We generally use the word 'elegy' as a synonym for 'marsiya', but there is a slight difference between the two. Elegy is, perhaps, a broader term. The word elegy has its origin in Greek and it means 'lament' or 'threnody'. Though elegy existed in the classical Greek and Roman literature, in addition to lamentation it was composed on other themes, too, such as war or love. In the west, an elegy is composed to express meditative themes as well and a sub-species of elegy is named 'pastoral elegy'.“In England, until the 17th century and even later, the term was often applied to any poem of solemn meditation. In present critical usage, however, an elegy is a formal and sustained poem of lament for the death of a particular person”, writes M.H. Abrams while discussing elegy. He further says that “sometimes the term is more broadly used for meditative poems — such as Gray's 'Elegy written in a country churchyard' — which deal generally with the passing of men and the things they value. The dirge also expresses grief on the occasion of death, but differs from the elegy in that it is short, less formal and is usually represented as a text to be sung”.
I feel the appropriate Urdu equivalent of dirge is 'nauha'. The word 'marsiya' is derived from the Arabic word 'risa' (in fact the correct pronunciation would be 'ritha'), which literally means 'to weep over the dead and praise them'.
Urdu marsiya is distinguished by its content and not form. In its early stages marsiya favoured mono-rhyme and quatrain forms , though the more favourite form now is 'musaddas' or a six-lined stanza with rhyming scheme differing in the last two lines, which in turn is often a recurrence of the initial rhyme. The contents are definitely melancholy expressing grief over the death of a loved one, but, according to some critics, there are three basic types of marsiya: formal marsiya, which laments the death of a king or a well-known figure; personal marsiya (also known as 'shakhsi marsiya'), which bewails the death of a friend or relative or a loved one; and religious marsiya (also known as 'Karbalai marsiya'), which laments the death of a religious leader — especially Hazrat Imam Hussain (RA) and his companions martyred in Karbala.
Marsiya is, in fact, a long poem. The main theme of a marsiya, the mourning or lamentation, is expressed in an artistic and aesthetic manner and before describing the grief, the background has to be created in such a way that grief and mourning piece together seamlessly while the poem's overall contents and the transition from early steps to lamentation is subtle. Technically speaking, the marsiya that mourns the martyrs of Karbala should follow the some sequence and even the steps are stipulated. These steps, as described by many critics — eight in numbers, or nine according to some— are as follows: (a) chehra: the introductory portion that often begins with the description of nature and its beauties. (b) sarapa: general appearance of characters. (c) rukhsat: taking leave to proceed to the battlefield. (d) aamad: the arrival or entry into the battlefield. (e) rajaz: description of bravery of one's family and tribe before the combat begins, as was in vogue in Arabs. (f) razm or jang: description of battle, one of the most effective portions of marsiya. (g) shahadat: martyrdom. (h) bain: lamentation or mourning. (i) dua: invocation.
Sometimes the sequence of a step or two, such as general appearance and taking leave, is interchangeable. Some critics add another step and that is known as 'maajra', the introductory portion which connects the beginning with the actual topic of the poem. But it is not necessary for a poet to follow all the steps as these were developed over hundreds of years back and the inclusion of all these steps would result in a marsiya of over a hundred stanzas. Usually a marsiya has only three or four essential steps, such as maajra, shahadat and bain.
Marsiya is a unique genre that has various, peculiar shades of different poetical genres of Urdu poetry. For example, marsiya praises certain personalities like qaseeda (panegyric ode) does, it narrates events like masnavi, describes emotions like ghazal, has the power to narrate the nature's beauty like modern poems; it even has the colours of hamd, naat and manqabat. The high moral values and a message to fight against injustice are the elements of marsiya that have a universal appeal. In addition, some marsiyas have a rich and variegated vocabulary. In other words, marsiya is a genre that has produced some of the finest examples of Urdu poetry. Whether it is theme or form, be it language or style, no study of Urdu poetry can be called complete if it does not take marsiya into account.
As for the history of Urdu marsia, it began in Deccan in as early as 16th century and the ruler of Deccan, Qulli Qutub Shah, has the distinction of being Urdu's earliest marsiya writer. But Urdu marsiya reached the pinnacle of its glory in Oudh in 19th century and Anees and Dabeer are the two practitioners of the craft of marsiya that helped the genre achieve its true potentials. But Urdu marsiya is quite different from Persian and Arabic marsiya. Composed in the subcontinent, says Ali Jawad Zaid, Urdu marsiya has chosen a local environ and created popular appeal by evoking purely subcontinental images.
In the 20th century, Josh Maleehabadi gave Urdu marsiya a new colour and a new height. Josh drew strength from progressivism and at times sounded quite irreverent while criticising some symbols of religiosity but his apparently irreverent utterances were not directed against the religion as is evident from his expression of utmost admiration and love for Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH), Hazrat Ali (RA) and Imam Hussain (RA). What Josh in fact tried to say was that rather than being used as a tool in the exploitation, religion should fight against the injustice and help the downtrodden rise up and get themselves freed from shackles.
While talking about marsiya and Josh, one cannot help thinking about Dr Hilal Naqvi — a scholar who has been researching and writing on marsiya and Josh since long. Not only was his PhD thesis on the topic of marsiya but since then he has also published many works on the subject. Naqvi had published his first collection of poetry when only 19. As a disciple and a young companion of Josh, he treasures many rare documents about Josh such as his letters, photographs and quite a few of Josh's unpublished pieces of prose and poetry. Some of these he has published too. ' Risai adab ' and ' Josh shanasi ' are the two literary journals he is editing. His three books on Josh are titled ' Irfaniyaat-i-Josh ', ' Josh Maleehabadi ki ghair matbooa tehreerain ' and ' Auraaq-i-Josh '. Now he has published yet another work on Josh. ' Josh ke inqelabi marsiye ' is a collection of Josh's marsiyas, and his other elegiac and Sufi poetry.
Published by Tauheed Islamic Centre, Oslo, Norway, the book, edited and annotated by Hilal Naqvi, gives annotations on every piece and explains its background in a scholarly manner. The back title reproduces a rare photograph of Josh. Admirers of Josh and lovers of marsiya will enjoy the work with an intro explaining the reason and need behind its publication.