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An orator and a gentleman
Maulana Athar, who has given discourses at Mumbai's Mughal Masjid for the last 54 years, is arguably the most popular Moharram speaker in the world.
In a small room on the premises of the old Iranian mosque also known as Mughal Masjid in Mumbai's crowded Dongri, a septuagenarian wakes up from his afternoon siesta. Moving from the air-conditioned room to an antechamber, he changes into a freshly ironed kurta-pyjama, dons a black sherwani, combs his hair and slips into his black leather shoes. After gulping down a glassful of sugarfree tea, he is ready to go.
For the next couple of hours, Maulana Mirza Mohammed Athar, 76, will speak on the significance of the Prophet's grandson Imam Hussain's martyrdom at Karbala (Iraq). The revered Shia cleric's Moharram discourses have many shades, jumping as he does from the remembrance of Hussain's hardship at the hands of the tyrant Ummayid king Yazid to the tormenting events of 9/11. But there's one thing that's been constant about his Moharram discourses for the last 54 years: the venue.
Maulana Athar's uninterrupted stint at Mughal Masjid has not only earned him a mention in the Limca Book of Records but brought him an audience that's unparalleled anywhere in the world. "Although I have offers from several majlis organisers in India and abroad, the thought of changing the venue during the crucial first 10 days of Moharram has never entered my mind, " says the Maulana, who modestly believes that his popularity stems from his "simplicity". "Perhaps people like the simplicity in my description of the events which unfolded on the hot, hostile battlefield when water was denied to Hussain's camp three days before he was martyred and his six-month-old baby was killed before his eyes, " he says.
But it's undoubtedly about more than the simple words the forceful speaker uses. Summoning his encyclopaedic knowledge of Shia Islam, this retired college professor and scholar makes his audience cry, reflect and introspect all in one session. "He has a distinctive style which strikes directly at the hearts of his listeners. He can never bore you even when he talks mostly about the tragic events at Karbala and their aftermath, " says Kausar Zaidi, who has anchored Maulana Athar's discourses at Mughal Masjid for the last 25 years. Zaidi adds that the speaker has the delightful ability to marry the painful memory of the Imam's martyrdom to the oppression that millions across the world are suffering under modern monarchies.
Zaidi, who confesses that his own "deep study" of Shia Islam has been inspired by the Maulana, prepares the pitch for the famous speaker every evening. Before he invites the senior cleric to the mike, Zaidi allows trained narrators of marsiyas and nauhas (melancholic poetry commemorating the Karbala tragedy) to create a sama (mood). When Mirza Athar speaks, Zaidi, at the right phrases and episodes in the life of Hussein, intervenes to take the audience into a temporary trance by egging them on to chestbeat and loudly lament the loss at Karbala.
There have been times when the die-hard admirers of Mirza Athar in Mumbai thought they would have to settle for less accomplished orators. It almost seemed a reality in 1997 when Mirza Athar underwent surgery. "The doctor had advised him complete rest for a few months. We kept pleading with him to take a break from his annual session that year but he said he would not disappoint the audience which loved him so much, " recalls Mirza Athar's son Yasoob, who accompanies his father on his journeys through India. Mirza Athar's other son, Aijaz, goes with him on his trips abroad, where the audience, says the Maulana, comprises Jews and Christians as well. "With an audience of this kind, I take care not to raise controversial issues. My mission is to close the clash of civilisations, not to widen it, " says the cleric.
Mughal Masjid, its walls embellished with carvings of Quranic verses in calligraphy courtesy artisans from Iran, will await its famous visitor again next year. The room at the mosque's massive complex where Mirza Athar retires after every discourse will miss its famous guest till he returns. And the Moharram mourners will return too. But it all depends on an existential truth mouthed by Mirza Athar: "Gar hayaat baaqi rahi (If I am alive). "
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