Premchand began writing Karbala in July 1923 and finished it in January 1924. The play was first published in Hindi by Ganga Pustak Mala in November 1924. Two years later, it was serialised in Zamana from July 1926 to April 1928, but with some alterations. The play was translated into Urdu partly by Premchand himself and partly by Premchand’s associate Munir Haider Quraishi.

It was later published in book form in Urdu by Lala Lajpat Rai and Sons, Lahore, six years after Premchand’s death. In opting to publish first in Hindi, a play about a significant event of Islamic history that unfolded in seventh-century Arabia, and in recasting the story to convey the ideals of his nation and his national pride, Premchand transfers the imagined community of the nation into a transnational zone, where neither language nor religious rituals act as the guiding principles of unity, rather, unity here is achieved by the shared ideals of humanity.

When Karbala was published in Hindi in 1924, Hindi magazines welcomed the play. But Premchand found it difficult to get it published in Urdu. Nigam consulted Syed Ahsan Ali Sambhali, Assistant Editor of Zamana, and his Muslim friends, who advised him against publishing it in its current form due to its inconsistencies with the dominant history.

Incensed, Premchand wrote a long letter to Nigam on July 22, 1924, in which he lambasted Nigam for his trivial objections and concerns, such as the use of the profane genre of drama for the sacred story of Karbala, or the charge that the liberties taken by the playwright might hurt religious sentiments, or Shias would not like it, and so on. Strangely, neither Premchand nor Ahsan Sambhali seems to have been aware that in Iran, the dramatisation of the events of Karbala is an old practice. In the theatrical genre of Ta’ziyeh, the tragic events of the siege and massacres of Karbala are re-enacted.

Premchand, in his letter, rejected these allegations on the basis of evidence. But, all along, he did take the precautions to avoid any controversy. In his Preface to the Hindi play, Premchand announced, “I have not written this play for the stage, but if someone wants to perform it, it could be done, with a little modification.” However, when the play appeared in Urdu two years later, Premchand further modified his position and declared that the play was “only to be read, not to be performed.”

Premchand’s interpolations underscore the fictional aspect of the play, reminding his readers that this is drama, not history, as he wrote to Daya Narain Nigam, “History and historical drama, you would agree, are two different things. Drama is not history.” Indeed, drama, as Earl Miner points out, is the only genre that is necessarily fictional.

The term “Karbala” refers to a seventh-century event in Islamic history. The younger grandson of Prophet Muhammad was martyred, along with his kinsmen and close friends in the desert of Karbala (Iraq) by the forces of the tyrannical and sinful caliph, Yazid bin Mu’awiya bin Abu Sufiyan.

For Shia Muslims, the memorialising of the event through Muharram commemorations has resistive resonances. But beyond this, Karbala has appealed to the wider world and has lived on in the popular memory, both through the oral as well as written literature, whereby generations of interlocutors – reciters, poets, and writers – have, time and again, renewed the story of Karbala by recasting it in various discursive forms rooted in their contemporary contexts, lending it a new meaning and currency.

The symbolism of Karbala has lent itself to liberal, leftist, third-world, and anti-imperialist rhetorics. It has also integrated itself into revolutionist dogmas influenced by Western political philosophies. In Urdu marsiya, for instance, a genre that flourished under the patronage of the Shia nawabs of Awadh, poets have skillfully rendered the story of Karbala in all its lyrical poignancy.

While the linear framework in most of these renditions is the same, marsiya poets have taken creative liberties in portraying finer details, often, even lending local colour to the story.

Karbala: A Historical Play

Excerpted with permission from Karbala: A Historical Play, Premchand, edited and translated from the Hindi by Nishat Zaidi, Oxford University Press.