SHI'A LAMENTS IN SOUTH ASIA
The Shi’a channel their personal grief into religious musical laments that commemorate the death of Husain.
Shi’a all over the world sing laments over the death of Husain, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, at the battle of Karbala in the 7th century. For the Shi’a, Husain was the legitimate successor of Mohammad and his death marks the focal point of the religious calendar and is commemorated yearly at the Moharram festival.
The different types of laments include soz, a vocal lament; marsiya, a chanted narrative elegy; nauha, a dirge; and matam, a passionate dirge often accompanied by rhythmical chest beating. Although Shi’a laments are highly evocative, they are not thought of as ‘music’ - as music for entertainment is religiously prohibited – but as ‘chanted’ or ‘recited’.
The poetic laments can be performed at any time of year and there are now also many popular artists and recordings. In South Asia, however, they are most intensely performed during Muharram in the processions and during communal musical rituals called majles.
While the ritual focus is on grief for Husain, participants are encouraged to subsume their personal grief in the religious narrative. Participants thus channel their own grief into the music and release grief for their own losses through communal religious music making.
Participants also practice matam, rhythmically beating their own chests, to express grief and identify with the martyrs at Kabala. The rituals reach ecstatic levels of intensity in the expression of grief, yet participants report feeling relieved and cleansed after such events. Majles are then a major outlet for personal grief, providing a communal support group and a cathartic release from personal loss.
The Shi’a overturn the Western notion that one should grieve and then ‘move on’, instead making grief a part of their identity and kept alive all year round partially though such musical performances.