Tragedy at Karbala
ONE of Islam's most tragic events was the death of Imam Hassan and Imam Hussain, grandchildren of Prophet Hazrat Mohammad (S.M.), at Karbala. Karbala is a city in Iraq, about 100km away from Baghdad. The battle of Karbala is remembered as a clash between Islamic truths and falsehood, right versus wrong, and the oppressed versus the oppressor where the two grandchildren of the great last prophet were martyred at the hand of Yazid who the conquered the lands back then with sheer force and brutality.
The tale and stories of the lives of Prophet Hazrat Mohammad (S.M.), his daughter Fatima, his grandchildren Imam Hassan and Imam Hussain and Jamata Hazrat Ali have been told in various forms in Bangladeshi television shows and plays. The events of Karbala are no exception. This brutal tale is sometimes called “Imam Jatra” and sometimes “Jari Gaan”, and in its remembrance, believers form processions on the day of Muharram where the participants recreate the tragic series of events of day. The most extreme of such processions involve Muslims who lacerate themselves in the course of the procession, imitating the torture the grandchildren of the great prophet had to suffer. Such activities resembling that fateful day are prominent in Manikganj, and this article focuses on a particularly popular play organized there called “Imam Jatra”. The play depicts the historic events of 10th October 960, the spirit of which is still alive in Muslims, more than a millennium later.
“Imam Jatra” is usually acted out on courtyards of large houses or on open fields. A theatrical stage is created with an elevated platform 1.5 feet off the ground for the play and seating arrangements are made on the floor. Walls of dark cloth are set-up at the periphery. The play is organized both at day and night. While no artificial lighting is required during the day, the night-time plays are illuminated with generator-powered tube lights. The costumes used for the play are heavily decorated and attempt to capture the vibe of the Middle East in the 7th century. The actors playing Imam Hassan and Imam Hussain usually dress up in white and red “Panjabi”, which are decorated with shiny golden laces. They usually wear black sleeveless jackets, known as “coatee”, golden yellow “pagri", and black leather sandals. On top of everything, their costume is ornamented with garlands of sparkling golden beads. Actresses wear a range of colours, such as red, violet and purple, and wear similar ornaments. The actors and actresses are usually dressed up in loud colours and wear lots of makeup. Accessories used in the play include metallic attachments as well as headgear such as “pagri”. The green room is usually set up in an outer room of a house nearby. The musical score of the play is performed using various instruments which include harmonium, congo, cornet, keyboard and flute.
Most of the play is actually musical, and the play begins with five musicians: one who sits at the centre and four others who stand at the four corners of the stage and slowly move in circles as they sing. They sing a song of sorrow, the music of which brings to mind the tune and tempo of an elegy. The emotion of loss and the atmosphere of tragedy are set from the very beginning of the play. The dialogue of the play is presented in between the songs, and a few narrations accompany the scenes to introduce the characters and make the story clearer to the audience. The narration and the acting are interweaved closely throughout the play.
A particularly exciting part of the play starts with Imam Hassan and Imam Hussain asking their messenger to go to Madina and deliver a message to Yazid, the oppressor. In the immediate next scene, as soon as the messenger delivers the letter, Yazid is seen to become furious upon receiving the message and instantly attacks the messenger a man who is unarmed and always carries a white flag as the sign that he is never supposed to be part of any physical battle or war. Yazid not only kills the messenger with his own hands, but also commands that the dead body remains in the dungeons so that a proper burial is denied. Yazid's rage is multiplied soon after, as he learns that his father, Mu'awiya, has passed away. It was actually Yazid's father who had created the Benu Umayya dictatorship (which ignores Islamic values) over the Muslim Ummah rule. Selected excerpts of the dialogue of the play are presented below.
The song at the beginning:
Poschime bondona go kori Makkah masjid ghor re,
Sheikhanete pore go Namaz joto Musolman re.
Uttore bondona go kori Himalay porbot re,
Sheikhanete boshot go kore joto debgon re.
Purbete bondona go kori purbe udoy vanu re,
Ek dike udoy vanu, choudike hoy alo re.
At the end of the song, Joynab, wife of Abdul Jabbar, enters the stage:
Joynab: Husband has left so early in the morning. Why hasn't he returned yet? I better go and get water for cooking now.
As the actress pretends to collect water at one end of the stage, Yazid and his Chief Minister Marwan enters the stage from the other end.
Yazid: Chief Minister Marwan! Who is this beauty?
Marwan: She is Bibi Joynab, the wife of an ordinary peasant of our city who goes by the name of Abdul Jabbar.
By then Joynab crosses the stage and exits without even giving so much as a glimpse to the two men standing nearby.
Yazid: Marwan! Thousands of men and women of Damascus stand in line for the privilege of looking at me once! And Joynab, the wife of a simply peasant dares to ignore me? Chief Minister Marwan, I cannot stand this! I want to test how proud she really is.
In the next scene, only Yazid enters the stage:
Yazid: What beauty! I cannot get out of the trance Joynab's beauty has put me in. I cannot sleep, I cannot eat, I am losing my mind! Oh Joynab! Save me from this torture! I have lost all interest in wealth and kingdom because of you. Oh Joynab! Oh Joynab!
At this point, Mu'awiya, Yazid's father, enters the stage:
Mu'awiya: Son, I am noticing that, day by day, you are becoming more and more irresponsible of your duties. You are pushing yourself towards disaster. What's wrong? What do you desire? Tell me, son. What is it that is causing you to becoming so frustrated? Please tell me.
Yazid: Please forgive me, father. I can't tell you why I have become like this, why I am suffering. I can only tell you that there is something I crave, not having which pains my heart. But I can tell you no further.
Mu'awiya: Do tell me son. What is it that you want? Don't forget that you are the only son of the very king of Damascus - Mu'awiya! You have endless riches at your feet. I have bestowed a crown of the most precious jewels on your head. Still you suffer? Still there is something you do not have? Tell me what it is.
Yazid: No father, I cannot tell you. I become speechless when I try to speak of it to you!
So on and so forth, the play proceeds with dialogue, song and music. At present, this play is commonly organized at Kamta, Janna, Dergram, Jagirmeghshimul, Mohadebpur, Chorkhogugolra, Hasuli and many other village of Manikganj district. There are professional groups of play actors and actresses who move around for this purpose. A well-known director of this play in Manikganj is Saidur Rahman Boyati, who has adapted the play out of the Mir Mosharrof Hossain's “Bishadshindhu”. Other renowned directors of the area are Noor Muhammad, who is only 25 years old, and Antar Ali Kosay.
Translated by Zahidul Naim Zakaria
(R) thedailystar.net 2009