Tim Supple was here this morning to talk about his new project, a stage adaptation in English of Firdausi's master epic, the Shahnameh. He has been bringing stories on stage for almost a decade, (for more go to http://www.intermusica.co.uk/artists/stage-director/tim-supple/biography).
So what is the difference between his storytelling and ours? There is drama and there is telling. Drama is inherent to telling and all drams are acts of telling. So we get at actors who are adept at telling and performing. Adept at telling prose and poetry, blank verse and rhymed prose. But actors who must inhabit a remote, even discredited medieval world, whilst necessarily avoiding the appeal of quaintness. The medieval stories, even when they seem lighthearted and single layered, are not without their gravitas. There is nothing more serious than transporting people to a make believe but different world. Success at that, to my mind, supercedes any hardcore realistic topical production.
So how does one orientate people to a world that is now familiar. Does one employ a prologue, is an explanation required for telling stories that are now old, sometimes unfamiliar? Do we need to justify what we are doing? Must we turn them topical, make them 'useful' to our own world?
Besides that there is the question of Persian and the question of Iran? For about a hundred years Persian was an ecumenical, world language. Spoken, used and understood from Morocco to Indonesia, from Samarqand to Bosnia. Does it belong to any single country? Does Latin belong to any one country in Europe? By sheer volume of production the Indian subcontinent produced the largest amount of Persian scholarship for about six hundred years, larger than any other country in the world. Histories, poetry, epic stories, essays, moralistic tales, memoirs, religious literature, there is no genre of Persian scholarship where the Indian output is lesser, at least in quantity, than any other part of the world. So does the Shahnameh belong to India or to Iran.
While it specifically narrates the peculiar history of old and ancient Iran, and glorifies it, the Shahnameh was known and celebrated in many parts of the medieval world. But what of Sadi's Bostan and Gulistan, or Rumi's Masnavi, they are not specifically about Iran, they are still taught to school children in India, do they belong to Iran or to India or to both. The nationalisation of language is a nineteenth century phenomenon and today, as we aspire to a multi cultural world, we must retrun this heritage where it belongs: equally among Indians, Bangladeshis, Malaysians, Central Asian, Asia Minor, the Caspian Sea countries, to all of us.
Bedil, a poet born in Patna and bred in Delhi is the national poet of Afghanistan. The Thousand and One Nights, known today as a purely Arabic text, was first printed, in Arabic and in Urdu and English, in India in the nineteenth century. Aladdin is our story as much as anybody else.
So let us own what is ours but let us not be exclusive about it.
More on the Shahnameh as we get to it. Meanwhile I am reading and researching another Masnavi, the poetic form in which the Shahnameh as well as Goswami Tulsidas' Ramcharit Manas is composed, from eighteenth century India. Another master text which took its author Mir Hasan twenty years, like Firdausi's thirty, to compose and for which, again like Firdausi, he felt that he did not get an adequate enough award.
More on that soon...