Thursday, March 30, 2006


dastangoi - 32k -

Firangis and Englishmen in Dastans



While Dastangos are not very scrupulous about a realistic depiction of geographical origin yet the very nature of the adventure, in which travels to distant and far off lands are a sine qua non, necessitates a depiction of linguistic and ethnic diversity. Dastangos take us to distant and widespread places, from Greece to China, Egypt and Byzantine to Hindustan and Sri Lanka.

Different people speak different dialects apart from the benevolent fiery creatures like Djinns or Paris who have their own language. Amir Hamza’s horse Ashqar Devzad is the offspring of a djinn so he speaks to Hamza in the language of djinns.

Amar, Hamza’s chief Ayyar or trickster [whose hardnosed and harsh methods remind one sometimes of Chanakya’s realistic kootneeti] is well-versed with many languages among which is also Hebrew. Barq Firangi, another of the tricksters and Rustam Alamshah (Hamza’s son) lead a firangi platoon and the language of that platoon is English. There is also an entire Tilism, run and controlled by the English, which is called Tilism-e-Khema-e-Firang. The language spoken there is English. Whoever enters that Tilism automatically begins to speak English. Bala Bakhtar, one of the volumes of the cycle composed by Sheikh Tasadduq Husain describes-

“Every camp that the Prince entered he found himself adorned by the dress of the same Vilayat and heard the same speech flowing forth. A beautiful damsel, firangin, came out of that camp and holding him by the hand led him inside. On every kothi and bungalow there were firangins, beautiful, fair, handsomely cast, dressed in splendid finery, wearing English topis of many kinds were seated chairs and enjoying the river flow. One firangi Queen, troublemaker for the heart the affliction without cure, saw the Prince Nooruddahar and instantly upon seeing stood up from her chair and holding him by the hand took him inside the Bungalow and seated him on a jeweled chair. She spoke to him in English. The Prince too replied in the same tongue.” (Bala Bakhtar, Nawal Kishor, 1900, pp624/5)

In the same volume, on p71 Amar speaks in the Hebrew language to his fellow traveler Aadi Pahalwan, a lumbering giant who eats too much and is wont to rest too much too.

“Amar thought that the Pahalwan Aadi has recognized me, he may visit humiliation upon me. Therefore he said to him in Hebrew, o you monstrous eater, I am warning you hold your tongue and do not say anything crude…understanding Amar’s import Aadi replied listen do not talk too much.”

In another work in the same cycle, Aftab-e-Shujaat, vol 3 by Sheikh Tasadduq Husain, we travel to the Tilism-Chahl-Chiragh-e-Sulaimani. Among the stages on this Tilism is also the country of Bartania/Britain whose ruler used to be a Muslim but due to the incitement of the King of the Tilism, Ashdar Parizad, he has turned apostate and become a Kafir.
Can a historical personality fit the bill of [being] Ashdar Parizad?

Excerpt taken from S R FARUQI’s SAHERI, SHAHI, SAHEB QIRANI, A study of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza.

Divinity and Dastans



While ostensibly the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza purports to be an account of the triumph of Islamic armies over infidels and worshippers of other Gods, in its essence it is a highly secular narrative. Very rarely does it engage in what can be called proselytisation. This is vastly different from encouraging enemies to renege from their faith and their side and join the Islamic side.

Here is the greatest of the false Gods Laqa, driven from country to country by the indefeasible Islamic warriors, yet charismatic enough to make those who shelter him bow in submission to him. Here is one such vassal writing to those below him-

“It is a sign of the Almighty’s benevolence that despite being harassed by his subjects he does not punish them and instead says that they are all my creatures and I created them in a moment of intoxication therefore they have turned rebellious and degenerate and now their fate cannot be changed and the Almighty is helpless. They repent and plead to be forgiven but the Almighty refuses their repentance. And his subjects say that now that the Almighty does not accept our apologies we may as well enjoy our independence and do as we see fit.” (p28 TH 1

In the Dastani worldview the good and the bad are evenly matched, infinitely. When an evil sorcerer dies, a new one rises to replace him. When someone on the righteous side is killed, another one is quickly found to replace him. It is as if they can keep replenishing their numbers infinitely and the good and the bad will remain evenly matched no matter who emerges victorious. When Hamza and his cohorts capture one Tilism, they are faced with another. Laqa will keep finding vassals, they will keep fighting and thus it is that Dastans can go on endlessly.

They never need end, all depends on the listeners and the performer. Amar, Hamza’s chief trickster, is captured several times over by Afrasiyab, the Emperor of the sorcerers in the first volume of the Tilism-e-Hoshruba itself. Each time though he effects his escape, either through his own ingenuity or because of Afrasiyab’s credulity. It is in Amar’s nature to trick people and he will always do so, it is Afrasiyab’s lot to be tricked and he will continue to do so.

On one such occasion Afrasiyab has managed to trap Amar in a Tilism and he is brought, starving and humiliated, before Afrasiyab. Before he arrives Afrasiyab says,

“If I did not have to inquire something from him, I would have starved him to death in that jungle. As long as the Tilism-e-Hoshruba remains, my life remains and until I remain alive the Tilism that I have cast will not be broken by any save myself and the Aiyyars will never be freed.” (p437 TH 1)

However, when Amar is brought before Afrasiyab he manages to convince him, of all things, that he Amar is the confidant of the God Laqa whom Afrasiyab submits to. Here is Amar’s rationale.

“Afrasiyab said, what I want to ask you is this. Who dropped you across the magic-river and how did you return from the Almighty at the Koh-e-Aqiq to the Tilism? Hearing this talk Amar broke into a guffaw and said O Emperor, this is hardly worth concealing. I am a beloved subject of my God and when I was determined to come this side I started praying to my God who sent a houri from paradise and she seated me on her shoulders and brought me across to this side.

Afrasiyab asks who is your God. Hearing this Amar laughs loudly and said I have already mentioned several times that I am an Angel of Zamurrad Shah Bakhtari meaning the Divine Laqa and God has sent me into this Tilism as the messenger of death and yet you ask who your God is. That one is our only God, there is none to rival him today and nobody can share anything with him. To tell the truth I worship only that one God and submit to him, I do not care for the other 175 Gods. What would you know of the secrets and confidences that I share with my God. What I will say now is that the Almighty was very put out at [your] worshipping Samri and Jamshed and he commanded me to go and kill the worshippers of other Gods. Outwardly he says kind things but he is not happy with you people. He is happy with those who consider him alone as the singular Almighty because [as] God says the Gods who are dead, their divinity is also dead.

Consider this O King of Sorcerers, I am merely a speck of a few grams whereas you weigh a thousand quintals. How can we be matched yet is it not because of God Almighty’s displeasure that I overcome you.” [p439]

In the passage quoted above Amar is transposing the usual arguments for monotheism that the partisans of Islam had upheld for centuries, into Laqa’s mouth. Laqa himself is a false God in the Tilism and is repeatedly humiliated by Amar. Yet, the terms on which he is presented could be turned around, on a slightly subversive reading, to apply to the monotheistic God of the Muslims itself. Further, the readers know that it is not the false God Laqa who abets Amar in his confrontation with Afrasiyab but the true God of the Muslims. The irony is therefore doubled for the informed listener. Further, taking potshots at the false Gods in this garb and in this manner could all too easily have been a surrogate for questioning the dominant and prevalent conception of divinity and Godhood in the wider society itself.

What was so far couched in a confusion of identities comes dangerously close to blasphemy as Amar’s wisecracks at Laqa, the sole and overpressed God, could apply wholesale to the one and true God.

“When the fairy reached the mid-river it dived inside and I saw a stream of blood flowing and I started drowning in it. At that moment a boat appeared and Khudawand Laqa was riding in it, he pulled me out of that Nallah and hauling me into the boat began to take me across. I found such a stink and noxious smell coming out of Khudawand that my mind was benumbed and I fainted. When I came to I found myself on this side. Afrasiyab asked why was there a stink emanating from Khudawand. Amar said the reason for the stink is that Khudawand does not wash himself sometimes for ten days after shitting. And he never ever cleans his mouth, his teeth are mouldy and when he talks it seems as if it is not his mouth opening but the door of the toilet bowl that is ajar. The reason for this is that he does not get a minute off from his work for the subjects. Having to kill someone, to give birth to another, making someone rich, throwing someone to poverty and so on and so forth. You tell me how and when can he wash himself and clean his mouth and face. “ [p439}

By now Amar, who had reached Afrasiyab’s presence cowering with apprehension only two pages before is in such a flow of trickery that he seems to be fully warmed up to prime Afrasiyab and the latter too seems ripe for priming.

“Afrasiyab responded you have uttered obscene remarks regarding his Almighty’s august presence but you spoke the truth. For where we, his subjects, are so preoccupied with managing just one Tilism that we find no time to wash ourselves etc then the Almighty, who has to look after the whole universe, has to kill, give birth and provide for so many people then how would the Almighty find even a minute to spare.

While Afrasiyab was still saying these things when one of his maids spoke up saying O Emeperor, whose words are you being taken in by. He is deceitful, just ask him where is a Nala in the magic-river. Afrasiyab got very upset at the maid and said, idiot what do you know that you poke your feet in such exalted matters, doesn’t blood flow into the magic-river, it is that which he refers to as the bloody Nallah.” [p439]

Having convinced himself about Amar’s truthfulness, thus paving the way for his own perdition, Afrasiyab then wants to know why Khudawand Laqa and his chief Devil are outwardly so inimical to him.

“Amar said the reason for that is that once Khudawand had leisure for an hour or so. In that leisure the Almighty thought let me do something so that a Devil/satan is born in my divinity. Since the Almighty was engaged in purposeless repose he began to indulge in the forbidden deed and Devil was born. When he had given birth to him and he began to lead the subjects astray, at that time Khudawand thought let me produce someone to oppress the devil too and he should be such a man who would be insolent towards me and should have the status of my father so having spent a lakh years to that end he created me and made me his father. It is for that reason that I shave Khudawand’s beard and beat up the Devil.” (p439)

True to his nature Bakhtayarak, the Satan-Devil created by the false God Laqa frequently takes potshots when things go wrong for Laqa. On one such occasion when Sawar Qudrat, a great sorcerer who had come to assist Laqa against Hamza is killed Bakhtayarak asks him,

“Bakhtayarak said, o Almighty what is this fate you have cast. Laqa broke into a huge laughter and said who can appreciate our divination see we have visited our benevolence upon him and despatched Sawar Qudrat to heaven where he is enjoying himself. Hearing this all the people in the gathering started saying no doubt you are the God of ever shining light, you are the almighty and may do as you please. Everyone else was saying these things while Bakhtayrak was quitely saying damnation upon the liars. While this talk was going on the cloud that had appeared on the horizon came near and Toofan Feel Dandan {toofan with elephant’s teeth}who had been sent by Afrasiyab arrived there…Bakhtayarak passed water around Laqa and gave it to Toofan to drink and said remember this favour that drinking this water will increase your age by ten years everyday and you will remain cool. Toofan said of course my body is already cold. Bakhtarak again whispered to himself whichever bastard comes here is a liar.” [p484]

After a battle the sorcerers reassemble and Qahhar announces his intention to do the Muslims under.

“Qahhar said o Almighty you are all powerful, you have given me a humble and dirty subject such powers that I will now slay all the Muslims. Hamza has the power of the Ism-e-Azam [a chant that keeps him safe from all magic] if he escapes then he will killed anyway and if he remains alive then he will find it difficult to survive the bereavement of his helpers and friends. Bakhtayarak said all that is correct but the problem is that firstly the Muslims are not in the habit of dying and secondly the Almighty’s grandson Iraj is in their camp and his son in law Qasim too. What if the Almighty therefore feels pity for them and overturns the fate. Laqa replied that this time I am determined that they all be killed and this time I will not change my divination.” [Tilism-e-Hoshruba, p 486]

Satan being satan has no lack of knowledge. It is in fact the clarity of his vision and the depth of his intellect that makes him a fit enough candidate to try and take on God. Here too Bakhtarak being wise is fully aware of the righteousness of the Islamic side and the emptiness of Laqa’s divinity. He has been humiliated and punished several times by Amar, whom he regards as a guide and preceptor and addresses him with the Sufi term Murshid. It is well known to all that he is secretly on the Muslims’ side, yet he must go on being the Devil of the false God. That is his nature and his lot and he cannot escape it.


At one point in the Tilism-e-Hoshruba Laqa succeeds in capturing several leading commanders of the Islamic army. They are all under a spell so they participate willingly in everything that Laqa bids them to do. But just as caste rules determine dining and intercourse in this land, the same rules apparently apply for wining too. Of course conventionally Muslims are not supposed to drink, not so however in the Tilism.

“Bakhtayarak whispered into Laqa’s ears, right now the Islamic commanders are under a spell and at the moment they will drink our wine despite the fact that we are kafirs to them. But when they come to and lest like the others Paikan [who has cast the magical spell on them] too is killed then these people will destroy us because they will say that non-believers and Kafirs have corrupted us by making us drink [their] wine. It would be best therefore if you say to one of these people that we have heard that the Islamic side makes great wine, why don’t you go and buy some and offer it with your own hands to your brethren. Laqa liked the idea and repeated what Bakhtayrak had advised him to Faramarz. Faramarz got up and went to the Islamic camp, seeing the Prince the watchman did not obstruct him because he said the Prince will beat me up if I stop him and I will not be able to raise my hands on him. Seeing the Prince he went to the tavern and brought forth canisters of wine and started serving everyone with drinks.” [TH, p827].

By far the most agreeable resolution to chhua-chhoot, as far as drinking is considered. Banned it may be but forbidden it is not.

{All quotes are from Tilism-e Hoshruba Vol. 1, Khuda Bakhsh Public Library Patna, 1988}

Dastan Excerpt


he Trickster

Tilism-e-Hoshruba, or the ‘enchantment that takes away your senses’ is the name given to one daftar (section) of the 46 volume Dastan-e-Amir Hamza.
Tilism, a magical effect or enchantment, is a magic-infested zone, cast by a sorcerer and its properties vary. Tilism-e-Hoshruba, constructed by Afrasiyab Jadu,
the Emperor of Sorcerers, is both a physical reality as well as an imaginative effect.

The oral narration of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza was a popular pastime in most parts of central, western and South Asia, and also North Africa since
medieval times. Composed originally in Persian, when the story began to be published in Urdu in nineteenth century Lucknow, it grew from a single
volume to a mammoth 46 volume text, the greatest narrative prose fiction composed in Urdu, and possibly the longest in the world. Dastan-e-Amir
Hamza describes the battles of Amir Hamza, the Prophet Mohammed’s uncle, against infidels, sorcerers and other pretenders to divinity. Chief among
his supporters is Amar, an ayyar, or trickster, who resorts to chicanery, disguise and tricks to dupe magicians and kill them. Comprising magical battles, the creation of magical realms or tilisms, ayyari (trickery) and convivial gatherings, the dastans were meant, unabashedly, to entertain people which
overlay a simple message of the triumph of good over evil, rather like Hindi cinema which it deeply influenced.

While Hamza fights against his gigantic perennial enemy, the false god Laqa, Amar and some other members of his force drift into the Tilism-e-
Hoshruba which is only destroyed after some 8000 pages of closely printed text, of which the following comprises three pages.

Amar, Hamza’s chief ayyar (trickster), is captured several times over
by Afrasiyab, the Emperor of the Sorcerers, in the first volume of the
Tilism-e-Hoshruba itself. Each time, though, he effects his escape, either
through his own ingenuity or because of Afrasiyab’s credulity. It is in
Amar’s nature to trick people and he will always do so, it is Afrasiyab’s
lot to be tricked and it will continue to be so...

Afrasiyab knocked. The earth parted and a saahir (sorcerer/magician)
emerged. A hideous sight he was. Afrasiyab handed the saahir a takhti
(wooden writing tablet) and said, “O Aazar Jaadu! Be off immediately.
Amar Ayyar has murdered Mehtaab in the forest, and is still at large. Go,
find him and arrest him. And so that you recognise him, here is a picture.
Though it is the photograph of a woman, it will assume the face of the
ayyar, in his real form, no matter how he disguises himself. When you
come across anyone on the way in the forest, be sure to see this photograph first. And if the one who you meet is not the ayyar, the picture will
remain of a woman.”

And so with the photo in his hands, Aazar Jaadu set off for
Mehtaab’s forest and started searching for Amar in all directions. But
Amar too was in the same forest and sitting at a spot, wondering, “Let us
see what happens here. There are thousands and thousands of saahirs in
this forest. How will one kill them all? We are trapped in a tilism and do
not know where the lauh-e-tilism (the template containing secrets about the
tilism’s destruction) is? Who knows what happened to Asad, where has he
gone? Is he even alive or is he dead?”

As he sat thinking, Amar saw a saahir wandering about, as if searching for someone. Amar thought in his heart, “This bastard should also be
killed. The fewer there are of these, the better it is.” And thinking this, he
disguised himself as a saahir and headed off in his direction. Aazar beheld
that a magician with flames erupting from his ears, eyes and nose was
coming towards him. Aazar Jaadu went towards him and asked, “Who
are you?” Amar said, “First you tell me your name!” Aazar Jaadu told
him his name and lineage and said he had come to find Amar. Amar said,
“I too am looking for him. I am a relative of Mehtaab Jaadu and from the
moment I have heard of his death, I am in search of this Amar the trickster.” Aazar said, “Let us look for him together.” Amar set off with him

and was looking for a chance to kill him when Aazar Jadu remembered –
“The Emperor had said, look at the picture whenever you meet anyone.”

And so he pulled out the photograph and beheld that it had
assumed the shape of the real Amar – fox-faced, cumin-eyed, apricot-
eared, kulcha (flat bread) like cheeks, thread like neck, rope-limbed. His
lower torso was six yards and the upper portion measured three yards.
Seeing this vision of apocalypse, Aazar Jaadu got nervous and realised
that this was an ayyar before him, who had changed his form to that of a
sorcerer with trickery.

He mumbled a spell and Amar instantly lost control of his hands
and legs. Aazar Jaadu pulled out a chain from his bag, tied Amar’s hands
and started walking with Amar by his side. Amar pleaded, “Oh brother!
Why do this to me without rhyme or reason!” Aazar replied, “You cheat,
you were tricking me? I am well aware of your affair, you are the one
called Amar.”

Amar became angry and said, “Child, doesn’t look like you will survive now. Looks like you have cut yourself a ticket to hell. Do you have
any idea that one lakh eighty four thousand ayyars have entered the
tilism. One or the other is bound to appear and kill you.”

Aazar said, “I will kill them all. I am not one to be frightened by
your threats.” And he marched on with Amar.

From a distance Zirgaam saw that a saahir had captured his master
and was taking him away. Looking for a way to free him he found, up
ahead, an ahir (cowherd) herding his cows. He went up to him, tricked
him and hid him, unconscious, in the bushes. He then wore his clothes –
headgear, loin cloth and waistband – and painted his face like the ahir. He
picked up a stake and started tending to the cows.

When Aazar Jaadu reached the spot with Amar, he saw a cowherd
tending to his flock. Since the heat was intense and he had been walking
long, as soon as Aazar Jaadu saw the ahir, he said, “O ahir, if you have a lota
(brass pot) and a string, fetch me some water, please.” The ahir said, “O
Lord, you have been walking in the sun. If you want, I can get you some
milk. Drink milk, what is water?”

This was Zirgaam’s trick, but would Aazar Jaadu realise it?

Translated by Shveta Sarda from the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, performed by Mahmood U.R. Farooqui, Sarai-CSDS Independent Fellow 2004-05,
at the Independent Fellowship Workshop, Sarai-CSDS, 26 August 2005, Delhi.




Students’ paintings speak more than words
by Humra Quraishi

From novels to story rendering
There is a fixed word in the Urdu language for story rendering. It is ‘Dastangoi’, perhaps originating from the word ‘dastaan’ (story). Last weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to see IIC main auditorium packed as the session on Dastangoi was on. With many in the audience, foreigners and others were unaware that such a tradition ever existed. Guess who was the main speaker to talk on this tradition, among others. It was writer William Dalrymple.
And no guessing that such meets definitely link us to the traditional. In fact, I must share this input with you which I gathered during this programme. The 46-volume ‘Dastan-e-Amir- Hamza’ is one of the longest prose narratives in the world. Its publication followed the centuries old practice of oral recitation of the story.
Sunday, May 8, 2005, Chandigarh, India

introduction to dastangoi


In 1928, just a few years before sound revolutionized the Indian film industry, Mir Baqar Ali died. He was the last famous Dastango of India. The connection is not merely incidental. Reports of his performances establish beyond doubt that he was perhaps the last great traditional actor to be born in this country.

“He never told dastans-he presented lively, moving pictures; or rather you could say that he himself became a picture. He was a thin, slightly built man, but while he was reciting the dastan, if a king appeared in the story, the listeners felt themselves standing before an imperious monarch. Sometimes, if he spoke the words of some old woman, he adopted the very style of speech of respectable elderly ladies, and even (despite) his teeth became quite toothless…He knew thousands of verses by heart. He had such a command of language that poets and writers accepted Mir Saheb as an authority...”

So when the poet Mir Taqi Mir reportedly snubbed a group of Lucknawis who could not appreciate his poetry by saying, ‘you who have never stood on the steps of Jama Masjid, what you will you understand of my poetry, for that is where the best Urdu is spoken,’ he was not being overly chauvinistic. It was the steps of Jama Masjid, as well as the chauks and by lanes, kebab shops, cafes and street salons that were the usual sites of Dastan-recitation. And what was there in language, or fiction, that could not be contained in Dastans? Yet, in what must be one of the most outstanding examples of cultural neglect, today there is no expert, book or account that can sheds light on this remarkable tradition. This event hopes to rekindle an interest in the form through a lecture-demonstration on the subject of Dastans and Dastangoi.

The word Dastan means a tale, like a qissa, only a much longer one. At least as early as the ninth century, it was a widely popular form of story telling; patronized alike by the elite and the commoner. Originally composed in Persian, versions of Dastans gradually spread to all languages of the Islamic world: from Indonesia to Azerbaijan, East Bengal to Constantinople. The most famous of these purported to deal with the life and adventures of Amir Hamzah, the Prophet’s uncle. Hamzah and his family travel to far off lands, ostensibly in the cause of Islam, although in most other respects it works as a lay romance, replete with highly secular activities such as wining, seducing, abducting and amorous affairs of other sorts.

Popular in India since at least the eleventh century, the romance acquired immense prestige because of Emperor Akbar’s personal interest in the form. He not only memorized great portions of the story and used to recite and perform it with élan, he also commissioned an illustrated version of it, the great HAMZANAMA, regarded as the crowning glory of Mughal Art. However, the Dastan came into its own in India only in the nineteenth century when it began to be composed in Urdu.

Places such as the famous Qissa-khvani Bazar in Peshawar, the Chauk in Lucknow or the Jama Masjid in Delhi as well as fairs and festivals used to hold nightly performances of Dastan narration that sometimes stretched over many days. Ghalib, the stellar literary figure of his day used to arrange private Dastans at his house. Abdul Halim Sharar, the first cultural historian of Lucknow assigned to Dastan narration- the art of ‘extemporaneous composition,’- a preeminent place among the verbal arts of his city. Sharar writes,

“Very soon, [after the migration of dastangos from Delhi] the practice became so popular in Lucknow that there wasn’t a rich man to be found who didn’t have a dastango in his entourage. Hundreds of dastangos appeared. The dastan consists of four arts: razm (war), bazm (elegant gatherings), husn-o-ishq (beauty and love) and ayyari (trickery). The dastan-gos of Lucknow have shown such expertise in all four arts that without seeing and hearing one cannot imagine it.”

With its transmission into Urdu, the Dastan of Amir Hamzah came to acquire too the mammoth, epic proportions that are peculiar to Indic story-telling. As well as being performed they also came to be printed. Versions and translations from Persian in Urdu and Nagri were printed again and again. In 1881 Munshi Nawal Kishore, the legendary publisher from Lucknow, decided to hire his own team of three famous writer-narrators from Lucknow, Muhammed Husain Jah, Ahmad Hussain Qamar and Tasadduq Hussain to compose a multi-volume edition of it. Completed in 1905, the forty-six volumes of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza were an extraordinary achievement: not only the crowning glory of the Urdu dastan tradition, but also surely the longest single romance cycle in the world literature, since they average about 1000 pages each. Containing some of the finest narrative prose ever written in Urdu many of its volumes were printed again and again, well into the twentieth century. Apart from this multi-volume version, various other translations of the Bostan-e khyal, an earlier Dastan, and other single volume versions were printed at many places, many times over.

The sheer fecundity of the dastan- with thousands of invented names, tools, weapons, beings, with an overflowing vocabulary- as also its immense popularity had a long lasting effect on other forms of fictional narratives. The earliest novels in Urdu as well as Hindi often seem nothing more than simplified or bowdlerized forms of Dastans. Babu Devakinandan Khatri’s ‘Chandrakanta Santati,’ that was televised to great popularity recently and Sarshar’s Fasana-e- Azad are only the two most stellar examples of the dastan hangover. The conventions of the dastan narrative also conditioned Urdu theatre: the trickster Aiyyar, permanent friend of Hamza provided the convention of the hero’s [comic] sidekick that achieved culmination in Hindi cinema of the sixties.

However, in a sense Mir Baqar died a timely death. For although Dastans continued to be published till well into the 1940s, their popularity, both as a printed story and as a live performance, had clearly waned. While changing times may explain the decline of the form, what is inexplicable is the way their memory has been virtually effaced from our literary and performance history. Today most Urdu syllabi are content to include Bagh-o-Bahar, a highly sanitized and précis version prepared by Mir Amman Dehlavi under the aegis of the Fort William College, but the forty six volumes of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza only exist in one library in the world. Only a handful of modern Urdu critics have bothered to seriously engage with it. Almost all of them have found it lacking as high literature on one ground or another, mostly condemning it for the very qualities that make the essence of dastangoi.

While their neglect as literature is inexcusable, they have been wholly obliterated from the canon of performing Arts. As anecdotes of Mir Baqar make clear, their performance required an exceptional command over rhetoric, delivery, mimicry, ventriloquism and spontaneous composition. Moreover, Dastangoi was one aspect of an oral/performative culture where the public arena was the first and perhaps the most natural site of performance. Qissagos, contortionists, sooth-sayers, faqirs, magicians, madaris, animal fights, mushaeras and sundry other activities provide a prismatic context in which Dastans were composed and performed. Their skill as actors lay in commanding the audience attention at all times, an audience that in the case of a public performance was likely to fritter away at the slightest drop of intensity. This demanded acting and performing skills that range from drama to dance to mime to performance art. Rather than occupying a central place in our artistic heritage therefore, they have been sent to total oblivion.

While it is impossible to revive the practice of Dastangoi as it existed in the past-since resurrecting an activity that was part of a wider oral culture cannot be done in isolation- an evening of this kind may act to generate a revival of interest.

Zamana Bare Shauq se sun raha tha

Tumheen so gaye dastan kahte kahte