Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Pakistan Chronicles IV

The rebirth of an old tradition
By Intizar Hussain

AN evening with two artists coming from Delhi may be deemed as a resurrection of the vanished art of storytelling known as dastan goi. It was a fully packed open air theatre in Bagh-i-Jinnah and the artists were faced with an audience which was familiar more with westernized art forms and literary styles than with the Perso-Urdu literary tradition and any art form or literary style originating from it.

The typical Urdu audience which is usually seen thronging a mashaira was conspicuous by its absence. In fact, with the passage of time this audience too has grown estranged to this traditional art form. The last dastan go was seen and heard in Delhi during twenties of the last century. The poor soul, dejected by the poor response of the newly-emerged listeners who were seen rushing to bioscope, retired from dastan goi and went into oblivion. With his retirement, the age-old art of dastan goi vanished forever. The oral tradition of fiction finally came to a close. The new age bringing in its wake written fiction, short story and novel, had already begun.

And now two dastan go have come out from the blue, landing amid an audience very different from the ones the dastan go in the past have been dealing with. A lady appears on the stage, utters a few introductory remarks and announces the entry of the two dastan go in her posh English. And there enter the two dastan go dressed in their traditional attire reminding as of the nineteenth century mannerism of Delhi. They sit on the masnad with a gao-takiya behind them. These two articles should be taken as an attempt on the part of the organizers or the producer to meet half way the dastan go’s demand of the paraphernalia, which helped him to recreate the world his dastan brought in its wake.

In this situation the two dastan gos had to depend more on their dastan-telling talent and the imaginative capability of the audience present, and most of all on the evocative quality of the dastan itself for recreating the magical atmosphere the dastan carries with it. To my pleasant surprise, they succeeded in their attempt to the extent that the audience responded well by applauding them in accordance to the instructions from them. No clapping in the midst of the narration. Only “Wah, wah”, or a laughter when the situation demanded. Loud clapping only at the end of the episode, which was soon followed by the next.

My surprise was of a different kind. How were these two young souls, Mahmood Farooqi and Danish Husain, able to learn and get versed in this extinct art. I put my query to Farooqi, who is the senior partner and solely devoted to the art, while Danish retains at the same time his relationship with the theatre.

“Have you dug out any dastan go from the ruins of old Delhi or Lucknow? Who after all guided you in this extinct art?”

“My maternal uncle Shamsurrahman Farooqi,” he revealed “has acted as my mentor.”

“Now I understand.”

“Next comes Habib Tanveer. I spent some time in his company seeking guidance from him.”

Farooqi had also been able to trace in some London library’s archives a three-minute tape recording of a piece of a dastan as narrated by Mir Baqar Ali, dastango of Delhi.

Mir Baqar Ali may be deemed as the tail-ender of the long line of the great masters of this art who had already receded in oblivion with the passage of time. After losing all his patrons one after the other, he made arrangements for a daily mahfil-i-dastan at his residence. The entry fee was a one-anna ticket. It went on well for some time. But one evening he saw with dismay his listeners madly rushing to see bioscope which had newly arrived in Delhi. This compelled him to say goodbye to his life long passion for dastan. He was last seen wandering as a vendor selling finely cut bettle-nuts in the streets of Delhi. He died in 1928. This death may also be seen as the sad end of dastan goi.

The dismissive attitude against Dastani fiction developed under the influence of Reformist Movement during post-1857 era and continued unchallenged for about a century. The reformists, the progressives and the modernists of thirties and forties were all at one in dismissing this fiction as something outdated, absurd and decadent.

This century-old assessment of a whole tradition of fiction came gradually under scrutiny during post-partition decades. The first challenge to this assessment came during fifties from Mohammad Hasan Askari, who made a selection from Tilism-i-Hoshruba from a realistic point of view. He asserted that this seemingly fantastic tale has more to offer in the form of realistic portrayals of our social conditions than any modern fiction writer of Urdu writing in realistic fiction.

In later years, Prof Suhail Ahmad Khan came out with a research thesis where the dastans were interpreted in a symbolic way and were found meaningful on a deeper level. Frances Pritchett of Columbia University, while researching on dastans, brought out a summarized version in English of a part of Dastan-i-Amir Hamza with a detailed introduction for the benefit of her western readers.

Shamsurrahman Farooqi, who had started as a zealous advocate of modernism in Urdu eventually turned to dastans. He dived deep in the vast ocean of Dastan-i-Amir Humza, which runs in forty six bulky volumes. He has as yet brought out the first volume of his proposed detailed study of this monumental work of fiction.

So the appearance of these two dastan gos is not something accidental. They have made their appearance in the sequence of a revived interest in the long forgotten dastan tradition. But unlike the old dastan gos they have opened their eyes in the new environments and seem adjusted to it. Mrs Shahnaz Aijazuddin had the opportunity to see them demonstrating their art in the new environs of India International Centre of Delhi. She was the one who had brought to us the news of such a rebirth in the city of Delhi.

The Dawn Link.

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