Guest Articles

A SHADOW OF KARBALA by Asif Farrukhi

More than a thousand years ago, a small group, including women and children, fearing bloodshed in the sanctified city of Makkah began an arduous journey to Kufa, more a city of deception than a mirage shimmering in the distance, only to have a fateful encounter in a previously unremarkable Karbala, the shadow of these events would move across centuries to exert a defining influence on the Urdu literary tradition.

A short elegiac poem mourning a deceased person was known as marsiya in ancient Arabic poetry but came to be particularly associated with the martyrs of Karbala in Persia. It took some time to cross over but it struck roots quickly. Like the ghazal and the dastaan [chivalric romance], the new form blossomed in the fertile ground of India, acquiring new hues and shapes of its own.

While this route is well-known, another source is also worthy of mention.

Events that took place on a far-off battlefield exactly 1,337 years ago have exerted a defining influence on Urdu literary tradition

Intizar Husain translated selected lamentations from the Mahabharata and in the wailing of a mother, there is a prefiguration of the marsiya. This aspect seems to cry out for further exploration. The marsiya developed in the hands of the poets of the Deccan and some scholars have speculated that the destruction of their kingdoms under the Mughal onslaught made this form acquire poignancy.

As with the ghazal, the marsiya reached Delhi where it was well-received and among its early practitioners were Mir and Sauda, the classical masters. The new form had a natural affinity with the tantalizing and cruel beloved in the ghazal and the lover ready to lay down his life. The taunt of a failed poet turning into a marsiya-go [marsiya writer] became irrelevant as new parameters were set up by the gifted poets based in Lucknow — Zameer, Khalique and Dilgeer — but the final polish came from the hands of Anees and Dabeer, in whose hands the theme reached its pinnacle. This was recognised by Ghalib, who wrote a few lines of marsiya, acknowledging how Anees had made the realm his own. Much later, Faiz was to do the same. From Mir and Ghalib to Iqbal and Faiz, the influence of Karbala is expressed in terms which go beyond the risai [elegiac] tradition.

Both the poets concentrated mainly on the marsiya and their work became fully integrated into the tradition of classical Urdu poetry so that one cannot imagine one without the other. Here I will dwell only on some aspects of their work to complete the picture. The reputation of these poets is hardly matched by the critical analysis around it. Probably any meaningful discussion is killed out by the finality in Shibli’s authoritative Mawazna-i-Anees-o-Dabeer, which fixes the two in an ever-warring pair while tipping the scales against Dabeer almost as if the mawazina [comparison] was nothing but a munazira [debate]. Interestingly, new dimensions of scholarship around Dabeer are opening up now. Shifts in critical perception are an important recent development related to the marsiya. In addition to a meticulously detailed biography of Anees, the critic and scholar Naiyer Masood explored the recitation and oral renderings of soz-khwani.

An interesting aspect emerges from Ali Abbas Hussaini’s Urdu Shairi Ka Difaa [A Defence of Urdu Poetry], written somewhere in the 1960s but only published now. Painstakingly listing all the objections critics have made against the marsiya, ranging from its thematic limitations to occasional reliance on legends, Hussaini responds by quoting at length without realizing that many of the objections were based on a limited understanding of the Urdu poetic tradition and were made redundant by a major post-colonial shift in the critical paradigm. In his brilliant style, Intizar Husain highlights the contours of the city which emerges in Anees, a city which could have been the one in which he was writing or may well be the city where you read this. In another place he focuses on the women whom we see or hear in the marsiya, a formidable presence unlike classical conventions.

A seminal book which transformed this entire field of study is Gopichand Narang’s Saneha-e-Karbala Ba Tor Shaeri Isteara [The Tragedy of Karbala as a Poetic Metaphor]. Josh Malihabadi visualized Karbala as the harbinger of revolution while the Progressive poets were inspired by the refusal to bow before tyranny. Going one step further, many modernists find a contemporary relevance so that one poet speaks of having lived like Ulysses and wanting to die like Hussain; another poet describes the entire land taking on the resemblance of Karbala without there being any sign of Hussain.

That the marsiya was not narrow in its scope is also borne out by the several Hindu poets who used this genre. Not dressed up to look exotic, there is a long list of such poets but a recent addition is Roop Kumari who seems to be moving out of the shadows to take her rightful place as her poetry has recently been edited and published. There has been some suspicion whether she was a concocted figure such as Tahira Devi Shirazi or Qamar Zamani Begum, all inventions of male writers, but she is given credibility by the scholarship of Taqi Abidi.

A seminal book which transformed this entire field of study is Gopichand Narang’s Saneha-e-Karbala Ba Tor Shaeri Isteara [The Tragedy of Karbala as a Poetic Metaphor], a fascinating analysis of modern poets who have derived their poetic metaphors from Karbala. Josh Malihabadi visualized Karbala as the harbinger of revolution while the Progressive poets were inspired by the refusal to bow before tyranny. Going one step further, many modernists find a contemporary relevance so that one poet speaks of having lived like Ulysses and wanting to die like Hussain; another poet describes the entire land taking on the resemblance of Karbala without there being any sign of Hussain.

From Irfan Siddiqui and Parveen Shakir to Shahida Hassan and Qamar Raza Shahzad, there is a formidable list of poets who have employed the imagery of Karbala in the ghazal. Narang himself makes a special mention of Iftikhar Arif who has written on these themes more than any other poet and whose verse is informed by these references, giving it an almost classical voice.

Karbala casts it shadow in unexpected places. Its impact goes beyond poetry, as when poetry is there, can prose be far behind? It should not surprise anybody that the list of major authors in this context includes the name of Premchand, the major fiction writer whose single short story Kafan [Shroud] is still regarded as the stark and bleak masterpiece in the twin traditions of Urdu and Hindi, an unsurpassed touchstone. When Premchand moved across languages, he changed more than the script but also the religious beliefs of the characters so Hajj-i-Akbar becomes Maha Teerath, but nothing could change as nothing needed to change in Karbala, his full-length play.

That play is built around the legend of the Indian prince ready to sacrifice his life on the battlefield as truth and righteousness are more important to him than religious difference, an important lesson of the marsiya tradition. Some of Premchand’s books remain in print in Pakistan where he is rather neglected and unjustly so, but it is a pity that no good edition of this book is available here. Neither has any daring director ventured to have the play performed on stage. Perhaps the fear is that the censors would see through the historical references as just an excuse and understand the play is about contemporary matters. Just as well, as who can say that it’s not?

The powerplay and the name of Yazeed come up unexpectedly in a late Manto short story which lent its name to one of his many collections from his prolific post-Partition era. Written in the era of the squabble over the newly formed states of Pakistan and India, as the fear of India blocking the waters of the rivers begins to spread, the protagonist decides to name his son Yazeed in the hope that this one will open up waterways in the same way the “other one” had blocked access to water. The story stops short and we know that naming such names will not help as these conflicts have escalated into full-fledged battles between the two countries.

The narrative of the marsiya also moved Ismat Chughtai, one of the greatest fiction writers from the Progressive era. Well known as a non-conformist and iconoclast, Ismat had a no-holds-barred approach being labelled an “Uncivil Woman”, also the title of a newly published of essays on her life and work, edited by Rakhshanda Jaleel in India. Ismat was moved by the great humanistic power of the marsiya and this is what she attempted to recapture in her Aik Qatra-i-Khoon [A Drop of Blood], a retelling which is a kind of half-way house between a marsiya and a novel. Most readers missed the acidic bite of the characteristic Chughtai style, the zip and zing. I found it to be a rather damp squid when I reviewed it on first publication. After so many years, I wonder if the required pathos was somewhat of an alien element for her but also begs the question whether the events of Karbala are amenable to contemporary prose?

All such questions were reduced to mere trifles when a few years back Qurratulain Hyder came out with a long story called Qaid-Khanay Main Talatum Hai [Tumult in the Prison]. Author of the magisterial Aag Ka Dariya [River of Fire], she was a master of telescoping different historical moments into a pulsatile present and had by then written three volumes of Aakhir-i-Shab Kay Hamsafar [Co-travellers at the End of the Night], a non-fiction novel of the author’s life and times beginning a mere thousand years ago. Taking the narrative framework from the famous marsiya by Mirza Dabeer, and rendering almost entire lines into prose, she recaptures the situation in which Zainab is responding to her interrogators in the prison cell of Syria. In the narrative are blended the tragic voices of children affected by the ceaseless violence in the Middle East, making it one ceaseless and continuous story. With the subsequent civil war in Syria, it is a haunting reminder of history serving as a bone-chilling account of today.

While this enigmatic piece bewildered some of her admirers, it led to a critical essay from Intizar Husain, the arch fictionalist who was also a close contender for fiction’s crown and a contemporary, never an unquestioning admirer. Named after the story, the essay was reprinted in his last collection Apni Danist Main [In My Opinion], published in 2014. He suggests a reading of Hyder’s work as a marsiya and at the same time as a short story, an afsana of the twentieth-century Karbala. He disregards questions as to why the author did not write a straightforward marsiya, but goes on to point out that that far from being the enlightened age of modernity, our age is tainted with its “religious fanatics, tyrants and ideologues”, drenched in blood and best expressed as a Karbala.

Avoiding any sort of direct comment to the extent of being reticent, Intizar Husain never made any pointed reference in his fiction. Burnt cities, desolation and the erosion of hope are constant themes in his work, often free-floating so that one city could be the other and one historical period easily the other. Directions keep getting reversed in the brilliant and angst-filled fable Khwab Aur Taqdeer [Dreams and Destiny], where a group of travellers intending to head back to Medina find themselves facing Kufa each time. Clearly, they have lost their moorings and their quest has acquired the proportions of a dystopia — the Promised Land turned sour. This is what lies on the other side of Karbala.

Although not overtly political, the events of Karbala are part and parcel of the personal affliction borne by Mariam in Asad Muhammad Khan’s brilliantly evoked character study. She wants the young boys to wear green shirts during Muharram days instead of playing hockey and resorts to choice abuses when she has nothing else to say about the “murderers of her shejada [little prince].” Even more real is the singular person from Kufa in the story named after him who hears about the tumultuous events but goes on to eat a hearty meal, smear the spilled oil on his beard and fall into a satiated sleep. Nothing else matters to him and he can let history deal with its turmoil.

I have been thinking off and on about this Singular Person ever since I heard Asad Muhammad Khan read it out in his inimitable style many years ago. This man’s sense of contentment continues without any disturbance but sometimes I see with him with a sword in hand, ready to spill the blood of those who dare disturb his repose with any news. For him Karbala is Nowhere. He may be overbearing, but he would be an outsider in the realm of Urdu literature.

Asif Farrukhi is a writer, editor and teaches literature. He has written extensively on Intizar Husain, Partition stories and fiction

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 1st, 2017

Facebook Comments


  1. Deane Wyker

    June 18, 2018 at 3:27 pm

    I do not even know the way I finished up right here, but I assumed this post was once good. I don’t recognize who you’re but certainly you are going to a famous blogger when you aren’t already. Cheers!|

  2. Clair Irvin

    June 18, 2018 at 11:57 am

    Thanks on your marvelous posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you can be a great author. I will ensure that I bookmark your blog and will come back later in life. I want to encourage that you continue your great posts, have a nice weekend!|

  3. Hilario Goll

    June 17, 2018 at 11:36 pm

    It’s awesome designed for me to have a site, which is good for my knowledge. thanks admin|

  4. Gayle Myer

    June 17, 2018 at 2:43 am

    What’s up mates, how is all, and what you would like to say about this piece of writing, in my view its genuinely amazing for me.|

  5. Chi Dauterman

    June 16, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I have truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!|

  6. Shelly Vanriper

    June 16, 2018 at 3:41 am

    Magnificent beat ! I wish to apprentice even as you amend your web site, how could i subscribe for a blog site? The account aided me a acceptable deal. I had been tiny bit acquainted of this your broadcast provided bright transparent idea|

  7. Samual Mcginnity

    June 15, 2018 at 9:10 pm

    I’ve been browsing online greater than 3 hours lately, but I by no means discovered any fascinating article like yours. It is lovely worth enough for me. In my opinion, if all website owners and bloggers made excellent content as you did, the internet might be a lot more useful than ever before.|

  8. Vina Dillie

    June 15, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    Hello it’s me, I am also visiting this website daily, this web site is truly good and the visitors are actually sharing good thoughts.|

  9. Floyd Koonz

    June 15, 2018 at 9:46 am

    Ridiculous quest there. What happened after? Take care!|

  10. Paige Glover

    June 15, 2018 at 12:19 am

    Appreciate the recommendation. Will try it out.|

  11. Troy Corder

    June 14, 2018 at 9:56 pm

    Very nice article, totally what I was looking for.|

  12. Mervin Fleshman

    June 14, 2018 at 5:35 pm

    Wow, superb blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your site is wonderful, as well as the content!|

  13. Goldie Lafluer

    June 14, 2018 at 2:15 pm

    Your mode of explaining everything in this piece of writing is really good, all can simply understand it, Thanks a lot.|

  14. Iesha Braunstein

    June 14, 2018 at 9:15 am

    Hurrah, that’s what I was seeking for, what a stuff! present here at this weblog, thanks admin of this web page.|

  15. Mariko Aldas

    June 14, 2018 at 5:38 am

    I read this piece of writing fully about the resemblance of latest and previous technologies, it’s awesome article.|

  16. Wilber Gault

    June 13, 2018 at 9:45 pm

    Fantastic blog! Do you have any hints for aspiring writers? I’m hoping to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m totally confused .. Any recommendations? Thanks!|

  17. Lucilla Teplica

    June 13, 2018 at 1:49 pm

    This information is worth everyone’s attention. How can I find out more?|

  18. Diedra Laton

    June 13, 2018 at 11:37 am

    Currently it seems like Movable Type is the best blogging platform out there right now. (from what I’ve read) Is that what you are using on your blog?|

  19. Bruno Bertelsen

    June 13, 2018 at 5:45 am

    Your mode of explaining all in this article is in fact fastidious, every one be capable of simply understand it, Thanks a lot.|

  20. Lakesha Strauss

    June 13, 2018 at 2:59 am

    Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I to find It truly useful & it helped me out much. I’m hoping to provide one thing again and help others such as you helped me.|

  21. Claudio Balder

    June 13, 2018 at 12:38 am

    Aw, this was an incredibly nice post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to create a really good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a lot and never seem to get nearly anything done.|

  22. Justin Gummer

    June 12, 2018 at 5:29 pm

    If some one wants to be updated with most recent technologies therefore he must be go to see this web site and be up to date every day.|

  23. Alberto Odonal

    June 12, 2018 at 3:11 pm

    I’m not sure where you’re getting your information, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for wonderful info I was looking for this information for my mission.|

  24. Sherell Caperton

    June 12, 2018 at 11:34 am

    What i don’t realize is in reality how you’re now not actually much more well-preferred than you might be now. You’re so intelligent. You realize therefore significantly with regards to this matter, produced me in my opinion consider it from a lot of various angles. Its like women and men aren’t interested until it’s one thing to do with Girl gaga! Your own stuffs outstanding. At all times deal with it up!|

  25. Samuel Poblete

    June 12, 2018 at 8:03 am

    It’s really a cool and useful piece of info. I am glad that you simply shared this helpful info with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.|

  26. Antonio Sparks

    June 12, 2018 at 5:38 am

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!|

  27. Alonzo Salois

    June 12, 2018 at 12:10 am

    I really like your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you create this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you? Plz answer back as I’m looking to construct my own blog and would like to know where u got this from. thank you|

  28. Tammie Grisham

    June 11, 2018 at 11:19 am

    Appreciating the dedication you put into your site and in depth information you offer. It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed information. Great read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.|

  29. Andrew Weisman

    June 11, 2018 at 7:22 am

    Hi to every body, it’s my first pay a visit of this weblog; this website carries awesome and truly excellent data in support of visitors.|

  30. Sherwood Deets

    June 11, 2018 at 12:50 am

    What’s up it’s me, I am also visiting this site regularly, this site is really good and the users are truly sharing fastidious thoughts.|

  31. Messy People Eating Snacks

    April 15, 2018 at 10:43 am

    These two are some real messy eaters!

  32. Popcorn

    April 15, 2018 at 12:39 am

    Would you like some popcorn?

  33. Old People Getting Drunk

    April 14, 2018 at 4:02 am

    No one can ever say this site is boring!

  34. Much Needed Vacation

    April 13, 2018 at 11:22 pm

    Way to go Edward. This blog is amazing!

  35. Thank you for visiting

    April 13, 2018 at 6:34 pm

    Don’t forget the grilled onions!

  36. Office Picture

    April 13, 2018 at 1:58 pm

    Have yourself a very good day!

  37. Blogger Listening to Music

    April 13, 2018 at 12:00 pm

    Got milk?

  38. Fake Shoes

    April 13, 2018 at 10:58 am

    Try not to laugh!

  39. Grocery Delivery

    April 12, 2018 at 12:06 pm

    Way to go!

  40. Reading While Listening to Music

    April 11, 2018 at 3:29 pm

    Do you smell that?

  41. Old Technology

    April 10, 2018 at 2:06 pm

    You sure know how to make a squirrel smile.

  42. One Hand Typing

    April 8, 2018 at 9:03 pm

    Don’t eat too much before going to bed.

  43. Woman Smiling

    April 8, 2018 at 5:19 pm

    I came to the same exact conclusion as you did.

  44. Senior Wine Drinkers

    April 7, 2018 at 8:58 pm

    I’ve never ever read anything better!

  45. Man in a cornfield

    April 6, 2018 at 9:46 pm

    Ice cream sure sounds good right about now.

  46. best strategy board games

    April 5, 2018 at 10:49 pm

    Great site. A lot of useful info here. I’m sending it to several pals ans additionally sharing in delicious. And of course, thanks in your sweat!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top