Dastangoi: The Lost Art Form of Urdu Storytelling

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