On Friday, former Vice President Hamid Ansari, while addressing the function ‘Dastan-e-Marsiya: Karbala Se Kashi Tak’ in New Delhi, praised the Marsiya tradition of Urdu poetry, calling the art form an important part of ‘Adab’ (literature).
Marsiya poetry, which holds special significance for Shia Muslims, is a form of literary expression that is dedicated to describing the persona of Imam Hussain, a revered figure in the Islamic world, and the hardships he and his kin underwent during the historic Battle of Karbala. Marsiya is typically read in the month of Muharram, which ended on September 10 this year.
The Marsiya tradition of Urdu poetry
The word Marsiya means elegy, meaning a poem which is a lament for the dead. In Urdu literature, Marsiya is written principally in praise of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet, and his family members who died at the Battle of Karbala in the year 680 CE in present-day Iraq.
In the book ‘Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory’, author Syed Akbar Hyder describes Marsiya as a form of poetry which not only touches upon the death of Imam Hussain and other events, but also delves into his ethic (Akhlaaq) of forgiveness and etiquette (Adab) of compassion.
The Marsiya tradition first evolved in Delhi and the Deccan, but reached its zenith under the patronage of the Nawabs of Lucknow, who encouraged the art form in the 18th and 19th centuries around the same time when Mughal power was steadily receding.
Its most iconic poets from the 19th century, Mir Anis and Mirza Dabir, made a profound impact on Marsiya, making six-line stanzas the preferred form.
Marsiya is also noteworthy for its depiction of events in 7th century Arabia in a manner which could be relatable to audiences in South Asia, making the genre popular here.
For example, its Arab characters are depicted in the South Asian setting, having habits and customs like elite North Indian families. According to Hyder, Marsiya is usually sung, and set to Indian Ragas, creating a fusion of music and poetry.