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Karbal Katha, Hear the Oracular Voice

The storyteller, with a lamppost on his shoulder and dressed in a long, loose garb, and calling out to eager listeners, enacts the tragic and poignant tale of the martyrdom of Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet, in the Battle of Karbala.

“Hear the Voice of the Bard, who present, past, and future, sees; Whose ears have heard the Holy Word That walk’d among the ancient trees.” Mystic poet William Blake’s memorable words that begin his “Songs of Experience” aptly describe the persona of the ‘qissago’(the storyteller), the central character in F.S.Sheerani directed “Khoon-e-Nahaq’’(Unjustifiable Bloodshed), a “Karbal Katha” that has been  performed many times in New Delhi and Aligarh in the last few years. The storyteller, with a lamppost on his shoulder and dressed in a long, loose garb, and calling out to eager listeners, enacts the tragic and poignant tale of the martyrdom of Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet, in the Battle of Karbala. If a film actor uses his face to good advantage, for a theatre actor it is his voice which is his main strength, and voice it is of the storyteller in this play which holds the play together and keeps the audience glued to their seats all through its an hour and a quarter’s length. The voice, singsong, and stentorian in equal measure, tremulous and whispering where the narrative demanded, and prophetic and oracular as its scope widened, is the most defining feature of the play. The storyteller, marvelously played by Ankit Malik in earlier performances and by Shahbaz Ali Khan in recent ones, uses the devices of echo and repetition to very good effect, especially when he uses the key word ‘shahadat’(martyrdom) in a climactic moment of the play. His pauses are as meaningful as his elocution. An interesting aspect of his storytelling is the use of both direct and indirect speech, a switchover from his timeless voice to that of the characters’ he enacts. This twin role gives him a chance to bring out the myriad expressions of defiance, anger, disgust, pity, surprise and shock, in other words, all key elements in this “Karbal Katha”.

martyrdom of Hussain
(Photo: Author provided)

The voice of the storyteller, which occupies the centre stage, combines two other vocal threads in the play, the poetic-musical voices singing marsiya(elegies), and the poetic- narrative voices reciting those marsiyas. Marsiyas, carefully chosen and edited by eminent Urdu poet Mahtab Haider Naqvi, were effectively recited by F.S.Sheerani, Syed Siraj Ajmali, and Ali Raza. Meraj Nishat’s singing voice and music composition enriched them further. As a poetic form marsiya, it may be recalled, reached new height in the hands of Urdu poet Mir Anis (1803-1874) some of whose marsiyas like ‘Farzande payambar ka Madine ka safar’, ‘Sibte nabi se manzile maqsood qareeb hai’ are used in the play to a very good effect. The tripartite design of voices also lends the play the structure akin to that of a milad shareef as also a majlis. It also has something common with the tradition of harikatha and other katha traditions in India in that they all center on the strong voice of the narrator though in Karbal Katha the element of dance is not required. The use of voices in the play also sends a reminder that before the written word enjoyed a primacy, literature mostly was produced and transmitted in oral forms.

martyrdom of Hussain
(Photo: Author provided)

The tradition of Karbal Katha is very old and it enjoyed great popularity in Iran.  This performance though had a contemporary flavour, with the production team taking advantage of modern visual-digital culture where there is no escape from images. Asif Naqvi, the script writer of the play, visualized his play as a soliloquy performed with the aid of multimedia. The mixing of sounds, particularly the charge of a rampaging cavalry not only creates excitement and fear of the battlefield, it could also transport the audience to a different era. The strategically placed screen at the back wall of the stage displayed images, explaining and extending the main narrative of Karbala. The set had a lamppost with three steps at the centre and two colourful tents at the back, symmetrically placed on the left and the right. All action and performance of the storyteller was done from the centre, and all poetic commentary and singing emanated from the two tents at the back.

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The performance mostly relied on low-key lighting which created a kind of chiaroscuro effect. The mapping of the set with earthen diyas, another form of this low-key lighting, together with the storyteller’s lamp, also recreated the seventh century atmosphere. The light and dark interplay not only contributed to the solemn and somber setting of the play but also suggested a Manichean world of good and evil.

martyrdom of Hussain
(Photo: Author provided)

In fact, the performance presented a bombardment of sorts on senses with so much aural and visual narration of events, rich in their allusive character and symbolic content. For Asif Naqvi Karbala is a metaphor for a struggle against tyranny and a fight between the good and the evil. He also gave his play an epical dimension, beginning it with the murder of Abel by Cain, quickly moving to acts of violence against Socrates and Jesus, dwelling at length on Yazid’s cruelty and Hussain’s martyrdom and suggesting a close in the present where the forces of tyranny are still very strong and Hussain’s message still relevant. However, any play which uses persons revered in religious history, is likely to be appreciated by the audience for very different reasons, often ignoring its literary dimension. Asif Naqvi’s literary-Marxist intentions may be missed by the religious-minded audience simply because of the reverence that the figure of Hussain evokes in their heart and soul.

martyrdom of Hussain
(Photo: Author provided)

Everything in the play falls into place because of the stupendous performance of the lead character Ankit Malik/Shahbaz Ali Khan. It is true that a play like a feature film is a collaborative affair, and Sheerani brought out the best from his technical staff and even the extras, especially in scenes alluding to violence, but Malik and Khan add something extra to the play. D.H.Lawrence famously said ‘trust the tale, not the teller’. But do trust the storyteller in this “Karbal Katha”.

*Mohammad Asim Siddiqui teaches English at Aligarh Muslim University.

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