Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Tilism at NCPA, Mumbai: June 23, 2006

The Dastangos revel in the accolades they get.

Afrasiyaab is baffled after hearing Amar Aiyaar's tales about Laqa.

Ya Allah! Some story this guy Amar Aiyaar is spinning now.

Amar Aiyyaar spins a yarn about Laqa, the false god.

The complaining Kalwaar as Asmaan Shola-khwaar Jaadu hears him out.

A vain Asmaan Shola-khwaar Jaadu.

Amar Aiyyaar in a state of self pity.

The indignant dhobi accuses a fellow onlooker.

Afrasiyaab surveys his kingdom from his magical flying takht.
Photographs: Courtsey Abhinandita Mathur

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The DNA Masala: Tadka Maar Ke

A dastan is classy masala with history and entertainment
Friday, June 30, 2006 22:15 IST

Dastangoi—the art of reciting dastans, traditional romantic epics that are related to the 1001 Arabian Nights and Panchatantra—is being revived, says Scherazade Kaikobad.

Many of us in the post-Independence generations may be forgiven for believing that the Indian epic tradition is largely restricted to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Ever since the nationalist movement and the search for a unitary 'national culture' began, there has been a systematic marginalisation of various cultural forms, including 'dastangoi,' the fine art of reciting 'dastans' or medieval romantic epics.

From the coffee houses of Tehran to Delhi's Jama Masjid, from the Qissah-Khvani Bazaar in Peshawar to the Thursday evening salons of the Urdu poet Ghalib and the courts of the Mughal emperors, from far-flung Bosnia to Indonesia, dastangoi has had a rich tradition, from the ninth century to the turn of the 20th century.

Dastans were derived from a common pool of stories, narrative techniques and literary styles. The Panchatantra, Jataka Tales, 1001 Arabian Nights, Shah Nama and other romances are part of this vast pool, created by the swirling currents of translation.

At the height of its popularity in the late 19th to the early 20th century, the Indian dastan tradition was both an oral performance, as well as a written literary form. A 19th century print version of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza ran into 46 volumes of about 900 pages each, making it possibly the single longest romance in the world.

The dastan influenced not only Urdu literature, but possibly also Parsi theatre, and through it, Hindi cinema. How is it, then, that this once-thriving form has been virtually obliterated from the popular imagination? That is what Mahmood Farooqui, the Delhi-based columnist, writer and actor, has researched and attempted to redress. Along with co-actor and writer Danish Husain, he is currently treating Mumbai to the lost art of dastangoi. They will perform at Prithvi Theatre on July 1 and 2.

Based on excerpts from the Tilism-e-Hoshruba (the enchantment that steals away the senses), stories from the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, this modern-day dastangoi strikes a fine balance between narration and dramatisation.

While the stories recount the adventures of Amir Hamza, the selected episodes deal with the enchantment cast by Afrasiyab Jadu, the emperor of sorcerers, and the havoc wrecked by Amar Aiyyar (who is not exactly a Tam Bram, but a trickster).

While it helps to know Urdu, the performance remains accessible and funny. Says Danish Husain, “Apart from dramatic and linguistic skills, dastangoes must improvise as poets.”

Says Mahmood Farooqui, “With its freewheeling fantasy, the dastans' fall from literary favour coincided with a period when Indians were looking to match Dickens' realism. The Indian middle class is influenced by Victorian moral codes, so the humour in dastans was considered vulgar. Dastangoi has always been high-class masala entertainment.”

Dastangoi, Prithvi Theatre, July 1 and 2, 9pm

PS: This article was published in The DNA Newspaper, a Mumbai based newspaper, in the Salon section; edition dated July 01, 2006.

In The Times of Hindustan: Tall Tales by I Geetanjali Dang

T he fantastic has always been an anachronism and here one sincerely hopes that word will not be perceived as a mere pejorative. The fantastic is not so much situated in another time but in another universe, which does not seek to be parallel to the mundane. Instead it informs, often overzealously, our quotidian existences about the virtues of being perennially righteous. The inherent anachronistic temperament apart, the fantastic has often found itself uncomfortably marginalised. Retrieving the essence of the fantasy and a lost tradition from the margins is the Delhi-based actor/ director/ writer Mahmood Farooqui. Farooqui is in the city to perform a few episodes from the Tilism-e Hoshruba, which is one of the 46 volumes that comprise Dastan-e AmirHamza. At the kernel of the story dwells Amir Hamza, an uncle of Prophet Mohammed, who was earmarked as the arch defender of the faith.

Farooqui explains, “Dastans (epic romances) have been marginalised in the canon of Urdu literature because we tend to valorise realism. It is generally perceived that a work of art should also be a social comment and should have a purpose. We privilege certain literary traditions over others and that is why Manto is integral to the canon of Urdu literature and the dastangoi (the art of telling dastans) or the dastango (performer/ narrator) are not. We want a humanist, a liberal writer not gupbazzi. Not much else can explain our irreverence towards Dastan-e Amir Hamza, the largest fictional narrative ever composed in Urdu, perhaps the longest single romance cycle in the whole world.” The dastan, a vibrant oral tradition, was originally recited by the dastangos in culturalscapes as diverse India, Algeria, Bosnia and Indonesia. Beginning in the 1880s Dastan-e Amir-Hamza was transcribed in Lucknow over a 20-year period. Though the Persian manuscripts were all of 500 pages long by Farooqui’s calculations, he would have to assiduously dedicate two hours each day for the next nine years to accomplish the monumental task of reading all 46-volumes.

He proffers, “It is difficult to ascribe authorship to an oral tradition because it is a collective achievement. Munshi Syed Mohammed Husain Jah’s name appears on the printed book—-but how much was his own creation, and how much inheritance is difficult to determine.” Farooqui, who fronts Dastak, a Delhi theatre troupe says of his fascination with the dastans, “I think the dastans first piqued my interest because they brought literature and performance. After the conclusion of my Sarai fellowship, during which period I started reading the eight volumes that make up the Tilism-e Hoshruba, I was invited to stage a lecture demonstration. This is when I realised that the best way to do this would be to perform the dastan. ” When asked if he sees his project as a symbolic intervention or does he think it could result in a revival of the tradition Farooqui responds, “I think a revival of the tradition is not possible. It can never be what it was because we don’t know how the dastans were recited. We need, however, to take the dastan out of the theatre or else it would be mere exotica for the urban intellectual. The form of the dastan lends itself to improvisation. In the future perhaps I would like to look at transposing the dastan to present day India or Bush’s America.” Tilism-e Hoshruba presented by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain at Prithvi Theatre, Janki Kutir, Juhu, on July 1 and 2 at 9 pm.

PS: This article was published in The Hindustan Times, Mumbai Edition, dated June 30, 2006.