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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Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

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