Monday, June 26, 2006

Mahmood's Interview in Tehelka

The Sorcerer’s Last Tale

Dastangoyee, an ancient Islamic art of storytelling, is subversive, fantastical, and utterly contemporary. Yet it has been lost to us. Mahmood Farooqui — who has started to revive it — tells Shoma Chaudhury its fascinating story

There is a lot of drinking
whoring and seducing in dastans — all very unmuslim stuff now, but very common in the Muslim world then
What is the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza?

The tradition of dastangoyee goes back to medieval Iran, where dastangoh or narrators, inspired by the Shahnama (the story of kings composed in verse by the celebrated poet Firdausi), recited tales around camp fires, in coffee houses or even palaces. The Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, which runs into 46 volumes, is ostensibly about the life of Hamza, the paternal uncle of the Holy Prophet Mohammad. At one level, it purports to be an account of the triumph of Islamic armies over infidels and worshippers of other Gods. But in its essence, it is a highly secular narrative. Its modern day equivalent would be Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or even Hindi cinema. Its world is fascinating, full of magic and sorcery and tricksters, tilisms governed by fantastical characters and qualities. It is an unstoppable riot of names, places, scenes, descriptions, battles, love-making, seduction. It is really about letting go.

How “Islamic” is it? Is it very subversive?

In the dastani worldview, good and 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. Hamza is the lead character, he is the lord of the age. But astonishingly for an Islamic adventure which begins with the rise of Islam, Mohammad is completely absent from the scene. That in itself is intriguing. Also, the freewheeling interplay between people of divinity and people of earthly fame — the Prophets constantly appear in the story to bless Hamza, to give him gifts and boons. The fictionalisation of the sacred in itself could be considered profane. There is also a lot of drinking and whoring and seducing, all very unmuslim things today, except they were very prevalent in the Muslim world at that time. Evil is not really presented as evil. The most likable character in Tilism-e-Hoshruba is actually Afrasiyab — the king of sorcerers. So the differentiation between the Islamic side and the evil side is there in principle and the good side is going to win, but not through right means.

There are incidents of trickery in the Tilism-e-Hoshruba which verge perilously on the profane. The false god of the tilism creates Satan in a moment of idle masturbation. He is also said to smell like a toilet bowl because he is too busy serving his people to wash himself. These descriptions are tricky because they could pass for satirical descriptions of the One True God Himself. But the conventions of the dastan were understood. They were meant purely to entertain.

What is the epistemology of dastangoyee?

Dastangoyee as a form of narrating dastans has been around for some time. But in 19th century Lucknow, the dastan gets indigenised. It is about four things: Razm — warfare, Bazm — assembly of singing, dancing and seducing, Tilism — magical effect or artefact created by the sorcerer, and Aiyyari — chicanery, trickery, disguise. The aiyyars, the tricksters, are employed by both sides.

Conventionally the Hamza dastan is the most popular, but what used to happen is, for instance, on the steps of the Jama Masjid every Thursday there would be all kinds of dastangohs and they would be narrating stories. So when Mir says, “How would you understand my Urdu, you have never been to the steps of Jama Masjid?” he isn’t talking about the Masjid per se but about it as a site of performance and a repository of spoken and written languages and Urdu poetry.

Is the evil side of a certain race?

Obviously, they are fire worshippers; they are Parsis by religion but Hindu by appearance and description. They are magicians or sorcerers called jaadugars or sahir. The dastan is a fantasy and the more fantastical it gets the better it is. For instance, in Tilsm-e-Hoshruba (Hoshruba meaning that which takes away your senses), Afrasiyab has 60,000 kings under him. He has cast two tilisms. One hidden, one manifest. Between them runs a river of fire — Khoon -e- Rawaan — with flowing blood. On that is a bridge made of smoke. In that smoke stand two lions. On top of that smoke is a three-tier building. In the first tier fairies play flute. In the second they are throwing pearls in the river and the fish in the river are holding those pearls and swimming about. In the third tier are the habshis, the Negroes from Africa fighting each other with naked swords and their blood is falling into the river. This inventiveness and unhindered, unfettered run of the imagination is impossible now. Our imaginations are now circumscribed in a certain way by the laws of possibilities. Though dastan is a literature supposedly created by Muslims, the Muslims they describe would be unrecognisable to many Muslims and others today. Its understanding of Islam is centuries old, and it was repeatedly recited in chowks, palaces, streets. And people enjoyed it. It is the last vestige of the unreconstructed public order in India. It is a culture anterior to colonialism. The treatment of the body, sexuality, free run of sexual speech, abuses even between an emperor and an aiyyar, the bawdiness of our civilisation is very much evident. All of which is completely taboo today.

You said the Hamza dastan was indigenised here. How different did it become in India?

The Hamza dastan exists all over the world, but as a single volume story about Hamza’s battles. In Lucknow, Hamza is sidelined. Aiyyari and tilism come into their own. The dastan runs into 46 volumes! It becomes completely indigenised, so much so that it contains all the stories we’ve ever had in our country so far. It had an omnibus linguistic style, it was borrowing from anyone and everyone. Dastan-e- Amir Hamza is a kind of katha saritsagar where all kinds of stories flow in. You have Betaal Pachisi, Panchtantra, Alif Laila… It is a climax of two or three thousand years of oral storytelling in the Indic tradition. And in the Indic and Central Asian traditions there’s a spiralling loop feeding into each other. The Hamza dastan doesn’t tell about a character’s destiny, it has no interiority. It is telling a masala story to be enjoyed.

Why did it fall out of use?

Perhaps the most amazing story about the dastan is the story of its neglect. To investigate that is to investigate a story of cultural politics, of how our literature, literary histories and literary conventions were modified by colonial interventions, active and indirect. It is a story about reconfiguring our half-split colonial modern selves. Why is it that dastans don’t occupy a prime position in the Urdu world? Why is it that a lot of non-Urdu speakers know about Ghalib and Mir but do not know about dastangohs? These are printed texts. Why have they vanished? The Hamza dastan was finally printed by Naval Kishore Press between the 1880s to 1910. It was written by a group of dastangohs. The first three volumes of the Tilsm-e-Hoshruba are written by Mohammad Hussain Jah. But they don’t say we are creating this story; they say we got it … Faizi wrote it, Khusrau wrote it, Firdausi wrote it. Its structure is Urdu poetry and Hindustani classical music where you have a given parameter and you improvise on that. It is created by a collective imagination. And until it was printed, it kept evolving, much like a piece of jazz. But these performers are no longer around in our public realm. Our public space has been recast.

Finally, how did you come across it?

I was born in an Urdu literary world. One had heard about the Hamza dastan. My father had one single volume and he used to say, read it, it will improve your Urdu. I was amazed by the freshness of its language 120 years after it was first printed. Then SR Farooqui, perhaps the only person in the world to have the entire collection of 46 volumes, urged me to start performing it. I kept dawdling for a long time until Sarai stepped in and made it possible for me to study, read and write about it. But it was the people at iic (New Delhi) who finally made me perform, so I am eternally grateful to them. The response was amazing. It was one of the most outstanding moments of my life.

Mar 04 , 2006

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