The Hamzanama is nothing but an illustration of a ‘dastan’ that tells stories. SHRUBA MUKHERJEE speaks with theatre artist Mahmood Farooqui who is attempting to revive this ancient cultural form
It has enchanted both the prince and the pauper. From the court of Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri, to the Qissa-Khvani Bazaar in Peshawar, to the by-lanes of old Delhi,‘dastans’— symbolising the perfect bonding of literature and performing art have not only entertained people since time immemorial,they have been an outstanding example of prose narration in Urdu. But in what might be considered as another instance of cultural neglect,this art of story telling, where the narrator used to perform the characters through voice modulation, mimicry, ventriloquism and spontaneous composition, has sunk into oblivion as today there is no expert, book or account that can shed light on this remarkable tradition.
It is the vitality of the text and the elements of creativity and improvisation in performance which attracted young theatre artist Mahmood Farooqui into the magic world of dastans and the dastangois or the narrators.
Presently working on a research project, this Rhodes scholar is trying to revive the “culture of story-telling” by ensuring that this unique form of verbal art gets its rightful place in Urdu cultural tradition. Through his project, that includes translating a few volumes of dastans, performing them at stage shows and making a film on the art form, Mahmood sets a “modest” goal for himself— revivification of interest in the craft.
Elaborating on the nature of this unique art form Mahmood says, the word dastan means a tale, but longer than a qissa. Thus, a dastangoi might carry on for days and weeks telling stories. Originally composed in Persian, versions of dastans gradually spread to all languages of the Islamic— 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. “The stories had a moral— victory of the righteous over the sinner. But even the righteous had his pitfalls showing that to err is human and there is nothing like a perfect human being,” says Mahmood.
Popular in India since the eleventh century, the art form acquired immense prestige because of emperor Akbar’s personal interest in it. He not only memorised great portions of the story and used to recite and perform them 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 19th century when it began to be composed in Urdu. The “Indianised” dastans had a lot of common elements and storylines with the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Jataka and the Panchatantra. For example, the story of Ram killing the demon Marich, who was in the disguise of a golden deer, had been modified in a number of dastans. In 1881, Munshi Nawal Kishore, the legendary publisher from Lucknow, decided to come out with a multi-volume edition and in 1905, the 46 volumes of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza were published.
But more interesting than the text was its narration as the dastangoi used to recite the stories along with the sub-plots from memory and the quality of his performance used to depend on his capacity to improvise.
Their performance required exceptional command over rhetoric, delivery, mimicry, ventriloquism and spontaneous composition. Moreover, dastangoi was one aspect of an oral/performative culture where the public arena — market place, roads, chowks, was the first and perhaps the most natural site of performance.
“For example, when a dastangoi used to perform in front of a kebab shop in old Delhi, he used to select his stories according to his audience. Since there was no stage, no dazzling costume and no music, the narrator used to chose the language, words and poems in such a way that he could hold the attention of his audience for a long time,” says Mahmood. Citing the example of the last famous dastangoi of India Mir Baqr Ali, Mahmood says, “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, as if he does not have a single tooth”.
Whenever, the story had a description of a marketplace, the narrator used commoners’ language. But soon after the narration might have a court scene and the dastangoi would switch over to sophisticated Persian with equal élan.
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 might explain the decline of the form, what is inexplicable is the way their memory has been virtually effaced from our literary and performance history, says Mahmood.
Though the main stories were based on the tours of Hamzah and his family to far off lands, ostensibly in the cause of Islam, the sub-plots also included secular activities such as wining, seducing, abducting and the amorous affairs of men and women.