Musical Revival

Meet the lawyer whose musical rendition of an old elegy to Imam Husain is leaving Indians teary-eyed

Askari Naqvi is re-contextualising Soz Khwani, or songs of lamentation, and presenting them outside their strictly religious setting.

“Husain jab ke chale baad-e dopahar ran ko
Na thha koi ke jo thhaame rakaab-e tausan ko
Sakina jhaad rahi thhi abaa ke daaman ko
Husain chup ke khade thhe jhukaaye gardan ko…”

That fateful afternoon, ready to fight stood brave Husain
No one to help him mount his horse, loneliness fed his pain
Little Sakina brushed his robe, her sadness to contain
Husain simply stood with head bowed, and quietude did reign...

— Translation by Raza Mir

An intense air of grief settled over the Delhi gathering, as it listened raptly to the tale of the battle of Karbala, narrated by lawyer-activist-singer Askari Naqvi in raga Des. Naqvi’s voice gave the elegy an immediate vividity: having lost nearly everyone in the ragtag army of family and friends, in his battle against caliph Yazid, a melancholic Imam Husain now readies for certain death at the banks of Euphrates.

It was not Moharram, the season to mourn Husain’s sacrifice. The gathering was not a Shia majlis and the listeners were not all Muslims either. But the story of 72 men, women and children who rose against injustice in 680 CE with no hope of victory, and died is real even today, and there was not a dry eye in the basement hall as the gathering listened to the soz khwani.

Naqvi, whose roots lie in Mustafabad, Rae Bareli, has recontextualised soz khwani, presenting it to secular audiences as a unique solo performance art which speaks against war, violence and authoritarianism. He has been, for over a year now, presenting these songs of lamentation outside their strictly religious setting to audiences at intimate venues like the National School of Drama, Kiran Nadar Museum, Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Arts and Aesthetics department, Conflictorium in Ahmedabad, Studio Safdar and Abhyas in Delhi.

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Naqvi believes the themes of soz khwani are universal, even if the setting is religious. “Husain’s story is like the story of our world today,” he said. “You can see these poems in the context of riots, violence, wars. The suffering, the grief, what women and children are subject to in their aftermath. Most importantly, soz khwani talks of relationships, between families, friends and what loss means. Apart from anything else, the music keeps you engaged.” Naqvi also runs Sanatkada, a cultural centre in Lucknow with his partner Madhavi Kuckreja.

The writing and reciting of requiems in Urdu and Awadhi, known variously as marsiya, salam, nauha or soz, are a part of a religious, literary and musical tradition which goes back well over 300 years. Though their origins lie in Persia and Arabia, it was absorbed into the Indian ethos, picking up local dialects and symbols.

During Moharram, when Husain’s sacrifice is mourned, Shia families in Awadh host sessions at which these elegies are recited with passion, extolling the bravery of the rebels, the bereavement of those who watched their loved ones killed, and the suffering of prisoners of war.

What is less common, however, is to hear these laments set to Hindustani classical music. The poems are woven into popular ragas such as Piloo, Bhairav, Bhairavi, Jhinjhoti, Des, Jog and Jaunpuri. The mood is at all times sombre, no embellishments common to vocal music like taan or alaap, there are no accompanying instruments, not even a drone, and no supporting voices. It is a fast disappearing skill, which only a handful practice now.

Naqvi’s emphasis, in a departure from tradition, is on musicality. Trained under Amit Mukherjee, formerly of Sangeet Research Academy, for eight years, Naqvi’s grip on raga sangeet during the recital is impeccable. It cannot be easy, it is pure song with no musical frills or crutches. There are usually four men sitting alongside the singer who provide the drone with just shadja (sa), called aas dena, to match his pitch. Given that his is a travelling show, Naqvi chooses recorded aas.

“It is tough because the only expressions are of relentless sadness, grief, bereavement, loss,” he said. “It is hard to do it for anything more than an hour and then too for a small audience.”

Like many children of Shia families in Awadh, Naqvi grew up listening to the recitation of marsiyas and related forms during Moharram. Among his ancestors was Chakki Mian, who is said to have learned soz khwani from Ustad Faiyyaz Khan. “There are people who sing now too,” Naqvi said. “They have lovely voices but they weren’t trained so there was no rigour in the rendering of the ­­­­­raga, in the throwing of the voice.”

A year ago, he had been a part of a presentation on the marsiya tradition recitation at the India International Centre where vocal musicians such as Vidya Rao and Shubha Mudgal encouraged him to consider honing his skills at soz khwani as a performing art.

Musicologist Ashok Ranade’s Concise Dictionary of Hindustani Music says that the rules of soz khwani are so strict that even stalwarts like Ustad Faiyaz Khan, Abdul Karim Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan found it a tough form. Ranade traces the musical tradition to Khwaja Hasan Moududi, who set the laments to music and taught it to his disciples sometime in the late 18th to early 19th century. The art, he adds, was further polished by Haidarikhan, Saiyyad Mir Ali and Nasir Khan, who belonged to Tansen’s clan. Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Awadh, was among the greatest patrons of soz khwani, as was Umrao Jaan (women are avid proponents of the tradition).

Citing scholarly works, Ranade says there are 73 ragas in which soz were composed, many of them with links to Persian music. The scholar also points to the importance of soz khwani in understanding the Hindustani classical music tradition: “It was not operating in a scholastic vacuum, as the oral tradition was already working on a dynamic performing tradition that was taking neat cues from earlier codifications governing the actual practice of music.”

Soz khwani walks a rather thin line between art and religiosity, and had its share of conservative opposition in the community for bringing music to a mourning ritual. For this reason, performances were kept deliberately free of elements which could entertain or impress, points out Ranade.

Writer Saeed Naqvi, who has researched the confluence of Ganga-Jamuni traditions in Awadh, said the observance of Moharram’s rituals, including the reading and writing of marsiya, brought Hindus and Muslims together. “Channulal Dilgeer was among the greatest writers of lyrics for dirge melodies,” he said.

The overwhelming pathos of soz khwani manages to leave many in the audience teary-eyed, especially when it talks of Husain’s little daughter Sakina’s suffering at the camp. As the event winds up, people walk up to Naqvi and silently hug him or hold his hand as if to comfort.

“I am always taken aback by the response, it is more as if they were condoling than applauding,” he said. “I can see that it touches a nerve in everyone. It is no different in a traditional soz khwani. When listeners grieve or cry, it is because the stories remind them of someone they has lost or fear losing.”

Naqvi’s reworking of soz khwani has, through social media, also reignited interest in the form in traditional quarters. “Youngsters from my town tell me they had no idea this was such a rich art,” he said. “My dream now is to take this presentation to Mustafabad.”

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.