The Persian word soaz means grief, burning (of the heart) or pain. Over the years, it has come to be associated with the elegiac poetry penned to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husain and his companions in the battle of Karbala. Soaz khwaani is the art of reciting or chanting a dirge in the context of the tragedy of Karbala.

It is difficult to ascertain when exactly this art came into being. What can be said with a great deal of certainty, though, is that it flourished in Lucknow. For the last couple of hundred years — particularly since poets Mir Babar Ali Anis and Mirza Salamat Ali Dabeer made the marsiya one of the sublime genres of Urdu poetry — soaz khwaani has been an essential component of the annual spiritual and ritualistic tradition in the first 10 days of the month of Moharram, when the battle of Karbala took place.

Much to the bemusement of literature buffs, no concrete effort was made to trace the history of soaz khwaani and soaz khwaans [those who chant]. There are a couple of books on the subject, but they hardly probe into the genesis of the art form. Fortunately, researcher and poet Aqeel Abbas Jafri has come out with an extremely invaluable work of research in the form of a book titled Soaz Khwaani Ka Funn [The Art of Reciting a Dirge]. It is an invaluable addition to the world of literature that deals with the form, content and practitioners of an art deeply rooted in a religio-spiritual tradition.

The book ticks all the right boxes. First of all, it is dedicated to Syed Sibte Jaffar Zaidi — writer, scholar, principal of Degree Science College, Liaquatabad, and a renowned soaz khwaan — who was martyred in Karachi in 2013. Then, the introduction is written by none other than Dr Hilal Naqvi, a great scholar, whose accomplishments in Josh shanaasi, or research on the poetics of Josh Malihabadi, are still underappreciated.

Researcher Aqeel Abbas Jafri has penned an authoritative and invaluable account of the origins, history and technicalities of the traditional art form of soaz khwaani

Dr Sahib makes a valid observation in his write-up: “Those genres of art that somehow fall under the category of religion have not been paid attention to by our critics and scholars. There could be multiple reasons for this. And the heartlessness with which soaz khwaani has been overlooked is second to none. There is some work done on the topic and there are some essays, but they are not enough. In such a scenario, Aqeel Abbas Jafri has taken it upon himself to write down the history of this genre.”

Mind you, Soaz Khwaani Ka Funn is not a hefty book. It has only 14 succinct chapters, but they deal with the subject in a very comprehensive way.

In the first two chapters, Jafri gives many a reference to writers who have touched upon the art, such as the inimitable Naiyer Masud, arguing that it existed earlier in the form of marsiya khwaani (and only afterwards was the marsiya used only as recitation). The author also points out that one study suggests it was in South India that soaz khwaani in Urdu took root. The noticeable difference between gaeki [singing] and soaz khwaani is also mentioned. For example, quoting Ustad Ishtiaq Ali Khan Haideri, the author explains that while words are used as an instrument in singing, in soaz khwaani the sur [musical note] is merely there to communicate the idea.

The most interesting fact that Jafri brings to light through his extensive research is that the art form was not introduced and developed by someone from the Shia community (as would be naturally assumed because they are the ones with whom the marsiya and soaz are generally associated); rather, according to essayist and historian Abdul Haleem Sharar, it was a Sunni man named Khwaja Hasan Maududi who is to be actually credited for it.

The most interesting fact Jafri brings to light is that the art form was not introduced and developed by someone from the Shia community; rather, it was a Sunni man.

In the third chapter, the book deals with basic, important information that any such book should encompass. The chapter deals with the few early masters (asaatiza) of soaz khwaani. Quoting an essay by Dr Habib Nisar, the author discusses Khwaja Hasan Maududi, who had a prominent place at the court of Nawab Asaf ud Daula in Awadh (it has been established that Lucknow, the capital of Awadh, is the town where the art prospered). Maududi’s name is followed by Haidri Khan, the master who chose the most suitable musical compositions for the poetic form. He transferred his knowhow to Mir Babar Ali Anis who, it is recognised, was responsible for popularising soaz khwaani by taking it to the masses.

The chapters that follow delve into the technical aspects of the subject. In chapter four, the author mentions that Urdu poetry’s genres of rubai, qataa, soaz, salam, bain and marsiya are used in soaz khwaani. The next chapter describes the fundamental difference between singing and soaz khwaani by focusing on how differently words, or poetry, are employed in both. Here, a very interesting list is provided by Jafri of the ragas in which soaz have been rendered. There are 73 of them in the book, ranging from asawari to bihaag, and from khamaj to hameer. The author supports his argument by giving examples of the famous soaz composed in particular ragas.

Obviously, no book on such a subject can be complete without praising the poets whose devotional poetry soaz khwaan pick to express themselves. Therefore, the sixth chapter is dedicated to the likes of Channu Lal Dilgeer Lucknavi, Anis and Dabeer.

The second half of the book details the various schools of the art form, tracing their origins from the pre-Independence days to present-day Pakistan.

Aqeel Abbas Jafri should be commended for publishing such an important document which can be of great value to the followers of soaz, scholars and researchers.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Soaz Khwaani Ka Funn
By Aqeel Abbas Jafri
Virsa, Karachi
144pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 15th, 2020