Author: (Late) Ahmed G. Chagla - Karachi ©





Mir Babar Ali Anees

Mirza Salamat Ali Dabeer


Marsiya is not only an elegy. It is descriptive poetry, natural poetry and portrayal of a wide range of emotions, except the erotic.  A marsiya is thus a miniature epic poem at its best.  As such it occupies a unique place in the history of our culture. Strange as it may seem to the uninitiated, it was a poet specializing in marsiya, the famous IMANAT of Lucknow, who laid the foundation of Urdu opera and Urdu drama. But that is a tale worth relating on another occasion.


Marsiya was known and often composed in ancient pre-Islamic Arabia, the land of poetry that it was.  In India, from the earliest times, many have tried their hand at marsiya. Even the great Ghalib is said to have composed one when on pilgrimage to the holy places in Iraq.  But the masters who brought the art and the art-form to perfection were MIR BABAR ALI ANEES (1800-1874) and MIRZA SALAMAT ALI DABEER (1805-1875). 


Urdu poetry began in the Deccan during the palmy days of Muslim kingdoms there - Bijapur and Golconda. The earliest poems were mostly of a religious character, in praise of God and of the Prophet. It is out of these that the marsiya has arisen, since it deals mainly with the tribulations of the descendants of the Prophet on the scorching plains of Kerbela in Iraq for the sake of an ideal.


Thus a marsiya is the very opposite of a qasida. A qasida or laudatory poem praises in an exaggerated manner the virtues, real or imagined, of a living person in the hope of obtaining some gift from him in return. On the other hand a marsiya is in essence an elegy written on some dead person of repute. As such it must come from the heart since no monetary gain is expected therefrom.  Even some Hindu poets of repute have written marsiya on Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet, whose doings at Kerbela will be given later on, since these form the subject of most marsiyas.


Technically, a marsiya as it has finally emerged, has come to mean a long series of bunds. The series may consist of a hundred or very many more bunds. A bund consists of a double-couplet, all the four parts of which rhyme with each other, and an additional couplet ending in a different word. The two last words of this couplet, which is the climax of the bund, rhyme with each other.


Anees and Dabeer perfected this style and this art-form with an introductory passage, a descriptive passage, a passage dealing with various types of human emotion, especially the heroic and the pathetic, a passage emphasizing pathos and the finale which is the climax and is usually based on a note of deep suffering or resignation to the Divine Will.


Usually a marsiya is preceded by some rubaiyat or quatrains (in the style of Omar Khayyam) and then a salam, in the style of a ghazal, followed by the marsiya proper.  This makes an entire recital like the comprehensive-symphonic or sonata form in European music.  It is perhaps because of this that the highly emotional and yet intellectualized art form of the marsiya still holds the attention of the discriminating and cultured listener who may not very much care for the banalities of the older forms of the erotic ghazal. when it is not the work of an acknowledged master.


Though a marsiya is always recited in solemn surroundings it is nevertheless usually recited in free time in various raginis  by men who have spent a life-time in learning the art of expression.  The various Imambaras, including that great architectural monument, the Imambara at Lucknow, resound with marsiyas to this day. It is worthy of note that the gatherings held in these Imambaras, though of deeply religious character, are always open to men and women of all castes and creeds without any distinction whatsoever.


Especially during the first ten days of the Muslim lunar month of Moharram the daily majlis held in an Imambara is truly a cultural activity open to all. Many Hindu Rajas attend these gatherings in their own domains.


To understand the subject of the marsiya it would be worthwhile to cast a quick glance at the incidents which are bemourned. The historical facts behind the annual Moharram celebration (which the "tiger-dancer" rabble hardly know!) may be related in brief.


Immediately the Prophet passed away, and even before his body was buried, trouble broke out in the new-found Muslim State as to who should be his successor or "Khalif". Three different men were elected, or, more properly, selected as Khalifs one after the other. After the death of these men, the fourth man to be thus selected by a clique- which later let him down was All, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. Much against his own will, he left his life of voluntary retirement and scholarly activities to come into active politics. As to the attainments of Ali, the well-known saying of the Prophet is significant : "If I am the City of Knowledge, Ali is its Gate!"


During Ali's Khilafat the Governor of Syria who was a relation of the late Khalif raised a standard of revolt.  There was some internecine warfare and ultimately Ali was murdered while prostrated in prayer in a Mosque at Kufa (Iraq). Muawiya, the Governor of Syria now threw all pretence at "election" to the winds and declared himself, with the aid of his Syrian clique, the “Khali" of Islam. The almost communistic simplicity of the earlier Khalifs was now changed into the kingly Court at Damascus. Ali's eldest son, Hassan, was murdered by poison at the instigation of Muawiya. There remained Ali's younger son Hussain who had to be put out of the way.  On his deathbed Muawiya appointed  his son Yezid, of accursed memory, to be the Khalif of Islam.


Thus was the work of the Prophet undone!  This Yezid who was something of a poet was also a voluptuary and a man who could be hardly called human.  The people were naturally upset. The people of Kufa, where Ali was murdered, sent hundreds of invitations to Hussain, who was at Medina, to go to Kufa and to show the people "the right way". (Many of these letters are preserved to this day. The author has seen some in a library in Central Asia.)

Much against the pleadings of his well-wishers Hussain prepared to go.  He could not ignore his bounden duty to the people.  Since fighting was not his purpose he took even his women and children with him. His entire party consisted of seventy two souls.


On the second of Moharram, the month of peace, when even in pre-Islamic times fighting was forbidden and there was a general truce, Hussain's party encamped at Kerbala, not far from the ancient ruins of Babylon and a day's journey from his destination, Kufa. There, on the bank of the Euphrates, he was intercepted by the advance-guard of Yezid's force lead by a redoubtable warrior named Hurr.  Hussain was neither allowed to proceed further, nor to return to Medina nor even would Yezid's men consent to conduct him to the presence of Yezid, as Hussain demanded.  The orders were to force Hussain to recognize Yezid as the rightful "Khalif", the temporal and spiritual successor of the Prophet! How could Hussain do that?


The parleys  continued for two days. A larger force of Yezid under a new commander arrived. It was the hot season, the heat of the desert was intense.  To coerce Hussain, his party was cut off from the waters of the Euphrates.  But the idealist that he was, he would not give way.  Fresh troops arrived. Hussain begged all his folk to leave him to his fate. But none would desert him.  So just was his cause that even the warrior Hurr with his son came and joined Hussain - and accepted sure death!


On the fateful tenth of Moharram (the Ashura day celebrated in India and all over the Islamic world), when even the women and children had not had a drop of water for full three days, first Hurr "and his party made a sortie for the river bank to get the much needed water. They were mercilessly butchered. Then Hussain saw with his own eyes each one of his party - his sons, his nephews, his cousins his brothers- die the death of heroes in the attempt to reach the river. All along the temptation was held before him: "Acknowledge Yezid as the Khalif and you shall be spared!". But the idealist would not give way. In the end he brought out his six month old baby-son and begged the enemy at least to give the little mite some water. The answer was an arrow through the neck of the little one! None was spared save an ailing son of Hussain who was lying in the tent too ill to move.


Hussain was the last to go in the battle-field. It was midday and prayer time. The day was a Friday.  Remembering his God, Hussain alighted from his horse and prostrated in prayer. His head was out off and his body trampled with the hoofs of newly-shod horses. Hussain's assassin records that the last words that he heard on the lips of Hussain were a prayer that his enemies might be forgiven! Surely, Hussain’s sacrifice was the greatest in history!


After Hussain's head was cut off, the tents were set on fire and the women and children of the House of the Prophet taken prisoners by men who called themselves Muslims! They were put in chains and taken to Damascus to the Court of the accursed Yezid. But the revulsion of feeling that this epic incident created throughout the Muslim world has not subsided to this day, as the annual Moharram celebrations bear witness. 


Indeed the two great dynastic changes in the Arab world - the overthrowing of the Ommayads (Yezid's clan) by the Abbasides and the overthrowing of the Abbasides by the Fatimides - had as an ostensible cause the restoration of the Prophet's family to its rightful place.  But these much-suffering perfect people stood aside from such attempts. After the happenings at Kerbela, Khilafat had ceased to be anything but a hereditary institution It was left to the Man of Vision, Kamal Ataturk, to see the inherent fallacy of this institution. With one stroke of the pen he abolished Khilafat, even while  Mahatma Gandhi joined the abortive "khilafiat agitation" in India which was foredoomed to failure because it was based on untruth.


It is the heart-rending happenings at Kerbela which form the subject matter of most marsiyas. The composers of marsiya were not historians. But they understood human psychology as no one else did. They would take one small tragic incident, such as the thirst of the children, the brutality of the men of Yezid, the heat of the mid-day sun, the frightful darkness of the night and, above all, the unsurpassed bravery of the small band who died in Hussain’s company, and breathe life into these. They utilized not only the power of language and of poetry but consummate artistry in chanting or reciting the marsiya. They used the sob in the voice, the restrained gesture with so little as a mere eye-lid (in which Anees excelled) and the undoubted power of Indian melodies to achieve their end. A good marsiya reciter makes the scene live before the eyes of the imagination of his audience.


The language is also very appropriate. When a child speaks, the language is a child's; when a woman speaks, it is of a woman; when a man speaks, it is of a man. It is said phrases used in good families were actually taken down to be later used in a marsiya. Thus a great service to the cause of the simplification of language was rendered by the great marsiya writers.


Anees is rightly considered to be the Homer and Virgil of Urdu poetry, though he never wrote such long epic poems as the Iliad and the Aenad. A learned critic is of the opinion that the work of Anees can well bear comparison with Nizami's Sikandarnamah  and Firdousi's Shahnamah. The reason for the phenomenal success of Anees  is that he came from a line of poets of repute specialising in the marsiya. Anees was the fifth in the line. His father, Mir Khaleeq, was also a marsiya composer. Anees was born at Faizabad and was educated by his father. The family migrated to Lucknow when Anees was a young man. He was fond of horsemanship, sword-play and the military arts.  It is this that helped him to make his descriptions of combats on the plains of Kerbela so very realistic. A true gentleman and a man rightly proud of his family he never asked  for any return for his work. Only that which was freely sent to him as presents was ever accepted by him. He did not care for anyone's patronage. Neverthless so great was his fame that in Lucknow, and wherever he went by invitation, including Rampur and Hyderabad, that thousands used to flock to hear his marsiya and often it was a job to keep the crowds under control. So much was he respected that once when a Nawab of Hyderabad succeeded in placing the shoes of Anees in a palki at the end of the majlis the Nawab considered himself a fortunate man indeed! Anees went out on tour outside Lucknow only after the dark days of 1857. He died at Lucknow in 1874 and is buried in his garden there.


Mirza Dabeer was the more erudite scholar of the two. He was born at Delhi but he too migrated to Lucknow. It was there that friendly rivalry began between them. Though the populace divided themselves into "Aneesiya" and "Dabeeriya" these two great gentlemen always remained on the most cordial terms and in public would receive each other with respect in the true Lucknow style. Dabeer too is buried at Lucknow.


Unfortunately space does not permit giving adequate examples from the works of these epic poets since long passages would be required. Each has written several hundreds of thousands of verses. Their works are well worth a perusal by the intelligent reader who wishes to get out of the ruts of the erotic ghazal. The beauty of language and expression and the vivid imagery of these masters is truly remarkable. But one must read at least one complete marsiya to appreciate its beauty. The pathos and emotions are equally well-portrayed with the more virile aspects of action. A spear-thrust is described by Anees as:


 "As if the cragon with its tongue out had moved!"


And when two spears of opponents engage in battle, Anees says:


 “As if two snakes with tongues out had intertwined!"


Here is a beautiful simile given by Anees in a rubai in the style Omar Khayyam made famous. And yet mark the positive and hopeful outlook of Anees as opposed to that of Omar Khayyam:


         “Dunya hai darya aur hawas toofan hai;

          Manand-e hubab hasti-e insan hai;

          Langar hai jo dil to har nafas bad-e murad:

          Seena kashti hai nakhuda Iman hai!”



          The world is the ocean; greed is the storm;

          (Verily) Man's life is like a bubble (on this storm-tossed ocean);

          If the heart is the anchor, every breath is like the favorable wind!

          The chest (covering of the heart) is the ship (which must bear the

          buffets of the storm-tossed ocean) and the (true) captain is FAITH!


These rubaiyat of Anees and Dabeer have been very freely utilized by our modern dramatists. (One of the most famous songs in Laila Majnu is in the style of a salam of Anees.)


Finally here is a grand couplet from a salam of Dabeer. Being the scholar that he was, Dabeer rises almost to the heights of Ghalib.  While appreciating the action of the erstwhile leader of Yezid’s advance-guard, Hurr, who willingly chose to join Hussain and was killed in the very first sortie to reach the bank of the Euphrates in the attempt to bring water for the famished women and children.  Dabeer addresses the pilgrim at the tomb of Hurr thus:


      “Hurr fida pyaasa jo Shah par ho gaya;

       Ai salami, qatra darya ho gaya!”



                 "When the thirsty Hurr (willingly) sacrificed

                   his life for the Shah (Hussain);

                 (Know) O salami, (O pilgrim)) In truth

                  the DROP BECAME THE ENTIRE OCEAN!"


But one must read these poets of pain and suffering, and yet men of high ideals and a steadfast and unshakeable faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. of Light over darkness, of, Immortality over death, to appreciate their sincerity of thought and power of expression.  Indeed the works of Anees and Dabeer are precious part of our cultural heritage.



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