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Tellings and Texts

Francesca Orsini
Katherine Butler Schofield

IV. Musical Knowledge and Aesthetics

17. The Musical Lives of Texts: Rhythms and Communal Relationships among the Nizamis and Some of Their Neighbours in South and West Asia1

Richard K. Wolf

Texte intégral

  • 1 This article draws from research presented in a different form in chapter 9 of The Voice in the Dru (...)

1The audiovisual examples listed by number in this article may be heard and viewed on the author’s website:

2Every year during the first month of the Muslim calendar, members of a variety of religious communities — Hindu and Muslim — strike drums, sound trumpets, recite poetry, and participate in grand processions to observe Muharram at the shrine of the sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. These practices serve as a useful point of departure for exploring the artistic, symbolic, emotional, and political relationships between South Asian Shi ‘i and Sunni communities via the textual, musical, and ritual practices these two communities share. This article explores a little-known facet of drumming in South Asia — its potential to communicate texts. In the context of the Nizamuddin tradition, participants share a knowledge of these texts to varying extents. The following case study of the Nizamuddin tradition in Delhi and Karachi, together with Iranian and Indo-Caribbean examples, suggests more generally that instrumental iterations of poetic and other texts may play a role in the way such texts have been passed down and transformed over time. These kinds of possible transformation ought to figure in our modern understandings of written texts that once lived in performance.

  • 2 Richard K. Wolf, ‘Embodiment and Ambivalence: Emotion in South Asian Drumming’, Yearbook for Tradit (...)

3Muharram commemorates the battle of Karbala in 680 CE in which the henchmen of the Ummayyad Caliphate in Damascas mercilessly slaughtered Husain (the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) and his small band of followers. Although Shi ‘as are known for emphasising mournful aspects of Muharram, the emotional texture of the occasion is more complex in diverse public gatherings such as those associated with the Nizamuddin tradition. For one thing, since Husain died upholding the principles of Islam and love for the Prophet’s family, his death is also considered a moral victory. Shi ‘as and Sunnis generally share this sense, but those associated with the Nizamuddin tradition go so far as to celebrate Muharram as an ‘urs, the death day of a saint. Despite these nuances, differences between Shi ‘i and Sunni approaches to Muharram tend to be stereotyped. Shi ‘i Muharram practices are associated with mourning and those of Sunnis, with celebration. These differences are expressed in the communities’views on self-mortification, drumming, and many other matters. Some Shi ‘as object to drumming, especially on the shallow, bowl-shaped tasha (tāshā), citing its self-evidently celebratory qualities. The tasha’s crisp timbre, lack of bass resonance, and associated technique of rapid-fire strokes render it unsuitable for connoting seriousness or gravity. Views on the emotional and symbolic meanings of drumming vary according to region, however, and have been undergoing revision as relationships among Shi ‘as and Sunnis have continued to fluctuate.2 Drumming and poetry are worthy of close consideration not only because of their mutual relations, but also because of the ways that they lend emotional ambiguity and nuance to Muharram observances.

4In this chapter I explore the ways in which Shi ‘i, Sunni, and Hindu communities assign meaning to drumming and understand relationships to one another through co-participating in Muharram. How, I ask, is knowledge of instrument-associated texts linked to the social formations that transmit and preserve such knowledge? Reading the drum patterns closely, I create a typology for understanding drumming in the rituals of the Nizamuddin tradition and in the larger context of South and West Asia, where instruments articulate texts in a variety of ways. The verbally explicit dimensions of meaning in certain instrumental traditions distinguish those traditions from their more abstract (non-texted) counterparts and also create a field of potential insider knowledge to which listeners have differential access.

5This chapter is organised in three parts. The first provides background on text-music relationships and those who perceive them in South and West Asia, the saint Nizamuddin Auliya and his followers in Delhi and Karachi, and basic principles of Shi ‘i and sufi devotionalism. The second part approaches Muharram ethnographically, focusing mainly on the Nizamuddin Muharram traditions of Delhi and Karachi and secondarily on Indo-Trinidadian observances in which failures in textual memory dissolve any specific links that might have existed between drummed and verbal phrases. Part III provides technical analyses of text-music relationships using parallel examples from the Nizamuddin tradition and Iran.

Part I. Song, Text, and Instrument: Performing and Hearing

  • 3 Regula Burkhardt Qureshi, ‘Tarannum: The Chanting of Urdu Poetry’, Ethnomusicology 13.3 (1969), 425 (...)
  • 4 Lynn Ate, ‘Literary Metre versus Rhythmic Beat in Tamil Alvar Literature’, Journal of South Asian L (...)
  • 5 Speech surrogates are systems for encoding and transmitting speech using instruments, humming, whis (...)

6In South, Southeast, and West Asia, studies from several disciplines have explored how metre, vowel length, word division, and other textual matters constrain declaimed and sung performances of texts,3 and how musical factors may shape the composition or forms of poems and narratives.4 Less attention has been devoted to the rendering of texts on musical instruments, perhaps because South Asian languages are rarely associated with speech surrogates.5 Although using instruments to mimic specific messages does not depend on fully developed speechsurrogate systems, the question of what an instrument most directly imitates is relevant both to the study of speech surrogates and to the use of instruments to articulate texts.

  • 6 On poiesis and esthesis, see Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Music and Discourse: Towards a Semiology of Musi (...)

7The story of how texts are articulated on instruments can be usefully directed to explore social implications, viz, what people are saying about themselves by making claims of textuality. The flip side of the poietic process of making instruments sound textual is the esthesic process of listeners making something out of what they hear.6 Artful manipulation of texts in performance invites multiple kinds of possible reception: hearing the (musical) surface with little or no concern for semantic meaning; hearing with the general knowledge of text beyond the surface; and hearing with the knowledge of one or more specific texts. These different kinds of hearing might index the membership of listeners or performers in one or more social groups that are defined by such distinguishers as education, class, caste (jati or qaum), and placement in a religious hierarchy.

  • 7 Frank J. Korom, Hosay Trinidad: Muharram Performances in an Indo-Caribbean Diaspora (Philadelphia: (...)

8Views on drumming may stem from the identity of participants as Sunnis, Shi ‘as, or Hindus and from their changing experiences after migrating across land or sea. Populations relocated, mainly from North India, for a variety of political and economic reasons. Many Muslims resettled in Pakistan (and Hindus in India) at the time of the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Followers of Nizamuddin Auliya, who were among these Muslim resettlers, set up a system of ritual and musical practices in Karachi reproducing that of their kin in Delhi. Other Indians of many backgrounds had migrated to the British West Indies in the nineteenth century, at which time labourers were in high demand after the recent abolition of slavery. As these displaced populations established themselves culturally and socially in their new surroundings, their musical and ritual traditions developed and changed in ways that further complicated the relationships between drumming traditions and texts. Sometimes only the vaguest memories held on to traces of these texts.7

Nizamis: Background

9The Chishti sufi order is significant in South Asia for many reasons, including its support for music as a legitimate means for seeking spiritual closeness to god. Nizamuddin Auliya (1236-1325), the fourth in a line of succession of sufi saints in this order in South Asia, was known to have defended spiritual listening (sama‘) against periodic attacks by orthodox theologians. Nizamuddin’s shrine in New Delhi is currently the site of a range of celebrations, including the ‘urses of Nizamuddin and of Amir Khusrau. Nizamuddin’s spiritual descendants form a khandan (lineage) consisting of a number of families, many of whom take the last name Nizami. (For simplicity here, Sunni Muslims formally affiliated with the shrine are being collectively termed Nizamis even if they do not use the surname.) Those in the upper rungs of the shrine’s hierarchy are known as pirzadas. As of 2010 two men were holding competing claims for sajjada-nishin, the post at the top of the hierarchy.

10Because they emphasise mystical love and support musical practices, sufi orders such as the Chishtiya tend to promote social and religious inclusiveness and attract a wide variety of devotees to their celebrations. Despite this philosophical catholicism, Nizamis in Delhi were quick to identify themselves as Sunni when I began to show interest in their Muharram practices and distanced themselves from Shi ‘as in a somewhat defensive manner. What appears here to be a hardening of religious boundaries needs to be understood in a contemporary global climate that pits Shi ‘as against Sunnis. Although Shi ‘i-Sunni differences have always been potential sources of conflict, it is not difference per se that engenders conflict but the social and political conditions under which some differences become politically charged (for example, in Iraq and Syria in recent decades). Some of the conditions that have informed the Nizami context developed in the aftermath of Partition in Delhi and Karachi. The point to keep in mind is that Nizamis draw distinctions between themselves and Shi ‘as while at the same time embracing much of what Shi ‘as do when they observe Muharram — honour the memory of Imam Husain (the Prophet’s grandson) and the virtues for which he has come to stand.

11Nizamis in Delhi — but not in Karachi — are particularly uncomfortable with signs of mourning during Muharram, particularly the Shi ‘i practice of matam (mātam). Literally “mourning”, matam refers either to self-mortification, ranging from gentle strikes of the hand on the breast to more energetic and wound-inflicting activities, or to drum patterns with similar connotations. The reasons Shi ‘as emphasise mourning and Sunnis do not stem from their respective views about the historical events Muharram commemorates.

Muharram, Shi‘ism, Sufism, and Mimesis

12The gruesome conflict in Karbala grew from a disagreement about who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad when he died in 632 CE. In the 680 CE battle, the small party of Husain faced the army of the Umayyad caliph Yazid, who had demanded that Husain abdicate his right of succession. The men in Husain’s party were brutally dismembered and the women, children, and the ill marched to Damascus. Shi ‘i practice and theology worldwide is rooted in contemplating the details of the battle’s narrative and the moral implications for Muslims of remaining on Husain’s side. The battle’s narrative is relevant to sequences of items played on musical instruments in some Muharram ceremonies.

13Even when texts are largely forgotten, the idea of performing energetic, martial drumming followed by a sombre, mournful pattern (or some other kind of contrast) is maintained wherever Muharram drumming is found, including in Trinidad. Participants usually associate these patterns with moments in the battle of Karbala.

14Muslims in South Asia embrace the moral righteousness of Husain but disagree on the ways in which acknowledgement of this should form part of religious practice. Nizamis in Delhi, along with other Sunnis, object to Shi ‘i shedding of blood and weeping because they view the ultimate result as a victory for Islam; Shi ‘as, by contrast, find spiritual merit in lamenting the loss of Husain and his party and dissolving their own personal pains and sorrows in the remembrance of the more profound suffering endured at Karbala. Devout Shi ‘as often see themselves as distinct from those involved actively in sufism, but both Shi‘ism and sufism share an emphasis on love for the Prophet and, usually, ‘Ali (his nephew and son-in-law).

15Spiritual presences and key religious figures, in Shi ‘ism and sufism, can act as intermediaries between the individual and god. Drawing oneself closer to these intermediaries often involves replicating activities undertaken by such figures in the past. In shrine-based sufism, for example, the ‘urs, or death-day observance of a saint, celebrates the metaphorical “marriage” (the literal meaning of ‘urs in Arabic) of the saint’s spirit to god. The ecstasy of participants in the ‘urs replicates to some extent the ecstasy of the saint; this in turn creates an experience of proximity to the saint and by extension to god. For many Shi ‘as, retelling and stylised reenactment of the Karbala narrative, and responding to these with heartfelt tears, are meritorious acts that have the potential to make participants experience connectedness with the martyrs and so-called pure and flawless ones, the ma ‘sumin, who can intercede with god on their behalf. For detractors, the idea of intermediaries, whether dead saints or living spiritual guides, suggests that some humans can compete with god’s divinity and amounts to heresy.

16Another way of engaging with the Karbala narrative is to participate in processions that recall aspects of the battle or those who were martyred in it. Both Shi ‘as and Sunnis in South Asia may participate in Muharram by carrying symbolic items in procession, the most impressive of which is the ta‘ziya. Members of both communities have made the (historically unsubstantiated) claim that practices of carrying ta‘ziyas date back to the Turkic-Mongol ruler Timur (Tamerlane [“Timurthe-lame”], 1336-1405), whom Shi ‘as believe was strongly attached to the Prophet’s family. According to one oft-repeated story, Husain appeared to Timur in a dream and said (in reference to Timur’s lame condition), “it is not necessary that you visit my mausoleum. Make a replica of my mausoleum and visit that instead”. Timur heard the voice “Husain, Husain, Husain” in his dream and now, some say, the drums of Muharram project that voice (sada). In the view of many modern-day South Asian Muslims, drums, ta‘ziyas, and other ziyarats and replicas (shabih) continue to serve the similar functions of bringing the subject closer to Husain.

17The relationship of certain types of ritual action and objects to historical actions and objects — such as that between the ta‘ziya and a real mausoleum — is paralleled in the relationship between performances on musical instruments and the texts those performances are meant to express or evoke. Both involve kinds of mimesis, acts of forging and asserting resemblance, perhaps persuading others that today’s actions recapitulate or otherwise set in motion practices motivated in the past, or reminding listeners that instrumental sounds are actually words.

  • 8 Richard K. Wolf, ‘Doubleness, Mātam, and Muharram Drumming in South Asia’, in Pain and its Transfo (...)

18The fact that mimesis is not merely a display of likeness, but an active effort to make perceivers recognise similarities, beckons us to look carefully at how actors choose their models, emulate those models, and argue about the potential significance of their actions. The drum patterns called matam in South Asia (and mahatam in Trinidad), for instance, nominally refer to “mourning” in general but also, more specifically, the act of self-mortification in which (mainly) Shi ‘as engage as part of their piety. Both the patterns and the Shi‘i bodily practices refer back to battle scenes in which fighters received blows on their bodies, but in the case of the drums, it is as if the blows were now deflected onto the drums.8 However, in concrete situations where both Shi ‘as and Sunnis are present observing Muharram after their own fashions, the two versions of matam — drumming and body percussion — have the potential to refer to one another as well.

  • 9 In the Northern Iranian province of Gilan, trumpets are used to convey formulas during Muharram, an (...)

19In the Nizami case, matam involves three levels of textual reference. One is the chant “Husain, Husain” that Shi ‘as utter while executing matam; one is a poetic text that almost no one remembers; and one is a song, now played on brass band instruments. The idea of using drums to encode texts directly related to the Muharram context is common to many parts of South Asia as well as Trinidad, and related uses of musical instruments extend to the Shi‘i heartland of Iran.9

  • 10 See Wolf (2006) and (2014).

20Outside of Muharram, in sufi shrines across Pakistan, and particularly in shrines that have come to be associated with Lal Shabaz Qalandar in Sindh, faqirs, drummers, and shrine-goers sometimes represent the drum pattern dhamāl by the mnemonics “dam-ā-dam mast qalandar, ‘alī dā pahlā ‘number’” (roughly: “with each and every breath, the qalandar asserts the primacy of ‘Ali”), and listeners can be heard chanting these words at Thursday-evening shrine-gatherings at the Shah Jamal shrine in Lahore and elsewhere.10 In Iran, patterns on the dotār and other instruments sometimes imitate other verbal formulas, called zekrs (ẕekr), the repetitions of which are meant to focus the devotee’s whole being on god (Example 1).

21The relationship between Iranian dotar examples and the texts (involving zekrs) sung in conjunction with them is probably obvious to most local listeners because of the opportunity to hear the rhythms superimposed during singing and sequentially before and after verses. The same holds true for the dhamal pattern, because so many of those in attendance have heard “dam-ā-dam mast qalandar” recited during drumming sessions. Participants’ knowledge of Muharram-related texts associated with musical instruments in South Asia and Trinidad, by contrast, is scant, owing to, among other things, the lack of reinforcement during performance. South Asian drummers might verbalise Muharram drum patterns as texts for the purpose of teaching them, but there is no public ritual context in which anyone recites these texts. The texts themselves, when available, are merely phrases or a few stanzas, and are transmitted mainly among skilled musicians or among drummers who vary in their technical abilities.

Part II. Case Studies

22Table 17.1 is a typology of text-music relationships, focusing mainly on rhythm. This typology, while grounded in the musical examples discussed in this essay, points towards more general cross-cultural possibilities. In each case study, I have taken participants’claims to textuality seriously, but also noted their varying degrees of specific textual awareness and training. Each example discussed below is keyed by number to the typology; technical details will be explored in Part III.

Table 17.1: Typology of text-musical rhythmic pattern relationships

  • 11 Thanks to Stephen Blum for suggesting this possibility.

Type 1

Very general notions or beliefs such as, “our drumming tells the story of Karbala”, oft heard in India, or the notion in Torbat-e Jam that dotar rhythms are related to zekrs (Example 1).

Type 2

Associations at the level of a whole rhythmic pattern indicated by such statements as, “The sequence of these patterns corresponds to such and such structural points of the narrative”.

Type 3

Associations at the level of a specific pattern:

a) Asserted but analytically opaque connection that may or not have historical validity (matam example) (equivalent to Type 1 but more specific as to pattern and meaning);

b) Association at the level of rhythmic emphasis, i. e. wazn (kalma, example 2); giving weight to certain beats in a sequence in accordance with the way they would be spoken or chanted;

c) Association at the level of poetic metre, such that: i. at a minimum, distinctions between long and short

i. syllables are maintained; ii. sequences of long and short syllables as given in a

ii. metre are preserved (“ran mēṉ jis dam” and rūpak tal example; “hū hū” and dotar pattern example — examples 3 and 1 respectively);

iii. sequences of rhythmic patterns (or vocable patterns in vocal music) derived from the poetic metre prepare singer for verses;11

Type 3 cont.

d) Association at the level of hypermetre (dhīma, example 4

e) Association via a melody as an intermediate layer (without any necessary memory of the original text) (drummers’memories of melodies for matam and dhima, examples 5 and 6).

Type 4


a) Musical patterns, not only poetic metrical conventions, may impact upon recitation;

b) Distinctions between long and short syllables may be obscured by the many possible values of long syllables and the positions in which such syllables appear.

Indo-Caribbean Drumming

23Indo-Caribbean Hosay (Muharram) drumming conveys text in generalised ways which correspond to Types 1 and 2 of Table 17.1. Indo-Caribbeans migrated mainly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in North India beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and carried with them the knowledge to perform Muharram ceremonies. They developed new designs for tadjas (ta‘ziyas) and creatively modified other objects and practices. The tassa, the shallow, bowl-shaped drum in Trinidad that accompanies these processions, is wider in diameter than many of its Indian counterparts, which are called tasha and related names. The “bass” in Trinidad is also more massive than most of the dhols found in India that accompany the tasha. The name of the occasion, too, changed from Muharram to “Hosay”, after Husain.

24In 1995-1996 I conducted research in New York City with a group of Indo-Trinidadian drummers called US # 1. Example 7 is excerpted from my video documentation of Hosay in Manhattan. The edits highlight the contrast, oft noted by participants in South Asia, between the excitement of battle and the sober mourning over the dead: 1) upbeat drumming (battle); 2) a view of the tadja; 3) a slow march played just after the tadja begins to be disassembled (the scene of death after the battle); and 4) a change of mood signaled/cued by the speeding up of the drumming and followed by joyous dancing. Both Hindus and Muslims participated in this celebration of Hosay and the Muslim participants did not distinguish themselves along Shi‘i and Sunni lines.

  • 12 Korom (2003), p. 165.

25According to Frank Korom, the first scholar to write about the issue of drum-encoded messages among Indo-Trinidadians, drummers in Trinidad alluded to how Hosay drumming communicates a story, in part through the large-scale sequencing of drum patterns that they call “hands”. The differences between the faster and slower patterns, and between the more rapid pattern at the beginning and the dancing pattern at the end, “convey the notions of marching or journey, war, death, sorrow and lamentation, and burial”.12 So, although the messages to which these consultants referred were not at equivalent levels of analysis, most conformed to Types 1 and 2 in Table 17.1. To put the macro level structure of these intrumental performances in context, it is important to keep in mind that the sequencing of rhythmic patterns on musical instruments is often important in South, Central, and West Asia, whether or not the sequences are accorded narrative significance.

26Korom’s informants reported that in an earlier era participants used to sing while drummers played one of the lamentational hands. Based on this evidence Korom suggested that over the past two generations the drums may have grown more important in their communicative function, while the singing practice gradually died out. Knowledge of the associated textual traditions has not been well preserved or creatively developed. Although Trinidadian drummers and those who hear them understand the drums to communicate texts in different ways, they do not currently locate that communication at the level of the syllabic utterance (Table 17.1: 3b and c). By contrast, in traditions associated with zikr (or zekr) in many parts of the Muslim world, text and instrumental rendition may correspond quite assiduously at the micro level.

The Nizamuddin Tradition in Delhi and Karachi

27The South Asian tasha and dhol traditions from which the Indo-Caribbean tassa and bass traditions evolved are diverse. The Nizamuddin drumming tradition is of interest because, as in the Indo-Caribbean tradition, knowledgable participants associate drum patterns with texts.

28In 1997 some dhol and tasha players belonging to the Nizami khandan were living in the Jacob Lines neighbourhood of Karachi (and presumably continue to do so at the time of this writing). Communication between Nizamis in Karachi and Delhi had continued since Partition: relatives would travel to and from Delhi, sometimes bringing spare drum parts and also sharing musical and other kinds of information connected with the performance of Muharram rituals. The attitudes and practices associated with the Nizamis in Jacob Lines had emerged in response both to local circumstances and to ongoing developments in Delhi.

  • 13 I was not asked to preserve anyone’s anonymity, but this man did not his name or any personal infor (...)

29The dhol player Hashim ‘Ali was an unschooled floor-maker, aged about 45 in 1997. A Shi ‘i neighbour and friend, who will be called Nasir, participated in a conversation about the practices associated with the Nizamuddin tradition in Karachi and specifically about the participation of Shi ‘as — a community the Nizamis of Karachi (but not those of Delhi) specified as important to the Nizamuddin Muharram rituals.13 Nasir and the other Shi ‘as who participate in the Nizamuddin rituals in Karachi will be referred to as “partners” of the Nizamis to differentiate them from the many other Shi‘i or Shi ‘ i-related groups.

  • 14 James Kippen, Gurudev’s Drumming Legacy: Music, Theory and Nationalism in the Mr̥daṅg aur Tabla Vā (...)

30Hashim described the four main items of repertoire: kalma, dhima, matam, and savari. (The order in which they are played is somewhat variable in practice and will be addressed later.) Savari (savārī, meaning “ride”), is commonly found in names of talas for the tabla and pakhavaj as well as for the dhol in Panjab, although this pattern is musically unrelated.14 In the Muharram context, participants view savari as the accompaniment for a royal cavalcade with Husain as the symbolic king. Hashim indicated that the drumming, in general, provides enjoyment (maza) for those listening and watching the procession; more specifically it informs them that the procession is connected with Muharram. Emphasising the role of text, he said that the Nizami drummers play “only marsiyas, within which a lay [rhythmic pattern on the drums] is built” (“ṣirf [...] mars̱iya, us ke andar ek lay banā‘ī jātī hai”). Nasir mentioned also that Shi ‘as chant “Husain, Husain” continuously with the matam pattern (see example 10). Hashim also emphasised (and this is fairly common among Muslim Muharram drummers) that they do not play patterns associated with happy occasions. This is a symbolic distinction of social as well as religious importance because it marks the occasion as serious and it reduces the stigma of these drummers as musicians — that is, it suggests that they are serious religious functionaries and not merely providers of entertainment.

31Sunnis and Shi ‘as conventionally differ in their emotional involvement in Muharram. How did such participants as Hashim represent their emotional understandings of drumming? Regarding matam, for example, Hashim said, “people are… in a languid state (sust kaifīyat); they listen, deeply immersed… and many begin weeping also; they shed tears; their hearts are moved”. Different Muharram patterns have different emotional implications. “[Y] ou can feel what is [different] in” (“āp ko maḥsūs hogā ki is mẽ kyā hai”) a particular pattern by listening to it, Hashim said. Those who know the textual details can conjure up a specific image of what each pattern encodes; others, such as Hashim, feel the emotional shades as aesthetic differences in the drumming itself. Hashim’s description of the “state” or “condition” of the listener differed from Shi ‘i and Sunni stereotypes of Sunnis as those who celebrate rather than mourn the death of Husain. He used the term sust, which means slow, heavy, languid, and weak, thereby drawing a connection between slowness in time, weight, and bodily condition that contrasts strongly with the lack of gravity Shi ‘as predicate upon Sunni Muharram drummers. It is possible that Hashim’s own bodily responses to drumming were conditioned by his specialisation on the dhol, which, as a bass drum with less frequent attacks, would indeed carry the physical connotation of weight and slowness.

32According to Hashim, Shi ‘as had participated in Muharram drumming to a limited extent in the past (although he was very unclear on this point); at present, he said, drummers associated with his tradition were Sunni. Shi ‘i partners in the area would invite Sunni drummers to perform at their Muharram observances and both communities would attend one another’s functions. Nasir also reported that his Shi ‘i sub-community did not participate as drummers in Muharram, only as performers of matam. However one of their relatives, the late Vajid Khurshid ‘ Ali (d. 1952), was a well-known tabla player who performed classical drums out of individual passion (shauq), not out of a ritual obligation connected with his religious affiliation; he didn’t play dhol or tasha. The Sunni tasha player Muhammad Bakhsh described the one Shi‘i ta‘ziya that used to be taken out at Nizamuddin, the Khurshid ta‘ziya, which was presumably sponsored by Vajid Khurshid ‘Ali. He said that the Nizami Sunnis would play the drums on one side of the ta‘ziya and the special group of Shi ‘as associated with it would do sīna zanī (breast beating) on the other side. Apparently there were a few Shi ‘as who also played tasha at that time in Delhi, including one man named Ansar Husain, but this was a matter of controversy among Shi ‘as. Many Shi ‘as view it as a sin (gunah) to play the drums, citing stories and poetry that describe Yazid’s side playing the tabal drum to celebrate their victory every time they slayed a member of Husain’s tribe.

33Nasir went on to describe their mutual commitment to this joint tradition:

[Since coming to Karachi] this practice of playing (silsila) has been going on. We have maintained that chain such that, for example, their father and grandfathers have died and now their descendants have started [playing]. That which was a family (khandani) practice has been made to continue. In the same connection, we also call them, so that that custom (rasm) which is going on should continue. We tell our children that this has to be done, that anyone might die at any time so if we die you [must continue this practice].

34Although the Nizamis in Delhi in 2009-2010 did not acknowledge Shi‘i involvement in their Muharram practices, the content of the two communities’ practices overlapped significantly. Moreover, historical evidence suggests that the interaction between the communities may have been more extensive than that to which contemporary Nizamis in Delhi have admitted or perhaps remembered. It will be useful to describe parts of the Delhi ceremonies.

Muharram in Delhi

35At the Nizamuddin shrine in Delhi, several processions take place around the Nizamuddin basti, including one on the seventh of Muharram in which standards (‘alams) are carried to houses of pirzadas, salamis (salutes) performed on the drums, and marsiyas recited; and one on the ninth, when small ta‘ziyas, called mehndis, are taken from individual homes. The ta ‘ziya in Nizamuddin imambara (the shrine for remembrance of Husain, which is located near the main shrine) is also brought around the neighbourhood in some of these processions. On the tenth of Muharram, this ta ‘ziya is carried to the Karbala in Jorbagh, the destination of a number of different ta ‘ziya float processions from around the city.

36One of the notable features of drumming during the Delhi processions is the role of Hindus. A professional drumming group led by a man named Mamraj is in charge of Muharram drumming. Mamraj was unaware of whether his teacher — the Muslim formerly in charge of Muharram drumming at Nizamuddin — was Sunni or Shi ‘a and he himself was not interested in the demarcation of religions because for him it was “all one”. Mamraj said that he plays in service (sevā) of Nizamuddin Auliya. Mamraj’s son Bharat Singh likened Muharram to Ram Lila, where for some 12 days Hindus take out floats representing scenes from Hindu mythology. In Bharat Singh’s view, Hindus believe in/attend to (“mānte haiṉ”) the floats in a manner comparable to the ways Muslims focus attention on ta‘ziyas.

  • 15 See especially Government of India, Muharram in Two Cities: Lucknow and Delhi (Census of India, 196 (...)
  • 16 Government of India (1961 [1965?]), pp. 57, 78.
  • 17 Ibid, p. 57.
  • 18 Ibid, p. 77. The Delhi Census study was divided into two sections; the first follows processions an (...)

37The Census of India sponsored studies on Muharram in several Indian cities, which resulted in a number of monographs.15 The Delhi study corroborates aspects of the story of cooperation told by the Sunnis and Shi ‘as in Karachi. The “notional place of Karbala ground, Ali Ganj, Delhi, and adjoining dargah shah-e-mardan, showing the places of various activities connected with the performance of moharram” illustrates clearly that most of the places for “burial of tazias by Sunnis on Ashra [sic] day (10 Moharram)’” are spatially segregated from those of the “burial of tazias by Shi‘ahs on Chehellum day (10 Safar) and 8 Rabi-ul Awwal”. The notable exception was one Sunni ta‘ziya — that from the Nizamuddin imambara.16 The study further notes that the “division of the ground for burial of tazias by Sunnis and Shi‘ahs was effected during British rule some 30 years ago”17 — i. e. in the mid-1930s, preceding the time of Partition by more than ten years. Although some might credit colonialism with exacerbating tensions between Shi ‘as and Sunnis, it is likely the burial places were ultimately segregated for the same reasons processions in Karachi were made to be separate by the Pakistani government: repeated outbreaks of violence. The fact that the Nizami processions were not kept separate would suggest that in the 1930s there was no reason to keep the Nizami Sunnis and Shi ‘as separate. Indeed the closeness of the practices, and the involvement of both communities, would have been a good reason to keep the Nizami practices unsegregated on the Shi‘i side. The Census description shows the active involvement of both communities, including the Shi‘i chanting of “Husain, Husain” and performance of matam — precisely what Nasir described in Karachi with regard to Shi‘i responses to the Sunni matam drum pattern.18 According to the Census study, Nizami participation in the Shi‘i procession occurred at one of the prominent halting points of the procession, the Jama Masjid, where a half-hour speech was delivered by Pir Zamin Nizami Syed Bukhari:

  • 19 Ibid, p. 73. Pir Zamin Nizami Syed Bukhari was a leading pirzada at Nizamuddin dargah and the fathe (...)

He said that some might be surprised that he being a Sunni, was speaking in a gathering of the Shias. But there was nothing strange in that. The political, economic and religious condition of the country demanded that the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs of all sects share in each other’s joys and sorrows. There was a special need for the Shias and Sunnis to come closer to each other as both were based on some common principles.19

38This historical evidence from the 1960s, the spatial organisation of the Karbala, and the oral evidence from the Nizami Sunnis and their Shi‘i partners in Karachi seem to militate against the contemporary view of Nizamis in Delhi that their observance of Muharram has never involved Shi ‘as in a significant way, and that Shi ‘as did not do matam in their presence.

Controversies and Political Obstacles

39While it is not surprising, in the contemporary global climate of tension among Islamic factions, that Sunni-Shi‘i relations in Nizamuddin are not as they once were (although one should be careful not to romanticise these past relations), it is nevertheless useful to examine how in Karachi the actors involved have reacted to negative pressure.

40At the time of my interview in 1997, some Shi‘i muhajirs not connected with the Nizamuddin tradition had begun to object to the Nizami drumming tradition. Hashim described the changes:

We lived in India, that is, we lived side by side, the two of us. Our relationships with them were good. There was chatting; that is, everything was there. They also believed in this thing [our drumming and so forth]. They came; they came in our procession as well. We went in their processions. In this manner, I mean, these chains [silsile] were going on. Now, having come here, they, having come to Karachi for some time, we continued together. Approximately eight, nine years, ten years, our processions walked together. After that, a change came such that [we] became separate. Their procession goes first; I mean a lot of changes have come. Those who were there in the old days, those who were coming with us [on procession], they still hold the same [relations] with us. But some other people from other places, they have completely parted ways.

41Nasir pointed out that in each era (har daur meṉ), opponents (muḵẖālifīn) kept coming up to block their path — meaning literally the path of the procession, but also by implication the chain or custom pursued jointly by the Nizamis and their Shi‘i partners. In particular, they mentioned the interference of the Sipah-e-Sabah, a now-outlawed, militant, anti-Shi‘a group, and the Imamia Students Organization, which is pro-Shi‘a but opposed to drumming and other aspects of the public observances supported by the Nizamis and their Shi‘i partners. They said that members of groups like these would not intervene directly on their own behalf, but would rather, in the context of an occasion in which Shi ‘as and Sunnis were operating together, throw a stone, or tear the dhol, or hit one of the drummers, and then disappear into the crowd. After incidents of this sort, Shi ‘as and Sunnis in this locale began to keep their observances separate.

42Anti-Shi‘a groups would spread propaganda that Shi‘as are not Muslims, but kafirs (unbelievers); the association with Shi ‘as would rub off on the Nizamis and these religious factions would tell the Nizamis that they were committing sins (gunah) by playing the drums and performing other Muharram rituals. Because of these local conflicts, the community was threatened against bringing their drums outdoors to demonstrate for me in 1997 — even though, technically speaking, this was within the longer sixty-day period in which Muharram is observed in South Asia. The Nizamis had brokered a fragile deal with their local opponents such that they would play in public only on limited days, so long as they did not play during namaz time.

43Drumming was disliked by the neighbours of the Nizamis in Karachi in part for the public vision of Islam it presented, one perhaps lacking decorum and sobriety and suggesting a love of music. It also drew attention to rituals involving ta‘ziyas and blurred the distinctions between Shi ‘as and Sunnis. Over the centuries Chishti sufis (who are Sunnis) have suffered criticism from many kinds of orthodox or reactionary parties. The move from Delhi to Karachi changed the position of the Nizamis from a powerful, influential and firmly rooted presence in Delhi to a relatively weaker, economically depressed minority community in Karachi — although muhajirs were generally better educated and wealthier than their Sindhi and Pashtun counterparts. In the competition for economic and political resources in Pakistan, different muhajir groups vied with one another and with these other ethnic groups. The customs the Nizamis and their Shi‘i partners so valued made them especially vulnerable to attack. In 1989 the Nizami Institute in Karachi published a pamphlet written in Urdu by Sayyad ‘Ali Abbas Nizami called “The Constitution of the Faith of the Nizami Family for the ‘Urses of the Great Religious People”.

44This fifteen page constitution, or dastūr-e ‘amal, is framed as a response to a fatwa against members of the Nizami khandan for engaging in unauthorised religious innovations (bida’t). Defensive responses of this kind in this family date back to the time of Nizamuddin himself. The publication of this statement in 1989 suggests the extent to which the troubles discussed by Hashim and Nasir have had an impact on the larger communities of the Nizamis and their Shi‘i partners in contemporary Karachi.

  • 20 Sayyid ‘Ali Abbas Nizami, Khāndān-e Niẓāmī kā ‘ aqīdah va dastūr-e ‘ amal: urās buzurgān-e dī (...)

45Among the criticisms to which the constitution responds are those against celebrating ‘urses and listening to musical instruments (sāz) as part of spiritual audition (sama‘), including qawwali sessions. The Nizamis are also accused of acknowledging a plurality of divinities (shirk), by performing rituals connected with the ta‘ziya. The responses of this Nizami group were that their Chishti sufi order is esteemed in many lands; that the practice of observing ‘urses and listening to pure, mystical poetry (pākīza ‘arfana kalām) constitutes worship; and that denying this reality or truth (haqīqat) amounts to straying from the path. They deny that rituals with ta‘ziya, which include drumming and recitation of poetry, are religious (mazhabī) actions at all because, they argue, no Muslim regards the ta‘ziya as god.20

  • 21 Nizami (1989), p. 3.

46The Nizami defense of rituals involving the ta‘ziya in the dastur-e ‘amal makes reference to both attitudes and emotions: when members of that community take the ta‘ziya on procession they adopt an attitude of respect and create impressions (ta’ssurāt) of happiness (khūshī) and sadness (gham) mixed (mile jule);21 this intermediate view is also widely held with regard to the proceedings as a whole and drumming in particular. The following marsiya (example 3) illustrates the multivalent position of drumming. It is maintained as one of the texts associated with the Nizami tradition and is associated with both a tune and the dhima drum pattern (see part III):

  • 22 Thirsty literally because of being blocked from getting water from the Euphrates, and thirsty metap (...)

ran meṉ jis dam ṣubḥa ‘āshūrā āyāṉ hone lagī
At the moment the morning of Ashura first dawned in the battlefield
lashkar-e shāh-e shahīdāṉ meṉ aẕān hone lagī
the call to prayer started amidst the army of the king of martyrs,
yāh namāzeṉ aur kamar bandī vahāṉ hone lagī
where prayers and preparations (for battle) were taking place
is t̤araf tadbīr qatl-e tishnegī hone lagī
on the other side they were scheming to slay those thirsting ones22 tāl o jangī kī sadāeṉ jā sunī ma‘ṣūm nē
Then that innocent (Husain) stood listening to the sound of drums and battle
tā lagī talvār bhī ḥaidar ka qabzā cūmne.
until the swords themselves came close enough to kiss the hilt of Haidar’s sword (which Husain had).

(translation by Amy Bard)

Part III. Text-Music Relationships

47Performers in Trinidad, and the best among them in India and Pakistan, play the dhol and tasha together in three distinct rhythmic strata: an ostinato pattern or a returning riff on the dhol, a duple or triple ostinato pattern on one or more tashas, and a rotating improvisatory part on tasha. The dhol part in general defines an item of dhol-tasha repertoire. In the Nizami tradition the dhol pattern holds what performers regard as the tune (nagẖma) and outlines texts. In addition to recapitulating the sound of Husain’s voice that legendarily issued from the drums in Timur’s time, it is also said to take the burden off marsiya reciters during the arduous days of ritual observance.

48The following analysis shows how Nizami drum patterns in Karachi and Delhi relate to the poetic metre and stress patterns of verbal phrases said to underlie those drum patterns. Considering examples of chanted, sung, and instrumentally performed zekr from Iran provides a broader context for understanding the abstraction that takes place in moving from language to instrumental performance. In undertaking this analysis, I assume that there is a logic to Nizami claims that specific texts lie behind their drum patterns, even though many of the performers themselves have difficulty in articulating the mechanics of the system. It is also important to recognise that claims of textuality are claims to contextually relevant meaning. Such claims deflect possible criticisms of Muharram drumming as a form of music by suggesting that it communicates texts with religious significance. These texts, in the Nizamuddin drumming traditions of Delhi and/or Karachi consist of (a) two poems, a marsiya for dhima and a salam for matam; (b) the Muslim statement of faith, called the kalma, which serves as a returning phrase on the dhol; (c) a couplet whose recitation overlays the kalma; (d) the words “Husain, Husain” which accompany the performance of matam; (e) the words to a song played on brass instruments along with matam/savari; (f) and the words (as yet undetermined) to an alternate tune hummed by Mamraj as the underlying pattern for dhima (example 6). In what follows I will examine the textual implications of each repertorial item. The method of connecting text to drum pattern varies somewhat from pattern to pattern and there are intriguing ambiguities. Nevertheless, a general logic related to stress and syllable length pervades the whole.

49Muhammad Bakhsh (Karachi) provided one of the most important clues to the textual basis of drumming when he said that the dhol stick (cob) falls (par̥egī) in the places of words. This does not mean the dhol stroke corresponds to each word. Rather the dhol indexes emphasised words — words given stress in recitation and/or words that have implied stress in the metre. The tasha, by contrast, keeps track of the intervening mātras (counts) and sometimes the words.

50Savari is a faster version of matam and is based on the same text. The idea of building speed and intensity is intrinsic to this repertoire. According to Sarir Ahmed Nizami and Muhammad Bakhsh, the sequence begins with the dhima pattern, which is also very slow (the word itself means “slow”), followed by matam, savari, and optionally kalma. In practice (in Delhi at least), the order of performance depends more on the stopping and starting of the procession and the choices made by the drummers than on any fixed order.

  • 23 M. A. Khalilian and Stephen Blum, ‘Musical Ontology of the Naqhsbandi Order in Eastern Iran’, unpub (...)

51The following describes the basic textual and contextual features of the four main pieces of repertoire, kalma, dhima, matam/savari, and then analyzes each of them along with their related secondary texts. The contextual discussion of matam and savari is followed directly by a technical analysis of poetic and other chanted texts, breast striking and drum strokes. This analysis relies on several conjectures about how the poetry is iterated on the drums. Principally, long syllables in the metre become bass strokes on the drum and short syllables are articulated as higher-pitched rim strokes. Following the analysis of matam/ savari is a discussion of the distinction between metre (e. g. in the ‘aruz system) and weight or emphasis in the verbal performance of a text more generally. Musical renditions may draw from or emphasise aspects of poetic metre and/or weight, which may or may not differ significantly. To illustrate this idea, I return to examine the kalma more closely. Although it has metrical implications, the kalma is not in a particular poetic metre. The relationship of the kalma text to the drum pattern is readily apparent to anyone who hears it. Analytically, it is possible to speak of this relationship in terms of a hypermetre. This idea of hypermetre proves useful for analyzing the dhima pattern, whose relationship to its poetic text is not obvious. Finally I put the Nizami case study in a broader framework, with a brief excursion to Eastern Iran, suggesting that many of the examples discussed here may be fruitfully examined in terms of what Stephen Blum terms “rhythmic templates”.23


52Kalma (also called the shahada) is the Muslim declaration of the unity of god and the prophethood of Muhammad: “lā illāha illa’llāh muḥammadur rasūl’allāh”. In the Nizami context, musicians rather than ritual needs dictate when to play the kalma and for how long; it is not tied thematically to Muharram. According to Muhammad Bakhsh, drummers associated with Nizamuddin invented the kalma pattern to pass the time, for enjoyment (shauq) when they get “fed up” (ẕehn bhar jātā hai). It provides a change of pace from playing the other patterns incessantly. Versions of this text are widespread in sufi zikrs and will be considered in Iranian contexts below. The Nizamis in Karachi (but not in Delhi) said that a second pattern, with its own text, is superimposed over the kalma. That pattern is called ‘Alī kī ẓarbeṉ, or the “strikes of ‘Ali”, the idea being that beating the drums constitutes calling out the name of ‘Ali.


53Dhima is played in open areas at moments when processioners can stand around and listen, thoughtfully. A single line from a marsiya is said to underlie dhima in rhythm and narrative import:

āj ṣughrā yūṉ madīne meṉ haiṉ rotī bhar ke nain.
Today Sughra cries in Medina like this with eyes full of tears.

54According to the performers, this drum pattern is supposed to give the effect/impression (ta’ssur) of the day in which Sughra, Husain’s daughter, received the news of her father’s martyrdom. Being ill, she had been left in Medina when her family traveled to Karbala. The marsiya associated with dhima continues with additional lines and stanzas, some of which were quoted earlier in connection with “drums and war” (tal o jang) on the day of battle. This scene is a good example of the subtle emotional modalities brought into play in Muharram rituals. The emotional effect of the battle, with its immediacy and bloodiness (the moment emphasised in the earlier quoted lines), is distinct from the shock, horror, and pain of loved ones when they receive word of the events at Karbala (the moment emphasised in the key line about Sughra).

Matam and Savari

  • 24 It is technically a salam, although participants called it marsiya.

55S. A. Nizami sang the following line of poetry in salam style and identified it as the text underlying both the matam and savari patterns (slower and faster versions of the same pattern respectively).24

jab Fāt̤ima firdaus se kahtī hu’ī ā’īṉ maẓlūm Ḥusainā
When Fatima came from paradise saying “Oppressed Husain”

56The words “oppressed Husain” (maẓlūm Ḥusainā) serve as a refrain in this poem, so if one continues to examine the next line, one encounters what Fatima actually “says” in this poem, namely, “because of your [Husain’s] dying, all I [Fatima] had invested as a mother was plundered”. Understanding that “oppressed Husain” is a refrain is important in interpreting the scansion and its drummed analogue.

57The impression conveyed in this drum pattern is of Fatima, the mother of Husain, as a woman mourning the loss of her child. The image links this particular tone of mourning, which mixes love and loss, with the call to fight oppression — a universalist message that has been taken up beyond the confines of Muslims in South Asia. The link between the named item matam, the Shi‘i action of breast beating, and the meanings behind matam, are made poetically concrete through reference to this text.

58A second text is also associated with matam via the tune the brass instruments play in procession:

  • 25 Mehndi is henna and is traditionally applied as part of wedding celebrations.
    According to the lore

Karbalā meṉ mehndī voh, kar ga’ī savārī vakr̥i ab bajāo Ḥusain kā mātam
That mehndī in Karbala has been completed, the procession is extraordinary; now play the matam of Husain.25

59This song describes the process of performing Muharram rituals and calls attention to spectacular and colourful features of the Nizami observance: the mehndi rituals, the procession (savari), and the matam drum pattern. It seems significant that both savari and matam are mentioned in a song that is associated with drum patterns of those very names.

60Moving on to a more detailed consideration, matam and savari drum patterns are logically linked to both texts: both are the same number of beats, although they do not begin in exactly the same place. In “jab Fāṭima”, the long (–) and short (˘) syllables can be projected onto the resonant bass strokes and short-duration rim strokes of the dhol respectively. Each syllable is rendered on the drum with an equal duration, with differences in timbre and decay distinguishing long from short syllables. When this text is recited musically in salam style, however, little of its surface rhythm can be heard on the drums. Instead, the sung version sounds almost as if the poetry scanned – – ˘ –/– – ˘ –/– – ˘ –/– – (– – ˘ ˘ – –); i. e. every fourth syllable in the first twelve gets a melodic extension which pulls against the scansion of that syllable (which is short). S. A. Nizami’s recognition of this apparent mismatch was implied by his explanation that, when the text is performed on the drums, it is rendered “quickly” (jalad; his pronunciation). The rhythmic patterning of the sung version is reconfigured to flatten out the syllabic durations, however, and not merely to speed them up proportionally.

61The brass band song (which does not follow the ‘aruz metrical system) provides a better analogue of the surface rhythm, with the text as sung (example 8) providing primary and secondary accents in logical positions within the drumming pattern. Table 17.2 shows how “jab Fāṭima” correlates with the poetic metre, bass and rim strokes on the dhol, right and left hand strokes of the tasha ostinato (not the improvisation), matam strikes on the chest, the chanting of “Husain, Husain”, and the text of the song associated with the brass band tune. The only text actually uttered during a performance, and only in Karachi (as of 1997), is “Husain, Husain”. Each column of the table receives a count, logically grouped into fours based on the drum strokes. The doubled column marked “pause?” is a suggestion of how to account theoretically for the projection of the – – ˘ ˘ foot continuously from the main text of the poem into the refrain (which does not figure into the scansion). The first four syllables of the text provide a template for the entire drum pattern (Centre Centre Rim Rim on the dhol).

Row 1

1st line of marsiya for matam pattern according to S. A. Nizami (example 9);

Row 2

Scansion of marsiyas (also taking into account the second line of the poem, provided by Ghulam Hasnain Nizami), with an added 2 short/silent syllables between main poem and refrain “maẓlūm Ḥusainā;”

Row 3

From demo of savari, June 8, 1997 (example 10): Dhol pattern by stick (cob) in right hand (left hand plays centre with bare hand bisecting each stick stroke). C = Centre, resonant stroke; R = Rim stroke;

Row 4

From demo of savari, June 8, 1997: Tasha ostinato pattern; r = right hand; l = left hand;

Row 5

From demo of savari: sīna zanī (breast beating): strikes on chest;

Row 6

From demo of savari: chanting of Husain (not continuous); h = hu (almost silent) ss = sain (loud for two pulses);

Row 7

From interview with Mamraj (example 8): text to song played on brass instruments, with primary accents bolded and secondary accents in italics.

Wazn, ‘Aruz, and Other Bases for Text-Music Relationships

62The manner in which the drums follow the text in the Nizami tradition can be understood in terms that are also relevant to other instrumental and vocal treatments of texts. They may reproduce the general rhythmic feel, or wazn (“weight” or “measure”), of the text (Table 17.1: 3b); closely approximate a more specific pattern of literary metre, such as the Perso-Arabic ‘aruz or the matra-based metres of Hindi (Table 17.1: 3c); and they may articulate a hypermetre, a metre abstracted from points of emphasis in the performance of a text (Table 17.1: 3d). In some cases, agogic stress is transformed into dynamic stress (i. e. length is translated into loudness on an instrument). Instrumental renditions may follow the groove of a melody that carries or once carried text (Table 17.1: 3e); or it may evoke text in spirit only, perhaps having once held a more analytically specifiable relationship (Table 17.1: 1 and 2). Many listeners who have been told a pattern is connected with a text do not know how to hear the connection.

63Sometimes the instrumental rendition does more than one thing at the same time, as in the several examples which are associated with more than one text. Collectively these otherwise rather simple patterns involve a number of simultaneous operations: matching iterations of up to two texts, following an abstract model of the pattern (sequence of strokes separated by counts), and reacting to the cues of the lead tasha player.

  • 26 L. P. Elwell-Sutton identifies wazn as the metres poets actually use, as opposed the theoretical sy (...)
  • 27 Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1995), p. 167.

64The terms ‘aruz and wazn are often used interchangeably for poetic metre in languages that have adopted versions of the Arabic metric system.26 But sometimes wazn can be used to describe a more general kind of emphasis or “weight”— the literal meaning of the term. For example, the qawwali singer Mehr ‘ Ali when he was in Boston in April 2008 pointed out that even poetry in so-called free metre, azad nazm, bore a wazn that he would articulate in singing qawwali. The reader superimposes measurement and stress to lend sense and aesthetic appeal to all poetry, whether or not it fits within a rigid system such as that of the Perso-Arabic ‘aruz. As Derek Attridge wrote of so-called free verse in English: “although verse always implies some principle of regularity of equivalence, it need not be based on the production of controlled numbers of beats by the disposition of stressed and unstressed syllables in certain syntactic and linear arrangements”.27

65The phrases “lā illāha illa’llāh muḥammadur rasūl’allāh” which constitute the kalma do not fall within an ‘aruz-based metre, but they are durationally and dynamically patterned. In the zekrlā ellāhā illa’llāh” as recorded by Stephen Blum among members of the Khaksar sufi order at a Khaneqah in Qazvin, Northwestern Iran (example 11), chanters provide equally spaced stresses on the syllables in bold: lā ellāhā ella’llāh.


66Returning now to the kalma (example 2) for a closer look, the points of emphasis indicated in bold receive cob (stick) strokes on the dhol. The pattern is essentially the same as in the previous example, except that an additional stress bisects the last two (i. e. instead of the two points of emphasis in the chant “ella’lāh”, the drummed version provides three points of emphasis, “il la’lāh”, with a stroke emphasising “la’” in the middle). The increased density of articulation provides energetic drive to the second half of the cycle in a manner much in keeping with Indic rhythmic organisation generally.

67Assigning a value of “1” for short syllables and “2” for long syllables, the rhythmic sequence would be roughly as follows (“/” indicates division between bolded letters, corresponding to divisions between drum strokes):













/l ‘ al

















  • 28 The extension of the final syllable “lāh” into a hypermetric “long” makes sense it appears at the e (...)

68Organised into a hypermetre of longs and shorts (with longs being units adding up to 4 or 3 and shorts being units adding up to 2), and dividing the phrase into two halves, this sequence would yield, – – ˘ ˘ –, – – ˘ ˘ ˘ This is very close to the musical durations played on the drums.28

69The kalma is performed in two ways: one is to insert a single iteration of the – – ˘ ˘ – phrase within the performance of another pattern. This was evident, for example, in some of the processional drumming performed at the Nizamuddin celebration of Muharram in 2009. Example 12 shows drummers in Delhi playing savari and then, as the drums change hands, playing kalma once. The other way is for performers to use this phrase as a refrain that the tasha players cue. In such instances, performers neither repeat the kalma phrase continuously nor do they return to it after a consistent number of beats or cycles (example 2).

Metrical Puzzles: The Case of Dhima

  • 29 Because of its 7 counts, rupak is an obvious choice for setting this poetic metre in the Hindustani(...)

70Whereas the analytic device of specifying a hypermetre merely formalised the emphasis one can readily hear when the kalma is spoken, it would be difficult to account for the relationship of the spoken or sung text of dhima to the drum pattern by that name without recourse to the idea of a hypermetre. Neither the tala nor the surface rhythm resembled the drum rhythm as it was played for me in Karachi (1997) (example 13) and Delhi (1998 and 1999) (example 4). The poetic metre of the dhima poem (ramal musamman mahzuf) features a repeating foot: – ˘ – –/– ˘ – –/– ˘ – –/– ˘ –. Unlike the salam rendition associated with matam, which didn’t seem to highlight the metrical conventions in the poetry, the tune for dhima follows it closely. The vocal renditions (examples 3, 14, 15) fit into the framework of the Hindustani rūpak tāl of seven counts. Textually, the poetic metre fits the musical rhythm (at the beginning of the sung version, but not later, where the syllables are more drawn out) by mapping short syllables onto one count and long syllables onto two counts.29 The rhythm is not metronomic, however, and it is not clear whether each line should be analyzed in isolation, or whether a flexible metric framework is meant to hold continuously throughout.

71Rupak tal: basic theka

0 = ḵẖālī, “empty” or section indicated by a hand wave
+ =
tālī (or bharī, “filled”), hand clap

72The distinctive feature in dhima is supposed to be the sequence of emphasised dhol strokes. In my first recording (example 13), Hashim and other junior drummers in Karachi performed a version of dhima that lacked clear periodicity. The number of beats separating the first 9 dhol strokes were 7, 7, 7, 5, 5, 6, 5, and 5. On a return visit, two senior drummers who had emigrated from India led the performance and the pattern was more regular (example 16), although technically not skillful. Each set of three dhol strokes fell into a pattern of 3 + 4 + 7 beats which was isomorphic with the number of counts in the tala. But tala alone didn’t help me understand why the 7 was consistently broken up into 3 + 4. When I traveled to Delhi and recorded Mamraj’s professional ensemble, they proved to be virtuosic and highly knowledgable regarding nearly all of their extensive repertoire. However, when they played dhima they too displayed inconsistency (example 4). Their dhol strokes were separated by the following number beats in sequence: 6, 4, 4, 4, 4, 8, followed by 8s through to the end. In considering all of these patterns, I thought that all the musicians had simply lost the knowledge to perform dhima correctly. Perhaps the text S. A. Nizami had cited, I thought, was a red herring.

73However, in 2009 I had the opportunity to interview and videotape Ghulam Hasnain Nizami, a pirzada and an acknowledged master of the Nizamuddin drum tradition in Delhi. He sang the very same text that S. A. Nizami had demonstrated in Karachi and he showed me precisely where the dhol beats should fall in relation to the text (example 15). When I watched him perform the dhol while Mamraj played the tasha and the other players followed suit, I observed that the sequence of beats was again inconsistent (although the 3 + 4 + 7 pattern was evident in many of the repetitions) (example 17). Yet the surety with which he had shown me the way the dhol strokes were supposed to fall led me to seek an explanation that did not rely on the drummers holding a pattern with a consistent number of beats. Indeed I found that the dhol strokes are consistent at a hypermetric level. They articulate relations of short, long, and prolonged, after the syllables yūṉ (short, 7 units), meṉ (long, 10 units), and nain (prolonged, 11 units), where the “units” are the syllable values of 1 (short) or 2 (long) added together.

74Dhima: Hypermetre, metre, stressed syllables, and dhol strokes.

The final syllable “nain” is longer than the penultimate stressed syllable “meṉ” because the melodic rendition fills out the seven-count duration as if the final foot were – ˘ – – and includes the pause provided in the sung rendition. The parenthetical numbers indicate quantifications of poetic meter where ˘ = 1 and – = 2. The sequence of durations 7-10-11 corresponds to short-long-prolonged or ˘ – ––.
*(pause at line end)

  • 30 My suggestion that the hypermetre of the text has been carried over on the drums is based on two as (...)

75Although this analysis rests on a number of assumptions,30 it does account for the relative placement of the three dhol strokes in relation

76to the text. Table 17.3 displays the dhima text in possible rhythmic relationships with rupak tal.

Table 17.3: The text of dhima in metric relations with rupak tal

Table 17.3: The text of dhima in metric relations with rupak tal

Row 1

counts of rupak tal; text lined up as if one “foot” corresponded to one iteration of tal,

Row 2

with an extra “long” added in the 4th foot to make a repeating structure, yielding hypermetric relations of 7, 10, 11;

Rows 3-4

approximation of how text is actually sung with rupak tal superimposed, which yields hypermetric relations of 7, 14, 12;

Rows 5-6

possible “correction” of return to first line on sam of rupak tal, which would yield hypermetric relations of 7, 14, 14.

Rhythmic Templates: Zikr in Comparative Perspective

77The idea that poetic metres can both affect and be affected by rhythmic patterns in music leads us to consider what Stephen Blum has called rhythmic templates, “conventional combination [s] of features, including possible variants and substitutions” (pers. comm., 27 April 2009). Khalilian and Blum (2007) argued that performers in Torbat-e-Jam, Iran, render the zekrlā ellāha el l’allāh” using such templates, which provide metric form and serve as models upon which dotar players may build their rhythms. The Muharram repertoire at Nizamuddin may be fruitfully described in terms of templates as well; most are derived from either one phrase or one complete iteration of a verbal utterance. The two examples of “lā illāha illallāh”, one chanted (example 8) and one drummed (kalma, example 2), are defined by a single four-beat sequence. The matam/savari example is defined by alternating sets of two strokes on the centre and rim of the dhol, corresponding to the first repeating unit in the poetic metre. Dhima is longer and more complicated in derivation, but nevertheless represents the application of two related templates; the vocal rendition makes use of – ˘ – – and the drummed version uses ˘ – ––.

78As alluded to earlier, one difference between the Muharram drum patterns and the dotar patterns is that the latter are used to accompany vocal iterations of the zekrs. Like the incantation of “dam-ā-dam mast qalandar” in the Shah Jamal shrine of Lahore, the presence of chants side by side with the instrumental patterns serves to reinforce the verbal meanings of the latter.

79My initial comparison of the drummed kalma with chanting of the same material in Qazvin, Iran (example 11), drew attention to their common emphasis on the syllables in bold, elhā ella ’lh, organised into four equal beats. An excerpt of a song sung by Nur Mohammad Dorrpur and accompanied on dotar by Zolfeqar ‘askaripur (example 18) modifies this basic text to conform with the template ˘ – – – by adding the particle “ke”. “Ke” here indicates that someone is uttering the words that follow. The text “ke lā ellāha ella’llāh muḥammad yār rasūl allāh” serves as a refrain:






























80The same template can be found in a performance by Torbat-e Jam musicians Habib Habibi (vocal) and Sarvar Ahmadi (dotar) at the “Conference on the Music of Khorasan and Transoxiana”, Tehran, 4 January 2006 (example 1). The seven-pulse rhythmic pattern played on the dotar is related to the repeating foot of ˘ – – – in the poetry. Although it defies a simple transformation of quantified poetic metric units to musical ones, the germination of the instrumental pattern from the text is obvious even from a superficial listening.

“Hu hu”

  • 31 Text adapted from Muhammad Taqi Massoudieh, Mūsīqī-yi Torbat-i Jām (Tehran, 1980), p. 70, translat (...)

Like the turtledove’s incessant “ku ku”,
with every breath I say “hu hu” [the name of god].
Oh! in the manner of a qalandar, I don’t seek anyone other than Allah.

81While the performer could have applied the rhythmic template ˘ – – – in a simple manner to generate a dotar rhythm emphasising the pattern ♪ ♩ ♩ ♩, his more interesting choice (roughly, ♪ ♪ ♪. ♩ ‿ ♪., but with the second eighth note slightly prolonged) creates a counterpoint between the rhythm embodied in the utterance of the poetry and the abstraction of that rhythm used as the seed of the instrumental pattern.

82A similar process operates in the soz for dhima. In examples 14 and 15, sung in Karachi and Delhi, one may perceive the syllable “nain” falling on beat 1 — the sam of the tala — by projecting the metric framework of 3 + 4 counts forward for a fourth cycle (Table 17.3, lines 3-4). In this way, the template – ˘ – – remains active even though no instrument or hand motion is actually reiterating it. The drummed version operates at a more remote level of abstraction and perhaps for that reason remains elusive for most contemporary performers.

83The Torbat-e Jam dotar examples and the dhamal pattern as played on dhol at Shah Jamal shrine in Lahore draw the listener’s attention to the connection between the sound of the musical instrument and the copresent sound of text. Muharram drumming in the Nizami tradition, by contrast, creates a distance between the textual object, the verbal message, and the public proclamation. The drummers cannot make their instruments articulate vowels and consonants, so, in the absence of actual singers, drum patterns can only abstract the text. Drum patterns may further distance the text from the listener by only partially replicating its rhythmic emphasis or metre. Depending on the productive and receptive capabilities of the performers and listeners respectively, the sounds of the drums may in some cases not communicate the structure of the associated text at all — only the idea of text. Despite the distancing created between drumming and textual object, however, the drumming activates, or is supposed to activate, specific memories of texts and through that, emotional ties to the events at Karbala. In this sense, the drumming is an insider’s code.

84Aspects of the relationship between Sunnis and Shi‘i partners in the Nizamuddin tradition indicate that they together constitute a unified social entity while they also remain separate parts of a shared whole. This in-betweenness is one of the reasons the Nizami community is under pressure in the highly factionalised context of modern Karachi and one reason why Sayyad ‘ Ali Abbas Nizami would have been motivated to write a dastur e ‘amal. It is noteworthy, in this context, that musical matters should play such a significant role in the definition of this unusual community.

85One of the fundamental motivations to perform in the Nizami case, and arguably in many others, is the desire to express sentiments that are both general and specific. The general messages are “a procession is coming”, “someone is celebrating something”, and the like — the kinds of things suggested by number 1 in Table 17.1. As listeners draw near, they may be enticed to hear chanting, witness matam, ask questions, and be drawn into a world of poetry and music that operates outside that which is accessible to the public at large. The idea that drumming and music, like other forms of pageantry, mainly serve the function of attracting people, after which time the more serious business of teaching religion can take place, is a common apologia. Significant here is the way in which this hybrid, minority community of Muharram participants has both distanced and embraced musical performance. Such performances are among the practices that set this community apart in its post-Partition life in Pakistan, despite threats against them from factionalist political groups.

86Mixed oral and written traditions such as those discussed here have the potential to communicate traces of relationships — of trade, conquest, spiritual transmission, and artistic production, among others — which are built on layers of prior relationships stretching back over long periods of time. Nizami drumming is both a conduit and a residue of relationships among special groups of Shi ‘as, Sunnis and Hindus. It is a reason for these groups to join: some Shi ‘as may value drumming rituals so long as they are not the drummers. In Delhi, Hindu professional musicians have little difficulty incorporating their service for Nizamuddin into their broader idea of appropriate social-religious behaviour, and their presence ensures at least a minimum level of artistic quality. Sunni community members participate as a matter of obligation, service, and personal pleasure — since they take turns, they are only responsible for the moments in which they play, not for the upkeep of the ritual drumming throughout.

87The drum rhythms publicly reiterate the ongoing relationship of Nizamis in Karachi with their counterparts in Delhi, as well as their relationship with descendants of the Shi ‘as from the same area who now live in Karachi. The performance of the zikrlā illāha ill’allāh”, which is part of the kalma, also iterates relationships between the Nizamis and Muslim performers of other instrumental traditions, and with other orders or branches of Islamic practice; at the same time, it fits into a non-exclusivist world view of the Hindu participants — put in quasi-Advaita Vedantic terms, the notion of “one god” in the kalma implies that divinity itself is unitary, not that there is one true god and all the other (Hindu etc.) gods are false.

88The relationships among these communities are ever changing. Perhaps the sense of Shi ‘i-Sunni community that those in Karachi remember and value was the product of a historical moment, born from the enthusiasm of Khurshid ‘Ali and later to fizzle out in Delhi. Now Shi‘i involvement is on the rise in a different way in Delhi and drumming and matam (performed on the body) are no longer intimately connected. Drumming and the idea of embodied texts remain important markers of the connection between Karachi and Delhi, just as Hosay drumming in Trinidad creates an aura of textuality connected with a period closer to the first arrival of the ancestors of today’s Indo-Caribbeans from India. In both cases, the significance of text in drumming may be generalised, operating in the regions of Types 1 and 2 in Table 17.1. Drumming in this tradition can also convey contextually appropriate information to new or distantly familiar listeners, who might pick up on contrasts between fast and slow patterns and associate them with the heat of battle and death or woundedness respectively; at the same it provides deeper meaning to those who belong to the community, who would hear the relationship between drumming and text in the case of the kalma, and know that they should be associating the scene of Sughra with the dhima pattern; and finally a smaller group would be able to hook into the finer points of musical organisation and feel the connection with the specific poetic texts associated with matam/savari and dhima. Presumably those involved in hearing and performing the Indian traditions that took root in Trinidad over the generations went through a process of knowledge loss that corresponds roughly with moving from the bottom of Table 17.1 to the top; along the way, knowledge of the tradition must have been dispersed unevenly throughout the communities involved.

89The fact that text-music relationships as laid out in Table 17.1 can operate at several levels at one time allows the meaning of drumming to be scalable. At the most intimate level, the Nizami drumming patterns imply a special connection between poets and the sphere of the majlis and the public sphere of Muharram processions. Perhaps it is in that connection, between narrow and broad, private and public, that we can best apprehend the scalability of meaning in this drumming and its significance in holding together this fragile community in Karachi.

90Looking outward from these case studies, I hope to suggest that some of the transformations laid out in Table 17.1 are among the possible ways written texts from the past may be perpetuated through performance from generation to generation. Of particular interest are the roles of actual or imagined verbal performances that mediate instrumental iterations/interpretations of a text, the roles of pre-existing instrumental rhythms and other templates that affect the ways texts are delivered in performance, and the possibility that prosodic features of texts carry the seeds of their rhythmic expression in musical performances.

91These transformations are socially coded: the nature of the musictext relationships, as well as the texts themselves, may say something about how the communities associated with those who perform wish to, or in effect do, position themselves with respect to others. These creative, social, and sometimes commemorative activities continue to unfold in time: they are remembered, forgotten, bolstered, overlaid with new material (such as the multiple texts for dhima), defended or rejected. In this process, these kinds of performative and social materials also document, or suggest, relationships among populations in the past.


Examples for the Musical Lives

1) “Hu Hu,” Habib Habibi (vocal) and Sarvar Ahmadi (dotar), recorded by Richard K. Wolf, Tehran, Jan 4, 2006.

2) Kalma as performed by Mamraj’s tasha group, March 13, 1999. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

3) “Ran meṉ jis dam”— alternate text for dhima sung in soz style by Sayyad Sarir Ahmed Nizami, June 8, 1997. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

4) “Dhima” performed by Mamraj’s tasha group, March 13, 1999. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

5) Mamraj humming matam melody, March 13, 1999. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

6) Mamraj humming dhima melody, March 13, 1999. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

7) Indo-Trinidadian performance of tassa and bass during Hosay in Manhattan, Aug 31-Sept 1, 1996. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

8) Mamraj singing song associated with brass band melody for matam/savari, Aug 13, 1998. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

9) S. A. Nizami singing the salam text associated with the matam drum pattern. June 8, 1997. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

10) Demonstration of savari drum pattern with chanting of “Husain, Husain” and performance of matam, June 8, 1997, Jacob Lines, Karachi. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

11) Zekr, “lā ellāhe ellā’llāh,” chanted by members of a khaksar Sufi brotherhood. Recorded by Stephen Blum at Khāneqāh-a La ‘me, Qazvin, Iran, Aug 10, 1995.

12) Savari pattern followed by one iteration of kalma. Mamraj’s drum group performing during Muharram at the Nizamuddin shrine, late December 2009. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

13) Dhima performed by junior drummers, Jacob Lines, Karachi, June 2, 1997 (Hashim Ali, Akram Ali, Aslam Ali, M. Arsshad, M. Tanveer, M. Safdar). Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

14) “Āj Sughrā”— text for dhima sung in soz style by Sayyad Sarir Ahmed Nizami, June 8, 1997, Jacob Lines, Karachi. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

15) “Āj Sughrā”— text for dhima sung in soz style by Ghulam Hasnain Nizami Dec 27, 2009, Delhi. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

16) Dhima drum pattern (and transition into savari) as demonstrated by expert drummers in Jacob lines, Karachi, June 8, 1997. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

17) Dhima as performed by Ghulam Hasnain Nizami during Muharram Dec 27, 2009, Delhi. Recorded by Richard K. Wolf.

18) Zekr, “lā ellāhe ellā’llāh,” as part of a song. Nur Mohammad Dorrpur (voice) and Zolfekār ‘askaripur (dotār). Musiqi-ye Khorasan, 3, B: 2. Iranian Music Association.


A Note on Transliterating Persian and Indic Terms from Persian

The short vowel called kasre in Persian is transliterated “e” in Persian language contexts and “i” in Indic contexts. The default, if unspecified, is “i”. The short vowel zamme is likewise transliterated “o” for Persian and “u” for Indic languages.


1 This article draws from research presented in a different form in chapter 9 of The Voice in the Drum: Music, Language and Emotion in Islamicate South Asia (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014). I conducted this field research initially in India and Pakistan over 27 months, 1996-99. Comments on Karachi use the ethnographic present of 1997. Information on Delhi was gleaned in 1998-99 and 2009-10. Shi‘i will be used adjectivally while Shi ‘ a will be used for the people themselves. Because most of the Muharram rituals are not conducted in Delhi at the Nizamuddin shrine itself, but rather in the neighbourhood and along processions routes, and because there is a parallel tradition celebrated in Karachi, I refer in this article to Muharram practices in the “Nizamuddin tradition” rather than at the shrine.

2 Richard K. Wolf, ‘Embodiment and Ambivalence: Emotion in South Asian Drumming’, Yearbook for Traditional Music 32 (2000), 81-116.

3 Regula Burkhardt Qureshi, ‘Tarannum: The Chanting of Urdu Poetry’, Ethnomusicology 13.3 (1969), 425-68; ‘Indo-Muslim Religious Music: An Overview’, Asian Music 3.2 (1972), 15-22; ‘Islamic Music in an Indian Environment: The Shi ‘a Majlis’, Ethnomusicology 25.1 (1981), 41-71; ‘Musical Gesture and Extra-Musical Meaning: Words and Music in the Urdu Ghazal’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 43.3 (1990), 457-97; Sufi Music in India and Pakistan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); also Gen’ichi Tsuge, ‘Rhythmic Aspects of the Avaz in Persian Music’, Ethnomusicology 14.2 (1970), 205-28; Owen Wright, Touraj Kiaras and Persian Classical Music: An Analytical Perspective (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009); Harold Powers, ‘ Verbal and Musical Rhythms in Dikshitar and Tyagaraja’, Dr Raghavan Shastyabdhapurthy Endowed Lecture, Music Academy (Madras), Chennai, December 2001; Benjamin Brinner, Music in Central Java: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 76 ff; Richard Wallis, ‘The Voice as a Mode of Cultural Expression in Bali’ (PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 1979), p. 140ff. and passim.

4 Lynn Ate, ‘Literary Metre versus Rhythmic Beat in Tamil Alvar Literature’, Journal of South Asian Literature 19.2 (1984): 1-7; Rupert Snell, The Eighty-four Hymns of Hita Harivaṃśa: An Edition of the Caurāsī Pada (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991); John Smith, The Epic of Pābūjī: A Study, Transcription and Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 30ff.

5 Speech surrogates are systems for encoding and transmitting speech using instruments, humming, whistling, and so forth. If scholarly treatment in Thomas A. Sebeok and Donna Jean Umiker-Sebeok, eds., Speech Surrogates: Drum and Whistle Systems (The Hague: Mouton, 1976) is any indication, Africa holds by far the largest range of speech surrogates (Oceania and the Americas run a distant second). South Asia was represented in that volume only in terms of the whistled languages of some Tibeto-Burman languages in Nepal; Sebeok and Sebeok (1976), pp. 993-1022.

6 On poiesis and esthesis, see Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Music and Discourse: Towards a Semiology of Music, trans. by Carolyn Abbate (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); and Jean Molino, ‘Fait musical et sémiologue de la musique’, Musique en Jeu 17 (1975), 37-62.

7 Frank J. Korom, Hosay Trinidad: Muharram Performances in an Indo-Caribbean Diaspora (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

8 Richard K. Wolf, ‘Doubleness, Mātam, and Muharram Drumming in South Asia’, in Pain and its Transformation, ed. by Sarah Coakley and Kay Kaufman Shelemay (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 331-50.

9 In the Northern Iranian province of Gilan, trumpets are used to convey formulas during Muharram, and were used historically to make announcements; Mohammad Reza Darvishi, Haft awrang: marūrī bar mūsīqī sunnatī va maḥalī Irān (Tehran, 1370/1991). In southern Iran, elaborate drumming traditions using instruments similar to the dhol and tasha of South Asia apparently continue to be used for Muharram processions although the linguistic implications, if any, of the drum rhythms have yet to be described in print. This was reported to me by several students and colleagues in Tehran in January 2006, when I presented my work on South Asian Muharram drumming, rituals, and music at the conference on the music of Khorasan and Transoxania.

10 See Wolf (2006) and (2014).

11 Thanks to Stephen Blum for suggesting this possibility.

12 Korom (2003), p. 165.

13 I was not asked to preserve anyone’s anonymity, but this man did not his name or any personal information when I asked each man present his name, education level, job, and instrument. He described himself as a “friend”. Only later in the conversation, through various hints, did it become clear he was a Shi‘a.

14 James Kippen, Gurudev’s Drumming Legacy: Music, Theory and Nationalism in the Mr̥daṅg aur Tabla Vādanpaddhati of Gurudev Patwardhan (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006); Lowell Lybarger, ‘The Tabla Solo Repertoire of Pakistani Panjab: An Ethnomusicological Perspective’(PhD dissertation, University of Toronto, 2003).

15 See especially Government of India, Muharram in Two Cities: Lucknow and Delhi (Census of India, 1961 [1965?]) (despite the publication date of this volume, the study in Delhi was carried out in May 1964); Khaja Moinuddin, A Monograph on Muharram in Hyderabad City (Delhi: Census of India, 1971 [1977]).

16 Government of India (1961 [1965?]), pp. 57, 78.

17 Ibid, p. 57.

18 Ibid, p. 77. The Delhi Census study was divided into two sections; the first follows processions and majlises of Shi ‘ as, the second, of Sunnis (primarily the Nizamis). The Shi ‘ i section mentioned the participation of non-Shi ‘ as in a couple of instances as well; ibid, pp. 70-72.

19 Ibid, p. 73. Pir Zamin Nizami Syed Bukhari was a leading pirzada at Nizamuddin dargah and the father of one of the current sajjada-nishins, Pir Ahmed Nizami. According to his grandson Farid Ahmed Nizami, he took a special interest in Muharram and attempted to trace the history of Nizami Muharram practices. His search took him back only about 250 years.

20 Sayyid ‘Ali Abbas Nizami, Khāndān-e Niẓāmī kā ‘ aqīdah va dastūr-e ‘ amal: urās buzurgān-e dīn va dīgar (Karachi: Idar-e Nizami, 1989).

21 Nizami (1989), p. 3.

22 Thirsty literally because of being blocked from getting water from the Euphrates, and thirsty metaphorically for battle, martyrdom, etc.

23 M. A. Khalilian and Stephen Blum, ‘Musical Ontology of the Naqhsbandi Order in Eastern Iran’, unpublished paper (Society for Ethnomusicology Annual Meeting: 2007).

24 It is technically a salam, although participants called it marsiya.

25 Mehndi is henna and is traditionally applied as part of wedding celebrations.
According to the lore of the Karbala battle, Husain’s nephew Qasim was married to Husain’s daughter Fatima Kubra on the battlefield just as Qasim was going off to battle (this fulfilled a promise of Husain to his brother Hasan). The
mehndi ceremony is celebrated on the 7th of Muharram in some areas and, moreover, the small ta‘ziyas carried in the Nizami neighbourhood are called mehndis.

26 L. P. Elwell-Sutton identifies wazn as the metres poets actually use, as opposed the theoretical system of named feet in Arabic, the buḥūr (s. baḥr). By this he means, for example, the baḥr called ramal, – ˘ – –, when actually used as a Persian metre, is combined with others (or more iterations of itself) and syllables might be omitted. In this article we come across the following metre, for example: – ˘ – –/– ˘ – –/– ˘ – –/– ˘ –. This is what Elwell-Sutton identifies as a wazn; The Persian Metres (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 42.

27 Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1995), p. 167.

28 The extension of the final syllable “lāh” into a hypermetric “long” makes sense it appears at the end of the phrase. Note the fourth unit in the first phrase, “lal”, is only a hypermetric “short” because it is pronounced as a contraction. The way it is spelled in Arabic, lā’al, would take more time to pronounce and would scan as 2 + 2.

29 Because of its 7 counts, rupak is an obvious choice for setting this poetic metre in the Hindustani tal system, but it is not the only possibility. Regula Qureshi provides examples of qawwali renditions of a ramal metre variant set to an 8 beat musical metre as well as one set to rupak (1995, 24 and 29).

30 My suggestion that the hypermetre of the text has been carried over on the drums is based on two assumptions. One is that the drummer (G. H. Nizami) is reciting the text in his head, somewhat flexibly so that the subdivisions between ḍhol strokes aren’t exactly the same each cycle but the proportions are retained; the other is that the poetic metre retains a presence in the “mental” version that overrides the durations in the melody. The (musical) metric ambiguity of the singing complicates this analysis. A particular issue concerns the end of the third poetic foot, “rotī”. “Tī” gets extended in such a way that, if one holds a strict seven-count tala like rupak during the melisma, the syllable nain in the last foot would line up with the sam (first beat) of the tala . If one allowed for extensive elasticity in the musical metre, corresponding to the poetic metre, nain would fall on the fourth count (shown in lines 3-4). Hearing nain on the sam would not be problematic — indeed one feels the sense of metric resolution on that syllable — were it not for the fact that the next line of text starts as if nain had fallen on count 4. If a continuously repeating seven-count tala had been maintained strictly, the singer would have had to wait until the completion of the avarta (tala cycle) before repeating or continuing (shown hypothetically in lines 5-6). Unless someone composed this soz with the idea of a 32 count tala, divided 3 + 4 + 3 + 4 + 3 + 4 + 7 + 4, the performer seems to combine two possible interpretations of the poetic metre in relation to 7 counts. In the sung versions, neither yields a hypermetric sequence of short-long-prolonged in terms of melodic durations.

31 Text adapted from Muhammad Taqi Massoudieh, Mūsīqī-yi Torbat-i Jām (Tehran, 1980), p. 70, translation by Richard Wolf. When the singer refers to saying (zadan) the name of God, he may also be referring to striking (zadan) the strings, since the rhythmic pattern of both this zekr and the dotar are the same.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 17.2.
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Légende The final syllable “nain” is longer than the penultimate stressed syllable “meṉ” because the melodic rendition fills out the seven-count duration as if the final foot were – ˘ – – and includes the pause provided in the sung rendition. The parenthetical numbers indicate quantifications of poetic meter where ˘ = 1 and – = 2. The sequence of durations 7-10-11 corresponds to short-long-prolonged or ˘ – ––.*(pause at line end)
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Titre Table 17.3: The text of dhima in metric relations with rupak tal
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