Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Pakistan Chronicles I

Mohatta Palace, Karachi in all its glory: The venue for the
first Dastangoi performance in Pakistan.

Revival of a different kind

By Huma Khawar

An evening of dastaangoi – to recite or perform a dastaan – proved to be a significant effort for the revival of a form that had disappeared from the scene of performing arts for almost a century. Dastaangos, Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain, who get the credit of reviving the art form, have been going all over India performing their own versions of the old tales.

Last week they were invited by The Citizen Foundation to perform in Pakistan to a gathering of a fairly sophisticated audience, a mix of bureaucrats, professionals and all of them friends and supporters. The duo, reciting excerpts from Tilism-e-Hoshruba, 'the enchantment that steals away the senses' took the captive audience into the magical world full of fairies and jinns, and magicians and sorcerers. The audience probably suffered the handicap of not possessing the necessary competence in Urdu, but was completely awe-struck by the prodigious memory and wide range of acting by the 21st Century daastango.

The funds are being raised by The Citizen's Foundation to make education affordable and accessible to every child, especially to the less fortunate youth of Pakistan. Already running more than 300 schools with about 40,000 children enrolled, TCF makes great efforts in organizing events that are different from the run-of-the mill kind and puts in a lot of efforts to make them a success. The fact that the audience were very punctual in arriving at the venue speaks for the trust and credibility TCF enjoys with its supporters. The event took place at the National Library, although the organization usually hires services of a posh five-star hotel for their functions, followed by high tea.

Whether it was the old art form of dastaangoi or the venue, but for some reason many socialites, who are a permanent feature of the TCF functions in the capital and elsewhere, were missing from this one. A very basic stage, with a mattress covered with white sheet in the centre, incense wafting on both sides, the two dastaangoh in pure white, angarkha style kurta pyjama and white topi in their hands, sat in the centre.

The performers modestly advised the audience, "not to be anxious to understand each and every sentence". The sense would flow equally from the ambience and the mood.

And added, "But if you want to praise us, taali na peet dejey ga, Angarez ki tarha. Wah wah kahey ga." (Do not clap, like the English, but praise us with echoes of wah wah) A glossary of names and recurring words had been circulated amongst the audience before the performance. Seated most of the time, they gave the audience a taste of the Urdu language when this essentially long oral narrative was cultivated. They took the audience into the world of the Dastaan, which is rich, vivid and staunchly secular where beautiful women seduce with wine.

The Dastaan-e-Amir Hamza and its extended version Talism-e-Hosh Ruba, a fictionized account of adventures of Amir Hamza and his friends Umroo, is one of the masterpieces from the treasure of Urdu stories. Amir Hamza, an uncle of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was earmarked by angles, fairies and prophets as the arch defender of the faith, the slayer of evil and the destroyer of false Gods. Amir Hamza and Umroo Ayyar collections were first published centuries ago – around AD1100 – a collection of stories written to entertain the Muslim emperors who ruled at the time. A grand epic from the Islamic cultures of the Middle East and beyond, prevalent for centuries as an oral form, the Dastaan with its unique literary flavour offers a complete and continuous oral narrative. It is still widely read in expurgated versions throughout the Indo-Pak subcontinent. These books were the staple diet of kids growing up in the 70s and 80s. The stories are gripping, full of suspense, horror, black magic, fantasy and action. And as they say, these stories were here before Tolkien wrote his Lord of the Rings or JK Rowling's Harry Potter series.

But surprisingly, besides the numerous volumes, it is actually the dastango who fills in all the masala, the details and the dialogue in the otherwise simple story to make it colourful. He takes us to distant lands and different people who speak in different dialects. It is this act that has promoted this tradition into an art form of dastaangoi.

In the world of today, when one wishes there were more than 24 hours in a day and more than seven days in a week, and when the patience is wearing out, to revive dastaangoi is clearly an act of courage for which the performers Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain deserve to be praised.

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