Umr guzri hai isi dasht ki sayyahi main
Paanchvi pusht hai Shabbir ki maddahi main
I’ve spent a lifetime traversing this desert with veneration
In Shabbir’s service I am the fifth generation
I grew up hearing Mir Anees’ marsiyas and on a recent visit to Lucknow, I decided to read the fatiha on his grave. The rickshaw took me into a narrow alley near Lucknow’s Akbari Darwaza. From there I negotiated my way through the dirt and slush that cover most alleys in old areas of India. I reached what was once a grand doorway and saw that some steps led to a locked iron grill. After enquiry a family nearby said the keys were with a family member of Mir Anees. He kindly led me to his house through some more narrow alleys and a family member accompanied us back.
The grave building was clean though the grounds were overgrown.
Mir Babar Ali Anis was born in Faizabad in 1803 to Mir Khaleeq a marsiya writer. As was normal in those days, he received a comprehensive education which included Arabic and Persian literature, horse riding, fencing etc. Spending his childhood in Ayodhya meant that he was steeped in Awadhi culture and Indian traditions.
With 22 poets in his family it was but natural that by the time he was 13 he was writing ghazals and later 6 line marsiyas. Initially his father was his ustad and he suggested that the young Anis concentrate on marsiya. After shifting to Lucknow he came under the tutelage of the famous Lucknow poet, Imam Baksh Nasikh.
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.
On 10th of October 680 A.D. / 10th of Muharram 60 A.H., the first month of the Islamic calendar, 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, the second Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty is widely accepted by both Shias and Sunnis as being amoral, debauched and a tyrant. Imam Hussain refused to accept his religious suzeranity over the Muslims and preferred to leave Medina for Kufa in Iraq where some friends had invited him, in order to avoid bloodshed. Those friends eventually buckled down under Yezid’s oppression. Hussain had already travelled a distance when he came to know of it. He was confronted by Yezid’s considerable army on the dusty plains of Karbala and forced to camp there. Hussain was martyred in battle alongside all the male members of his family, except one son who was too ill to fight.
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.
Marsiyago [marsiya writers] pay tribute to this martyrdom. This form of poetic genre flourished in Awadh under the Persian origin Shia nawabs till it reached a literary zenith. Today one cannot conceive of the observance of Muharram without a marsiya.
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 .
Lucknow had several marsiyagos but none as famous and sublime as Mir Anees who combined the Arabic classical poetic traditions with the local Awadhi culture. He created tragic scenes of loss and desolation of the women after the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and the men; vivid battle scenes and made each heroic character come live before our eyes.
Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, famous Urdu critic and scholar writes, “Mir Anees’ marsiyas are the best pre-modern model in Urdu of narrative-historical, narrative-lyrical and oral-dramatic poetry.”
Mir Anees wrote over 213 marsiyas and other verses commemorating Imam Hussain’s martyrdom. He was also a master in the art of writing rubayi or quatrain. He could have been as famous as Ghalib had he written ghazals instead of a specific genre.
He died in 1874 at the age of 72 and was buried in a land he had bought earlier as his family graveyard.