Sunday, June 25, 2006

The India International Story

Dastangoi – The Lost Art of Story-Telling in Urdu

Lecture and performance

Introduction: Prof. S.R. Faruqui, Editor, Shabkhoon and a pre-eminent critic of Urdu and author of the best known work on Dastan-e-Amir Hamza

Followed by

Performance of Dastangoi

By Mahmood Farooqui, actor and theatre director who was recently awarded a fellowship by Sarai to study Dastans; and Himanshu Tyagi, actor who has worked extensively with some of the leading theatre directors in India

Illustrated talk by Mahmood Farooqui

Chair: William Dalrymple

The 46 volume Dastan-e-Amir Hamza is one of the longest prose narratives anywhere in the world. Its publication followed the centuries old practice of oral recitation of the story. Today though this monumental work and the art of its recitation, Dastangoi, have become wholly marginalized.

(Collaboration: Sarai)





Sadiqur Rahman Kidwai

Former Professor of Urdu

School of Languages

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi,

It was the most rewarding evening of the season at the Centre on 4 May last. The tradition of the story teller, the Dastaan-Go, which had gone into oblivion, was re-enlivened. Mahmood Faruqi and Himanshu Trivedi, dressed in the traditional attires of a Dastaan-Go, appeared on the stage. With their gestures and expressions, they transformed the whole atmosphere in the hall. The elegant metaphorical Urdu narratives, interspersed with verses, were sensitively reinforced by the movements of eyebrows and facial expressions. Appropriate to the occasion, there were slides of the paintings of Hamza Nama, which had been commissioned by Emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century.

Two introductory lectures preceded the Dastaan-Goi. William Darymple spoke first, on the oral traditions of Rajasthan, followed by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi who spoke on the tradition of Dastaan. He particularly elaborated on the Dastane Amir Hamza, a dastaan stretching into 47 large volumes, a small part of which was retold on this particular evening. Dastaan has been one of the most popular genres in India’s oral tradition. In a Dastaan, stories are intricately woven within stories, developing the mystery from episode to episode. The mystery, while appearing to be solved, creates further mysterious situations. Thus the mastery of the Dastaan Go, or story-teller, over his craft is proved by his skill to keep the already awe-struck audience under his spell according to his will.

The Dastaan Go lays a trap, woven only by words, to catch the imagination of the listeners. For different types of listeners he innovates different strategies. Famous Dastaans have been known to have continued night after night. The Arabian Nights was originally known as Alf Laila wa Laila, which means one thousand and one nights. The original Dastaan is in Arabic and is said to have been narrated continuously over one thousand and one nights.

Story telling is as old as human civilisation. Stories were passed on from generation to generation. Most of our heritage-knowledge, religions and philosophies and tales of valour of hero and heroines, social customs which have come down to us, have been preserved in memory and transmitted to later generations orally. Also, travellers, rural folk, urban elite, Kings and courtiers found a good pastime in Dastaan.

The origin of a large number of theses stories is not traceable. The make- believe landscape in which these stories grow is the product of the imagination of the story teller. Flights of fantasy lift one into the land of fairies and ghosts, into the company of Saints and Divine, courts of the King. The magic would easily transform immediate settings into hell or heaven. The beauty of such stories lies in the style of the narrative. The same stories have been told and retold for centuries. Each time a story is told, one finds a certain freshness in the rendition. The story teller is fully within his rights to mix up the episodes of various stories and add any thing from his own imagination. The essential element is the effort to perpetuate mystery while the listener’s expectation has to be kept up by bringing in astonishing events one after the other.

The curiosity of the listener is never allowed to be satisfied. There were professional story tellers who carried on and perfected their craft. Some of them became as popular as poets or preachers. The story goes that once a Dastaan-Go was employed by the King. He was portraying the emotions of a separated lover waiting for his beloved, when came the news from home that some one was seriously ill. The Dastaan-Go called his son and asked him to continue till he returned. When the father came back after a month he found the son still narrating the restlessness of the lover waiting for his beloved!

With the advent of the written word, these stories were documented, but at a very later stage. The tradition of the Dastaan-Goi survived until the early twentieth century when cinema became popular. Leisure was an essential prerequisite for the Dastaan, that slowly began to vanish from people’s lives. Most of the Dastaans were published in the nineteenth century and were popular among the educated up until the recent past. Qissa Char Dervesh and Fasaana-e-Ajayab still occupy a place of honour in the syllabi as examples of classical Urdu prose.

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