He is an alumnus of the Aligarh Muslim University and currently a faculty member at Lucknow University. He regularly writes a column for the newspaper Awadhnama, and has authored books including Lucknow 1857: The Two Wars of Lucknow: The Dusk of an Era, Lucknow Monuments: Conservation Methodology, Problems and Solutions, and Images of Lucknow.
In this interview, Taqui discusses the history of azadari (mourning rituals and cultural depiction of the tragedy of Karbala) in Awadh, the role of the nawabs of Awadh in establishing Muharram practices and most importantly, taziya’s connection with Mongol ruler Taimur. He also sheds light on how taziya making is considered an art form.
Following is an edited transcript of the intweview originally conducted in Hindi and Urdu on February 24, 2020, at Wazirganj, Lucknow.
Aoun Hasan [AH]: What is the history of azadari in Awadh?
Roshan Taqui [RT]: There is evidence of the impact of the event of Karbala on the Indian subcontinent. In Awadh, the nawabs’ reign began in 1722 but there is evidence of events preceding the reign that commemorated Karbala’s tragedy and Imam Hussain’s killing. In the works of old Awadhi poets, especially Qutuban and Manjhan, and then Malik Mohammad Jaisi and later Tulsi Das, there are signs that locals were mourning the tragedy of Karbala. The travelogues of various travellers from Central Asia, Iraq, and Iran recount how they would come here and promulgate their cultures, rituals and retell the gruesome stories of the tragedy of Karbala. On hearing about the tragedy of Karbala, the tribes here accepted and started mourning the event in their native ways, since the tragedy of Karbala is very sentimental.
There are many such stories which are famous of tribes that mourned the tragedy even before the time of Akbar or Iltutmish. One such is of a tribe or a community that had no idea who Imam Hussain was or what was the tragedy of Karbala, nonetheless, they somehow knew, perhaps through travellers, that on certain night of the moon something bad had happened. Similarly, the Bhar tribes are famous for observing certain rituals on the night of the tragedy of Karbala. So, the observation or demonstration of mourning of the tragedy of Karbala was recorded even before the time of Awadh’s nawabi period. While it was scattered and unorganised, it still prevailed. The nawabs concretised and organised it.
AH: What is the history of the shahi [royal] processions started by the nawabs of Awadh?
RT: There were numerous shahi processions in major centres of Awadh. Later, they developed, and imambade [plural of imambada] and karbalas [burial ground of the taziye] were built at those centres. These processions historically date back to Asif- ud-Daula’s period. The first shahi procession hit the roads in 1795 and is credited to Asif-ud-Daula’s son, Wazir Ali Khan. There were military and musical bands in the procession at that time.
AH: There are many accounts of actions against the practice of taziya among Sunni sects. However, the practice of taziya is one of the widest azadari performances. It would not be wrong to call the cycle of these actions restorative. What are your views on this?
RT: Such actions have taken place, but I will call them temporal and localised. Their impact did not affect the larger tradition of taziya practice. I would like to add here that whenever new policies are introduced, like how the present government is acting out of power, money, and sources, it has a certain impact; however, people majorly protest. So, actions against taziya practices did not last long. An instance which I can recall is when once in a certain village, there was restriction on observing taziya practices, people decided to go to another village to observe and even invest in the taziya practice.
AH: What are your views on the incident of Taimur being connected to taziya?
RT: I believe it is authentic. I believe that taziya practice in South Asia was introduced by Taimur. What is important here is that he did not introduce it in Delhi, but it was when he was returning from Delhi and going elsewhere in South Asia. It was one of his advisors who suggested the replication of Imam Hussain’s tomb since he was unable to visit Karbala that year. Also, the taziya practice you see in Delhi or India was popularised in Humayun’s time.
AH: Was there any patronage for taziya makers in Awadh? Also, are you aware of the process of taziya making and do you consider the making of taziya an art form?
RT: Just as all other art forms are patronised, so was taziya making. There was a famous taziya maker called Munne Kaagzi in Wajid Ali Shah’s time, in whose name there was a taziya as well. Earlier, taziye [plural of taziya] were made as replicas of Imam Hussain’s tomb which was destroyed in the eighteenth century. Now they are made in the form of zarih also. Taziya makers were salaried, they would repair the taziya whenever required and would further make them for each Muharram. The designs were first sketched and drawn before the start of the handwork. Hence, taziye are made in stages. The first is takhat which is like plinth and then we have other parts. Taziya making is definitely an art form.
AH: Do you believe taziya making as an art form had better recognition in the Awadh period than it does today? Have we neglected taziya making as an art form?
RT: Yes, taziya or zarih making has been an art form which not only nawabs of Awadh, but the rich personnel from all sorts of professions patronised and financed. This was the reason that this art developed very quickly in a short span of time. The proof is the forms of taziya, for example there are taziye made of kagaz (paper/carboard), wax, bamboo, silver, gold, copper, cloth, grass, glass, and so on. The maker usually chose the material for taziya depending on the profession or business they were involved in, and there had been competitions as well.
Hundreds of artisans and taziya makers were attached to this art and it was their profession. Today, it is still an art form but like other art forms, the artisans and artists of this form are not patronised, so it has seen a decline.