The Marthiya Then and Now
Let us imagine the condition of late 18th and early 19th century Oudh.
The Deccan sultanates situated on the border of the great Indo‑Muslim civilization had long disappeared. Delhi, the centre of that civilization, is decaying. The civilization is breaking up. All around is anarchy, and an alien power is advancing from all sides. The indigenous civilization does not know this power, does not understand it, nor the meaning and purpose of it.
With the decay of civilization, small pockets of culture are forming, closed but complete worlds. Oudh is one of them. These small worlds are doomed to be overrun and overwhelmed by the forces of barbarism in the near future. What can be the choice before this beleaguered culture? Live fully, brightly, and gracefully while there is still time to do so, and when the hour strikes, give the barbarians a run for their money, and go down fighting like heroes, leaving the rest to God, and to the barbarians.
And this is just what the people of Oudh did in the War of Independence of 1857.
The Karbala' of the classical marthiya is not the fall of a house, but the crash of a civilization, and also a noble, civilized way to face such a crash.
Even today the tradition continues, and the marthiya is flourishing. But times have changed. Gone are the days of that cultural twilight when poetry seemed to be the main business of life. Today the business of life is making poetry itself redundant. The marthiya does not now belong to the mainstream of life. Even its place in the King's Court has been taken up by pulpit oratory. It now exists as an important branch of poetry.
We do not live in a closed and complete world. Winds of change are blowing and our culture has lost its shape. We feel culturally disinherited and are in search of our identity. Life is not so much an experience as a set of problems. Along with the change in times, the vision and approach of the marthiya have also changed.
In our marthiya we are very much concerned with the causes and consequences of Karbala'. From myth we have come down to history. What lessons useful to us can be learned from Karbala'? What lay sermons can be proclaimed on the theme? From presentation we have moved to the propagation of messages. Our marthiyas now open with the discussion of some abstract idea that gives the marthiya its label or heading.
The idea has taken the place of the image. Between us and Karbala', there stands our interpretation of Karbala'. The classical poet wrote Karbala'‑we can at best write about Karbala'. The climax of the Marthiya, the sacrament of weeping and wailing, does not grow out of modern marthiya. It hangs loose, like an appendage. We do not need sacrament as much as we need revolution. The temper of our marthiya is rational and revolutionary, and perhaps this is as it should be.
Every age inherits a great tradition by reliving it, and this it can do only in its own peculiar way, according to its spiritual needs and its ethos.