Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Limited resources, unlimited talent

By Kavita Nagpal

Two performances in the very last month of the year are indicative of where Indian theatre may be going. With spare sets and lights, a sharing of space with the audience, and focus on the text, these were superb displays of the art of acting and the rich variety of the narrative idiom. Mahmood Farooqui, who is known as William Dalrymple's 'research assistant' on his book The Last Moghul, will now be acknowledged as the man who brought the ancient art of storytelling, or Dastaangoi, to the stage...

For the rest of the piece read it here.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Na Kar Taal Matol, Bol Ab Dastan Bol

Taal Matol

Dastaan Goee!

By Shoaib Hashmi

Sixty years later, more or less, I can still remember what they looked like. Dark green and printed on cheapish paper they were a series of little booklets called 'Umroo Ayyaar Ki Ayyarian', and there were twenty-five or thirty of the not numbered so someone had to read them and put them in sequence, and an elder cousin had undertaken to read them to us kids, one book each evening after dinner. We did not mind because the whole day was spent loitering about as is the wont of the young, in a dream world populated by self, and Umroo and Amir Hamza and the adventures.

The series has long been out of print which is a great pity because it was the last trace of the hallowed tradition of Dastaan Goee, of story telling! The 'Daastaan-e- Amir Hamza' and its extended version the 'Talism-e-Hosh Ruba' is one of the greatest masterpieces of old style story telling; ostensibly an account of the adventures of Amir Hamza and his friends Umroo or more properly Amru, and Muqbal Vafadaar. They are a fictionalised account of Amir's prowess before the historical times of the Ahd-e-Risalat which gave him his towering reputation as a warrior of legend.

No one, not even the Metropolitan Museum of New York, has been able to trace exactly when or by whom they were first compiled. There are various references that it was by one of the two courtiers of Akbar the Great, Faizee or his brother Abul Fazl, and they might have been collated and compiled by one of them -- because the great 'Hamza Namah' with hundreds of huge and wonderful illustrations was compiled in Akbar's time, and still exists, but the origins of the original concoction of the tale, like all great folk tales is lost in time.

The tale was irresistible and totally compulsive; once you got into it you never got out! Beginning with the near simultaneous birth of Amru and Amir Hamza, it set the tone when the first person who put his finger in Amru's infant mouth to soothe him, lost his ring there; and went on from there. There have been attempts to ascribe it to some other hero named Hamza, but there is no doubt who was meant in the original, and after a myriad adventures taking them to Serenaded and India, the Maldives, they eventually even came circle and ended with Uhud.

But on the way the temptation was great, and everyone who got a chance added his own two bits worth extending it all over, and finally into the magic world of 'Talism-e-Hosh Ruba' full of fairies and Jinns and magicians and sorcerers; and vertically to the children and grandchildren of Amir Hamza and Amru. It grew to forty six large volumes which, thankfully Sang-e-Meel has condensed to thirteen!

The rub is that even in so many volumes the written word gives just the bare gist of the story, and the story teller was required to fill in the details and the dialogue and the colour himself, and captivate his audience with the richness of his narrative -- and this grew into the great tradition of Dastaan Goee. The story teller would travel from village to village keeping the whole populace riveted after dark, when there was nothing else to do, and maybe go on for days or weeks on end as long as the pin money poured in.

One thing was that the people who heard these stories, like us as kids, got lost in the story world and stopped working, and so the word grew that the stories were a 'Nahoosat', a curse and to be avoided. The other was that radio, and film and eventually TV came along, and people learnt to get their thrills otherwise and Dastaan Goee died out.

First our friend Shahnaz Aijazuddin got interested and was easily persuaded to try her hand at translating it and making it accessible to a younger generation. And last week a young man, Danish by name came over with the cast of 'Mirza Bagh' which was a great hit at the Festival of Performing Arts. He and a few friends have revived the art form and have been going all over India performing their own creations of the age old tales.

Shahnaz called us over, gave us a sumptuous high tea, and got Danish to perform one of the episodes for a captivated audience. It was a very sweet little evening. One could see how the genre gave the performer almost infinite scope for his own creativity and a vehicle for his gifts. We were told the form is catching the attention more and more in India and beginning to be written about all over.

I do not think the hundred odd TV channels will be quaking in their boots waiting to be swamped under; it will take more than an ancient art form to drag the masses, with their twenty second attention span, and their senses saturated, away from the idiot box to a more civilised way of being entertained, but it could become a nice little niche for a few civilised to occasionally dabble in culture without losing their minds. We hear the redoubtable Naseeruddin Shah may be interested, so they might be on the way!

Marooned At Almost Island

Amar imitates the Mullah...

Fouzia finding her moorings...

Photographs courtsey Shelly Jain.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Dastan At An Almost Island

Almost Island is a web journal of literature, due to appear soon. It is edited by Sharmistha Mohanty, with Vivek Narayanan as contributing editor. To celebrate its founding, Almost Island would like to invite you to a series of readings, Dec-15-17, at 6:30 p.m., at the India International Centre Annexe lawns, Lodhi Institutional Area, Maxmueller Marg, New Delhi.

Dec. 15:

Allen Sealy

Mariko Nagai

K. Satchidanandan

Dec. 16:

Sharmistha Mohanty

Vivek Narayanan

Vinod Kumar Shukla

Dec. 17:

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

George Szirtes

Followed by

A performance of Dastangoi, a lost art of storytelling, by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain

From The Archives...

Dastangoi: Revival and Resistance

Periodically in the realm of literary theory the novel is proclaimed dead. The globe is whirling too fast, patience is wearing thin. Contemporary world is seen to have no place for a long narrative that demands silence, cunning, exile for its creation and time, effort, and imagination for its reception. In performing arts the rumour is about the tyranny of the mechanised image; the visual has swallowed the aural. Music unaccompanied by video might soon be relegated to the status of a curiosity. Everywhere there is the demeaning diagnosis of the dumbing down of our sensibilities. We are told that we are living in an age of instant gratification: complexity and slow time are being edged out in favour of mechanization and slickness.

In such a world to revive Dastangoi – traditional Urdu story telling - is clearly an act of courage for which S.R. Faruqi described as ‘the foremost living authority on Dastans and the only person to possess a full set of all the 46 volumes of Dastan-e Amir Humza’ in the IIC brochure and the performers Mahmood Farooqui and Himanshu Tyagi deserve our gratitude and fulsome praise. For one the sheer bulk of the material is intimidating. Farhatullah Baig the writer of ‘The Last Mushairah of Delhi’ is said to have quipped that the combined weight of the volumes would be enough to wreak death upon an unsuspecting reader who dozes off mid-Dastan. Secondly, Dastangoi is a ‘popular’ art form that had the commoners at chauks and nukkads as its aficionados. The Dastangos used to perform at the steps of Jama Masjid. The traditional audiences have melted away into the cinema halls of the cities. At the IIC on 23rd October 2005, as elsewhere, Mahmood Faruqi and Himanshu Tyagi would necessarily perform for a fairly sophisticated audience of bureaucrats and professionals that may be more discerning but suffers the handicap of not possessing the necessary competence in Urdu.

It is to the credit of the conceiver of the show and performers that they neither made allowances for present day audience nor put in any effort to be trendy. The stage was conceived (with input from Habib Tanvir) austerely with a divan in the centre, incense wafting on both sides and the two Dastngos in pure white, seated most of the time, sought to engulf the audience in the pure ‘sea of eloquence’. A glossary of names and recurring words had been circulated but the audience was also advised ‘not to be anxious to understand each and every sentence’. The sense would flow equally from the ambience and the mood. If the performers were not giving leeway they cannot be accused of taking any themselves. In the brochure was an unexpected apology, “The Dastangos of old performed in an oral culture where memory, sound and directness were much prized. As modern actors we neither have the skills to memorise whole daftars, nor the inventiveness to do spontaneous and extempore improvisations which are the hallmark of oral performances.”

With hindsight the apology seems to be a part of the tradition of their performance. The modesty has an old-world feel to it as in their virtuoso performance they did the age they talk about very proud indeed. At least the present reviewer admits to being completely awe-struck by their prodigious memory and wide range of acting. We can safely say that as twenty-first century Dastangos Mahmood Farooqui and Himanshu Tyagi’s act cannot be improved upon.

The selection for the performance was from ‘Tilism-e Hoshruba’, the enchantment cast over the conflict between the righteous Amir Humza, an Uncle of the Prophet and Laqa who falsely claims divinity. It consisted of three whimsical tales of sorcerers, fairies, and tricksters. The tales sought to entertain and please; if there was a moral it certainly wasn’t obtrusive. Amar Aiyar the chief trickster of Laqa foils several attempts made by sorcerers – all of who bear the name ‘Jadu’ – to bring him to book. Magical puppets assume the role of policemen; beautiful women seduce swains with wine; Banias revile the authorities for stealing from them. The world of the Dastan is rich, vivid and staunchly secular.

The audience at the IIC experience seemed to get slightly restless at the end. Perhaps the culprit was the Mughal-Awadhi cuisine that waited. However, the Dastangos – trained over centuries to hold a fickle audience – concluded their amazing performance with aplomb. It was also gratifying to note that a band of admirers hung on every word refusing to be seduced away by coarser pleasures. All in all ‘The Sea of Eloquence – An Evening of Dastan e Amir Hamza’ proved to be a significant effort at revival of a form that had disappeared from the canon of performing arts for almost a century. Its success in present time is heartening not only for its own sake but also for ours. Perhaps some of us along with Farooqui and Tyagi are making an attempt to resist the fast flowing currents of our time.

Anuradha Marwah

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Intizar Hussain on Dastangoi

Dastan-go, an extinct breed

By Intizar Hussain

AN invitation from Begum Shahnaz Aijazuddin for a mahfil at her residence, where a dastango was to demonstrate his art of dastangoi came as a surprise to me. The variety of storyteller known as a dastan-go is now an extinct breed. How and where from did she unearth this rare relic?

She has a ready reply for it, “in the back garden of India International Centre of Delhi.” And she explains, “There I was witness to an unusual and dramatic performance. It was an oral narration in the traditional style of dastangoi or kissa khwani, the rare art of storytelling, revived that enchanted evening by two talented young performers, Mahmood Farooqui and Himanshu Tiyagi.”

She further says, “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.”

That evening in IIC brought the magic of Tilism back to life for her. Enamoured of that evening she returned to life. She did not have to wait for long. Last week, a partner of Mahmood Farooqui arrived here from Delhi. She hurriedly arranged at her residence an evening of dastangoi in his honour. She invited her close friends hoping that they will share her experience and will enjoy that peculiar art of storytelling, which is now lost to us.

A number of intellectuals, mostly ladies, had gathered at her residence with a curiosity for this forgotten traditional art. For the benefit of this select audience Begum Shahnaz talked briefly about Tailism-e-Hoshruba explaining what kind of fiction it is. In fact, she herself has a deep involvement in this dastan, which runs in eight big volumes. As she wrote in an article, she begun reading it at the age of ten. From then till now she has been under its spell. She has written about it and is for long engaged in translating it in English.

She then introduced to the audience her guests, who had come from Delhi. A young man clad in white kurta pajama made his appearance and sat on the masnad with a gao-takiya on his back. He was dastango Danish Husain. Originally, he is a man of theatre. But now he has also accomplished himself in the art of dastangoi and acts as a partner of Mahmood Farooqui, who, as he informed us, is the maternal nephew of Shamsurrahman Farooqui. And, as is known, Shamsurrahman as a scholar has dived in all the 46 bulky volumes of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza.

Danish Husain had only one request to make to his audience: no clapping please. He was right. A dastan can hardly reconcile with this modern way of applause. He rather expected applause through the traditional expressions of “Wah, wah” and “SubhanAllah”. But the modern audience has its own preferences and prejudices. It cannot afford to reconcile with “Wah, wah” and “SubhanAllah”. So a gentle laughter was deemed fit to be utilized as an alternative way of applause.

The devoted souls trying to revive dastangoi may or may not succeed in their mission, but it at least is a sign of a revival of interest in our lost art forms. This revival of interest perhaps carries with it a sense of great loss. The lost art of dastangoi reminds us of times when our fiction had the backing of a well-developed oral tradition ranging from the steps of Delhi’s Shahjehani Masjid to the Diwankhanas of the elites. But as times changed and new social and literary movements made their appearance, the whole tradition of dastan and dastangoi came under heavy attack and was condemned as something decadent and reactionary.

Of course dastan still enjoyed popularity in the face of newly borrowed forms of fiction, short story and novel, but its decline had set in. The worst sufferer was dastango. He was no more in demand the way he was in days gone by. He now appeared to be a vanishing breed. The last distinguished dastango one can trace in the history of Urdu dastan was Mir Baqar Ali of Delhi. His gradual fall from grace tells the sad story of the decline and degradation of this institution. At one time he was in great demand; so much so that he could afford to reject the offers made by the nawabs and rajas eager to engage him.

He went to Patiala accepting the maharaja’s offer for his association with his court. But when he was told that he had to appear in his court with a turban on his head, he refused to observe this condition and was ready to go back to his city. The maharaja readily relaxed this condition and he appeared in his court with the traditional cap he usually had on his head.

In later years he was patronized by the gentry of Delhi, especially by Hakim Ajmal Khan. When invited, he appeared in his diwan khana and narrated dastan to the select audience there.

But times changed rapidly. He lost all his patrons for one reason or the other. Now he was obliged to hold mahfil at his own residence charging one anna per head from his audience.

This too did not last long. The city of Delhi was under the sway of a new wonder known as bioscope. Those few listeners too left him and rushed to the cinema houses. He was now left with no choice but to say goodbye to the art that was so dear to him.

In his last days Mir Baqar had turned a vendor, selling betel nuts. When asked about his newly adopted business, he promptly replied “Dillewallas have forgotten the fine manners of chewing pans. Main unhain pan khanay kay adaab sikharaha hoon.”

This was the way the charming tradition of Dastangoi came to an end.

PS: This article was published in Dawn, Pakistan on December 03, 2006.

Dastan in An Attic

saturday 9th december
6.30 pm The AtticAn evening of Dastangoi
by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain from the Tilism-e Hoshruba daftar of the Dastan of Amir Hamza

Dastans are epic narratives and their recitation, including performance and narration, was a “Dastango”. Beginning with a now untraceable, original Arabic version, the story of Hamza, and his exploits against infidels, sorcerers and pretenders to divinity, spread first to the Persian and then to many parts of the Islamic world.
In India the story was already immensely popular in the sixteenth century and one of the first artistic projects commissioned by the Emperor Akbar was an illustration of the Hamza dastan, a work that became known as the Hamzanama, which consisted of over 1200 huge folios.

With its transmission into Urdu in the 18th and 19th centuries the Dastan of Amir Hamza came to acquire the mammoth size that is peculiar to Indic storytelling. In its structure it partook of the formal devices of classical music and Urdu poetry. In performance it connected with oral recitation forms of many different kinds-qissagoi, marsiyagoi, poetry recitation, naqal, bhandgiri-that dotted the Indian public sphere in the pre-colonial era.

Partaking of motifs and themes that proliferated in the shared pool of Indo-Persian storytelling tradition the final printed version of the Hamza Dastan in Urdu, by the Nawal Kishore Press in 19th century, ran to 46 volumes of over a thousand pages each, making it the longest fictional narrative ever printed in any language.

The Art of Dastangoi is at once the art of composition and of performance, parts of it are woven extemporaneously, as one is narrating/performing it.

Popular alike in the salons of kings and nobles and in the chowks and bazaars, of Delhi, Lucknow, Rampur, the art of Dastangoi is an inestimable part of Indian literature as well as its performance arts.

The revival of Dastangoi over the last one and a half year has been made possible largely because of the painstaking scholarly work of S R Faruqi, the only person to own the entire 46 volume collection, painstakingly built up in the course of his research.

Mahmood Farooqui is a Delhi based writer and actor. He has directed and acted in plays in Delhi , Bombay and Oxford and acted in the English feature film ‘ Mango Souffle'. He is currently researching a book on the Ghadar of 1857.

Danish Husain has been working with the best directors in Indian theatre - Habib Tanvir (Agra Bazaar), M.S. Sathyu, Barry John, Rajinder Nath, Sabina Mehta Jaitley, and Aziz Quraishi. His latest assignments include Mirza Bagh, an adaptation of Brian Friel's Aristocrats and the movie Losing Gemma. He is also a published poet and writer.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Ek Dastan Lahore Ke Naam

Qissa-khwani Bazaar

Sara Hassan heard story tellers spin tales of jinns and tricksters in magical realms

A small group of Lahoris enjoyed an unusual performance last Saturday evening. The lost tradition of dastangoi (storytelling) was revived at the residence of Shahnaz Aijazuddin in Defence. Dastan-go Danish Hussain, who was in town for the World Performing Arts Festival, enthralled his audience with a dramatic narration of an extract from the Urdu dastan Tilism-e-Hoshruba .

For an hour that evening, the audience lived and breathed in the make-believe world of Umru Ayyar and his trickster companions as one by one, they hoodwinked the wizard Azar Jadoo into believing he was with a magician colleague, a goat-herd, a comely young wine seller, a gardener and finally a naked fakir who eventually killed him. They felt the power of Afrasiyab Jadoo, Emperor of the magical realm of Hoshruba, as he conjured a magic tablet and gave it to his wizard officer, Azar Jadoo, so that he could identify the ayyars or tricksters in any guise. They felt his frustration and rage when he learned that Azar Jadoo too was the latest victim to their ingenuity and powers of persuasion.

This informal baithak , which ended in a lively discussion about the traditions of dastans and dastan-goi in the subcontinent, had been arranged by Shahnaz Aijazuddin. Aijazuddin has been engaged in translating the dastan of Tilism-e-Hoshruba and in that context has been in touch with Danish’s friend and fellow dastan-go Mahmood Farooqui in Delhi. In the brief introduction to the performance, Shahnaz mentioned that Mahmood Farooqui, a scholar and actor, had revived this forgotten art in Delhi. Mahmood was very much the invisible presence that evening as Shahnaz and Danish both spoke of him in glowing terms in their introductions and in the discussion that followed the narration.

Shahnaz provided a brief synopsis of the Hamza Nama and the Tilism-e-Hoshruba . Though there were several people in the discerning audience who were familiar with these works, it was necessary to be reminded that Tilism-e-Hoshruba is a seven volume dastan that is just one of the forty-six dastans or daftars that constitute the Hamza Nama . Its hero, Amir Hamza Sahib-qiran, is ostensibly based on the life of Hazrat Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib, uncle of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). However, the adventures of Hamza are a fantasy that take Amir Hamza from Mecca to Iran where he restores the legendary Nausherwan’s kingdom to him and fights on his behalf against his enemies, who range from rebellious chiefs to the deos and ogres of fairyland or paristan in the mountains of Koh-e-Kaf.

The tales of Hamza were popular throughout Iran and the Middle East. They were a great favourite with the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who commissioned his atelier of artists to illustrate the manuscript. The Hamza Nama miniatures are now in the Queen’s collection in London and were exhibited in the National Museum Delhi and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington some years ago.

The Tilism-e-Hoshruba dastans evolved in 18th century Hindustan and were popular amongst aristocrats and commoners alike. They developed at a time when the Mughal Empire was in decline and there was a new Muslim kingdom in Lucknow. Though parts of the Hamza Nama had been printed earlier, it was the famous Munshi Naval Kishore who undertook the task of printing the whole dastan late in the nineteenth century. The first ones to be published were the seven volumes of the Tilism-e-Hoshruba .

The Dastan-go that magical evening was Danish Hussain who is basically a theatre actor, a poet and a writer. Danish has worked with notable theatre personalities in India that include Habib Tanvir, MS Satyu and Barry John. He has also featured in a British film “Leaving Gemma”. Danish had a leading role in the Urdu play Mirza Bagh that had been performed for two evenings as part of the Peerzada Arts Festival. TFT readers may have read his piece “Textbook Enemies” (The Friday Times Nov 17-23) which are about his impressions of Lahore. Before he launched into the narration, Danish gave a short background to the extract that he was narrating before launching off into a riveting, spellbinding performance that kept his audience rapt and focused. Those of us who were privileged to witness his performance could understand why dastan-gos were such an essential element of palaces and durbars in that bygone era. The beauty and vivid imagery of the language were brought to life by this talented performer and we regretfully returned to reality after spending an hour in the magical realm of Hoshruba.

Intezar Hussain opened the discussion by asking Danish whether there was anyone who was the link between Mahmood and Farooqui and the last known dastan-go in India – the famous Mir Baqir. From Danish’s response, it seemed that there is no recorded knowledge of another storyteller, before Mahmood Farooqui tentatively attempted this art form inspired and encouraged by his uncle, the well known scholar SR Farooqui, who is researching dastan-goi. Mahmood and his former partner in dastan-goi, Himanshu Tiyagi, improvised and improved their performance techniques with tips from theatre veteran Habib Tanvir. Danish joined Mahmood in April this year and they have presented shows in Delhi, Lucknow and Bombay to packed houses. It seems that this form of narration is appreciated by non-Urdu speakers as well. Asked whether they had managed to interest other artists in this art form, Danish said that Naseeruddin Shah, who had invited them to perform in Bombay, wants to join them as a dastan-go. Nearly everyone in the audience joined in the discussions as each had been exposed in some form or the other to this archaic text, especially to the antics of the infamous Umru Ayyar.

There was some talk of Danish and his partner Mahmood’s planned visit to Pakistan to present their shows to larger audiences. There is no reason why our own performers cannot take up this challenge. The only one to have recited Urdu poetry and prose on a large scale in Pakistan and abroad is Zia Mohiyyuddin, whose shows are eagerly attended. Such gatherings are invaluable for introducing people to a form of literature that they would not seek out for themselves and for exposing the younger generation to the beauty of the Urdu language. Let us hope that Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Hussain do come to Pakistan in the coming year for it is certain that their shows will have an enthusiastic response here.

- Sara Hassan is a freelancer for TFT

PS: This article was published in The Friday Times, December 1-7, 2006 - Vol. XVIII, No. 41

The people in photographs from left to right are as follows,

Top Right: Danish and Moneeza Hashmi
Centre Left: Danish
Centre Right: Nida, Mubarika and Shahnaz
Bottom Left: Maisoon, Roshan, Meena Rehman, Samina, Nida, Bushra Aitzaz, Mubarika, Shahnaz.

Taimur Mumtaz, Javed Quraishi, Shahid Hussain, Intizar Hussain, Madiha Gauhar, Qasim Jafri, Haroon Bukhari.

Shoaeb Hashmi presenting Faiz Ahmed Faiz's Diwan to Danish.

The Dastango constructs a hyper-reality.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

iDiscoveri Showcases Dastangoi

iDiscoveri showcases Dastangoi as a teaching aide. Check out our performance at their meditation centre built magnificiently underneath a pond on December 5th.

Dastangoi Performance

3.00 pm, December 05, 2006
iDiscoveri Centre for Education and Enterprise.
Sushant Lok - Phase 3, Sector 57,
Near Heritage School
Gurgaon - 122003

If you have any issues finding the place then call me at 098730 78449.

Thanks & best regards

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Hindu Way of Dastans

Stories for fun: Mahmood and Danish at a recording.

Tales of magic and mystery


Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Hussain on their attempt to revive a medieval art of storytelling.

"Yeh daaru bikau nahin hai," declares a woman. Sorcery, trickery, whoring and wining are a way of life. Mysterious rivers of blood and bridges of smoke flow through visible and invisible realms. Behind veils of darkness, wizards are kings and witches make wine and magic. Amar Aiyaar and Afrasiaab fight battles of wit and Aiyaari is a profession.

Kissas and Kahanis narrated by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Hussain from Tilsim-e-Hoshruba transport you back in time — to a chowk in Lucknow anywhere between the ninth century and the 20th century.

Dastaangoi (46 volumes) encases the medieval art of storytelling. A dastaango could well be sitting on the steps of Jama Masjid or in a tavern narrating a kissa to an eager audience. You go back to being a child at your grandma's knee, rapt, eager to hear more.

Culture of the court

Strongly Persian in bent, it also used the idioms, language and culture from courtly life in Lucknow. Beginning from the 1880s, Dastaan-e-Amir Hamza was transcribed in Lucknow for about 20 years. Dastaangoi's dastaan slipped into river of silence. Danish felt, "It happened around early 20th century. Dastaangoi has a lot of subversive elements, it poked fun at the Islamic social hierarchy, talked freely about sex, wine, women in the market place, all taboo in Islamic society." According to Mahmood, "It's not simply the story of Dastaangoi, other forms of oral performances also went out of fashion. We can't say that it's because of the conversion from oral to print culture, since a lot of 19th century literary and print culture actually takes off from kissas and kahanis. The decline is inexplicable."

"Dastaans form the backbone of early Parsi theatre and Hindi cinema. There is a recasting of the religious and social order as well. Fantasy has always been considered children's literature. Now these barriers are being broken, it's seeing a revival finally."

Amid all the multi-layers, parallel worlds, fixing the unreal in the real for Mahmood comes with ease. "Dastaangoi is a case of mein kahani suna raha hun, aap baith ke suniye. Though broadly moral, it was written purely to entertain."

Danish (always the villain), explained, "There is no moral theme to these tales. It's not about who is going to win, it's about two sets of extra-witty people trying to outsmart the other. These are tales of good imagination, wholesome and entertaining." Mahmood spoke animatedly, "Dastaans appeal to us today not because they show us the world around us then but because they are fiction at their best. Their world may be far removed but we can still identify with aspects of it."

Likeable villains

"It casts a shadow over Hindi cinema. Gabbar Singh's antecedents are in there. A bloodthirsty character created by a filmmaker and you have Gabbar selling Glucose biscuits! Dastaans also have likeable villains who are still icons for Hindi cinema, although we need reams of study on the linkages. Dastaans are a kind of culmination of many centuries of oral storytelling forms, many structures flow from it."

Society now and the world then, connecting the two, Dan said, "It's all very grey. It's hard to distinguish at times where lies the evil and which side are the righteous people."

Balancing the polarities between Islamic tones and Dastaangoi's shock value, Mahmood said, "How can we typify Dastaangoi as Islamic? The many volumes of Dastaan-e-Amir Hamza were created in Urdu in Lucknow by non-Muslim and Muslim dastaangos. It can't be treated as Islamic literature."

"Among the entire gamut of characters, a minority are Muslim. How does it exactly dovetail with Islamism? Its Persian tones are no longer important in this century. Urdu poetry has diverged from Persian poetry. It is deeply rooted in North Indian poetic realms. Hafiz makes as much sense as does Anand Vardhan or Mir. You can't read Urdu poetry without reading Sanskrit theoreticians."

It's `masala entertainment', Mahmood felt, did not take away from the richness of the art form. "A dastaan has many shades to it. It's not like a finished product, a three-hour film or a novel. Different writers have added varying qualities to it." Dan is simpler, "Any art form is masala entertainment at the end of it. If it wasn't, it wouldn't be appreciated by the audience."

Says Mahmood, "The story of Amar Aiyaar capturing Afrasiaab keeps going on for eight volumes. Every time Afrasiaab sends a magician, he either gets killed or captured. It's an episodic formula on which it keeps building up. It's about constructing a story in which the plot vanishes. All you are left with is the telling of the story."

Favourite characters

As for their favourite character, Mahmood chooses Amar Aiyaar. "He is witty, sharp, flight-footed, basically a harami. Everyone loves to play that kind of a character. I have a sneaking sympathy for Afrasiaab, he keeps getting beaten up."

Dan added, "Aiyaar puts Dennis the Menace in the pale. Burk Firangi, an Englishman, is interesting. He's a trickster and he's lovable. Just as smart as a perfect sidekick should be, not smarter than his boss. An apt political comment on the great legendary sidekicks that our political leaders have."

About King Nausherwan's troubled dream, Mahmood says, "Dreams are unlimited. We need many more dastaangos in many more cities doing it in different styles for Dastaangoi to really take off as an art form. We cannot rise alone, for we can't sift grain from the chaff unless we have a body of work to choose from. That's our fundamental dream. We have 46 volumes.... so sooner or later the world is going to come to us."