Marsias – Where Do We Draw The Line

By Mohamedarif Suleman (Nairobi, Kenya)


Ten or fifteen years ago, I vividly remember how an informal reformist group of our community in East Africa rose against a very strange trend taking root in our midst.

The movement was against the use of a Hindi film song tunes to recite Marsias. It was alleged that it was hypocritical on our part to firstly criticize listening to music or rather ban it, and then mimic the same tones in the form of reciting marsias and nauhas. The reaction that such a movement spurred was immense. People who raised their voices were shunned, and some were even labeled as infidels.

That not being very surprising since it has been a tradition in our community that whenever certain deep rooted norms are questioned, the initial reaction is that of blasphemy. Most people at the time were not able to comprehend that these marsias and nauhas originated from the home of Indian and Pakistani film industries, in actual fact it had to be as we were using their language in the first place.

Nowadays, such discussions though not totally free of implications may be entertained in the name of intellectual and scholastic pursuit. Just recently, members attending a sufro majlis were treated to a fine qasida that was an exact copy of a Hindi Film song of 1992/3. We are either too naive or simply ignorant. The very lyricists of Hindi films (most of them, Muslims by the way) who sell their rhyme and rhythm to Bollywood may also be responsible of selling their work to composers of Marsias. Or it could well be that these composers decide to incorporate a favoured tone into a marsia, etc. because it carries an in-builtĀ  emotional power. Do we ever research into the origins of a certain nauha etc., or do we just deliver without regards to the same?

In such a case we are no different from the smokers who are trying to beat their hazardous habit by utilizing nicotine-compensating methods. People who want to give up songs, listen to loud marsias and nauhas in their cars because they are so used to the beating woofers that they cannot bear without it. It is called legitimiazing one’s action. Perhaps not all, but a lot of the sounds emanating from the Indian Sub Continent in the form of religious recitals are in fact a direct copy of a classical Hindi song. At the end, who will bell the cat is the question as everyone shudders to point a finger. Why? Because if one does assert in this manner, he or she will openly be known as a music listener. Paradoxical, is it not?

The strategy that musicians use is not different from the one the composers of Marsias use. The aim is to emote. The best way to do it is by combining the power of music and lyric. The tears shed are the results of a resonance that successfully strikes one’s ears and heart, and shakes the person.

Where does one draw the line? Should we consider this a parallel industry to the mainstream music industry? How do you adjudge one from the other? Recently, we had a storm of audio/video stars from Pakistan who produced their own ”albums” and made something, one would presume. At that time, it was common to hear someone say ”Do you have (reciter’s name)…?”. This was familiar to what goes on in a video library when you ask ”’do you have Michael Bolton?”

Of course this subject is another one of our long list of self-imposed taboos, but as we move on to the next century, reason not emotion will prevail. For every action, we want a plausible explanation, and an opportunity to question rites and rituals. Can the community tolerate that?

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