Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Muharram’s backstage boys

November 25, 2012

Photo by Tahir Jamal

Most public occasions in India, religious or secular, of piety or sorrow or celebration need a backstage. So does Muharram. The way it is observed in India is instructive in its pervasive inclusivity. Devout sunni Muslims and an endless stream of Hindu believers form an integral part of the backstage — making of tazias, provisioning for meals, readying a steed to play the Zuljinnah, Imam Husain’s faithful horse in Karbala. The diverse mix of communities is often at the head of Muharram congregations too.

This is not to say that no fault-lines exist, say, between shias and sunnis, or for that matter between Hindus and Muslims. These non-essential differences were and still are periodically deepened and exploited for political purposes whenever it suits the ruling elite to gain some extra mileage.

Post-independence Lucknow was notorious for shia-sunni brick batting. But then there are fault-lines within every community — intra-Hindu, or intra-Muslim, and of course between shias and sunnis — that regrettably lend easily to communal and political exploitation. The overall picture, however, is healthy and robust.

Bereft of the external factors — the agent provocateurs, as it were — the communities by and large represent an agreeable and wholesome unity. The kayasth Hindu stenographer of a shia lawyer in Lucknow was a part-time poet. His spontaneous devotion to Hazrat Imam Husain surfaced in a couplet he composed:

Jannat mein yehi keh ke chale jaaenge Mathur; Shabbir ke qadmo’n ke nishaa’n dhoond rahe hain (Husain is my password for paradise, exults Mathur the Hindu poet.)

Shaukat Thanvi jokes apart, spawning a culture of mirthful jibes at shias, bonhomie between the communities has deepened and stabilised, ironically enough, since the Iranian revolution.

A fellow journalist from India who landed at Mehrabad airport to seek an interview with Ayatollah Khomeini on grounds that the scribe was a shia, was asked tersely, “Are you a good Muslim too?” He didn’t get the interview.

The new politics is reflected in the tacit alliance between Lebanon’s shia Hezbollah and Palestine’s predominantly sunni Hamas. When Indian scribe Syed Mohammed Kazmi was jailed, apparently at Israel’s behest, India’s mainstream sunni groups led nationwide protests against the incarceration of a shia journalist.

Apart from paper tazias, India’s Varanasi town is known for the decorative tazias made of different materials, like lead, brass, copper, wood and precious stones. “Nageeney ka tazia” is a masterpiece handicraft and very costly also. These are either put at Imam Chowk or in the houses on the night of Muharram 9. Apart from making tazias for Muharram, artists like Taiyyab Ali, a sunni artisan of Varanasi, also make effigies of Ravana during Ramlila and Dussehra.

In Nawabi Lucknow, artists created tazias, using material from their professions. It provides new insights into this multicultural sharing. For instance, ghasiarahs (grass-cutters) made tazias of grass, kite-makers with paper; bazaz (drapers) with cloth; green-grocers with vegetables; fruit-sellers with fruits; potters with clay; minhars (bangle-sellers) with bangles; carpenters with wood; thatheras (makers of hardware or metal pots) with brass or bronze; malis (gardeners) with flowers; bharbhunjwas (men who roast grains) with barley; patolas (makers of fringe or tape) with coloured threads; mat-makers with mat and shama-saz (candle-makers) with wax. They came from all communities — Hindus and Muslims of different hues.

Maula Halwai, a devout sunni sweetmeat-maker, was a regular supplier of “tabbaruq” or food distributed after Muharram congregations in Mustafabad, a village in Rae Bareli. Hindu states of Baroda, Indore, Gwalior, Patiala and Rajasthan patronised taziadari, as an aspect of rawadari, or communal sharing. Royal patronage encouraged sunni and Hindu artisans to take up tazia making as a full-time profession. They still remain the backstage boys of Muharram in India.