By Saeed Naqvi
“Aashura”, the tenth day of Muharram or the day of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom, will be Nov 15 this year. All of us, seven brothers and sisters, will be in Mustafabad, the Qasbah in Rae Bareli where we have our family home. This will be a particularly poignant get together because this will be our first Moharram without mother who passed away with as much sweetness as she had lived, at the age of 94 with 40 of her children, grand and great grandchildren in and out of her cheerful hospital room. Lucky, ma.
She would have gently rapped me on the knuckles at this parochial narrative, for my having restricted the circle of her affections to the immediate family. She knew no nuclear family, having spent the most impressionable years of her childhood with the children of nine brothers and sisters. The eldest cousin was automatically the eldest sister or brother.
The turnstile of her much smaller house in Lucknow was in constant rotation. This network and their progeny were always in attendance. One of my brothers, the real one, often complained of having experienced a sense of neglect because of this invasion by the extended family. The family was not the only culprit, neighbors were too. Every year they invited my father to be the president of the Neighborhood Association. A detail which never occurred to my parents may be inserted here in deference to the foul times we live in: the neighborhood was 100 percent Hindu.
A great deal of this Catholicism was passed onto the choreography of Muharram in the Qasbahs of Awadh. For instance, Pandit Trilok Kachru would sometimes turn up for the climactic days of the solemn observance. In Iran, Southern Lebanon, Najaf and Karbala, some Shias including clerics were intrigued by my descriptions of Muharram in Avadh, but they understood its syncretic elements. What flummoxed them totally was something else. That the sermon from the pulpit even on the most important days of Muharram could be delivered by a Hindu, a Kashmiri Pandit to boot, was something they could not digest. Well, I said to them, come with me to Mustafabad, and you will see outside the main Imambara, a large white placard with uneven lines of amateur calligraphy:
“Kehte hue jannat mein chaley
Jaaen ge Mathur,
Shabbir ke Qadmon ke Nishaan
Dhoond rahe hain.”
(I shall walk into paradise. If checked, I shall tell them that I am following the footsteps of Imam Hussain)
The poet, Mathur Lucknawi, is one of a handful who have survived the assault on composite culture. Another, Sanjay Mishra “Shauq”, my mother invited last year to be the main poet at Hazrat Ali’s birthday. She personally supervised all the ceremonies for his vegetarian meal.
Haziest outlines of our composite culture were available in the early Urdu poetry in the Deccan, but this culture was institutionalized in Awadh, as an elaborate choreography around Muharram.
Hindus and Muslims participated in each other’s festivals and observances was common and understandable. The rulers took the lead in this regard. This generated a two-way traffic in the arts: from the highest to the popular level and the other way around.
There is no higher form of Urdu poetry than the Marsia or an epic in “Musaddas” or sestet, dilating on incidents which go to make up the tragedy of Karbala. A trained performer reciting the greatest poet of Marsias, Mir Anees, can keep an audience spellbound like no other performance can.
Even though the dramatis personae are Arabs, that is Hussain, his sister Zainab, his brother and a host of relatives and friends, the characters Anees sketches are, in their carriage, demeanor and speech embodiments of Lucknow culture, representing mixed Hindu Muslim traditions. Indeed, the poet of Marsias who chronologically precedes Anees, happens to be Munshi Channu Lal Dilgir.
His dirge or “Noha”, “Ghabraaye-gi Zainab” (Zainab will be lost without Hussain) is one of the world’s great melancholic songs, generally recited after Shaam-e-ghareeban, depicting the night in the open after the tents on the banks of the Euphrates were burnt following Hussain’s martyrdom.
Soz and Salaams, which set the tone for the Majlis are always set to appropriate ragas. Words need not be in Urdu but in folksy Brajbhasa and Awadhi.
In no part of the Muslim word has Muharram been more harmonized with indigenous traditions. The tragedy of Karbala was a matter of faith for Anees but his creation enriches a much wider secular constituency, just as Michelangelo, Bach, Tulsidas, Mira created art which transcended their respective faiths.
My mother had mastered all this choreography. Let us see who carries the tradition forward keeping an unerring eye on details which kept together the family, the clan, and indeed, the society we lived in. A pity is that the political class around us is totally bereft of any knowledge of the culture which embellishes our observance of Muharram.