Epsita Halder

Epsita Halder is Assistant Professor at the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. In her doctoral thesis, she has explored the different formulations of the battle of Karbala to understand the search for identity of the Bengal Muslims (late 19th–early 20th century). She has been working on the Muharram traditions in West Bengal, a project partly supported by the Art Research and Documentation Grant of India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore. She is a recipient of the Charles Wallace Trust Short Term Fellowship and Sarai-CSDS Social Media Fellowship. She is interested in the interface between Muslim popular piety, visual culture and new media in South Asia.


Hosayn cries, Oh superior Mother

I prayed for water from you

You did not give me water

You never cared how my heart was torn in thirst

I have become a martyr in Karbala.

(translation of 'Imam-Bicched Jari', quoted in Jasimuddin, Jarigan, 1968)


Jarigaan is a performance genre in the folksong repertoire of Bengal based on the story of the battle where Imam Husayn, grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was martyred by the enemy on the bank of Phorat (Euphrates) on the plains of Karbala in 680 CE. The tragic event is considered the core condition of identity for the Shias, who structure and solidify the sense of community by commemorating this event of martyrdom through the ritual of muharram. Mourning, as forms of surrender and sublimation, entails acts of remembrance of the pain that Imam Husayn suffered. Jarigaan is a received form of the culture of mourning that started in 11th-century Iran, namely azadari. Azadari, the act of mourning, as a name, combines two words—aza (Arabic for mourning) and dari (Persian, 'to act')—to become an instance of overlap between Arabic and Persian cultures in an Islamicate Iran. After travelling for centuries and traversing a great extent of space, when azadari—the cult of mourning over the martyrdom of Imam Husayn—reached the eastern frontiers of Bengal, it took on the name jari.


It is difficult to say which gave rise to the other: the storytelling or the commemorative ritual. It is also difficult to trace the exact beginning of muharram as a ritual and the performance of jari as a part of that ritual. But we can locate the beginning of the remembrance of Karbala in the poetic traditions of Bengal. It began in the form of a small lyric composed by Shekh Faizullah, 'Joynober Choutisha', and took on a more impressive shape with the composition of several long and intricate narratives in rhymed couplets. Such narratives were basically adaptations of the theme of the Karbala martyrdom in the local aesthetic-poetic format by the Sufi pirs and poets as an affective cue for the masses to attain intimacy with the Islamic experience. These narratives have acted as the repository of devotional truth and offered the masses a sense of identification with Islamic ideals. Gradually, the recitation of such narratives gave rise to this folk performance genre, while the tradition of composing Karbala narratives and scribing manuscripts continued. Sometimes these two—jari, as a folk repertoire and jungnama as the literary tradition—overlapped, as long narratives could be performed in a particular way, generically specific to jari. Jari was added to the title of the 18th-century Heyat Mamud’s Jungnama manuscript by one of his scribes in the late 18th century to make it Jarijungnama, and necessary structural elements (refrain, raga, taal, chhanda) were added to the text. This act of interpolation suggests that this was the time when Mamud’s poetry, while being recited, started also to be sung as jari at occasions in Rangpur district. Mamud himself did not compose his narrative on the battle of Karbala and martyrdom of Imam Husyan as jarigaan.


Though jarigaan represents an integral thematic concern of the battle of Karbala and oneness with Imam Husayn’s sufferings, sometimes jari denotes only a structural form of oral performance which includes other themes. Elegiac expressions—the marsiya or nauha—might be brought under this nomenclature, but this only shows the local community’s ability to appropriate generic names without being unduly worried about generic elements per se. But generic configurations differentiate the marsiya as elegiac lyrical expositions articulated through a personal grieving voice. The jarigaan is closer to the jungnama—long descriptive narratives handed down from the Persian literary tradition, but indigenized in terms of thematic multiplicity and performance elements.


As Jamshid Malekpour (2005) reflects, the taziyeh drama originated in Shia Iran based on the battle of Karbala, and the same could be applied to taziyeh’s original lyrical form—marsiya or marthiya. Just like the taziyeh, marsiya is part ritual, part history, part poetic recitation, part storytelling, part music and part song—with different interpretations for music and song. Being sacred, these elegies are emphasized by the community of mourners as being, or meant to be, ‘read’ to scrub out any remnant of sensory indulgence associated with song-music performance. Reading is the root word of Qur’an and ‘reading’ of the elegies and episodes from the battle of Karbala affirms the status of such expressions as as sacred as the scriptural tradition.



Where History Begins


This attempt of the Shia community to validate devotion and perform that devotion can be marked as the effect of the primary debate over the legacy of Prophetic knowledge. The conflict that started brewing just after the death of Prophet Muhammad over inheritance resulted in the battle of Karbala in 680 CE where on the bank of the river Phorat, Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet, was killed along with his small band of companions by the army of Kufa. The governor of Kufa was assigned this task by Yezid, the emerging Umayyad ruler of Syria who would succeed as the next Sunni caliph as the outcome of this victory. This battle marks the primary schism in the Islamic ummah, splitting the spiritual-political authority into Sunni caliphate and Shia imamate. The conflict between forms of veneration, scriptural resources and forms of mourning would be deepened following the two different parameters of the caliphate and the imamate. The Sunni caliphate started with Abu Bakr and was followed by Umar, Usman and Ali who, together, constituted the first-ever companions of the Prophet (sahaba: sing., ashab: pl.). The Shias did not accept this legacy. Disregarding the first three caliphs, they started counting spiritual authority from Ali, the first Shia imam. The Shia imamate, based on the bloodline of the Prophet, affirms its belonging to the family of Hasan and Husayn and follows the lineage. For them, the 12 imams form the core of Shia veneration and spiritual belonging.


To secure their form of religiosity and political authority, the Sunnis vehemently opposed the intercessory turn in Shi’sm that was embodied in the imamate and in the physical expressions of grief over the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. The commemorative ritual of Muharram remained marginalized during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods. It proliferated during the Shia Buyyid (934–1062) dynasty in Baghdad, as mourning the pain of Imam Husayn, the suffering of ahl-ul-bayt (house of the Prophet) and the remembrance of the tragic events of Karbala become state-sponsored rituals. The battle of Karbala became the historical-affective source of this commemoration. The consecration of monuments of mourning (Husayniyyat or Ashurkhana) at the centre of the public square and the composition of short lyrics and long narratives by the bards as textual cues of that mourning transpired simultaneously. Azadari, the ritual of mourning, lent its name to the oratory performance of the Karbala episodes in Bengal, became a part of ritual performance repertoire and got a smaller, softer local coinage, the jari.



The Genre and the Journey


The bards composed both marsiya and jungnama, small lyrics and long narratives and the (hi)story of blood and tears started to travel with merchants, administrators and most of all with the sufis. Maqtal was the name of the genre dealing with the martyrdom of Husayn in the Karbala battle. The nomenclature dates to the time when the Persian Maqtal Rawzat al-Shuhada by Husain Waiz Kashifi (d.1504) became the most influential text on this theme. Looking at the reception of this Persian text in various local languages of the Islamicate world, from Turkey to the Deccan to the eastern frontiers of Bengal, we can imagine a network of constant transaction between Persian literary cultures and the local aesthetic-poetic systems. Mehmed bin Suleyman Fuzuli (d. 1556) opened the gates for this narrative to enter Turkish by translating it as Hadiqat al Su’ada. In the Deccan Shia states, the official inauguration of the tale of Karbala martyrdom started in Deccani Urdu in the 16th century and had several narrative turns. In north India, the climactic literary moment in marsiya was achieved with the poetry created by Muhammad Rafi Sauda (d. 1780), Mirza Dabir (d. 1875) and Mir Anis and the culture of the oration of marsiya.


In Bengal, the reception was first articulated by Muhammad Khan. Though his full Karbala text borrowed the title from the original Maqtul Husayn, it is generally difficult to locate an originary text for a plethora of narratives whose theme was the martyrdom of Imam Husyan. A vague reference to some Persian text, most times a Maqtal Husayn was placed in the beginning by the author without any desire to be specific. Along with this Maqtal text, the performance of grief and the ritual of mourning that already emerged in different Shia-inclined states in Central Asia and Africa started traveling to different parts of the Islamicate world. Rowzakhani—the recitation of the narrative of tragedy—and the art of chest beating as a part of Muharram rituals started to overlap with the recitation of the maqtal texts. Perhaps, recitation could not be done without a specific form of physicality any more, which was more than the usual bodily movements of oration. In an Islamicate world these narratives relating to the life of the Prophet and his grandsons, in the absence of any translation of the Qur’an and the Hadis, acted as the source of religiosity and devotion. Sufi pirs were instrumental in bringing the local communities close to the Islamic imagination by forging this affective connection between them and the Islamic literature including the maqtal.


But one cannot perhaps be certain whether the recitation of the medieval Karbala narratives in Bengal entailed violent beating of chests, tearing of clothes and public processions with the decorated grave of the greatest of martyrsImam Husayn. Alongside Muhammad Khan’s Maqtul Husayn, Imam Bijoy by Daulat Ujir Bahram Khan, Sangram Husyan by Hamid, Jungnama by Jafar described the physicality of grief that was a part of the Karbala episodehow the mother, grandmother, wife and sister of Imam Husayn lamented the loss. These lamenting individual voices of oration, not necessarily parts of the Muharram ritual, could be seen as the condition for the emergence of individual lamenting voices in jarigaan. Jarigaan borrowed its diegetic (narrative) mode from the narration of the oral Karbala tales. Heyat Mamud’s Jarijungnama can be read as the paradigmatic journey of the oral tale to the performative repertoirefrom recitation to jarigaan.



The Song of the Martyr: From Muharram Majlis to Jarigaan


In South Asia, poetry on the martyrdom of Imam Husayn on the plains of Karbala gets expressed in basically two forms, the marsiya and nauha during the commemoration of Muharram. Both are short lyrical expositions. Jarigaan is different from both the expressions in having a greater narrative volume. Thematically, the marsiya-nauha are connected to jarigaan, though Jasimuddin documented many jaris not directly related to martyrdom. Those long poems are called jari despite not being directly connected to the battle of Karbala. They speak of themes connected to a popular intercessory paradigm for the veneration of pak panjatan—the sacred five figures of Islam—Muhammad, Ali, Fatema, Hasan and Husayn. In his Dacca: A Record of Its Changing Fortunes, Ahmed Hasan Dani refers to the recitation of marsiya and nauha at the Shia Husayni Dalan in Dhaka:


…From the fourth day, the ceremony enters full swing. People crowd in verandas of Husaini Dalan to hear the bhatiyali marsiya (the morning song in the bhatiyali tunes of Bengal). For the purpose of singing, about 20 mahallas [neighborhoods] of the city divide themselves into Hadi and Girwah [names of competing clubs], break up into two parties. The composition is in both Urdu and Bengali, and the singing arouses enough emotion and spirit. The Marsiya-Kwans (the marsiya singers) come in groups headed by those who read salam [an Islamic salutation or eulogy] … In marsiya both the Sunnis and the Shiahs—the two sects of Muslims—participate. In Husaini Dalan the Shiahs occupy the northern half of the Dalan [building], where they have the zarih mubarak (symbolic tombs), ‘Alam (flag) and mimbar (pulpit), and where they do noha kwani (reading of hymnal songs in praise of the martyrs) [nauhas] and the soz-khwani (reading of mourning songs). These Shiah songs were popularly called Rangin Marsiya [colourful marsiyas], probably because they were sung with sweet voice … On the eighth day ladies from villages come in great numbers and start their jari (zari) songs from the afternoon, and hence it is called dupahriya matam [afternoon mourning]…


Mary Frances Dunham deduced that the absence of jarigan as a repertoire in this narrative, so keen to describe several forms of poetry connected to the commemoration of Muharram, marks the absence of such musical-narrative-performative repertoire in the early 20th century (the date of first publication). From this absence of jarigaan it can also be said that in the designated ritual space of Muharram, jarigaan might not be a part of the sacred ritual which was predominately structured with received sacred forms. Jasimuddin wrote in his modern ballad Sojonbadiyar Ghat how jarinach (he also refers to jarigaan as nach, or dance, which confirms the performative quality of this repertoire) was integral to Muharram, as a function of the community. This status of the repertoire as dance shows its ability to go beyond the designated space of sacred ritual and create an interface with the folk performance space—opening up the possibility of becoming ritual-theatre.


In Dani’s description, the use of bhatiyali tunes did not change the form of marsiya into a folk song. Jasimuddin’s Jarigaan, published in 1968, can be seen as evidence of a repertoire being in practice as a folk form for some decades at least. While jarigaan does not have an early documented history, the ritual of lament as jari can be discerned from the reading of medieval Karbala poetry and Heyat Mamud. This form of lament, according to S.M. Lutfor Rahman (1986), might have influenced folk composers of story-songs to start developing the Karbala theme and its offshoots in their repertoire. An already prevailing Prophet-centric piety, the ritual of the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday as milad, also contributed in giving shape to the jarigaan repertoire.


While prevalent narrative forms—mangala kavya, vijaya kavya and the biography of Chaitanyainfluenced the formation of the maqtal poetry in Bengal, segregation of the Hindu theme-based gitika and Muslim theme-based palagan was a marker of the gradual solidification of the identities of both communities. From the palagan repertoire, according to Mary Frances Dunham, palas based on themes related to Karbala could be gradually known as jarigaan. Also, jari came to denote not only Karbala, but the relationship between the Prophet and the ahl-ul-bayt, and gradually more or less all Muslim themes in general. Jasimuddin, Lutfor Rahman and Dunham have made lists of jaris sung, in circulation in print or in audio culture. In Dunham’s Jarigan: The Epic Song of Bangladesh, she makes a thematic arrangement of jaris already referred to by Jasimuddin and Rahman, and extended them with her collections. With the disclaimer that the list was unfinished and ever-expanding, her arrangement is as follows:


A. Judeo-Koranic Stories: Makkar Janmo-nama Jari (The Mecca Birth-chronicle Jari),  Hazerer Bonbash (Hazera’s Exile in the Jungle), Korbanir Jari (The Sacrifice Jari), Iusufer Jari (The Joseph Jari); B. Stories from the life of the Prophet: Kulsumer Mejbani (Kulsum’s Feast), Jaberer Putrabadh (The Killing of Jaber’s Son); C. Karbala Cycle of Stories: Hasaner Bishpan (Hasan Consumes Poison), Moslemer Shahid Jari (Jaris of Muslim Martyrdom), Moslemer Putrabadh (The Killing of a Muslim’s Son) , Kasem-Sakhinar Jari (The Jari of Kasem and Sakina), Shahid-namar Jari (The Martyr-chronicle Jari), Hosayn Samadhi (Husayn’s Burial), Chacha-Bhatijat Jari (The Jari of Uncle and Nephew), Kased Nama (The Kased Chronicle), Gor-Uddish (The Caste Enquiry), Ejid-Badh Parba (Yezid’s Death Episode); D. Legends and Romances: Buno Jan Churi (The Wild Thief of Lives), Jaan Churi (The Thief of Lives), Anal Haqer Jari (Anal Haq’s Jari or I am the Truth/God Jari), Rustom Sohraber Jari (The Rustom and Sohrab Jari), Rajeswari Jari (The Rajeswari Jari), Tilekban Jari (Tilekban Jari), Rasabarit Jari (Rasabati’s Jari), Gobi-Nama Jari (The Cow Chronicle Jari) etc.


The long poetry tradition of pre-modern Bengal was full of affect towards the figure of Imam Husayn without any Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. The ashabs—the first generation of Sunni caliphsAbu Bakr, Umar, Uslam and Alicame down from heaven with Husayn’s grandfather Muhammad, father Ali and mother Fatema to lament over Husayn’s unjust death. In the narratives, without any exception, the praise of Allah (hamd) and Muhammah (naat) were duly followed by the praise of the ahshab. Here Ali possessed a dual position, one, as the father of Imam Husayn and, two, as an integral part of the Prophetic companions. Though the first full-fledged Karbala poetry by Muhammad Khan titled Maktul Husayn (1645) referred to both the forms—jari and marsiya—the negative shades with which the practice of jari and marsiya were portrayed do not seem to come from the author and might be the result of scribal interpolation in later stages of Islamic reform when the Sunni-Shia divide was prominent. During the time of Muhammad Khan, sectarian scepticism towards such rituals did not prevail.


It must be spelled out here that irrespective of sectarian differentiation of piety, pak panjatan gave a secure space of belongingness for vernacular-speaking common Muslim masses. Popular piety could not be ignited and articulated without venerating these sacred figures.  Irrespective of the Sunni-Shia divide, so prominent in an otherwise structured religion, jarigaan could be enjoyed by all. It created an inclusive belongingness especially for the rural masses.



Song or recitation? Singer or orator?


Generally marsiyas and nauhas are read and not sung for their integral position as the sacred text corresponding to the ritual of Muharram. The performative ritual body is mostly considered transgressive by the majority Muslim community for its physicality of tears and self-flagellation. The Shia community claims and validates its position within Islam by designating the utterance of the elegies as a reading activity and at the same time, the theme of martyrdom moves to the folk-song repertoire when it is sung in/as the specific form of jarigaan which has both lament as theme and song as form in its nomenclature.


In Bengal, in the formatting and reading of the maqtal, Karbala poetry imbibed the format of panchali, a rhythmic pattern of recitation. Though panchali was a part of the title of some specific narrative poetry defining some kind of genre, panchali was the form of general oratorio that every long narrative in Bangla followed. Jarigaan eventually developed a set of movements and brought the oral form of panchali to the domain of physical performance. The performative structure of jarigaan might be influenced by puthi path (reading of manuscripts in a half chant), kabigaan (extempore poet's songs performed in a vocal duet) and kirtan (devotional songs of the Vaishnavites) and ghazir gan (song repertoire to praise the local pirs and saints by describing their life stories and supernatural powers). While the first three do not match in terms of themes and structures of performance, ghazir gan while being thematically different, resembles jarigaan in the matter of style and format.


By making the performance parameters integral to the theme, Dunham proposes the definition of jarigaan as follows:


Jarigan songs represent an important category of Bangla epic songs that feature stories from Islamic history and legend, composed in a traditional couplet-verse form and performed by a chief singer accompanied by a chorus. (Dunham 1997:40)


Traditionally, jarigaan consists of one main singer, the boyati, and an ensemble of musical accompaniments. Other than the vocal accompaniment by the supporting singers, dohars, there is a whole array of instruments to be played by instrumentalists. The term boyati has come from the Arabic bayt which means couplet. A boyati is a composer of couplets, the main singer who as the narrator acting with simple yet codified gestures specific to jarigaan, sings long-poetry narratives.  


There can be two to twelve dohars according to the strength of the group. With the dotara (literally 'two-stringed', but in fact a four-stringed lute), the sarinda (a viola-like instrument held vertically), behala (fiddle), dubki (small hand-tapped drum), harmonium, flute, drums and even cymbals are used. Sometimes the group does not carry any instrument and the boyati and dohars are seen singing by beating their chests only. The last instance of the human body used as the drum could be seen outside the structured domain of the jarigaan repertoire that Jasimuddin, Rahman and Dunham spoke of, and was performed at the ritual of Muharram in districts of West Bengal. 



Jarigaan as a modern genre


সোজন আজি নতুন গায়েন, লাল গামছা ঘুরিয়ে শিরে,

মহরমের নাচন নেচে গান গাহে তার দল-টি ঘিরে।


('Sojan is the new singer for today, He dances with a red turban round his head', Sojanbadiyar Ghat, Jasimuddin)

Jasimuddin’s poem not only affirms a thriving presence of jarigaan, he also describes how this repertoire had scope for innovation and created an interface between ritual and play. Competitions between aspirant groups were an integral part of the repertoire from the beginning of the 20th century if we contextualize the references of jarigaan performance in Jasimuddin’s poetry. The performative space of jarigaan, as we can affirm from its ethno-musicological researches, has always beeen susceptible to innovation, addition and adaptation—thematically and generically. Its ambivalent position at the interstices of the sacred ritual and the secular field of play makes it possible for its channelization into different forms of media. Since the 1980s, in Bangladesh, the texts of several jarigaans attested by boyati names got printed and published by cheap publishers, which in due course proliferated in medial space. Cassette and compact disc industries captured the audio and then the audio-visual experience of this folk repertoire. As the repertoire expanded its thematic possibilities by encompassing contemporary and secular social-political events, national institutions like Bangla Academy too adopted jarigaan to express collective values and norms.


Jari, as one of the folk forms of Bangladesh, while remaining associated with martyrdom, could become the expression of the nation with its voracious capacity to express many themes and cater to a diverse audience.   



The West Bengal chapter


In this part of Bengal, the criteria for jarigaan are more stringent in scope. In Bangladesh’s Jessore, Faridpur, Dhaka, Pabna, Barishal, Khulna and Mymensingh, Jasimuddin observed not only a multitude of themes but also a multiplicity of performance arenas in Hindu ritual spaces, agricultural exhibitions, rural fairs, homes of feudal lords, and on other sacred occasions. But in West Bengal, jari is completely Muharram-specific. In West Bengal, districts Coochbehar, Darjeeling, West Dinajpur, Malda, Jalpaiguri, Nadia, Birbhum have jari as the form of performing elegy commemorating the events of martyrdom in the battle of Karbala.


In West Bengal, according to Umesh Sharma’s book Murshiya (2005), not jari but rather the form murshiya (a derivative of marsiya) enjoys thematic and performative multiplicity for its position between narratives of Karbala and other themes. Thematic multiplicity and the expansion of the performance arena are a function of male performers. Like jarigaan of Bangladesh, murshiya enters the play mode and groups participate in competitions during social occasions like the village fair. But here jari connotes only the theme of Karbala without thematic expansion and deviation. Alongside men, women too take part in the performance of jari which is solely about Karbala martyrdom. While murshiya by all-male performance groups can express any theme, the form of expression might be codified. The group, standing in a circle and leaning forward, sways to the rhythm of the enunciation. While Sharma observes that the performers thumping rhythmically with the right foot makes the ground reverberate, Karbala jari is sung with chest-beating, imbibing the gesture of the matam.


As a folk repertoire, jarigaan in Bangladesh opens a space beyond the sectarian or communal divide by inviting a diverse audience. It is similar for the Murshiya-jari repertoire in West Bengal too. Even performance rituals connected to the Muharram complex remain open to the participation of the common masses from local Sunni or Hindu communities. Perhaps the affective power of the Karbala battle and popular devotion towards the family of the Prophet has made it possible. Such a crossing of borders, to participate in affective reason beyond essentialist identity, is only made possible by believing and experiencing the power of the narrative and living the enchantment of music.





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