Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Shades of black

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Column in Business Standard, October 23, 2016

For Shia Muslims this is the month of Muharram in the lunar calendar, a period of mourning and contemplation commemorated in distinct contrast to the colourful celebrations that mark the Hindu festivals of Dussehra and Durga Puja. It recalls the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet, who was slain together with his extended family – men, women and children – by the Umayyad caliph Yazid at the battle of Karbala in 680 AD. The site is located in Iraq but in India, especially in the kasbahs and towns of Uttar Pradesh, the memory is evoked in marsiyas or elegies – a retelling of the epic tragedy – performed in recitation and song, often set to classical ragas at gatherings in imambaras.

Earlier this week, the journalist Saeed Naqvi, generational head of a Shia family from Mustafabad in Rae Bareli district, presented an evening of marsiyas called “Expressions of Muharram”. Against black-and-white slides of annual congregations held in his centuries-old village home, his daughter Farah Naqvi, in an evocative script punctuated by the stirring cadences of Urdu poetry and rustic Avadhi dialect, explained how the form has evolved. She eloquently captured how the spiritual life held family and community together in her ancestral home.
One by one members of the Naqvi clan took the stage to render compositions orally handed down over many generations. All performers wore black, the ritual colour of mourning, offset by touches of white. Saeed Naqvi explained the work of great marsiya writers such as the 19th century poet Mir Anis of Faizabad or Munshi Channu Lal who wrote under the nom de plume of Dilgir Lakhnavi; and also modern poets like Josh Malihabadi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz who vigorously explored the tradition as protest poetry against political oppression and tyranny. Composing marsiyas is very much a living tradition practiced by poets like Sanjay Mishra today.

The political point was not over-stressed, but if evidence was wanting, it was visible in the rousing reception the event received. The audience overflowed the hall’s seating capacity; there was barely standing room in the aisles. Shias constitute a small proportion, about 35 per cent, of India’s 180 million Muslims, who are mostly Sunni. Persecuted in many parts of the Middle East, and under increasing threat in neighbouring Pakistan, they have a deeply rooted and largely untroubled history in India.

“Expressions of Muharram”, however, seemed to touch another chord. Some came to the event of curiosity and cultural interest. As poetic and musical renderings marsiya performances are not as well known as, say, those by Bengal’s bauls, Sikh gurbani or Goan mandos. But many were there in silent solidarity against the rising pitch of anti-Muslim sentiment that now prevails, in incidents such as beef bans, the Dadri lynching and utterances by culture minister Mahesh Sharma and Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar. The black kurtas and saris of the marsiya performers were an unsettling reminder of the ink sprayed by Shiv Sainiks in Mumbai to blacken the faces of those who dare to host dignitaries from Pakistan. Far from being a colour of sacred communion and cultural attainment it has come to denote a rabid culture of hate, humiliation and shame.

Statements by the President, the prime minister and finance minister in recent times have sought to contain an atmosphere poisoned by volleys of insult and injury hurled at minorities. It hasn’t had the necessary effect. “If someone throws a stone at a dog, is the central government responsible?” asked former army chief and Minister of State External Affairs V K Singh on the murder of two Dalit children in Haryana this week. And in a televised speech on the essence of Hindu culture RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat dismissed recent attacks as “minor incidents here and there [that are] blown out of proportion.”

The list of protesting literary and cultural figures grows by the day but the government remains impervious. Nearly 40 have returned their state honours while others, like novelist Anita Desai, said she would be forced to return her Sahitya Akademi award if Hindutva’s banner of “intimidation and bigotry” continued to silence constitutional freedoms.

The question must haunt Bihar’s voters who are one-third of the way into a crucial election. About a third of Bihar’s 66 million voters are in 18-30 age group, and the future of many is blighted by poverty, joblessness and conflicts of caste and religion. The prospects are dark for the BJP. Should the party lose or limp home with weak numbers, Narendra Modi’s image as prime minister and his party’s lead campaigner will take a beating. His days of mourning may not be far.

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