Selling songs of sorrow

Published November 10, 2013
Retailers stock up books on Karbala and Muharram before the month begins.
Retailers stock up books on Karbala and Muharram before the month begins.

The sombre posters at a shop in Saddar’s Rainbow Centre, Karachi, are a sure sign that the month of Muharram is on its way. Gone are the Bollywood hits and the action flicks, replaced by pictures of popular noha readers in various poses. Within a few days, their latest offerings would be resonating in many houses, cars, and even on main roads across the country.

One of the most significant components of a majlis, a noha is a series of verses that lament the tragedy of Karbala. Most nohas are recited by professional noha khwaans, and it is their CDs and DVDs that people await eagerly as the first month of the lunar Islamic calendar commences. Most like to listen to them while many recite these in majalis during Muharram and Safar. At the same time some singers and amateurs also recite nohas.

“Such is the demand for these albums that we manage to wrap up our sales within the first 10 days of Muharram,” claims Mohammad Shahid, who owns a CD and DVD shop in Rainbow Centre. Shahid’s shop is one of the most popular in the area, and it is from here that noha CDs and DVDs are distributed to other parts of the city.

“So far, the recording companies — there are three major ones — have intimated to us about 28-29 titles that we will be stocking up soon. By the end of these two months, we would have sold a lot more. Last Muharram we sold as many as over 50 titles by different noha khwaans,” he says with a smile.

But not all noha khwaans are created equal. Like in other fields, there are favourites. Nadeem Sarwar’s albums sell like hotcakes, so much so “that we bring them in a few days after the beginning of Muharram and not before that,” reveals a shop owner in Soldier Bazaar. “This way, we’re able to clear stock of other less popular titles which people buy when they can’t find their favourite.”

The popularity of these noha readers, each of whom releases an album almost every year, can be judged by the sales which, according to shopkeepers leap over by as much as 50 to 70 per cent in Muharram. With each CD costing around Rs40 to Rs50, they claim to rake in “lacs of business” within the first 10 days — despite the fact that these nohas are also released on the internet and a lot of people are opting for that route.

These albums, however, are not the only profit generators. Come Muharram, and one will see a rise in the number of religious books propped on display. Again, there are certain titles that sell more: books on Karbala, majalis and maqtal (that relate the tragedy of Karbala) are more in demand, and bookshops especially stock these titles before the month begins. One can also find a number of books on subjects such as the lives of revered religious personalities.

“Various people buy books from us,” says Mansoor Ali, who sits at a shop in Soldier Bazaar. “Mostly, of course, it’s the zaakireen (people who address majlis) who need information to prepare content for their speeches, and they look for subject-specific books.” But other people also show keen interest in books; mothers, for example, buy more religious books during Muharram for their children.

Most of the books are published by religious organisations, and their affordability is a major factor towards the increase in sales, which, claims Ali, can shoot up from 20pc in other days to 90pc in Muharram. Some of the major contributors to these figures are the marsia and noha books which people throng to buy. Many noha readers release their nohas in book forms as well, making it convenient for people to read from them, instead of having to jot down the words after listening to the audio. Needless to say, their popularity is only matched by that of noha albums.

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