Thursday, March 30, 2006

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

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