The Rediscovered Art of Dastan-goi
Modern audiences captivated by ancient oral stories
By Shahnaz Aijazuddinis
On a soft autumn evening in New Delhi recently, in the back garden of the IIC, I was witness to an unusual and dramatic performance. It was an oral narration in the traditional style of Dastan-goi or Kissa Khwani - that rare art of story-telling, revived that enchanted evening by two talented young performers, Mahmood Farooqui and Himanshu Tiyagi. Sometimes separately, occasionally in unison, they recited the dramatic text in a manner that held their audience spellbound for almost two hours. They were dressed identically in white kurta pajamas with muslin caps, in stark contrast to the night-black stage drop. The two performers sat in the fore-stage, close to the audience, on a simple masnad with bolsters, and used only the minimal props of a few miniature paintings to create an old world atmosphere.
The passages they had selected for recitation that evening came from the epic dastan- Tilism-e-Hoshruba – which in its time was I suppose was the equivalent of the modern fantasy Lord of the Rings. I had read the Tilism-i-Hoshruba countless times since I was an impressionable ten-year old. I knew each phrase and every dialogue in the text almost by heart. Its oral recitation held me enthralled, for this was in fact the first time that I had heard the dastan being recited, as it was intended to be when it was first popularised.
What surprised me was how a modern audience in Delhi, many of whom were hearing the text for the first time, seemed to be equally captivated. I noticed from their reactions that they were following the devious Amr Ayyar as he looted and pillaged the fabled city of Napursan. They relished his hilarious encounter with Afrasiab Jadoo (the king of wizards). They shared the tender descriptions of the two lovers – Afrasiab’s niece Tasveer and Prince Badi uz Zaman - who like traditional lovers were consumed by the flames of love at first sight.
The Tilism-e-Hoshruba, like every grand epic, is a long narrative. In its original form, it consists of seven volumes and constitutes only one of the daftars or chronicles of the Dastan of the legendary hero Amir Hamza which itself runs into forty-six daftars. The tradition of dastan-goi goes back to medieval Iran. There, dastan-gohs 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. They spoke of fearless princes who with the help of tricksters called Ayyars fought evil kings; encountered and vanquished demons, magicians and jinns and of course they courted beautiful princesses, magical enchantresses or the female parizads.
The Dastan-e-Amir Hamza is ostensibly the life of Hazrat Hamza bin Abd ul Muttalib, the paternal uncle of the Holy Prophet Mohammad. Hamza had the reputation of being the strongest man of the tribe of Banu Hashim and fiercely protected his nephew against his enemies from the tribe of Quraish. He followed the Holy Prophet after he migrated to Medina from Mecca. Hamza was killed in the Battle of Uhud by a slave who had been promised his freedom by Hind, the wife of the powerful Quraish overlord of Mecca, Abu Sufiyan. The romance of Hamza may have originated from the story of another Hamza - Hamza bin Abdullah, a Persian rebel opposed to Khalifa Haroon-ur-Rashid. His equally exciting exploits and adventures were the source of many stories that could have been grafted onto the Arab Hamza, thus creating a super-hero who for being the uncle of the Holy Prophet was more acceptable.
Not surprisingly, the tales of the Hamza spread all over the Islamic world - from Anatolia to Indonesia and were translated and narrated in many local languages. They so captivated the Mughal Emperor Akbar that he recited them himself in Persian and also commissioned his atelier of artists and calligraphers to illustrate the popular text on an imperial scale. The final manuscript consisted of over a 1000 illustrations.
By the eighteenth century, dastan narrators had become an essential entertainment in courts and palaces of India where the court language was Persian, for the dastans had been originally composed in Persian. The present Urdu texts of the Hamza Nama are the legacy of the famous Munshi Naval Kishore who in the late nineteenth century commissioned and published compilations of the Hamza legend starting with the localised Tilism-e-Hoshruba
My first encounter with Tilism-e-Hoshruba was in Sialkot at the age of ten when my mother bought a version of its seven volumes, edited by the Urdu writer Raees Ahmed Jafri. The cover of that fat tome was taken from a large painting of the Tilism done by the famous Pakistani artist, Ustad Allah Bakhsh. It must have been that painting - a collage of fairies, demons, ogres, dancing girls and princes – that caught my attention. I decided to skip the florid Persianised Urdu that began each chapter and went directly into the narrative that was simpler to follow. Many years later, however, I began to appreciate the introductions that were alluring advertisements for the subsequent action. Who could resist such intriguing captions as: “The Cupbearers of the Wine of Story Telling” or the Imbibers of the Wine of Thought from the Goblet of Paper describe the narrative this way.”
I found myself ensnared by passages like: “Sharara's messenger flew to the River of Blood and standing on its banks cried out, "O King of Wizards! I have been sent by Sharara Jadoo and crave an audience with you!" It was said that so powerful a wizard was Afrasiab that if anyone called out to him from any corner of his vast empire, he would hear the call. He possessed also the magic Book of Samri, which revealed every secret to him. An army made up of clay and iron puppets carried out his commands. They could snatch anybody he needed with a swipe, like that of a hand or panja.”
For the next three months of my pre-teens, I breathed and lived within the pages of the Tilism. I followed Amir Hamza Sahib-qiran (Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction) as he followed Zamurrad Shah Bakhtri (a Persian king who claimed divinity), to the mountains of Kohistan. I went in the footsteps of Hamza’s grandson Asad Sherdil as he invaded the Tilism and came across a garden whose trellised white gateway was open “like the arms of the beloved.” I was overawed with the powers of Hamza as he breathed the Great Name on the corpse of his slain son that turned out to be made of lentil flour. I was riveted with the antics of his companion and trickster Amr who could assume any disguise and outmanoeuvre the most powerful wizards with the help of Galeem,(the cloak of invisibility) and Zambeel, (the pouch that contained a whole world); magical gifts that had been bestowed on him by the prophets.
That evening at the IIC brought the magic of the Tilism back to life. Hearing the partnership of the two modern Dastan Gohs made me realize how much our present society has been impoverished by relying on watching myths and fables of cultures other than our own into films or compressed into CDs. The whole charm of these dastans was that the audience was an active component of the narrative. By imagining the events being narrated from the stage each member of the audience was in effect picturising the action individually in his or her own mind. That night for me, as I have been translating the Tilism into English here in Lahore, the city of Delhi - the City of Djinns - became the city of Agate and Ayyars, and the IIC garden transformed into the Garden of Pleasure.