Mirza Ghalib praised him as the pioneer of Marsiya poetry and said that there was no one like him. My mother would tell me about him each time our Urdu lessons turn into tales—such was the status of Mirza Dabeer in our lives.
It began when my mother would correct me as I read poetry. Some days these corrections would spin off into tangents on politics, history, religion. On other days, I would prod her to recite couplets, which I could quote on Twitter and Instagram as they fit the mood or were an apt comment on what was happening in the world.
During the initial phase of the lockdown in Lucknow, where we live, I casually asked how she was doing. She responded with this gem from an unknown poet:
Gham-e-duniya gham-e-uqba gham-e-dauran gham-e-dost,|
Jis jagah main hoon Farishta ho to pagal ho jaye!
Mirza Salamat Ali Dabeer is not considered by all to be the icon of Marsiya literature and in fact, he is compared to or chronologically placed in discussions after Mir Babar Ali Anees. But both of these poets or Marsiya Khwan flourished in the same period and region of Awadh. Mirza Salamat Ali Dabeer was born in Delhi on August 29, 1803 and died on March 7, 1875 in Lucknow while Mir Babar Ali Anees was born in Faizabad the same year and died on December 10 in 1874, also in Lucknow.
My mother used to tell us about her maternal uncle, Dr Mir Masih Uz Zaman, who served as an Urdu lecturer at Allahabad University and later the head of the Urdu department at Benares Hindu University. He wrote “Tabeer Tashrih and Tanqeed” as a dialogue against Shibli Nomani’s “Mawazne Anees o Dabeer” which had praised Mir Anees to the extent that it overshadowed the figure of Mirza Dabeer. Dr Zaman had been critical of Shibli Nomani sahib’s work, describing it as thin on research on the work of Mirza Dabeer. Scholars the likes of Naiyer Masud, Najmul Ghani Rampuri and Mirza Mohammad Zaman Azurda have also questioned Shibli Nomani’s comparison of Mir Anees and Mirza Dabeer.
Though they were contemporaries and their admirers were always at loggerheads, they had extreme respect for each other and their craft. After Mir Anees’s departure, it is believed that Mirza Dabeer expressed no desire to write marasi (plural of Marsiya) but penned this couplet out of respect for him:
Aasman be Mah-e-Kamil Sidrah be Ruhul Amin,
Toor-e-Sina be Kalimullah Mimbar be Anis!
The Marsiya is an elegiac poem that commemorates the martyrdom and valour of Hussain ibn Ali and his Comrades of Karbala and other members of the Ahlulbayt or the House of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Thorough knowledge of history and language is a prerequisite to understand the depth of a Marsiya Majlis and experience the attendant ‘lutf’ from its form.
Mirza Dabeer’s marsiya are recited in my mother’s hometown of Jais, Amethi in Uttar Pradesh which is famed for its marsiya reciters, Azadari and is known as the land of ulema. Her uncle had dedicated his PhD thesis “Urdu Marsiye ka Intiqa” thus: “To my homeland Jais where mothers recite marsiye to young ones.”
It is even said that when Mirza Dabeer would write a new Marsiya, it was sent to Jais for recitation in Muharram and even today the two main processions of Jais Azadari start with his Marsiya. On 10th Muharram, the well-loved “Jab hui Zuhar Talak Qatl Sipahe Shabber, Gair Asghar na Raha Noor-e Nigah-e Shabber…” is recited. Mir Anees is believed to have said that had Mirza Dabeer given this marsiya to him, he would have handed over all his writings in exchange. Similarly, the Chehlum begins with “Bala Utha ke Haram Karbala mein Aate Hain, Mareez Shaa ke Daru Shafa Mein Aate Hain.”
For Mirza Dabeer, the Marsiya was not merely an elegy but an art form. To demonstrate how firmly he believed this, he wrote a piece in which the last word of every line becomes the first word of the next line; this style is called Raddul ijz alas sadr.
Another masterpiece is in the style of Sanate gair mankhoot, which means an entire marsiya without using alphabets with nuktas or dots. Opposed to this style is the Sanate mankhoot in which all the alphabets used must have dots. My favourite one is Sannate jama style in which each line has one category of word.
It was discussions on such aspects with my mother that introduced me to Marsiya and more specifically, one particular piece which I have discussed with her at length. I won’t try to explain or translate it here, as neither will my Urdu or English vocabulary permit it, nor is it required. But I do want to be able to explain why it has such a place in my heart.
It is a bandh or six-line stanza in which the first four lines describe Hazrat Abbas arriving at the Battle of Karbala. The scene is painted, the battlefield, the sky, Rustam, a warrior who people discovered in Firdausi’s Shah Nama…
In the fifth line Hazrat Abbas is connected to his father Hazrat Ali. The connection is established in the sixth line. It harks back to Hazrat Ali at the Battle of Khyber in 8th Hijri when he was about to execute Marhab.
Narrations mention that the Angel Jibreel was told by God to place his wings between the sword of Hazrat Ali and the ground to ensure the sword did not hit the earth. In the marsiya, Mirza Dabeer had Jibreel wonder as Hazrat Abbas approaches with his sword if he will be asked again to use his wings. But shivering, he draws them in, as it is time for the Battle of Karbala.
It was this that made me fall love with the form of the marsiya and its diction. But it touched in other ways as well. Hazrat Abbas did not fight in the Battle of Karbala like the other companions of Imam Hussain. He wasn’t even allowed to take his sword with him when he went to fetch water for the women in Karbala, where he was later martyred. For young children who have connected to Karbala, Hazrat Abbas is hailed as the bravest.
Children grow up listening to tales of him as a warrior. How tall and handsome he was. And when they ask how he showed his bravery at Karbala only to learn he did not fight, then their young hearts cry out in frustration: their bravest hero wasn’t even given a place on the battlefield.
But for all such children, this marsiya of Mirza Dabeer fills that void, literally as my Amma says “Aankhon mein Karbala pherdi’’. The grown-ups can read and imagine what was it like when Hazrat Abbas would have taken the battlefield in Karbala.
“Kis sher ki aamad hai ke rann kaanp raha hai,
Rann ek taraf chark e kohan kaanp raha hai,
Rustam ka jigar zer e kafan kaanp raha hai,
Har qasr e salanteen e zaman kaanp raha hai,
Shamsheer bakaf dekh ke Haider ke pisar ko,
Jibreel larazte hain samete huye par ko!”
Aoun Naqvi is a photographer based in Lucknow, India. He tweets at @aounaqvi and you can follow him on Instagram @aounaqvi