MARSIYA, or elegy, is derived from an Arabic word which means ‘to mourn the dead and eulogise them’.
With the word marsiya, one naturally thinks of the martyrs of Karbala, but the ones that bewail and praise Imam Hussain and his martyred companions are usually known as Karbalai marsiya.
Another kind of marsiya is known as shakhsi marsiya (of or related to a person), which mourns the death of a great personality or the loss of a friend or relative. Haali’s elegy on Ghalib’s death or Iqbal’s marsiya on his mother’s death are good examples of shakhsi marsiya.
However, it is the Karbalai marsiya that has lent Urdu marsiya grace and beauty worth its fame.
Marsiya is one of the genres that Urdu language has borrowed from Persian literature, which in turn had borrowed it from Arabic. Despite the fact that the Persian marsiya and the Iranian influence was pivotal in development of early Urdu marsiya — initially practised in Hyderabad Deccan — Urdu marsiya is unique in its imagery, vocabulary and sentiment. It has a typical subcontinental atmosphere and style with little resemblance to the Persian marsiya.
Hence, the Persian marsiya has not had much influence on the development of Urdu marsiya as far as imagery and local influence are concerned. Even Persian marsiya itself is quite different from its Arabic roots. Most of the Arabic marsiyas were shakhsi or personal and were known for sorrow, compassion and pride. Even in the pre-Islamic era, the Arabs used to compose marsiyas and Khansaa was one of the most renowned of women Arab poets. She composed moving marsiyas and when her brother Sakhar got killed in a tribal battle, she wrote:
“The rising sun reminds me of Sakhar and I recall him at every sunset.
Had I not been surrounded by the people who bewail him, I would have killed myself with grief.”
Later, after she had embraced Islam, her mourning had turned to pride when her sons were martyred in a battle.
On the other hand, the Persian marsiya could not flourish till quite late since the political and social milieu was not conducive for writing elegies. According to Shibli Naumani, very few elegiac verses were composed in Persian before the time of poet Farrukhi (died: 1038). It was him who composed a remarkable marsiya on Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi’s death.
Later on, great Persian poets such as Saadi and Hafiz also composed elegies.
As for mourning the tragedy of Karbala or writing Karbalai marsiya in Persian, it was not till the Safavi era that Persian poets began bemoaning the martyrdom of Imam Hussain with zeal and compassion. It was Muhtasham Kashi (died: 1588) who first wrote such verses as desired by Shah Tahmasp Safavi (1524-1576).
According to Reuben Levy, who wrote in his ‘Persian literature’: “Kashi was a panegyrist whose elegy on the martyrdom of Hussain has provided one of the most eloquent manifestations of the Shi’a spirit known to Persian literature.”
Latter Persian poets, too, proved their mettle in this field and a marsiya by Qa’ani (died: 1853) deserves a special mention because of its unique composition. It is in a question-answer form and begins like this:
“What is raining? Raining blood. Who is raining blood? Eye. How? Day in, day out. Why? Due to sorrow. What sorrow? Sorrow caused by the death of King of Karbala. What was his name? Hussain. Hussain? Whose son? Ali’s ...”
The verses go on describing the whole tragedy and then end quite emphatically:
“Was he oppressed and martyred? Yes. Was he guilty? No. What was his job? Guiding. Who was his helper? God.”
As for Urdu, Karbalai marsiya originated from Deccan. The most prominent element was of course that of Iranian traders and courtiers in the Bahmani Kingdom. The kingdoms of Bijapur and Golconda are said to have patronised Urdu, or Dakhani Urdu, as the official language and the kings themselves used to compose poetry. Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah (1580-1611) of Golconda Kingdom is said to be Urdu’s first elegist. Most critics agree that the earliest Urdu marsiya writers were from Deccan and till the 16th century, Urdu marsiya was in fact composed in Dakhani Urdu. Noori, Hashmi Bijapuri (died: 1697), Vali Valori, Hashim Ali Gujarati, Kazim and a few other poets are among the ones who used to compose marsiyas and were considered the most significant elegists of the Deccani era.
Meanwhile in Northern India, Urdu poetry had not sprouted much till the 17th century and it was in the 18th century when, what is considered to be the golden era of Urdu poetry in Northern India, arrived.
In 1732-33, Syed Fazl-i-Ali Fazli wrote Deh majlis, also known as Karbal katha, one of the earliest known works of Urdu prose. It was an abridged adaptation from Persian ‘Rozat-ush-shuhada’, intended to be recited by royal ladies at Delhi’s Red Fort during Muharram. He also composed a few elegiac verses.
However, the earliest Karbalai marsiya written in Northern India was by Sikander. One of his marsiyas became so popular that mendicants and Sufis used to recite it in the streets. Mir Taqi Mir and Sauda, too, composed elegies.
But it was Lucknow that truly adored the marsiya and Lucknavi poets such as Mir Zahik, Mir Hasan, Mir Khaleeq and Mir Zamir composed some beautiful elegies. Later on poets like Anees and Dabeer went on to perfect the art of marsiya.
What sets Urdu marsiya apart from Persian marsiya is not only the imagery, vocabulary and environ but also its form. Urdu marsiya in the beginning used to be mostly composed in masnavi, a form written in distiches with each pair of lines rhyming.
However, in later periods it freed itself from such shackles and adopted different forms, finally favouring musaddas most, a form in which every stanza consists of six lines with an independent rhyming scheme.
In the 20th century Urdu’s Karbalai marsiya touched new heights as many talented poets tried their hand on the genre. In brief, Urdu marsiya has come a long way and has definitely produced some of the most beautiful pieces of Urdu poetry, which would be included in any selection of best Urdu poetry.