Soz khwani: Songs of lament from the battle of Karbala

Hindustan Times | By
Jun 10, 2017 09:24 AM IST

This weekend, dastangoi performer Askari Naqvi introduces Delhi audiences to the Awadhi tradition of soz khwani, in which deeply emotional songs of mourning are sung at religious gatherings.

Until two years ago, Askari Naqvi was a lawyer, but he always wanted to be a performing artist. After practising law for seven years in Lucknow, he began performing dastangoi (the 12th century art of oral storytelling in Urdu) and also dabbling in soz khwani – the tradition of narrating the story of the battle of Karbala in song. Thereafter Naqvi brought soz khwani to audiences in Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and of course Lucknow, taking them on an emotional journey of mourning and lament. This Sunday, he will be performing at Delhi’s Akshara theatre (see details at the end).

Askari Naqvi is the first person in India to take soz khwani to the mainstream audience.(Picture credit/Askari Naqvi.)
Askari Naqvi is the first person in India to take soz khwani to the mainstream audience.(Picture credit/Askari Naqvi.)

According to Islamic history, 1400 years ago, Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hussain Ali attained martyrdom in a war in Karbala, Iraq, while leading a group of 72 people. Every year during Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar), Shia Muslims mourn for them by organising religious gatherings (majlis) and holding public processions.

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Hailing from a Shia family, Naqvi grew up spending Muharram at his paternal grandfather’s house in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh. By the time he reached his teens, he knew every incident of Karbala by heart and would recite it with the chorus. Naqvi is the first person from the community in India to have taken soz khwani to mainstream audiences. “Renowned Urdu playwright SM Mehdi was related to my grandfather. He believed that soz khwani had the potential of a musical,” says 32-year-old Naqvi. “Except for him, previous generations restricted it to the majlis and never thought of taking it to the outside world.”

When he started approaching people to book performance venues, some of them had reservations. “They asked me if it was religious or would it propagate Islam. I asked them to look at art forms such as qawwali and dhrupad which have roots in religion,” says Naqvi.

In a traditional majlis, the story of the Battle of Karbala is told in three parts: soz khwani, marsiya khwani (where chapters are recited) and nauha khwani (mourning). However, to connect with the audience, Naqvi tells the entire story of the battle only through soz khwani though he has added some commentary and dialogues.

“The story includes 14 compositions sung in Hindi, Awadhi (written by 16th century poet Malik Mohammad Jayasi), Urdu (by 19th century poet Meer Anis) and Persian, which are based on different ragas,” he says. Another minor change he has introduced is in the way soz khawani is performed. “Because it is about lament, one cannot use musical instruments. In a majlis, four people sit around the person singing the soz and giving him the sur that resembles the sound of a tanpura. I have recorded these voices and play this recording when I perform,” he says.

Naqvi believes that although the story of Karbala is old, it is also contemporary. “At that time, it was a group of 72 people fighting the might of a tyrant State. In the current scenario, a minority of people are swimming against the tide,” he points out.

Why would people spend an evening listening to songs of lament? “The songs are about family dynamics, sacrifice and bonding . At the end of my performances, people have come up to me and told me which aspect they could relate to. Secondly, there is a sense of curiosity.”

What: Soz khwani—songs of lament, by Askari Naqvi

When: 7.30pm, June 11 .

Where: Akshara theatre, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, Connaught Place, Delhi.

Ticket: Rs 350. Available at the venue and at

Nearest Metro station: Rajiv Chowk.

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    Danish Raza is a special correspondent with the Hindustan Times. He covers gender, identity politics, human rights, conflicts and online speech.

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