Lament For A Marsiya Writer: Dawn

COLUMN: Lament For A Marsiya Writer
Dawn, January 11, 2009

As is usual with our Hijri Calendar, we started the new year with the observance of the season of sorrow, or what we in our language call Mausam-i-aza. We are now at the end of the main part of this season. For the mourners it will prolong up to the date of chehlum.

Mausam-i-Aza, also called Muharram, brings in its wake manifold rites and rituals all soaked in tears and elegiac poetry. In fact elegiac poetry, or to be more exact, the marsiya along with its varieties — salam, sauz, and nauha, may be seen as the hallmark of Muharram.

The Urdu marsiya has a rich tradition with elements of epic, drama, and passion play in its fold. Its varieties known as salam and nauha add to its richness. And at least for this branch of poetry Urdu is in no way indebted to the tradition of Persian poetry.

The marsiya has cropped up and flourished in the climate and cultural conditions of the subcontinent, borrowing nothing from Iran or Iraq.

But marsiya is not limited to Urdu alone, various other languages of the subcontinent, more particularly those of Pakistan, are enriched with different varieties of marsiya. And so it may be claimed that the marsiya, as it is known to us, is largely a South Asian phenomenon.

In certain rural parts of the subcontinent, such as in eastern UP, quite a different variety of marsiya has cropped up. Called daha, it draws much from local beliefs and customs and is equally popular among the Muslims and Hindus in the area. To cite one example of daha:

Grandmother goes picking fresh belas and lillies
To adorn Qasim the groom

In fact, during its heyday the Indo-Muslim culture had produced two great traditions in which Hindu and Muslim religious sensibilities seamlessly fused with each other. These two were the mystic tradition and the Muharram tradition.

This is why we find among marsiya writers a large number of Hindu poets writing with the devotion marsiya asks for.

Lucknow was not the only city fortunate enough to have such marsiya writers; they could also be found in other Indian cities. The Ghalibean researcher Kalidas Gupta, Raza, who himself was a marsiya writer, had planned to compile a tazkira of Hindu marsiya writers.

The galaxy of Hindu marsiya writers includes a female writer named Roop Kanwar Kumari. I think she deserves to be talked about in some detail.

In spite of the fact that she lived and wrote during the 1920s and ’30s, she has grown into a kind of mystery.

She did not like to appear in public gatherings and had contacts only with those marsiya writers whom she regarded competent enough to guide her in her writing. Because of this fact some marsiya writers seemed to have grown jealous and developed a hostile attitude towards her. They went to the extent of propagating that Roop Kumari is just an imaginary being and that her work was actually produced by a man writing under a pseudonym.

But now Dr Taqi Abdi after doing some research work on her has established in a convincing way that such a female writer did indeed exist. He has brought out a volume which includes Kumari’s five marsiyas, 10 rubiayat and qitats, and one salam. In his foreword to the volume he tells us that a number of Kumari’s handwritten manuscripts are conserved in his personal library. They include five marsiyas, two salams and a number of other verses.

Roop Kumari belonged to a family of Kashmiri Pandits who lived in Agra. She soon found herself in trouble with her family as they were very unhappy because of her inclination towards Islam.

Dr Abdi has traced the influence of Bhakti poetry in her marsiyas so we see in her marsiyas a blending of Bhakti with Tawalla-i-Ali.

In addition, she had devised for herself a mode of expression wherein Hindised Bhakti terminology and Persianised expressions of marsiyas are seen blending together in a sound way. This blending of the two modes of expression imparts a new flavour to the marsiya and for this reason she stands distinguished among her contemporary writers.

Here are some couplets which speak of her unique style:

Ali’s feet shelter all
Ali’s loved by the two souls
No one knows Ali’s reality
But the Prophet and
God Almighty

Sadly this talented marsiya writer possessed with an individual style did not live long to realise her potential. She met an untimely death in mysterious circumstances.


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