The Social and Spiritual Significance of Urdu Marthiya

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An analysis into the social and spiritual aspects of of Urdu Marthiya

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The Ritual

The Shi’a of South Asia borrowed most of the Muharram rites and ceremonies from Iran. But they have been discriminating in their borrowings, and moulded whatever they borrowed according to their genius, developing forms of activity and expression peculiar to themselves. They rejected the Iranian ta'ziya, or Passion Play; nor did the graphic representation of the Prophet and His Family find any favour with them.

Of the symbols in the Muharram ritual, they developed what they call ta'ziya, something very different from the ta’ziya of Iran.

The South Asian ta’ziya is an imitation in an architectural form through whatever medium‑it may be wood and paper or any metal or grass and flowers or tender shoots of wheat and barley‑of the idea of the mausoleum of the Imam Husayn.

This root idea proliferated into myriad shapes, peculiar to each city, and even to each guild. Taziyas are meant for just one day's parade along with the Ashura' processions, to be buried in the earth or thrown into water in the evening‑an example of the artist losing himself in the work of art fulfilling itself as an act of worship.

In the field of literature, the glorious achievement of the South Asian Shi’a is the evolution of the Urdu marthiya out of the threnodies and dirges on the martyrs of Karbala' and its final establishment as one of the most essentially characteristic forms of Urdu poetry.

It may be noted that unlike other centres in the Muslim world, Muharram celebrations in South Asia are not exclusively the concern of the Shi a. The initiative did come from the Shi a, but the Sunni and even the Hindus take part in Muharram celebrations. The taziyas are almost all built by the Sunni, and the marthiya majlis is not only attended by many Sunni and Hindus, but many Sunni and non‑Muslim poets have cultivated this form with high artistic skill and deep devotion.

The Muharram celebrations started in the Deccan in the late seventeenth century comprising Roza Khawani (the sad narration of the events of Karbala') and mourning processions accompanied by dirge chanting and breast beating. It was a popular pageant of sorrow participated in and patronized by the Shi’i sultans, and one of them, Mohammad Qutub Shah, also composed marthiyas, which were simple lyrics of deep lamentation and devotion.

In 18th century Delhi, where Urdu poets like Mir and Sauda were exploring, in a fit of creative energy as it were, the power and virtue of the newly‑developed medium of Urdu language, and getting free of the tutelage of the Persian tradition, they experimented with many modes of expression for the marthiya, but thematically went little beyond lamentation and devotion.

In the Shi`i Kingdom of Oudh, it was all different.

Lucknow, in the late 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries, was the last refuge of Muslim talent in the troubled world of North India, a spot of light and peace among the lengthening shadows of anarchy, the sophisticated, self‑conscious, and very prodigal inheritor of ten centuries of Indo‑Muslim culture, not resplendent with the sunset colours of a declining civilization.

Lucknow was, like ancient Athens, a closed but complete universe, and the marthaya, with its roots deep in popular devotion and its branches absorbing the sunshine of courtly patronage, grew like a hot‑house plant into a form of poetry fit to take its place along with tragedy on one hand, and epic on the other.

The Myth

The inspirational source of the marthiya is, of course, Karbala', and there is something so deeply pathetic, so tremendously sublime, and bewilderingly enigmatic about one's perception of Karbala'!

That God's own man, beloved of the Prophet, holding all authority from God, and master of Time and Destiny, the aim and end of Creation, its support and mainstay, the symbol of all that is holy and sacred, the inheritor and custodian of the Prophetic charisma, should meet what looks like total destruction, overwhelmed by forces of darkness in a state of utter helplessness, is not a mere historical event, not even the fall of a house, but almost a cataclysm in the divine order of things.

Such ambivalence between the physical and the metaphysical levels of existence cannot fail to strike the deepest chords in man's moral and spiritual constitution and raise questions about the quiddity of divine dispensation and the mystery of human destiny ‑ what a covenant, what fulfilment, what reward.

The matter now passes from the rational to the existential realm, and through the pressure of emotional intensity, it becomes interiorized as experienced reality. And as this experience is shared universally, it becomes part of collective consciousness.

To the startled, kindled imagination, Karbala' becomes the focal point of human history, all the past leading up to it and all the future‑until the Day of Judgement‑flowing out of it, a fiery moment in which the beginning of time and the end of time coalesce.

Legends, symbolising the meaning and significance that cannot be expressed through ordinary modes of communication, and which have yet to be expressed (so irrepressible and imperative is the urge) cluster around the fact. This constellation of legends forms a sort of myth (mythos, as distinguished from logos), a timeless cosmic drama in which all the forces of creation and chaos take part in an epic battle between the congregated might of darkness and the flickering inextinguishable beacon light of Heaven and Earth, a fertility myth of the resurrection of faith and truth, an apocalypse of redemption and intercession, and the final justifi­cation of the ways of God to man.

Karbala' has thus become a compendium containing signs and intimations of Man's predicament, his journey through this vale of suffering and tears, his social and spiritual values, his destiny and final redemption. And just as the Greek poet hewed out of the granite mass of Greek mythology the shades of his tragedies and epics, so a gifted artist like Anis or Dabeer sees the integrated outline of his marthiyas etched out in the different episodes or parts, or combinations and relations of parts of the inexhaustible tale of Karbala'. And as the tale is inexhaustible, so are the marthiyas that emerge out of it innumerable‑limited only by the insight and imagination of the poet.

The World of the Marthiya

The world of the marthiya opens with the constrained journey of the Imam Husayn and his relatives from Madina to Mecca. It extends along the Imam Husayn's journey from Mecca towards Kufa, which is intercepted at Karbala'. Karbala’ is the centre of this world, where the battle of truth is fought: the field of Destiny. From Karbala' it follows the caravan of the surviving widows and orphans and the sole surviving son of the Imam Husayn, the Imam Zayn al-Abidin, all chained and manacled, through the merry market crowds and festive courts of Kufa and Damascus.

The last phase is the return of this torn and tattered caravan from Damascus to Karbala', now turned into a graveyard, and from there back to Medina. At this point the world of marthiya closes. It stretches like a track of light, a trail of suffering in the midst of deepening shadows of ghoulish darkness closing in upon it from all sides and trying to obliterate it. And yet this world, so narrow and confined in its temporal dimensions, is so immense in its relationships and significance.

It reaches back to the days of the Holy Prophet and beyond it to the Divine Covenant on which the fate and future of Islam depends, and looks forward to the end of time and the Day of Judgement and Redemption. All nature and all history is deeply involved in the final outcome of these events and in what happens in this world. For the poet this world is inexhaustible, peopled with innumerable marthiyas waiting for his eye and pen to be quickened into life.

The Construction

The marthiya is a well‑organized whole of about 150 to 200 stanzas of six lines each, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The structure, particularly of marthiyas dealing with the death of a hero on the plains of Karbala', follows a more or less standardized pattern which resembles the ebb and flow of a tide. In marthiyas dealing with other subjects the poet modifies this basic structure to suit his vision.

The first part is the opening, or `face' (chechra as it is called). It may start with any subject, however remote, but it must artistically lead to the immediate occasion that gives rise to the action of the marthiya. In this part the hero is introduced.

The second part is the rising action that comprises the leave‑taking of the hero in the tent or base camp until his appearance before the hostile army.

The third part is the climax. The hero identifies himself to the hostile forces and reprimands them, challenging and threatening them with grievous chastisement at his hands and at the hands of God. Then the hero is shown engaged in single combats, which are depicted correctly in all details of war craft. Routed in single combats, the enemy launches a mass attack. Here the poet uses all the resources of his art and invention to describe the lightening and wonderful exploits of the horse, and the deadly onslaught of the sword. The horse and the sword, being projections of the hero, acquire a personality of their own.

The fourth part is the falling action, or denouement. The hero, tough, invincible, has to be brought down. This change is a very delicate part of the poem, and must be handled very deftly and very reverentially.

The last part, the catastrophe, and in the spiritual sense the climax, closes on the death of the hero, and the hero departing in a crescendo of grief and sorrow.

Such is the skeleton, and the poet fills it out with flesh and blood and gives it a hundred shapes. He takes pride in playing a thousand changes on a single theme.

The basic unit of the medium is the mussadas stanza, four rhyming lines rounded off by a rhyming couplet. The stanza has an individuality of its own, a rising movement in the four rhyming lines clinched by the rhyming couplet. And yet it is just a stop in the progression, a marble slab suiting its place in a very complex edifice. The effect is architectural, very different from the monotonous flow of the mathnavi. The meter is neither short nor long, capable of being manipulated for every effect of dialogue and action.

The discovery of the medium proved to be as crucial for the development of the marthiya as the discovery of blank verse for the flourishing of Elizabethan drama.

The language is assiduously cultured and tastefully polished, fit to be spoken in a king's court. Yet far from displaying any signs of stiffness or artificiality, it has a flow and suppleness, and is alive with colour and movement and dramatic shifts and nuances. This is the natural language of a very formal and sophisticated civilization, and is capable of expressing every mood and portraying every situation.

For the last two hundred years, this language has carried the tradition of marthiya with ease and grace without undergoing any apparent change or looking like going out of date.

The King’s Court

The marthiya, like drama, is a composite art. It consists not only of composition, it is also performance. The poet's art of poetry, the reciter's art of presentation (the reciter may be the poet himself, or someone else, but reciting the marthiya is an art in its own right), attuned to the devotional spirit animating the congregation and the solemnity of the place and the occasion, cumulatively produce the desired effect and fulfil the marthiya.

The Imam Bargah is the King's Court, the court of Shah‑i Kar­bala'. All the pervading influence and the presiding presence is the Lady of Light, Fatima Zahra, the mother of the Imam Husayn. The Prophet and the Family and the angels of God are here‑all sharing and watching. The majlis is the Darbar‑i `Amm, the King's audience of the populace. And for every gesture and every movement, the proper etiquette is described, to which it must conform.

The poet is the court poet, the bard. The reciter is the court herald. His performance is neither sing‑song recitation, nor histrionic representation of the stage, nor rhapsodical abandon. Such things would be too vulgar. And yet the reciter has to present the whole variety of situations, from the holiest and the purest to the most execrable, and lead his audience through the whole gamut of human moods from highest exaltation to deepest pain, and through the whole range of emotions, love and devotion, joy and pride, hatred and anger. He has to give full weight and value to every word of the poet‑and he does that just with a restrained movement of his hand, eyebrows, the expression of his face, a change of tone or accent, with an undertone of reverence throughout, controlled by a sense of solemnity.

Until he brings the congregation to the appointed tryst, the sacred conclave of grief where full vent is given to the pent‑up pathos, and tears are turned into screams. No trace of despair or depression is left. There has been a washing of the heart and the soul. The sinner feels so light. A sort of communion has been established between him and those who sacrificed their all for men, and whom God has invested with authority, and out of this communion springs eternally the hope and certainty of redemption and felicity, a catharsis of a deeply mystical quality.

Religion with a Human Face

Marthiya is not religious poetry in the sense that the poet is expressing his religious experiences, though the attitude of the poet towards his subject is one of deep reverence, and the majlis is a religious rite. Nor is it religious poetry in the sense of a hymn, or a eulogy, or an elegy. It unfolds a panorama of life.

The features of this life are drawn from an idealized image of contemporary Oudh society. This panorama of life is shown at its most climactic moment‑the conflict between good and evil, between the insolence and aggressiveness of evil and the suffering and sacrifice of truth. Religion pervades here, as the spirit of human culture, and religious values walk the world in different shapes of human excellence. Just as Thomas Aquinas provides Dante with the key and criterion to judge all humanity, so in the same way does the faith of Anis in Karbala' give him an insight into the mystery of human life, its beauty and its justification.

The characters on the side of the Imam Husayn are different shapes of human excellence, full of compassion and grace and the milk of human kindness, the very soul of loyalty and fidelity, steadfast and eager to destroy the forces of evil and meet the hero's death, each one occupying a definite and well‑defined position in that society, and each one knowing the obligation and etiquette of that position‑which is adab, the essence of religious conduct.

Yet each character is subtlety individualized; `Abbas, the soul of chivalry, the hope and support of all, the protector of women's honour and children's smiles, power pledged to truth, like his father `Ali; `Ali Akbar the very image of the Prophet, a beautiful soul residing in a beautiful body, shedding grace and light like the prophet Joseph wherever he moves; Qasim, mild and retiring and loveable; the two sons of Zaynab restless with the adolescent dreams and ambitions to rise to the stature of their forefathers 'Ali and Ja'far; `Ali Asghar representing humanity in its most tender and innocent condition; Hurr, the honest, brave soldier, conscience ­stricken, atoning for the past by being the first on the list of martyrs.

Surpassing all these is Zaynab, in womanhood; its infinite power of suffering, healing, protecting, preserving and hating all that is mean and impure and tyrannical; and Husayn, the man, in whom all the qualities of power and beauty, of firmness and gentleness mixed in balanced perfection.

The enemies are all painted black with little differentiation, except that Yazid is a drunken tyrant; Ibn Ziyad, his relentless tool; `Umar Sa'd has sold his soul for mere pittance; and Shimr is a malignant and degenerate brute. The soldiers are mercenaries, full of sound and fury, putting up a brave show, but cowards at heart.

Against this background of darkness, the characters of light are shown in action. The poetry of the marthiya may justly be called the poetry of the beauty and sanctity of human relationships.

Definition Attempted

The marthiya resembles a dramatic tragedy in many respects. It resembles the tragedy in construction. At the heart of it is a dramatic conflict that defies resolution on the social plane. The tragic flaw of the hero is that he is flawless‑too good for the world. The action is portrayed in graphic details with changes and surprises. The dialogue has the modulations of dramatic dialogue, typical at once of the situation, of the character, of the interlocutors, and of the poet's art.

But it is very different from a tragedy in the technical sense. It is not meant for stage representation. The hero is not beset by tragic loneliness‑he belongs to a universe more real than any other

Though it raises the issue of human destiny, the idea of fate; excluded by too lively a conscience in the presence of God throughout. The catharsis of a tragedy leaves one, in some sense, a sadder and wiser person, but it is lacking in some positive elements, like the sense of communion and the sense of satisfaction, which are essential ingredients of the overall impression left by the marthiya.

Nor is the marthiya obviously an epic. It does not narrate‑it presents. But the battle that it presents is epic in significance and to some extent in magnitude as well. The hero has epic stature, although the poet emphasizes his very human aspects. And like the epic it unfolds a whole civilization, its mores and manners, its values and morals, its philosophy and worldview.

Though not a very wise thing to do, a working definition of the marthiya may be attempted somewhat in this way.

Constructed out of a repertoire of Karbala' stories, the marthiya is a complete and integrated presentation, in the suitable poetic form, and through the cultured language, of an action or episode portraying confrontation ant the conflict of good and evil, and the tragic death of the hero, in such a way that feelings of exaltation and adoration are aroused for the hero or heroes, and feelings of hatred and execration for the villains, and a bond of communion and partnership are all established through congregational mour­ning, thus providing a cathartic pleasure proper to the marthiya.

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.