Recounting tales of martyrdom

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Askari Naqvi has vivid memories of performing soz khwani (an art form that narrates the story of the battle of Karbala) during Muharram at various majlis in Mustafabaug near Rae Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. As the artist hailed from a Shia Muslim family, it was a tradition to practice it. Last year, Naqvi decided to give up his practice as a lawyer and become the first person in India to introduce Soz Khwani to the mainstream audience apart from community performances. This week as part of Junoon’s Mumbai Local initiative Naqvi will give a talk about the journey of this art form in the country, as well as his own personal trajectory from community to stage.

Martyrs and memories

The Battle of Karbala is commemorated during an annual ten-day period held every Muharram. The Shia community mourns for the leaders who lost their lives in the war that took place 1,400 years ago and commemorate it by mourning, conducting public processions and organising majlis. The event revolves around a band of 72 people led by Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussain ibn Ali who fought against a tyrant force and eventually attained martyrdom in Karbala, Iraq.

Naqvi’s talk will focus on how a foreign story is told in the Indian narrative and in Indian languages. Naqvi says, “The poems are in different languages such as Persian, Awadhi, Hindustani, and Urdu but the compositions that I sing are in Awadhi and based on different Hindustani ragas.”

The lawyer felt the urge to pursue performing arts while practising law and realised that soz khwani had a lot of potential to be staged as a musical. After performing at a majlis with his uncle, well-known journalist Saeed Naqvi, the artist decided to tell the whole story of karbala using only soz khwani. “Usually, we merge forms related to soz like marsia and nauha to narrate the tale. But I felt singing soz khwani was like doing theatre. Also, I felt it was very relevant and should be staged in front of a wider and secular audience. At that time there was a handful of people fighting against the forces and even today there are a handful of people protesting the vigilantism. It doesn’t get more pertinent than this,” he shares.

In memory Devotees at a procession in remembrance of the seventh century martyrs of Karbala.

In memory Devotees at a procession in remembrance of the seventh century martyrs of Karbala.  


Naqvi, a self-confessed atheist, reveals that the story has a universal appeal as it explores the intricacies of human relationships. He elaborates, “There is an instance when Hussain’s brother is willing to risk his life and fetch water for his niece from a lake that is under the vigilance of the armed forces. So Hussain tries to dissuade him as he doesn’t want to lose him. Likewise, after Hussain’s death, his wife is lamenting for him. The way these events are narrated, the audience feels as if they are occurring in a place near their home.”

However, he admits that when he writes to performance venues with a proposal to perform soz khwani, initially they are reluctant and prefer seeing it first before giving their permission. “Once when I was performing at a space called Conflictorium in Ahmedabad, a man walked out and told the people outside that he didn’t want to attend it as I was talking about Islam. But there is nothing religious about it. It’s not a means to propagate Islam,” asserts Naqvi.

Story of Karbala: A Hindustani Narrative will be held on June 3 at 5 p.m. at MCubed Library, Bandra West

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 7:25:24 AM |

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