Epsita Halder
Bengali Language Initiative | 15-03-2011 - 15-03-2013 | Completed

This grant under the Bengali Language Initiative supports research towards a travelogue in Bengali and an audio-visual archive on the Karbala narratives recounted during Muharram, across different districts of West Bengal, like North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Hooghly, Burdwan and Murshidabad. During this two year long project, Epsita Halder a professor of comparative literature at Jadavpur University, will document, examine and interpret the narrative traditions of the Karbala Battle.

It was during the Karbala Battle in 680 AD, that Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, and the leader of the Shi‘a Muslims, along with his family and troops, was tortured and killed by the forces of the Umayyad caliph Yazid in the desert of Karbala in central Iraq. This battle emphasises the divide between the Sunni and Shiva branches of Islam. The Battle of Karbala occupies a central position in Shi’a history and the event is commemorated annually in the month of Muharram, the first month of the year, according to the Islamic calendar.

On the 10'“ day of Muharrarn, the Shi’as form majlises (assemblies) and sing for hours, sometimes singing short lyrical pieces called nawhas while beating their chests. At other times, the orator (generally the Imam or somebody possessing the scriptural knowledge of the Karbala Battle) recites episodes from the Karbala narrative that depict the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and his party, arousing strong emotions of pain and grief. Epsita states in her proposal that during Muharrarn the experience and acceptance of pain and grief are essential for the Shi’as to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and to consolidate their identity as a community. This age-old tradition was institutionalised by the Buyid Dynasty in 10th century Iran, and transmitted to several new places where the Shi’a community migrated. In the process of migration and assimilation these narratives took on local hues and shaped the identity of local Muslims.

For the Shi’as who settled in new lands and within complex spiritual and cultural spheres, the Karbala narrative became emblematic of ‘a shattered zone’ where several cultures and religions met and intermingled. Thus texts like Imam-Bijoy by Doulat Ujir Bahram Khan, Maktul Husayn by Muhammad Khan, Jarijungnama by Sherbaj, Jungnama by Heyat Mamud and Sangram-Husayn by Hamid “function more as shared narratives with a common cultural and religious vocabulary, created by the authors, adapting equivalent metaphors from the local literary and theosophical universe to express alien ideas and ideals,” says Epsita.

It is this transformation of the Karbala text that Epsita will study. She will also delineate the processes by which these new Karbala narratives are distributed through websites such as aliwaley.com, matamdari.com and azadar.net. She will also look at the translation of the Urdu nawhas (short lyrical verses) into Bengali by the local maulanas who also interpret the Quran (and Islam) for the masses at the Imambaras. During Muharrarn, while the microphones transmit Urdu nawhas, matamdaris (beating of chest and crying in ecstatic grief) are accompanied by Bangla nawhas produced locally. “This is . . . where,” says Epsita, “both the global (imagined) community and its local (immediate) variant are acted out together showing an interesting transaction between the global and the local.”

Epsita will interview the men and women from the villages adjacent to the Imambaras who are taught the Bengali nawhas, some of which are original and others are inspired from Urdu. She will also record the traditionally inherited Urdu nawhas and marsiyas (elegiac poems) as recollected and sung by the villagers. Along with recording the oral performances, Epsita will analyse and document the notebooks in which the devotees copy the Bengali nawhas taught to them. This, she hopes, will enable her to study the individual devotee’s articulation of piety. Read together, these notebooks will help her understand “how the sacred has been formed in the popular imagination of the common Shia masses,” she says. In addition, Epsita will document chapbooks written by local authors on the Karbala, some of which are long narratives while others are elegies. Epsita will speak with Shia religious leaders like secretaries of Imambaras, local nawha producers, videographers who record Muharram events and local poets and elocutionists.

The outcome of this research will be a travelogue and an audio-visual archive. The travelogue will capture her journey through interior West Bengal studying the relationship between the Bengali texts of Karbala narratives and the discourse and sermons delivered by the local maulanas in Urdu. The travelogue will also examine patterns of remembrance, recitation and the presence (or absence) of an authorial voice in the nawhas and lyrics sung during Muharram in Bengal. The travelogue will include a detailed anthology of the texts of the songs sung by the community. Epsita feels that the format of the travelogue is an apt one for two reasons: one, it will reach a broader audience and two, “the connection and negotiation between the agent of knowledge and the subject of study can only be problematised through the figure of an ethnographer traveller”. While the travelogue will document the literary aspect of the Songs, an audiovisual archive will capture the performative aspect of this tradition. A CD of the audiovisual documentation will supplement the book.

The audio-visual archive will be housed at the School of Cultural Texts and Records (SCTR) at Iadavpur University. This material will further enrich the already exhaustive collection at SCTR, which is open to students, researchers and scholars. Epsita will use material gathered from this research for teaching an M. Phil course titled ‘Orality and Performance’ at the Comparative Literature Department, Jadavpur University. Some aspects of this research will be included in a course to be taught at the Jadavpur University’s School of Women’s Studies.


This description is part of the institutional records created by IFA at the onset of the grant. The project may have changed in due course as reflected in the deliverables from the Grantee.

Mid-term Deliverables

Final Deliverables

Media Coverage


Grant No : 2010-0-021

Grantee Name : Epsita Halder

Programme : Bengali Language Initiative

Grant Status : Completed

Start Date : 15-03-2011

End Date : 15-03-2013

Duration : Two years

Grant Amount : 4,08,000

Geographical Area of Work : West Bengal

Disciplinary Field of Work : Music

Language : Bengali (Bangla)