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.

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