Culture

Arabic poetic traditions and Awadhi culture are combined in Mir Anees’ marsiyas

October 09, 2017 09:17 PM
Historian and author Rana Safvi

Rana Safvi 

Umr guzri hai isi dasht ki sayyahi main Paanchvi pusht hai Shabbir ki maddahi main

(I’ve spent a lifetime traversing this desert with veneration

in Shabbir’s service I am the fifth generation) - Mir Anees

As I had grown up hearing Mir Anees’ marsiyas (elegies), I decided on a recent visit to Lucknow to read the Fatiha (first sura or chapter of the Koran) on his grave. The rickshaw took me into a narrow alley near Lucknow’s Akbari Darwaza. From there I negotiated my way through the dirt and slush that covers most alleys in old areas in India. I reached what was once a grand doorway and saw that some steps led to a locked iron grill. I enquired around and a family nearby said the keys were with a family member of Mir Anees. One of them from the family accompanied me and we traversed some more narrow alleys. A family member of Mir Anees accompanied us back.

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The building was clean though the grounds were overgrown.

A family of poets

Mir Babar Ali Anees was born in Faizabad in 1803 to Mir Khaleeq, a marsiyawriter. As was normal in those days, he received a comprehensive education which included Arabic and Persian literature, horse riding, and fencing. Spending his childhood in Ayodhya meant that he was steeped in Awadhi culture and Indian traditions.

With 22 poets in his family, it was but natural that by the time he was 13, Mir Anees was writing ghazals and then six-line marsiyas. Initially his father, who was his ustad, suggested that the young Anees should concentrate on marsiyas. After shifting to Lucknow, Anees came under the tutelage of the famous Lucknow poet, Imam Baksh Nasikh.

The word marsiya is derived from the Arabic word risa, which means a great tragedy or lamentation for a departed soul. It is an elegy, a poem of mourning, which is now specifically associated with the tragedy of Karbala, to describe the battle fought on the plains of Karbala in Iraq by Hazrat Imam Hussain and his supporters against the army of Yazid.

Yazid, the second caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, is widely accepted by both Shias and Sunnis as being amoral, debauched, and a tyrant. Imam Hussain refused to accept his religious suzerainty over the Muslims, considering it a betrayal of the basic tenets of Islam and of all that his grandfather, the Prophet, stood for. Hussain preferred to leave Medina for the southern Iraqi city of Kufa where some friends had invited him, in order to avoid bloodshed. But those friends eventually buckled under Yazid’s oppression. Hussain had already travelled a long distance by the time he came to know of this. On the way, he was confronted by Yazid’s considerable army on the dusty plains of Karbala and forced to camp there. Hussain was martyred in battle with all the male members of his family, except one son who was too ill to fight. This happened on the tenth day of the sacred Islamic month of Muharram, in the year 61 A.H.

This act of supreme sacrifice — acceptance of martyrdom of self and family, with knowledge of untold and intense suffering awaiting the surviving women and children of his family, yet steadfast refusal to compromise the principles of his grandfather — became the incomparable metaphor for truth and integrity.

Marsiyas during Muharram

Marsiyago (marsiya writers) pay tribute to this martyrdom. This form of poetic genre flourished in Awadh under the Shia nawabs of Persian origin till it reached a literary zenith. Today one cannot conceive of the observance of Muharram without a marsiya.

A marsiya generally consists of six-line units, with a rhyming quatrain, and a couplet on a different rhyme. It is characterised by six-line verses in an AA, AA, and BB rhyme scheme. Marsiyas are traditionally either recited by Marsiya-Khwans or sung by a Marsiya Soz.

Lucknow had several Marsiyagos but none as famous and sublime as Mir Anees. Anees combined the Arabic classical poetic traditions with the local Awadhi culture. He created tragic scenes of loss and desolation of the women after the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and the men, presented vivid battle scenes, and made each heroic character come alive before our eyes.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, the Urdu critic and scholar, writes: “Mir Anees’ marsiyas are the best pre-modern model in Urdu of narrative-historical, narrative-lyrical and oral-dramatic poetry.” Mir Anees wrote over 213 marsiyasand other verses commemorating Imam Hussain’s martyrdom. He was also a master in the art of writing rubayi or quatrain. He could have been as famous as Ghalib had he written ghazals instead of a specific genre.

He died in 1874 at the age of 72 and was buried in a land he had bought earlier as his family graveyard.

 

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