New Delhi: An evening of tragedy. It was six years back, during Begum Akhtar’s centenary celebrations in Lucknow that lawyer Askari Naqvi discussed the idea of a production involving Soz Khwani, Marsiya Khwani, and other forms witnessed during Muharram with his family members including veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi and cousin Farah Naqvi. “We produced a performance called ‘Expressions of Moharram’. That was when the ideas developed a face in November 2016, with the first performance happening at IIC in New Delhi.”An evening of tragedy. Post the production, he realized that one need not do a full presentation but focus on a particular form to tell the tragedy of Karbala. That is when he recontextualized the battle between Husain and Yazid in raga Des in a solo one-hour Soz Khwani performance. Talking about the tragedy for a diverse audience cutting across religions and ideologies, Naqvi has now performed across the country and at venues including those in France and Germany.
“When I was re-contextualizing it, the only thing that came to my mind was that the reach of these forms should be wider than their traditional religious settings. Now, the moment we talk about Ramayana and Mahabharata, there are several tales that instantly come to mind. However, when you mention ‘Muharram’, it’s only about people lashing themselves. But there is so much more. Also, what I am trying to do is go deep into the Awadhi heartland through it.”
Naqvi, who grew up listening to the recitation of ‘Marsyas’ during Muharram smiles that he was not really apprehensive of a backlash when he conceived his performances for the general public. “Sometimes it is a good thing to be naive. When one starts thinking too much, things don’t really materialize. I have always looked at it as something cultural and not religious. Frankly, my first understanding of Urdu poetry and music happened through that, that’s how my training started.”
However, he did have his share of problems when some members of the Shia community objected to the ticketed shows. “By the way, I had already done 10 such shows when troubles started. I was trolled badly, there were threat calls and lots of negative stuff written on social media platforms. Frankly, this has been the biggest problem that I have felt, and it came from the members of my own community.”
Stressing that the reason that the rendition of the battle of Karbala cuts across religious and other divides is owing to the fact that he looks at it as an art form without any religious baggage. Adding that different art forms like the Ramleela, Qawwali, Dhrupad and Shastri came from a religious context, slowly getting accepted in a cultural domain. “The tragedy which I talk about is a structural story, and it’s widening when it comes to India. It’s also about how India retells that story — through its languages, symbols, and metaphors.”
Askari also feels that the power of the story also lies in the fact that it is still relevant in contemporary times. “Over the past few decades, with the information overload and confusion added by connectivity, we have somewhere lost the basic ability of intimately understanding loss. We no longer know how to react to tragedy.”
An atheist, who does not follow the fundamentals of any religion, the artist does acknowledge the immense contribution of different faiths to rich cultural and artistic traditions. “If I leave the cultural part of religion, then I really don’t know who I am. This is what has shaped my personality, that’s what I am. During Muharram, I still go to my village in UP where my family gathers and takes part in different ceremonies and rituals.”
Adding that he has been privileged enough to let the lockdown do some good to him, he talks about his recently conceived ‘Mehfil-e-Tarannum’ conceived during this period. “It is a small repertoire of songs, folk music, and compositions that come from the Awadh region. I have composed some and started singing the ones that already exist. In fact, two shows have already been done online, a world which I recently discovered. In terms of Soz, I am thinking of including instruments that have always been traditionally used.”