Friday, December 31, 2010

Faiz Ahmed Faiz Centenary Year Celebrations

Faiz Ahmed Faiz the iconic romantic-revolutionary Urdu poet (1911-1984) was arguably the most popular poet produced by the Indian subcontinent in the twentieth century. 2011 marks the hundredth anniversary of his birth.

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 ( 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

Dastangoi Performance at Katha Festival--29th December, 4 pm

4:00 pm, on 29th December 2010, in a small amphitheater at Katha's storyshop (A3 Sarvodaya Enclave, Sri Aurobindo Marg, New Delhi - 110017

For further details contact Katha at

Monday, December 13, 2010

DASTANGOI at RAMJAS COLLEGE, DU, 15th Dec, 4.30 pm

Thanks to the initiative of the inimitable Mukul Mangalik and the Aman Trust of Jamal Kidwai Rana, Usman, Ankit and Yojit will present Dastans at Ramjas College, Delhi University North Campus, on 15th December at 4.30 pm

All are welcome

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Nizamuddin Auliya ke Pehloo Mein Dastaan

Agha Khan Development Network "Celebrates Apni Basti" by organizing back to back Dastangoi performances at the recently renewed monument "Chaunsath Khamba" at 6 pm on December 10 and 11, 2010. Performers will include Ustad-e-Mohtram, Prof. Shahid Amin. So, a spectacle not to be missed. :-)

Thanks and cheers.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Tilism in Bhopal

Dastangoi in its modern form makes its debut in Bhopal at the Adi Vidrohi Theatre Festival 2010 edition organized by the Swaraj Sansthan at the Bharat Bhawan at 7 pm on Dec 07, 2010. The performers will include Sheikh Usman and Rana Pratap Senger, the local heroes. Please contact the Sansthan for entry details. Meanwhile, we will pack our bags after a well received festival here at NCPA in Mumbai and leave for Bhopal.

Thanks and cheers.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Festival

The Finale today at 6.30 pm at the Little Theatre, NCPA, Mumbai.
Poster designed by Bhaskar Hazarika.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Festival

Poster Designed by Bhaskar Hazarika. Art work: A Haneef Ramay rendition of the Hamza tales.

The Festival

Poster Designed by Bhaskar Hazarika. Art work from Hamzanama. 

Friday, December 03, 2010

Friday, November 26, 2010

Dastangoi at Bookaroo Children's Literature Festival 2010

Dastangoi returns to Bookaroo Children's Literature Festival. The 2010 edition sees two young, exciting Dastangos Ankit Chaddha and Yojit Singh perform at IGNCA, Dr. Rajendra Prasad Marg, New Delhi at 1.15 pm on Saturday, 27th November. Please be there if you wish to tag along with Amir Hamza and Amar Aiyyaar to their madrasa (school) and be part of the adventure.

Thanks and best regards.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dastangoi Festival in Bombay

In the first week of December, on 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th December, at the NCPA, we present the first Dastangoi festival of the modern era.

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.

Sheikh Usman
Rana Pratap
Rasika Duggal
Rajesh Kumar
Manu Sikander
Aarti Jain
Yojit Singh
Ankit Chaddha
Shruti Parthasarthy
Kuljeet Singh
Sunil Singh Dahima
Rahul Shankalya
Nadeem Shah

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, ( 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.

Dastangoi Ahead


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 - 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

Maulana Azad National Urdu University invites us to perform Dastangoi at a 4 day long academic and cultural seminar at their end. The performance will be on Monday, 8th November 2010 at 6.30 pm at:

DDE Auditorium,
Directorate of Distance Education,
Maulana Azad National Urdu University,
Hyderabad-500 032

The performance includes the retelling of the Partition Dastan. And the performers include Sheikh Usman and Rana Pratap Senger. The entry is open to all.

Thanks and best regards.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dastangoi at Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival 2010

Dastangoi will feature as part of the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival 2010 in Bangalore. The focus this year is on folk and calssical theatre. We'll be reciting a brand new tale of Mussavir Jadoo, a mighty sorcerer, grandson of Lord Samari, a painter, whom Afrasiyab summons to decimate renegade sorcerers and Aiyyaars. Sheikh Usman and Rana P Senger will also perform a tale.

Our performance is slated at 7.30pm at the Ranga Shankara Theatre on Wednesday, October 27, 2010. For more details please visit the Ranga Shankara site.

Thanks and warm regards,


Visuals from Alliance Francaise Performance

Ankit and Yojit on their debut regaling the unruly Delhi kids with Amir Hamza and Amar's childhood adventures.

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.
A photo journalist, I guess Rakesh Nair, has documented the Saturday Alliance Francaise performances on his blog Third Eye. A teaser here while you catch the action there.

Thanks and warm regards,

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dastangoi along with legendary French storyteller Muriel Bloch

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

Recent Reviews

Links to some reviews of the Calcutta, Hyderabad and Bangalore shows--§id=31&contentid=2010091520100915200240776664d2589&subsite=

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dastangoi in Gurgaon, for Power Grid Corporation of India

On Tuesday the 28th September, at 7 pm.

पावरग्रिड टाउनशीप,
सेक्‍टर 43,
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

Some very interesting reviews of Peepli Live-one by a woman who had seen Dastangoi in NY

Friday, September 03, 2010


This month we travel to four cities with Dastangoi.
- 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


19th Sep, at 7 pm at Trillion Ballroom, The Park, 22 Rajbhawan Road, Somajguda, Hyderabad
For invites pl contact Mira at
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

Friday, August 27, 2010

MAFA at Doon

Mahmood Farooqui returns to his alma matter, Doon School, Dehradun for a performance of Dastangoi on Saturday, August 28, 2010. We're in for some experience.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bollywood and the middle class nation

Mahmood wrote this piece fours years ago for Himal.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


Performance of

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.

Besieged Voices from Delhi 1857

Translated by Mahmood Farooqui, with notes on the Mutiny Papers and governance in Delhi 1857 by the translator

When Delhi lay under siege for five harrowing months in the summer of 1857, the people of the city described the events as ghadar: a time of turbulence. Resources within the besieged city fell dangerously low and locals found the rebelling sepoys’ presence and the increased levies insufferable. Nonetheless, an extraordinary effort was launched by the government of Bahadur Shah Zafar to fight the British. Thousands of labourers and tonnes of materials were mobilized, funds were gathered, the police monitored food prices and a functioning bureaucracy was vigilantly maintained—right until the walled city’s fall. Then, as Delhiwas transformed by the victorious British, these everyday sacrifices and the efforts of thousands of people to save their country were lost forever.

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 Delhi if they were not paid their salaries, complaints to the police about unruly soldiers, and reports of troublesome courtesans, spies, faqirs, doctors, volunteers and harassed policemen. Shifting focus away from the conventional understanding of the events of 1857, these translations return ordinary and anonymous men and women back into the history of 1857.

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

Those of you who want a translation of the Poem 'Zindagi se darte ho' by Noon Meem Rashed, I am posting a translation along with the poem. This isn't the complete Nazm but only the portions that we have used in the film Peepli Live. Go to Rashed's work and have a life changing experience.

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)
Hech aarzumandi
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)


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
Afraid already

We have seen the times
Of inaccessibility
Of guileless divinity
And yet you believe
To desire is worthless
This night of silenced tongues
Is the path
To divinity

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
Afraid already
-Translated by Mahmood Farooqui with inputs from SR Faruqi


Monday, July 05, 2010

Budding Dastango Ankit Chaddha's Thoughts on Dastangoi

Dastangoi: There is no end to believing
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.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Delhi Workshop--Follow up

Follow up to the Delhi Workshop--- Only for those who attended it earlier.

Sunday, 20th June, 4 pm.

A-1, Second Floow, Gulmohar Avenue, Tikona Park,
Jamianagar, N. Delhi-25

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Preview of the Wokshop in MINT, Delhi

“You perform and learn” : Mahmood Farooqui on dastangoi
Posted by Himanshu Bhagat on Thursday, June 3, 2010

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
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, and visit

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A workshop for aspiring Dastangos

Dastak Announces -

A workshop for aspiring Dastangos

At the Attic, Regal Building, Parliament Street

Connaught Place, New Delhi
On 4th, 5th and 6th of June.
From 10am to 5pm.

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 and state your background
and reasons for attending the workshop in order to register. Please
also visit the blog 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 INDIA FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS, BANGALORE.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Reviving the lost art form of Dastangoi

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

Indian Express Review of the FTII show in Pune

Tales of storytellers

Dastangoi, a dying art form is being revived through performances for the mainstream audience by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain

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

Dastangoi at FTII, Pune

To celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the founding of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Dastak will perform Dastangoi on the 12th of April 2010 at the Main Theatre, FTII Campus from 7.30 onwards. A discussion with students will happen on the morning of the 13th.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Video Log of Dastangoi Performances

Dastangoi Performance at Kala Ghoda Literary Festival, Mumbai, February 2007

Dastangoi Performance at Dakshinpuri, New Delhi January 2008; A Cybermohalla Enterprise, Sarai

Dastangoi Performance at Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, October 2008

Dastangoi Performance at Muslim Voices Festival, New York, June 2009

Then there are links to following videos by friends and news agencies:

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

And we add more videos as they become available to us on youtube:

An ANI video of our performance at Chausanth Khamba, Nizamuddin Dec, 2010

A beautiful video made from our performances at NCPA, Mumbai, Dec 2010 for the first Dastangoi festival ever in modern times by Afzal Ahmed Syed.

Anu Anand Hall, a BBC Correspondent, describing her serendipitous brush with Dastangoi.

And the latest, thanks to Nicky Chandam, a video documentation of the Binayak Sen Dastan we did as part of Justice on Trial, 3 day long cultural festival at Alliance Francaise, Delhi on Apr 06, 2011.

We'll add more as we roll along. Thanks.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dastangoi for Jan Sanskriti Manch in Patna Cancelled

Dear Everyone:

For reasons beyond our and our host's control, we had to cancel our show in Patna today. It's a pity. We were really looking forward to this show. Anyway, we hope we'll be there soon.

Thanks for bearing with us.


Dastak is pleased to return to Patna for a performance of Dastangoi.

As part of Jan Sanskriti Manch's cultural event we'll be performing Dastangoi tomorrow Sunday, March 14 at 7:00 pm at Kalidasa Rangalya (South end of Gandhi Maidan), Patna.

Please feel free to join us there or tell your friends in Patna to come over for the performance.


Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Dastangoi--Allahabad, 6th March, 2010

The Planning and Development Unit
(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)
Main Speakers:
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

Tilism-e-Hoshruba: Shahnaz Aijazuddin Book Launch

I know this is too short a notice but this whole launch was organized impromptu and for the reason that we have the fortune of Shahnaz visiting India for next few days.

There will be a lecture today Friday, February 26 at 3.30 pm at Ho-Chi Min Conference Room, 1st Floor, Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University by Prof. Syed Fakir Aijazuddin on "Pakistan Your Distant Neighbour" followed by Shahnaz's book launch.

The book launch will have Shahnaz sharing her experiences on translating Rais Ahmed Jafri's abridged version of the Tilism-e-Hoshruba classic, Mahmood speaking on the tradition of Dastangoi, and finally Mahmood and I reading excerpts from Shahnaz's translation and perhaps reciting the original Urdu version from our memories. :-)

Shahnaz would be available to sign copies for those readers who wish to. The book has been published by Penguin Classics.

The event has been organized by ICCR and Jamia Millia Islamia.

For more details call Prof. Shiv Prakash on 09810086353 or me on 09873078449.

Would love to see as many of you who could make it there tom.

Thanks and warm regards,


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dastangoi Revival; The Story so Far

Reclaiming a Heritage-Dastangoi in the Present

In August 2002, I had my first encounter with the Dastan-e Amir Hamza. Although I had been an avid reader of Urdu fiction and had even formally studied it for my M Phil dissertation I had never actually read a Dastan nor had I paid any heed to the genre. In that year S. R. Faruqi, the leading scholar of the form, asked me to help out somebody who was interested in making a film on the form. While the film never got made, I read the first volume of his marvelous study of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza. But it was not until 2004 that I actually attempted to engage seriously with it. I became a Sarai fellow that year with the intention of collecting material for a documentary on the tradition. It was only then that I actually approached the texts and when I did so, I found it an exhilarating experience, both as an Urdu lover as well as a theatre actor. The lines were literally crying out to be read aloud. But creating a performance was still far from my mind. During the course of that fellowship as I read more I realized that rather than looking at them merely as a literary achievement, I would have to situate them in performance. Midway through that I was given an opportunity by the India International Centre to present a lecture demonstration on the form. It was while devising that lecture demonstration 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 other’s stories. Due to the neglect of the form we had very little information about the actual practice of the Art. How did Dastangos sit, how much did they move around, what were individual stylistic feats, did they have breaks, how was audience arranged, did they sing out the poetry, none of these things were very clear. Working closely with Faruqi Saheb and drawing on our experiences as theatre actors, we devised our way to putting together a one hour show.

The first modern Dastangoi performance took place on 4th May 2005 at the India International Auditorium. There were a lot of Urdu writers and journalists, apart from some theatre goers and the members of the centre. From the very beginning the descriptions began to evoke a spontaneous wave of enthusiasm from the audience, soon enough the hall was swinging to wah-wahis and we were borne aloft in this vocal and passionate response to our presentation. What was brought amply home was the vitality of the texts and their ability to regale contemporary audiences. But this was still a predominantly Urdu crowd, how would non-Urdu speakers react to it? I next gave a solo performance at Sarai at the annual fellows workshop and it was a largely non-Urdu, even non-Hindi crowd and they responded to it differently, not so much to the nuances of the language as to the twists and turns of the plot. The India International Centre invited us to perform again, this time at their first annual festival of the Arts and that ratified our effort further.

But in those initial moments my greatest moment of satisfaction as a Dastango came at an unusual venue to an unusual audience. I did a solo show for a group of children from the Spastics Society of India at the steps of the Jama Masjid. The children responded magnificently to the story, in spit of the noise and the crowds and the incidental group of observers who gathered to hear the story provided further joy.

Dastangoi Revival-The Story so Far

Since the initial performance, I have worked with three partners. Apart from innovating on the form by bringing two performers, I have also worked with a woman narrator. We have altogether performed over one hundred and thirty shows in different spaces and cities. These include, the Kala Ghoda festival, Bandra Festival, Mumbai, the Jaipur Literary Festival, the Virasat Festival at Dehradun, performances at Colleges in Delhi under the aegis of the SPIC-MACAY society, the Khuda Bakhsh Library at Patna, the Aligarh Muslim University, Jawahar Lal Nehru Univeristy, the NCPA experimental auditorium at Bombay, the Habitat Centre at Delhi, at Prithvi Theatre Bombay on the invitation of Naseeruddin Shah and his group Motley, shows at Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore on the invitation of the Citizens Foundation of Pakistan, and at New York City at Muslim Voices Festival at the behest of Asia Society and Brooklyn Academy of Music, and numerous other performances at Delhi. Details of the shows, including press reviews are available at

We have performed at Colleges, universities, at literary departments, to regular theatre going audiences and we have unfailingly met with an enthusiastic response. While the appreciation and feel for language varies from place to place, almost everybody enjoys the twists and turns of the story that are a hallmark of the oral tradition. The tropes of the story- the triumph of the hero over the villain, the combination of different rasas in one single story, the descriptions of magic, the womenspeak, the role of the sidekicks, find a ready response also because they are so much a part of our contemporary imagination through Hindi cinema which subsumed many of the Dastani variants. Films like Hatim Tai and serials like Betal Pachisi and Chandrakanta have provided a continuity of contact with the Dastani tradition. Then there are others who respond to our performance purely from a theatrical point of view, to the possibilities of drama without props, of creating tension without effects and to the simplicity of the form-two narrators on a bare stage, usually still, dependent wholly on their voices, face and gestures to create drama. This is theatrical storytelling, where it is difficult to determine where enactment stops and narration begins, or where acting takes over from recitation and mimicry from reporting.

We usually perform stories from the Tilism-e Hoshruba, the most well known chapter of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza, and one which is still in print, although it is a misnomer to refer to something as a chapter which extends over eight hefty volumes. But the oral nature of the texts means that we could pick up stories from any part and recite it, repetition and circularity being important devices in oral traditions, since linearity is not the of highest priority for the rendition. The way we work in practice is to study and scan portions from the published texts, edit it down to a stand alone half an hour capsule and then hone it in rehearsals to create a story which can be performed anywhere.

Simultaneously, we have tried to improvise on the form and use it to service different concerns and tastes. Having already innovated on the form by using two performers, I have tried to experiment on the content as well. At a special event to raise funds for a worker activist from Punjab whose limbs had been chopped off by upper caste landlords, we tried to create a Dastan, in the existing form, which would incorporate Bant Singh’s story, accounts of caste oppression and the situation in contemporary Punjab. The show was successful in communicating itself and its concerns even to sections of the audience which had come from rural Punjab. Earlier in 2007 we were invited by Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan Books at the Habitat Centre and Zubaan books to create a Dastangoi performance on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the partition of India. We were preceded at that show by Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi, the Pakistani theatre group Ajoka also participated in that evening. Our presentation centred aound an allegorical retelling of some of the most memorable fiction around the theme of partition. We re-presented older stories or composed new ones like the old and groped our way to a form which was a combination of the dialogic, stand up comic, storytelling and ritual lamentation.

Importance of Dastangoi for our times

Dastangoi is a form of storytelling, a specific form of it which has been honed for centuries by practitioners. At the same time it is also a form of theatre, which relies on intense performances by actors. It can be used to perform traditional stories, created by the Dastangos of the past, and it can also be successfully used to tell contemporary stories. As a performing art, it extends the boundaries of poetic recitation and takes it to the level of performance, as a form of narration it extends to dramatized rendition, and as a form of storytelling it extends to drama through the device of using two actors. Given the history of neglect of the form and given that there has been no known Dastango in the last seventy years, it is important to resurrect a practice that has now been lost to us. But at the same time, it is an important theatrical genre for our times, one that has the potential to transcend the proscenia and reach out to the masses. The simplicity of the form means that it can be performed with equal felicity at a street-side corner or in a proper auditorium. Instead of imposing a given product on the audience which they should passively receive, it invites them to be an active participant in the process of the creation by setting up constant dialogue with them and by resorting to direct addresses to them. At a time when theatre in India is struggling to create new forms and to generate new contents for itself, the importance of Dastangoi as a form which contains both need hardly be emphasized.

At the same time there is much to be said about the stories generated by the Dastangos of yore. It was the practice which generated texts and it would obviously have been some practice which could generate texts of this size, speculated by some to be the longest fictional narrative ever composed anywhere. The stories in themselves share all the conventions and devices used in the immense storytelling repertoire of the Indic tradition. Dastangoi shares parallels with Mahabharata and the Odyssey, as also with medieval fables and qissas but it is also a world onto its own, a teeming universe of beings, objects, spaces and realms. Ostensibly the story of Islamic conquests over non-Islamic peoples, its treatment could not be more profane or secular. The deployment of revered Islamic figures into a secular, fictional narrative, in the most casual way possible, would seem a highly revolutionary act from the perspective of today. And then to invest those figures with a life which freely breaks many Islamic taboos is further evidence that the audiences of the past reacted much more freely to entertainment than we do today. To take just one example, the Muslims in these stories drink very regularly, but they only drink ‘Islami sharab,’ and they have conjugal relations with several women, many of whom are not Muslims. The attitude to body and to bawdiness, to humor and to the realm of the possible is of a kind that is difficult to find in latter day Urdu prose. The stories can cater to high literary tastes as well as plebeian ones. With their teeming worlds, they are also a repository of social mores and norms of the medieval era. The descriptions of fairs, religious events, musical soirees, market places and the representation of all classes and castes and professions of peoples makes the Dastan-e Amir Hamza an invaluable source for learning about our selves in the pre-colonial era.

The Dastan-e Amir Hamza is a highly important chapter of our literary, performative and fictional history. Its neglect is not the neglect of Dastans alone but also of several other forms of performances and creations which have today been entirely lost to us. The art of bhandgiri and its subsequent denigration is something that comes instantaneously to mind, but there was also the amazing world of Parsi theatre, of the theatrical forms of nautanki, swang, naqqali which have been systematically degraded because of the reformist zeal unleashed by colonization. Its excavation and revival is also a way of reconnecting with the self which has been rent asunder by the recasting of our minds, bodies and cultures by a process of an unequal interaction with the hegemonic west.
Proposal for Extending the Practice-New Dastangos, new Dastans and new Spaces

After successfully putting Dastangoi on the map, at least in the capital, I now need to take it beyond the current level. There are a lot of directions in which we can move from here. Not all of them are attainable simultaneously but a beginning and a foray can be made on several fronts. The first and most important is to create more Dastangos. Unless many more people take up Dastangoi, the form itself would not be revived. It would remain a successful show, one with the potential to rejuvenate itself but still a solitary show. The first step in extending its reach is to create new tellers. The fund of existing stories is almost infinite and even if we were to exhaust them we could create newer stories on the given template. To put this into effect, I would need to conduct a series of workshops with aspiring performers, give them a basic training, hand them some of the texts in a Hindi transliteration and see what they can make of it. With the emergence of new Dastangos, we might have newer styles, variations in performances and eventually, even newer texts.

The essence of the art of Dastangos of old lay in improvised storytelling. They could start with bare essentials and weave in the color depending on the predilection of the audience, emphasizing levity somewhere, embroidering poetic passages in other areas. We need to practice our art with some dedication if we are to reach the linguistic, literary and dramatic finesse where marvelous encounters can be conjured up on the spot. I once did a rough calculation and it turned out that if we perform for two hours everyday, day after day, it would take us nine years to exhaust the entirety of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza. We are not about to do that and for vast portions of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza to be told, it would require many more Dastangos.

Along with creating new Dastangos, we also need to create new Dastans. Potentially, there is no limit to the subjects on which a Dastan can be created, I say Dastan specifically, not just a story. Anything and everything, of course, can be contained in a story, but equally one could create a Dastan about anything, global terrorism, water shortages, partition of India, 1857, all depends on the ingenuity of the teller. Only a deep immersion into an understanding of the form can allow one to create something like that, especially extemporaneously. That would require collaborative work, workshops with other practitioners, experiments with artists of other kinds, musicians, painters, installation and performing artists. We’ve had a successful collaboration with another actor and storyteller, Naseeruddin Shah, and after him we’ve trained five Dastangos who have successfully performed in Mumbai, Allahabad, and Gorakhpur. But we have to go a long way before we could recreate the magic at several levels and tell a thousand new stories and retell old stories anew.

Given its near perfect marriage between literature and performance, Dastangoi is an important resource for educational purposes. It could be successfully used in schools to inculcate skills of storytelling, literary composition, narration and performance. A form of theatre where each child can be a participant as well as a creator, samples of the text need to be a part of the syllabi of Urdu and Hindi because the Dastan-e Amir Hamza contains scores of couplets and quatrains of Hindi, Braj, Awadhi and Magahi as well as speech patterns of different classes of people. As a repository of the written word it also connects us to idioms, usages, figures of speech and everyday words which have been lost to us because of the insistence on purity and a fear of the rustic.

Other than creating new Dastangos what the practice most needs right now is newer audiences. While its ability to regale people in the theatre space, regular theatre going audiences, has now been conclusively proven, it yet has the ability to attract even those who are not used to watching performances in the theatre. I have sometimes defined it as high class masala and it can attract people who have been weaned purely on cinema or television because in one sense it is the precursor of cinema, full of plausible implausibilities, twists and turns of plot, formulaic plot devices and poetic interludes. Its staple content is descriptions of war, romance, convivial assemblies and magic of a kind that would make ordinary magicians pale away. It is in some ways the anti-thesis, as well as a precursor of magical-real. In spite of the over all decline of Urdu in this country, the oral performances of mushairas remain a huge draw for Urdu-familiar audiences in most parts of the country. Replete with Urdu poetry and phrases, rich with some of the best passages of Urdu prose ever written, Dastangoi has the ability to tap into this invisible but thriving audience. For that it would need to move away from the proscenia of big cities and travel to smaller cities and newer spaces. Over the next couple of years I would like to travel to cities like Patna, Lucknow, Rampur, Faizabad, Jaunpur, Bhopal, smaller cities which have a tradition of literary production in Urdu and see how small town audiences react, today, to these Dastans. At the same time I would also like to tap different audiences within cities, to actually test out today’s chowks and street corners as performance spaces and assess whether Dastangoi can work as well in these places as it once did in the past. Dastangoi’s uniqueness lay in transcending the divide between elite and popular culture and even today, as the varying response to our performance establishes, it has the ability to bridge the divide.

Dastangoi sits at the cusp of performance and narration and I would like to explore its possibilities as a purely audio form. A few initial radio performances for a private channel elicited a very enthusiastic response, from the Urdu diaspora, as well as elsewhere and on the basis of that one could think of bringing out audio products based on Dastangoi. The second largest number of books exported from India today are in Urdu, which cater to a large Urdu diaspora in several continents, and Dastangoi has the ability to reach out to those audiences too.

I hesitate from using the word revival in the context of our practice in the present because it is hardly possible to revive something which was deeply embedded in a particular phase of technology and culture. Dastangoi was a product of a largely oral culture and although it initially made a highly successful transition to print, it was created at a time when there were several other oral art forms in circulation. In order to unearth its mode of production, one would need to do further research on other kinds of performative and oral artifacts that were in currency in the nineteenth century. One would have to learn more about the art of bhandgiri, of marsiyagoi, of poetry as performance, of the mode of creation of Parsi plays and one would need to delve into what has been called the ‘commercial print culture’ of the nineteenth century. I also need support to simultaneously research the past of the practice. Besides, it would take a number of years, if not more, for me to simply read the existing 46 volumes of the Dastani texts, besides reading other versions of it in other languages. One of early Hindi’s most successful commercial stories is Chandrakanta, printed in 18 volumes by the same Nawal Kishore Press that printed the Hamza dastans and it freely borrows most of the tropes of Dastan, including Aiyyars, and obviously must have been popular enough to run for so long.

So far, the few studies that have been of Dastans and Dastangoi have concentrated on its literary qualities and modes of production. I would like to situate it in the wider performative context and examine its relations with other forms of performance, equally neglected many of them, and in that context I am very keen to explore the dialogic relations between Dastangoi and early Parsi theatre. I use the word dialogue here with a pun, for dialogues were very central to Parsi theatre, and following it to Hindi cinema, and in some of the stories that we recite one gets a distinct feel of Parsi theatre. Parsi theatre and Dastans, both came to rest on p rint, songs and chapbooks of Parsi theatre were printed in cheap editions already by the 1870s, and how that affects form is also something that needs investigation.

I would like to explore the idea of an aggregative performance, one where we build on the stories in a continuous series of performances. This could take temporal or spatial shape. We could give an extended performance, running up to many hours on a particular day and time. Alternately, we could fix a space and build up a performance over a number of days, weeks or months. Or we could devise a combination of the two.

My overall idea is to delve more fully and deeply into the form, its history and its conditions of production so that I can convert what has been, sometimes, a piecemeal effort into a full time devotion. I have been a researcher as well as a practitioner all my life and my various interests in cinema, theatre, literary Urdu and Indian history, are brought together by this form. I am currently finishing a book of documents on the uprising of 1857 which is a follow up of some translation and research work I had done for William Dalrymple on his latest book, The Last Mughal. Dastangoi brings together the domains of literature, theatre and poetry in performance and, given its interplay with Parsi theatre, and cinema. My interests and experience range across those domains and I feel I am in the best position to extend the practice as well as research its past. As a performer-student or researcher-practitioner I have been fortunate thus far in having the guidance, the support and the inspiration of S. R. Faruqi, Urdu’s leading critic and writer, the winner of Saraswati Samman, who is the only one, of the modern scholars, to have fully and seriously studied Dastans and their mode of production. He is also the only person in the world who has a complete set of the 46 volumes of the Hamza cycle. We have also had inputs from Habib Tanvir, one of the most outstanding theatre directors produced by modern India. He has helped us, if I may use the term, theatricise the form better. But there are questions which we will have to resolve as we practice our craft longer, how far can one stretch the performative aspect of oral narration, what is the difference between a Dastango becoming the person he represents and an actor assuming the persona of somebody else, what modulation of speech and voice can compensate for a sedentary position, how does one use the body if one is seated, questions which can only be attempted by a more intense immersion in the form.

Mahmood Farooqui

What is Dastangoi?

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.

Mahmood Farooqui