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 www.dastangoi.blogspot.com
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.