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COLUMN: The art of marsiya

November 02, 2014

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THE poetic form of the marsiya has come to be associated, in Urdu, exclusively with the tragedy of Karbala. We can trace it from the Decanni period in the history of Urdu poetry. However, it took definite literary shape in the hands of Mirza Sauda when he chose to write marsiyas in the form of musaddas, which run in stanzas, each stanza consisting of six lines. So marsiya in Urdu came to be known as a long poem in the shape of musaddas.

This new form made the marsiya grow in popularity by leaps and bounds. Soon came a time when the marsiya scaled new heights in the hands of two great masters — Anis and Dabeer. One may say that the Anisian marsiya was the highest point in the history of Urdu marsiya. In the post-Anisian period it could not maintain the same level it had once achieved. But that did not affect its popularity. Devotees endowed with poetic talent were now in possession of a set pattern and were engaged whole-heartedly in writing marsiyas. And marsiya writers were in great demand.

Even as with the passage of time the khatib, better known as zakir, won the central position in the majalis system, the marsiya writer did not feel discouraged. His passion for writing marsiyas was very much there, regardless of whether he got a chance to recite them, or if luck had it, get published.

Baqar Zaidi, a researcher in the field of marsiya, tells us in his latest research work the sad tale of a well-known marsiya writer, Bazm Afandi. He has taken pains to explain that Afandi pos-sessed all the qualities a marsiya writer is expected to possess. He was a prolific writer and composed marsiyas numbering in hundreds. Zaidi’s wife, also the granddaughter of Bazm Afandi, is quoted as having said that she had once seen a big trunk full of hand-written manuscripts. Her grandmother warned her not to disturb them as “They are marsiyas composed by your Dada Abba.” Zaidi also adds what while Bazm Afandi’s son Najm Afandi had won name and fame as a noha writer, he could not manage to get published the marsiyas of his late father.

Baqar Zaidi, who lives in London, has tried to trace the hundreds of marsiyas written by Bazm Afandi. However, he failed to trace them. They are all lost. He has only managed to dig out 27. These 27 marsiyas have been collected in a volume under the title Bazm-i-Risa, along with a number of other marsiya scholars such as Syed Zameer Akhtar Naqvi, Prof Dr Syed Shabih Ul Hasan, Prof Hassan Sajjad, Syed Irtaza Abbas Naqvi, and Prof Hassan Askari Kazmi contributing critical articles. They are all praises for Afandi Sahib and have paid glowing tributes to him throwing light on the merits of these marsiyas.

Baqar Zaidi has written a detailed analytical study of the marsiyas included in this volume. He has explained in a convincing way how Bazm Afandi was a major writer of marsiyas. This is one example of the present situation in respect of marsiya. Families having an Aza Khana in their houses may also have some trunk brimming with marsiyas written by their forefathers not knowing how to get them published.

But in spite of a lack of appreciation of this form of poetry, we find that it still has a charm and attracts the attention of poets and intellectuals in general. We have seen even our modern writers such as Faiz feeling attracted to this traditional form of poetry and trying to write marsiyas in their own way.