The giants of marsia writing include Mir Anis and Mirza Dabir. Their verses, written in 19th-century Lucknow, can be bracketed with the greatest works of epic poetry in world literature.
No less important are those who read out or render marsias, known as marsia khwan. In the history of the electronic media in Pakistan, marsia khwani has held an important position, particularly in the month of Muharram. It started as soon as Radio Pakistan began functioning, and with the advent of television marsia khwani, through TV screens, attained new heights. Veteran broadcaster Zulfiqar Ali Bukhari, more popularly known as Z.A. Bukhari, had a central role to play in bringing marsias to the masses through the electronic media, with his classic tahtul lafz renditions.
According to poet Iftikhar Arif, after the country’s independence, Radio Pakistan became an important cultural institution and Z.A. Bukhari played a key role in consolidating the country’s religious and literary culture.
“From the very beginning recitation and translation of the Holy Quran’s verses was presented, along with special programmes for the months of Ramazan and Muharram. As far as the rendering of the marsia is concerned, it started with Z.A. Bukhari. At that time regular meetings were held at Dr Yawar Abbas’ place in Karachi where new marsias were presented, preceded by new salaams. Shias, Sunnis and men of letters used to attend those meetings,” he pointed out.
Iftikhar Arif added that people like Josh Malihabadi and Bukhari sahib were among the attendees and Z.A. Bukhari often rendered marsias usually penned by Mir Anis. “Prior to that he’d read the salaam, Aap minbar per na dekhein mujh ko hairaani ke sath/mor ka bhi zikr hai takht-i-Sulaimani ke sath”.
Mr Arif said that on radio as well Bukhari sahib rendered Mir Anis’ marsias and when television was introduced, there too he did the same for many years, especially the marsias, Jab qata’a ki musafat-i-shab aftaab ne and Ba Khuda faris-i-maidan-i-tahawwar tha Hur. “He had a mesmerising style. He would sit in a dignified manner and read out the lines. Naseer Turabi, Himayat Ali Shaer and I started rendering marsias when Bukhari sahib was alive. Izhar Kazmi and film actor Mohammad Ali too joined in.
“Mohammad Ali and Tariq Aziz read the way Bukhari sahib did. But despite having youthful voices their rendition did not create the right kind of impact. The reason for this was that you could not do justice to such great poetry without understanding it. Relying on voice alone and using acting skills did not serve the purpose”.
Iftikhar Arif was all praise for Zia Mohyeddin though, noting that the senior artist was always conscious of the correct enunciation and pronunciation. “He had his individual style, but people had been so accustomed to Bukhari sahib’s voice that no other method could impress them”.
Commenting on the styles of marsia reciters of the past, Mr Arif felt that Syed Aal-i-Raza and Naseem Amrohvi followed the Lucknow school, whereas Josh sahib’s marsia represented his own, individual approach to poetry. Saba Akbarabadi would read it with utmost gravity and was very effective. In Punjab there was Saif Zulfi, Qaiser Barahvi and Mohsin Naqvi. Their rendition was loud. Some other names include Prof Mujtaba Husain, Prof Karrar Husain, Yawar Abbas, Shahid Naqvi, Abdul Rauf Urooj and Umeed Fazli, who were all popular. Apart from that, Kajjan Begum, Aftab Kazmi, Mashooq Ali Khan, Akhtar Wasi Ali, Aftab Kazmi and Azeemul Mohsin rendered marsias in classical styles. Of the later generation, Hilal Naqvi and Sahar Ansari were impressive.
“In the present-day context, I think actors have not done justice to the genre,” said Iftikhar Arif. It should be noted that today the popular trend is to render marsias in tarannum as opposed to tahtul lafz.
Zia Mohyeddin felt that “Mir Anis brought Iraq to Lucknow and created great couplets. There was the tradition of baen (to mourn or to wail) in the Oudh region. But Z.A. Bukhari had a distinct style. He had had theatre training and was a noted actor of his time. He brought drama into the marsia through his voice. He wanted to present Anis on stage. Whoever came after him tried to follow his style. They have pandered to clichés and they will go on pandering to clichés. It has to be understood that playing grief for the sake of grief is meaningless.”
Seasoned actor Talat Husain also spoke highly of Z.A. Bukhari’s role in the promotion of marsia in Pakistan, saying that he was the one who read marsias on the electronic media first. “At the end of the day it’s all about conviction. This means while describing the events that happened in Karbala the one who is rendering the marsia must be able to make the triumph of the human spirit (insaani azmat) visible. If that can be achieved, the rest becomes easy. It also involves command over diction. Enunciating each word effectively is also important.”
Talat Husain said that while people like Mohammad Ali and Tariq Aziz tried their hand at the art of marsia khwani, they did not have the kind of voice nor the control that’s required for the endeavour. “Bukhari sahib added to the established tradition which was essential because if tradition becomes static, it dies. Improvisation is a must and the understanding of contemporary trends is essential.
“Radio and television contributed a lot to that tradition. Today their contribution has gone into the hands of private channels. I’m not satisfied with their performance.”
Actor Khaled Anam expressed concern over the current state of marsia khwani. “I feel this art form is dying and soon we will have to write a marsia for itself. TV channels are not supporting it. We need to preserve and promote it not as a Shia-specific art form but as an important genre of Urdu literature”.
Mr Anam, too, highlighted Z.A. Bukhari’s contribution to the genre. While referring to writers of the epic poems he said “I think Anis, Dabir and Josh are three great marsia writers. Josh moved away from Mir Anis’ style because he used to conclude the whole story encouraging the reader to face the oppressor valiantly.”
Researcher and poet Aqeel Abbas Jafri gave an interesting insight into the famous nauha, Ghabraey gi Zainab, which is normally recited after the majlis of Sham-i-Ghariban on Ashura. “It was recited by Nasir Jahan for the first time in 1956 on the radio. This nauha was usually recited in a relatively quick momentum in Lucknow, but Nasir Jahan changed it into a slow rendition, which was widely accepted and appreciated. Mind you, the nauha was written by a Hindu (who later converted to Islam) Chhannulal Dilgeer (Dilgeer Luckhnavi). He wrote 417 marsias as well.”