The mood was sombre; probably a few were teary eyed too. The songs of lament, in the form of Soz Khwani, had left its effect on the Delhi audience . Through elegiac couplets and commentary, lawyer-turned-artist Askari Naqvi narrated the ordeal of 72 men, women and children during the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD, led by Imam Hussain.
“The ruling forces of that time had challenged Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, to fight, and his win would mean the triumph of the Prophet’s teachings. They fought and lost, but it made a huge difference in Islam, and their sacrifice was not forgotten,” says Naqvi, one of the first in the country to take the art form to a mainstream audience. “Having said that, it becomes a performance as it feels very local, like an Indian story, probably a story of someone who has died in a nearby village,” says the 32-year-old. The requiems are a part of the religious, literary and musical tradition of Muslims, with origins in Persia and Arabia, and have been around for over 300 years.
Traditionally, these songs of sacrifice and mourning are sung during the month of Muharram in gatherings, known as the majlis, of Shia Muslims. Since childhood, Naqvi has been a part of such gatherings in his village in Uttar Pradesh’s Rae Bareli, and has seen his father and uncles performing soz (songs of lament) and other forms such as marsiya (recitation of chapters) and nauha (mourning). But there, the story is told through a mixture of the three art forms. Adding his own flavour, Naqvi tells the entire story of the battle through soz along with commentary and dialogues. “It has 14 compositions sung in Hindi, Awadhi, Urdu and Persian, which are based on different ragas — piloo, bhairav, bhairavi, jhinjhoti, des, bihag and jaunpuri — and there is also a folk tune in the end. Because it is about lament, one cannot use musical instruments. So, in a majlis, four people sit around the singer giving him the sur, known as aas, that sounds like a tanpura. I have recorded these voices as it is difficult to take so many people along for every performance,” says Naqvi, who has trained in Hindustani classical from Delhi’s Sangeet Research Academy’s retired director Amit Mukherjee. “I have been training since five years but soz is handed down generations. There is no training involved, we have been listening to these songs since childhood,” he says.
Naqvi, who is also a dastango, performed for the first time in Lucknow last year, and since the past eight months, he has been performing in Delhi, Mumbai, and Ahmedabad, and also in France and Germany. “Probably, it will take a decade for Soz Khwani to become as popular as dastangoi,” he says, after a performance at the OddBird Theatre and Foundation, in Delhi, last week.
“There should be a two-way exchange of art forms. Dastangoi, which has been limited to the stage, should be taken back to the community, and community art forms like soz should be taken to the stage, because it is powerful, and has the potential to connect with people across communities.”