In his later period, he wrote marsiyas alone and distinguished himself in the field.
Raja Balwan Singh, who wrote under the pen name, ‘Raja’, was the son of Maharaja Chait Singh, the ruler of Benares. But the British did not allow him to rule for long. Ousted from Benares, he succeeded in winning a jagir from the Maharaja of Gawalior. His son Raja mostly lived in Agra and became a disciple of Nazeer Akbarabadi. He distinguished himself as amarsiya writer, though he also wrote in other verse forms.
Lala Ram Prashad wrote marsiyas under the pen name, ‘Bashar’. Gupta Raza tells us that he was a devotee of the Ahl-i-Bait. In his last days, he migrated to Karbala. It was there that he breathed his last and was buried there.
Perhaps in Lucknow, Hindus were more deeply involved in the rituals of Muharram. So their participation was not confined to writing marsiyas alone. Lala Har Prashad was not a marsiyawriter. But he had a passion for reciting them. Every year, he participated with devotion in taziaprocessions and recited his favourite marsiyas depicting the martyrdom of Hazrat Abbas.
Lala Har Prashad belonged, as Mirza Jafar Husain has told us, to the family of Raja Mahra. But Tika Ram was a potter. Out of his devotion for Imam Husain (AS) he had made a tazia of clay, which in its own way was a piece of art. This tazia was exhibited every year on the night of Muharram 10 and was always a centre of attraction for the mourners.
Mirza Jafar Husain has written about a unique ritual observed by the Hindu mourners. On the night of Muharram 10, someone from among them chose to masquerade as a messenger. He was expected to perform his duty on the day of Ashoor. So the next day, with bells hanging around his body and with a morchhal in his hand, he would go running from one place to the other, going to each group of mourners and announcing in a mournful voice, “Husain Kushta Shud” (Husain has been martyred).-

In fact Pandit Brij Narain Chakbast in his poem Ramayana also wrote the scene where Shri Rama takes leave of his mother, in the style of Mir Anis, where he describes Ali Akbar bidding farewell to his mother.

Chakbast ki Ramayana : “Rukhsat hua jo baap se lekar Khuda ka naam Raah-e-Khuda mei’n manzil-e-awwal hui tamaam Majboor tha jo maa ki ziyaarat ka intezaam Daaman se ashk pochh ke dil se kiya kalaam Izhaar-e-bekasi se sitam hoga aur bhi Dekha humei’n udaas to ghum hoga aur bhi”

A few Famous Marsiyas

1. Mirza Dabeer

Kis sher ki amad hai k rann kaanp raha hai,

rann ek taraf charkhe kohan kaanp raha hai,

Rustum ka badan zere kafan kaanp raha hai,

har qasre salateene zaman kaanp raha hai,

shamsheer bakaf dekh ke Haider k pisar ko,

Jibreel larazte hain samete huwe pare ko
2. Mir Anis
Jab qata ki masafat e shab aaftaab ne

Jalwa kiya sahar ke rukhe behijaab ne
Dekha suwe falaq Shahe gardoon rakaab ne

Mudh kar sada rafeeqo ko di us janaab ne
Aakhir hai raat hamd o sanaye Khuda karo

Utho fareezaye sahri ko ada karo
3. Josh Malihabadi
L.M. Bowra in his book, From Virgil to Milton, says:“An Epic is by common consent a narrative of some length and deals with events which have a certain grandeur and importance and come from a life of action, especially of violent action such as war. It gives a special pleasure because it’s events and persons enhance our belief in the worth of human achievement and in the dignity and nobility of man.” For those unacquainted withe events of Karbala can see this documentary anchored by Zia Mohyeddin 


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