Friday, December 31, 2010
On the 1st of January we present our own tribute to Faiz-his life, works and beliefs- as a conversation between Danish and Mahmood. The conversation will largely draw on his own writings and poems.
Approximately at around 5.30 as part of SAHMAT's (http://www.sahmat.org/) annual gathering on the 1st of January-at V.P. HOUSE LAWNS, Rafi Marg, New Delhi.
Rakht-e Dil Baandh lo Dil-figaron chalo
Phir Hamin Qatl Ho aayen Yaaron Chalo
Friday, December 24, 2010
For further details contact Katha at www.katha.org
Monday, December 13, 2010
All are welcome
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Monday, December 06, 2010
Sunday, December 05, 2010
Saturday, December 04, 2010
Friday, December 03, 2010
Friday, November 26, 2010
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Over the last one year we have trained several people in Bombay and Delhi in the fledgling art of Dastangoi. 'Trained,' is a slightly misleading term for an art form which is still discovering its aesthetics, techniques and contours so let us say we have guided and initiated several new people from Bombay and Delhi into reciting Dastans. They include businessman, young professionals, theatre actors, teachers and researchers. The heartening thing is that several of them are non-actors and some have no prior acting experience. Acting and Dastangoi, it seems from this preliminary foray, are different things although the skills required for both have some commonality. Many of them have performed over half a dozen shows, sometimes independently, in cities across India.
So we present, with some excitement and greater nervousness, the performances of the following. Each will present a different Dastan and thus over four days we shall present twelve to thirteen different stories, mainly from the Tilism-e Hoshruba, but also other works that we have developed in this ongoing exploration.
Sunil Singh Dahima
And of course the by now tiresome duo of
Danish Husain and Mahmood Farooqui
Approaching its sixth year now, the two baby steps that the modern journey of Dastangoi has taken requires hundreds of tellers in cities across Hindustan for it to become a proper revival. The first and necessary step was to remove its identification with what 'Mahmood Farooqui' or what 'Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain' do and we have achieved something of that in the 20 odd shows performed by the newer entrants to the fold. The enthusiastic reception to their telling is heartwarming. As is the fact that increasingly now people assume that there are several people performing Dastans and that we, and people associated with us, are just one of them. Kudos.
It is much better to be a well known exponent of an art form rather than being the only exponent of an art form because, nasha barhta hai sharabein jo sharabon men milen
Collect your passes from NCPA and come to listen to the following wonderful stories, the likes of which have never been composed or recited, before or since...Zamana bare shauq se sun raha tha, hamin so gaye Dastan kahte
Azar and the magic picture
Mehtab and the talking birds
Amar, the false God Laqa and Afrasiyab
Musavvir the portrait artist and Bahar Jadu
Azlam, the dragon dwelling army and Barq Ayyaar
Amar and Amir Hamza in the madarsa and the travails of their Mulla
Barq, Shadeed and Qahar versus Bahar Jadu
Amar versus Heyrat and Aasman Shola Khar Jadu
The Partition Dastan
The 460000 pages of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza await other tellers and other listeners
I deeply thank the India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore, (www.indiaifa.org) for supporting the festival and the other activities that we have lately undertaken to promote Dastangoi.
Entry open to all, first come first served. NCPA, Nariman Point, Bombay.
Nakhlau, nakhlau: Dastangoi's Headquarters, where all the great Ustads lived, where Nawal Kishor published the 46 volumes of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza
Performance at : Bhartendu Natya Akademi, Gomtinagar:-12th November, at 6.30 pm Entry Open to All
Followed by a performance for invitees on 13th November at a private residence
10th and 11th December at Chaunsath Khambha, Basti Nizamuddin, organised by the Aga Khan Trust www.akdn.org/Content/137 - Entry Open to All
2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th December. Dastangoi Festival at National Centre for the Performing Arts, NCPA
Passes Will be Available from NCPA
Our first ever performance in Bhopal
7th December at Bharat Bhawan at 7 pm, organised by the Swaraj Sansthan, Bhopal.
Sunday, November 07, 2010
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
We with our usual business of slaying Azlam Jadoo.
Muriel with her stories from all over the world, and even from outside of this world.
Friday, October 22, 2010
On Saturday, 23rd October, 2010, two new Dastangos, Yojit Singh and Ankit Chaddha make their debut.
At a special performance where we will be sharing the stage with the legendary French storyteller Muriel Bloch.
At eleven am Yojit and Ankit will perform a tale from the childhood of Amir Hamza and Amar Aiyyyar.
In the afternoon 2-4 pm Danish and I follow Ms Bloch
11 to 5 at the Alliance Francaise auditorium.
Come for Ms Bloch and join us to celebrate the launch of the new Dastangos
Entry open to all in the afternoon
Friday, October 08, 2010
Links to some reviews of the Calcutta, Hyderabad and Bangalore shows--
Monday, September 27, 2010
नजदीक एपी सेंटर,
गुड़गांव हरियाणा 122001
The show is mainly for the Power Grid people but those desirous of coming should write me a mail.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Friday, September 03, 2010
- 7th of September we perform at a school at Benaras, the details of which I shall post later.
BANARAS (jo maza banaras men, na paris men na faras men)
7th Sep, 6 pm. Auditorium, Rajghat Besant School, Rajghat Fort, Banaras.
Performers include Rasika Duggal and Rajesh Kumar.
- 12th we travel to Calcutta
- 19th Hyderabad [Prakriti Foundation, Chennai and Park Hotel]
- 25th at Bangalore as a fundraiser for the organisation, the India Foundation for the Arts, which has been funding some of Dastangoi's activities.
12th Sep, at 7 pm at Galaxy, The Park, 17 Park Street, Kolkatta.
For invites pl contact Mira at firstname.lastname@example.org
19th Sep, at 7 pm at Trillion Ballroom, The Park, 22 Rajbhawan Road, Somajguda, Hyderabad
For invites pl contact Mira at email@example.com
Performers include Rana Senger and Sheikh Usman
Chowdiah Memorial Hall – 7.30 pm, Saturday, September 25, 2010
For entry for the performance through donations of Rs.1000/- and Rs.500/- call Joyce at 2341 4681/82/83 between 10 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday, August 27, 2010
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Tuesday, August 03, 2010
Mehtab Jadu, the magical talking birds and Amar Aiyyyar
From, the Tilism-e Hoshruba,
by Danish Husain and Manu Sikander Dhingra
Thursday, the 5th August at 2.30 pm at NSD, Bahawalpur House, Bhagwan Das Road, N. Delhi.
Presented by Mahmood Farooqui
The Mentor and Founder of Dastangoi, S. R. Faruqi may attend.
All are welcome.
Translated by Mahmood Farooqui, with notes on the Mutiny Papers and governance in
In this groundbreaking work, Mahmood Farooqui presents the first extensive translations into English of the Mutiny Papers—documents dating from Delhi’s 1857 siege, originally written in Persian and Shikastah Urdu. The translations include such fascinating pieces as the constitution of the Court of Mutineers, letters from soldiers threatening to leave
Besieged offers a view of how the rebel government of Delhi organized the essential requirements of war—food and labour, soldiers’ salaries, arms and ammunition—but more than that, this deeply evocative book reveals the hopes, beliefs and failures of a people who lived through the tragic end of an era.
Photograph and the write-up courtesy Penguin Books India.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Zindagi se Darte ho
Zindagi se darte ho (4)
Zindagi to tum bhi ho (2)
Zindagi to hum bhi hain
Aadmi se darte ho (2)
Aadmi to tum bhi ho (2)
Aadmi to hum bhi hain
Tum abhi se darte ho
Aadmi zabaan bhi hai
Aadmi bayaan bhi hai (2)
Harf aur maani ke rishta haaye aahan se
Aadmi hai waabasta
Aadmi ke daaman se zindagi hai waabasta
Us se tum nahi darte ho (2)
Ankahi se darte ho
Jo abhi nahi aayi
Us gharri ki aamad ki
Aagahi se darte ho
Tum abhi se darte ho
Pehle bhi to guzre hain (2)
Daur na rassai ke
Be-riya khudaai ke
Phir bhi yeh samajhte ho (2)
Yeh shab e zubaan bandi
Hai rah e khudaawandi
Tum yehi samajhte ho
Tum mager yeh kya jaano
Lab agar nahi hilte
Haath jaag uthte hain
Haath bol uthte hain
Subh ki azaan ban kar
Roshni se darte ho
Roshni to tum bhi ho
Roshni to hum bhi hain
Tum abhi se darte ho
Raah- e- shauq mein jaise
rahru ka khoon lapke
Ek nayaa junoon lapke
Aadmi chhalak uthe
Aadmi hanse dekho
shaher phir base dekho
Tum abhi se darte ho (4)
ZINDAGI SE DARTE HO-THE SECOND COMING
Afraid of Life, are you
You too are life
We too are life
Afraid of Man, are you
You too are human
We too are human
Afraid already are you
Man is speech
Man is expression too
To the iron bond
Uniting utterance and meaning
Man is joined
Tied to his sleeves is Life
Not afraid of that
Afraid of the unsaid
Afraid of the moment
That has not yet arrived
Afraid of the awareness
Of the coming of that moment
We have seen the times
Of guileless divinity
And yet you believe
To desire is worthless
This night of silenced tongues
Is the path
How will you know though
That if lips don’t move
Hands begin to stir
Hands begin to call
Like the Azan at dawn
Afraid of Light
You too are light
We too are light
Afraid of light
As in the journey of love
The traveler’s blood soars
A new passion leaps
Man boils over
Man laughs, look
The city is reborn
-Translated by Mahmood Farooqui with inputs from SR Faruqi
Monday, July 05, 2010
It is quite strange how such an evident characteristic of storytelling never struck me before. But then, I did not have an experience with dastangoi. During a workshop conducted by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Hussain, one of the fundamental truths was realized – what you believe is what you see.
What is Dastangoi?
The word ‘Dastangoi’ is the amalgamation of Persian words for epic (Dastan) and telling (goi). These dastans, coming from an oral tradition, were medieval romantic tales full of magic, adventure and warfare that were recited aloud for audience.
Dastangoi: Don’t Stop Believing
“Yahaan wahi hai jo aitbaar kiya,” says Mahmood. If a dastango (the storyteller) can make the audience believe in everything that he creates, then all of it is happening. When his performance makes things/events look plausible, the storyteller is no longer questioned on the basis of facts.
Dastangoi: Because there is no end
Recently, I was telling one of the episodes from Dastan-e-Amir Hamza to a six year old girl. She was listening to each and every word very carefully. As the episode ended, I told her how that part of the story was over. She asked, “So, does the story end?” “No,” I replied, “stories never end.” She smiled and said, “Yes, that’s the way it should be. Stories are not supposed to have an ending. Continue.” And then, I moved on to the next episode. Here is hoping that the story of dastangoi continues.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Friday, June 18, 2010
Thursday, June 03, 2010
Posted by Himanshu Bhagat on Thursday, June 3, 2010
Farooqui (left) with Danish Husain
Farooqui (left) with Danish Husain
Credit Mahmood Farooqui for making something as exotic sounding as “dastangoi” a familiar word for many. Over the past five years, Farooqui and his fellow dastangoh Danish Hussain have held many dastangoi performances in India and overseas, spinning fantastic yarns in chaste Urdu, and trying to revive the lost art of Urdu storytelling. The response has been enthusiastic and now Farooqui is training others in this fascinating art to carry the tradition forward. He held a dastangoi workshop in Mumbai and will be conducting one in Delhi from today. We had a quick chat with Farooqui ahead of the workshop.
Can the art of Dastangoi be taught?
We are not teaching the art. The workshop will be a way of interacting with people and telling them about what we do. There is no rocket science behind it. It might look daunting and the language is a problem, but then any literary language would be a problem. That just needs to be surmounted.
We did a workshop in Mumbai and 5-6 people who attended have done about 10 shows so far. This workshop too will culminate in performance by two new people. The point is if people want to do it, they can. I rehearsed with people in Mumbai for 2-3 months. It’s basically about working with stories and working with a partner. It is different from other forms of storytelling—one reason being because it evolved over two-three centuries of telling.
Who did you learn Dastangoi from?
I began by reading the tales to my uncle SR Farooqui, the noted Urdu critic and scholar, who corrected us and directed us how to read them. Then Himanshu Tyagi and I rehearsed and worked on it, basically learning on the job. You perform and learn. What kind of art form it is and where it can go is open—something that needs to be seen.
But how many people have working knowledge of Urdu today?
In India many are familiar with the language. Many Muslims for instance don’t know how to read and write Urdu but are familiar with the words and idioms. A lot of people are avid followers of Urdu poetry. So there are people with some working knowledge of Urdu and that is the point. Of all the people who have performed dastangoi, including Danish and Naseeruddin Shah, I am the only one who can read and write Urdu. So it is possible to do it, I guess.
How many people have signed up for the workshop?
About 25 people from various backgrounds—teachers, media people, theatre veterans, NSD graduates. Oddly enough, many haven’t seen a dastangoi performance before.
Do you see dastangoi surviving on its own, without any institutional support?
Survival means what—shows, performances? That’s the challenge of the art form. For performers to survive financially—that’s a different problem. Dastangos need to do other things to survive.
The workshop for aspiring Dastangos will be conducted at the Attic,36 Regal Building, New Delhi Tel: 23746050. It is supported by the India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore
Friday, 4th June, 10am – 5pm
Saturday, 5th June, 10am – 4.30 pm
Sunday, 6th June, 12.30 – 5 pm
For details, write to email@example.com, and visit www.dastangoi.blogspot.com
Saturday, May 22, 2010
Dastak Announces -
A workshop for aspiring Dastangos
At the Attic,
On 4th, 5th and 6th of June.
From to .
Mahmood Farooqui’s attempts at reviving this lost art of Urdu story telling have completed five years this month. He is now looking to invite more people to take the story forward.
Only those interested in pursuing the art of Dastangoi and those who
have a working knowledge of Urdu and of Theatre should attend. Please
write a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and state your background
and reasons for attending the workshop in order to register. Please
also visit the blog www.dastangoi.blogspot.com to learn more about
this lost Art of Urdu Storytelling and its revival.
A Note on the Workshop:
The workshop is NOT going to conduct general theatre exercises of
voice, improvisation and movement. It is going to concentrate on the
history and nature of the form and how best to perform the traditional
stories in today's context. Participants are expected to devote
themselves to learning and performing the stories which are currently
in the repertoire of the Dastangoi performances. The workshop will be
conducted free of cost to the participants.
The workshop is supported by the
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Laxmi Birajdar | TNN
Pune: The stories of Amir Hamza,paternal uncle of Prophet Muhammad,came alive through Dastangoi,the lost art form of story-telling.On Monday,Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain,recounted the epic narratives of Hamza at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and gave an insight into this rich art that involves complex Urdu poetry and oral recitation,interwoven with the rich strains of classical music.
Created and directed by Farooqui,who has been guided by S R Faruqi,Urdus renowned critic and writer,the performance is an attempt to recreate Dastangoi as it was performed in the 16th century,during the rule of Akbar.
The word Dastangoi is a compound of two Persian words,dastan and goi,which means to tell a dastan or epic,often oral in nature.
The Dastan-e-Amir Hamza is a highly important chapter of our literary history.Our maiden performances were at the India International Centre in Delhi in 2005, said Farooqui,also a thespian.
It was while devising a lecture-demonstration for this art form in 2005 that I first explored the possibility of actually performing the text.The best way to demonstrate its prowess was to actually let the text speak.Traditional Dastangoi was restricted to a single performer.The innovation I made was to rope in another actor so that we would alternate our recitations and participate as listeners to each others stories, said Farooqui.
Stories of Hamzas life and exploits have been collected in the Hamzanama,which came to India through Persia.It began to be recounted in Urdu in the 18th and 19th centuries and a structure was acquired through its form,oral recitation,Urdu poetry and classical music.
The shows executive director,Anusha Rizvi,recognised the scope of this art form once the initial performance was lapped up by the audience.Thats when we thought of pursuing it seriously and began delving deeper into it.We realised people were taking a genuine interest in this lost art of story-telling and were reacting positively to our performance,wanting to know and see more of Dastangoi, said Rizvi.
Farooqui has been training artists for the last four years.There are only about 10 people who can perform Dastangoi today.Being a theatre artist myself,I find it a very fulfilling art form, said Farooqui.
Actor-poet Danish Husain has been assisting Farooqui.He will be seen next in the film,Peepli Live, produced by Aamir Khan and directed by Farooqui and Rizvi.
The dastan or epic narrative of Amir Hamza was brought alive through oral recitation,classical music and Urdu poetry by artistes,Danish Husain (left) and Mahmood Farooqui at a performance at the FTII recently
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Tales of storytellers
Sound of energetic Wah Wahs resonated in the main theatre of Film and Television Institute of India. The stage was set, perfectly suiting the era of the Dastangoi- the ancient art of storytelling. The 50 year golden jubilee celebration at FTII was the apt occasion to celebrate this ideal blend of poetry and drama.
Marked by dramatic, loud hand gestures and set on varied pitches, this performance by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain was a visual delight as well. Farooqui has been involved in the revival of this art since 2004. Talking about his first encounter with this art form he says, “In August 2002, I first encountered the Dastan-e Amir Hamza and I was asked to help out somebody who was making a film. Though the film never got made, I got interested in Dastangoi.”
Dastangoi is the art of narration of Dastan (epic narrative) recited by a Dastango (performer)- a compound of two Persian words Dastan and goi which means to tell a Dastan. These were often oral in nature, stories of adventure, magic and warfare read out loud. This art form dates back to the 16th century; in fact legend has it that Emperor Akbar himself would recite them. It involves rigorous practice to perfect every aspect of the performance. Farooqui adds, “We work together on lengthy rehearsal sessions trying to memorise pages of script. We improvise, edit and present it in a form that is enjoyable for the audiences.”
The palpable chemistry between both the artists left the audiences completely engaged in the performance. They time traveled through the pages of history and the audiences attentive throughout the length of the act. “The audiences are kept attentive through techniques like sound of language, illustrations on the stage and so on,” adds Farooqui. Most of Indian and Islamic cinema is influenced by Parsi theatre that uses the same elements of the theatrical forms of nautanki, swang, naqqali.
This art form has an illustrous history and an equally interesting way of presentation. In one of the Dastans about the escapades of Amir Aiyyaar, Husain quickly changes into a role of a beautiful woman. His graceful movements match the masculine performance of Farooqui creating a visual imagery in front of the audiences. With minimal props, they bring to life some of the greatest epics of Persian and Arabic literature. Traditional Dastangoi was restricted to single performer, but Farooqui made improvisations and introduced the system of two performers, to make it more contemporary.
The second part was based on the partition of 1947, drawing attention to the battle through poetry, folk sayings and literature. It was an intricately woven tale of separation, longing and trauma of the partition, something that is so close to our hearts.
Farooqui has studied at the University of Oxford. He has worked over the last four years to revive this lost art of storytelling under the guidance of S R Faruqi, eminent critic and writer. Husain, has been involved with this endeavour for over four years. Farooqui says, “Our Dasatngoi performance is a tribute to these storytellers who lived 200 years ago and are hardly remembered by anyone today.”
Friday, April 09, 2010
Thursday, March 25, 2010
And here is the latest video report filed by Pooja Chaturvedi, Mint (Hindustan Times Group)on Dastangoi. The performance and interviews are from The Bards and The Minstrels of India Series performance on Jan 19, 2011 at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. You may visit their site here:
The Bards and The Minstrels Series Opening at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
(Department Of Economics, Allahabad University)
and the G.B Pant Social Science Institute cordially invite you to:
“NREGA: Which Way Now?”
(Panel discussion and public debate)
Abhijit Sen (Member, Planning Commission)
Mihir Shah (Member, Central Employment Guarantee Council)
B.K Sinha (Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development)
Aruna Roy (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan)
Gangaram Paikra(Chaupal, Chattisgarh)
Followed by Cultural Programme: Dastangoi (Urdu story-telling,
directed by Mahmood Farooqui).
Date: 6 March 2010
Time: 5 pm to 8.30 pm
Venue: G.B Pant Social Science Institute, Jhunsi
Enquiries: 0532-2567 150 or 2569 204.
Friday, February 26, 2010
Thursday, February 25, 2010
The word Dastangoi refers to the art of storytelling, it is a compound of two Persian words Dastan and goi which means to tell a Dastan. Dastans were epics, often oral in nature, which were recited or read aloud and in essence were like medieval romances everywhere. Telling tales of adventure, magic and warfare, Dastans mapped new worlds and horizons, encountered the unseen and protected the hero through many travails and lovers as he moved on his quest. The hero’s adventures could sometimes parallel the mystic quest, at other times the story narrated a purely profane tale. In the process of telling the story the narrators freely borrowed tropes and themes from other stories, thus it was that Rumi’s Masnavi and Arabian Nights both came to contain many stories from the Panchtantra tradition. While Dastans had many principals and many stories, the story of Hamza began to stand out early on. Beginning with an unknown Arabic version the Persian versions of the story narrated the life and adventures of Amir Hamza, supposedly an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed. Marked out by fairies, djinns and prophecies, Hamza travels to different lands in his infancy and even as a young child shows great physical prowess and daring. His fame spreads far and wide and he is called by the chief minister of the King of Persia to aid the latter in his troubles, encountering many adventures, beings, species and realms Hamza remains triumphant and unvanquished, right to the end.
Hamza narrative in India
By the sixteenth century, versions of the Hamza story had begun to circulate in India. Mentioned first in the Deccan courts, the story reached its artistic apogee in the court of Emperor Akbar. By then, specialized tellers of the story, called Dastangos had emerged. There is very little information on what the ingredients of their art were, but they were sufficiently distinct to merit a separate genre for themselves. Akbar himself was exceedingly fond of the narrative and used to recite it himself. One of the first artistic projects commissioned under him was an illustrated version of the Hamza story which became known to posterity as Hamzanama. It was a mammoth artistic undertaking which consisted of over 1200 folios, each at least a yard and a half by a yard in size, making it an unusual picture project, with the text inscribed at the back. Nothing of that size, ambition or scale was ever attempted again by the Mughal regime, attesting to the importance of the Hamza story in the medieval imagination. Some scholars have conjectured that the large size of the panels indicates their use as a kind of an audio-visual story telling, the narrators would stand behind the panels and narrate the story from the text and the panels would be changed as the story progressed, envisaging it as a form of proto-television. For the next two centuries, different Persian versions of the Hamza story circulated in India, with occasional mention of the Dastangos who performed them.
There were at the same time other Dastans, sharing tropes and conventions of the Hamza narrative which, in their emphases, begin to differ from the Persian versions of the narrative. Bostan-e Khyal, composed at the end of the eighteenth century enhances greatly the role of magic in its telling of a fantastical tale. Given primacy too is the art of aiyyari, trickery, a relatively neglected feature in Persian storytelling.
Hamza narrative in Urdu
The first Urdu version of the Hamza narrative was published at the beginning of the nineteenth century under the aegis of the Fort William College, an institution established by the East India Company at Calcutta which was the first to edit and publish some of the key texts of the North Indian literary tradition. Alongside the ‘Dastan-e Amir Hamza,’ other Dastans were also published by the College, which included Mir Amman’s Bagh-o Bahar, a tale that was reprinted over twenty times in the nineteenth century and one which is taught to this day in the syllabi of Urdu literature. Bagh-o Bahar was selected by the colonial administrators as a text which, with suitable emendations, was used to learn the native languages, a status that was not accorded to the Hamza story.
As print came to North India in the middle of the nineteenth century, stories, fables and Dastans proved to be the most important motor for the print revolution, along side religious literature. Tales such as Nal Damyanti and qissas such as Qissa-e Meherafroz-o Dilbar were printed many times over. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the Hamza tradition in Urdu was thriving more as an oral performance tradition rather than as a successful print commodity. While Dastangos at Rampur, many of them migrants from Lucknow, were committing the narrative to paper, it remained in manuscript form. But already, the stories were expanding, while very few Persian versions exceeded a single volume the Urdu manuscripts had begun to extend to several volumes. Acquiring primacy too were new areas in the story, the tricksters and the magical and wondrous worlds created by sorcerers, pretenders to divinity many of them, which in their colorfulness, imagery and fancifulness were like nothing seen in Persian literature.
By the middle of the nineteenth century the practice of Dastangoi was sufficiently entrenched in most parts of Northern India. In Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s ethnographic account of Delhi Asar-us-Sanadid, Dastangos are mentioned prominently. Every thursday, they are said to gather at the steps of the Jama Masjid where they recite their tales. It is interesting that a mosque should have been the site for a profane storytelling for the Quran specifically mentions poets and storytellers and asks the believers to be wary of them for they mislead with the magic of their words. Mirza Ghalib, the famous Urdu poet was exceedingly fond of the Hamza Dastan and for a period of two years used to organize weekly performance sessions at his house in Delhi. He composed a long poem using characters and tropes from the Hamza story and once wrote in a letter to a friend that it was raining and he had just acquired, ‘six chapters of the Hamza dastan and sixteen casks of wine, what more do I want from life.’
The Apogee of Dastangoi-the Hamza narrative in Lucknow
The upheaval of 1857 turned out to be a boon for Lucknow as thousands of artists, poets and writers migrated there from Delhi, and this included several Dastangos. The first historian of Lucknow, Abdul Halim Sharar wrote in Guzishta Lucknow about the proliferation of the art of Dastangoi in the city after the mutiny. Every nobleman, he said, had made it a practice to employ a Dastango in his retinue as chowks or city squares became a favored site for performance of the art. Sharar defined it as the art of ‘extemporaneous composition,’ and said that it rested on descriptions of four phenomena, war, romance, trickery and magical artifices. The Dastangos in Sharar’s time, therefore, were not reciting a story learnt from memory, they were improvising on the bare structures which had been handed down to them.
Simultaneously, after the mutiny, the Hamza story began to enjoy great currency in print. While the Fort William version had already been reprinted several times, Munshi Nawal Kishore, the legendary publisher from Lucknow commissioned another edition of the story one which, with minor changes, continued to be printed for an entire century and was last published in the 1960s. Persian versions of the story were also being printed at the same time.
By that time, conventions of the Dastans were beginning to affect productions of modern prose works in Urdu. Fasana-e Azad, the first novel in Urdu, is structured like a Dastan as the picaresque narrative meanders from country to country. At the same time the tremendous success of the Parsi theatrical productions, in Hindi and Urdu, interspersed as it was with song and dance, like the Dastans, also had a give and take relationship with Dastans. Both were tied to the commercial print revolution too, as songbooks of stage performances came to be printed, exactly as Dastans created in oral performances came to find a life in the print form.
In 1881, buoyed by the success of the Hamza story, Nawal Kishore embarked on a highly ambitious literary print project. He assembled some of the leading Dastangos of Lucknow and commissioned them to produce the entire Hamza narrative as it existed in oral and written records. The team of three writers Mohammed Husain Jah, Ahmed Husain Qamar and Sheikh Tasadduq Husain, joined later by others, started work on reproducing in print the virtual entirety of the Hamza tradition. The result, by the end of a labor of twenty five years, was a series consisting of 46 huge volumes, each about a thousand pages long. Each of the volumes could be read as an independent entity, or one could read it as part of the whole.
We have very scanty information about the exact mode of reproduction, or production, followed by these narrator-authors. Although they repeatedly claim to be basing their rendition on preexisting texts, often in Persian, and ascribe authorship to august figures of antiquity, none of the previously existing versions they quote can be found. It is a reasonable guess that the expansion of the story from a single volume to this mammoth series was a creation mainly of the performative tradition, they were circulating in the oral realm, which may have rested on written records in the form of key or guide books which outlined the main characters and the run of the plot but the body was supplied by the narrator as he recited the story. We don’t even know whether these Dastangos dictated the stories, and they came to be written by scribes, or whether they actually wrote it in their hands.
While the Hamza story was performed and recited in many other parts of the Islamicate world, in places as far away as Morocco and Indonesia, in most other places it was a part of a musical storytelling tradition. Alfred Lord and Milman Parry, in the course of their investigation of the Homeric bardic tradition, studied the Hamza singers of Bosnia and produced a groundbreaking work called ‘The Singer of Tales’ on the oral tradition. But the narrators they worked with also used musical instruments. The Indian Dastangos, by contrast relied purely on words and their art of narration to tell the story, aligning it closer to literary performance.
The 46 volume Hamza cycle is the crowning glory of Urdu literary tradition and the summit of a thousand years of the Indo-Islamic storytelling tradition. The sheer fecundity of the dastan- with thousands of invented names, tools, weapons, beings, with an overflowing vocabulary- as also its immense popularity had a long lasting effect on other forms of narratives. It appropriated revered figures of the Islamic past into a profane narrative. Its treatment of themes like humor, body, macabre, eschatology, seduction, wining and dining are all of a time when public tastes and cultures in India had not been transformed under the colonial imperative. For sheer literary virtuosity, for its treatment and range of linguistic tenors, its use of metaphors, similes and all the other conventions of literary and poetic conventions, the Dastan-e Amir Hamza is an outstanding achievement. While it deals with the fantastic, the fantastic is grounded in the real and the social, so it has also been seen as a remarkable social document of the pre-colonial order. While the literary trappings appeal to high brow minds, the content of the stories, replete as they are with tales of seduction, competitive magical encounters and confrontations between tricksters and magicians could appeal to uninitiated audiences too.
Recasting of Urdu Letters and the Marginalisation of Dastans
As S. R. Faruqi, among others, has shown, Urdu literary world and its values were recast at the end of the nineteenth century by a group of reformers who looked down on the ‘artificial and conceited,’ works of Urdu writers. Seeking to yoke literature to social reform and emphasizing purity of thought and simplicity of style, Urdu’s leading critics privileged truthful experience rather than exaggerated inventions. Desirous of mirroring western, more particularly Victorian, literary values they praised moralistic and realistic fiction and long narrative poems. Dastans, by then, were already an object of religious censure, women particularly were advised against reading them because it would corrupt them. At the same time colonial officers often found Dastans to be immoral and obscene. Added to this was the growing contempt of Urdu’s own critics who found Dastans to be childish, inconsistent, implausible and too repetitive. The only permissible fictional form for the reformers was the novel and the Dastan was a veritable anti-novel, not a precursor to it but quite a different form.
Although Dastans continued to be published into the middle of the twentieth century, their popularity was clearly waning. Many of its conventions had passed into Cinema, the oral culture of which it was a product was giving place to a literary culture and the spaces where it was traditionally performed were being recast. In 1928, just a few years before sound revolutionized the Indian film industry, Mir Baqar Ali died. He was the last famous Dastango of India. The connection is not merely incidental. Reports of his performances establish beyond doubt that he was perhaps the last great traditional actor to be born in this country.
“He never told dastans-he presented lively, moving pictures; or rather you could say that he himself became a picture. He was a thin, slightly built man, but while he was reciting the dastan, if a king appeared in the story, the listeners felt themselves standing before an imperious monarch. Sometimes, if he spoke the words of some old woman, he adopted the very style of speech of respectable elderly ladies, and even (despite) his teeth became quite toothless…He knew thousands of verses by heart. He had such a command of language that poets and writers accepted Mir Saheb as an authority...”
Over time the genre became so neglected that today the Dastan-e Amir Hamza has completely receded from public consciousness. Few critics have engaged seriously with it, few Urdu students read them and in fact the whole set of the 46 volumes can today only be found in only one collection in the world. While their neglect as literature is inexcusable, they have also been wholly obliterated from the canon of performing Arts. As anecdotes of Mir Baqar make clear, their performance required an exceptional command over rhetoric, delivery, mimicry, ventriloquism and spontaneous composition. Moreover, Dastangoi was one feature of an oral/performative culture where the public arena was the first and perhaps the most natural site of performance. Qissagos, contortionists, sooth-sayers, faqirs, magicians, madaris, animal fights, mushairas and sundry other activities provide a prismatic context in which Dastans were composed and performed. Their skill as actors lay in commanding the audience attention at all times, an audience that in the case of a public performance was likely to fritter away at the slightest drop of intensity. This demanded acting and performing skills that range from drama to dance to mime to performance art. Rather than occupying a central place in our artistic heritage therefore, they have been sent to total oblivion.