Saturday, 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.

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