Return of dastangoi

Published : Jan 14, 2011 00:00 IST

Dastangos Mahmood Farooqui (right) and Danish Hussain at a performance in Hyderabad on September 20. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Dastangos Mahmood Farooqui (right) and Danish Hussain at a performance in Hyderabad on September 20. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A Delhi-based narrator of dastans, Mahmood Farooqui, has breathed life into this extinct art of storytelling in Urdu.

ALTHOUGH it was revived only a few years ago, dastangoi, the art of storytelling in Urdu, has attracted a great deal of attention. Several performances have been held to packed houses in all the major cities of India over the past few years. Some shows have been held in cities in Pakistan and the United States as well.

In the Persian language, dastan means a tale, and when the suffix goi is added to the word, it translates to to tell a tale. The idea of this storytelling form, which was originally composed in Persian, is simple so simple that the lack of any performance paraphernalia intrigues a first-time viewer. There are no props or external sound effects. The stage is bare except for a cushioned mat and a couple of bolsters. Two storytellers walk in, dressed in stylish kurtas and flared pyjamas, evoking the raffish sartorial style that must have been prevalent in a 19th century qasbah (a predominantly Muslim urban area in north India). They sit down and start declaiming in lyrical Urdu with a narrative flourish that brings to life the world of that great legendary hero of the medieval age, Amir Hamza.

Storytelling has a hoary ancestry in all parts of the world. Before stories were written down, they were told, and told in such grand fashion that they were performances in their own right. The Arabs had a long tradition of oral poetry. Even in India the practice of memorising the Vedas had existed for long. Remnants of that culture thrive across India even now. The telling and retelling of the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata itself would provide Occidental folklorists several lifetimes' worth of research material. It is difficult to draw a line between storytelling and performance in these forms though; the performance of a scene from the Ramayana is also the telling of a story.

Storytelling has disappeared and is not even revered as a valid cultural artefact. While theatre has survived and flourishes, pure storytellers, who went from town to town narrating fantastic tales, have vanished. There are new storytellers now, but their language is English, their audiences are mainly children, and the form and style they employ, to make a broad observation, have a Western influence.

It is in this context that the work of Mahmood Farooqui, the Delhi-based dastango (narrator of dastans), needs to be understood. He breathed life into dastangoi in 2004 when he began to work on its revival with support from organisations such as Sarai in Delhi and, later, the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) in Bangalore. All that Farooqui had to go by was the tomes of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, a 46-volume collection of dastans of Amir Hamza, and an awareness that the form existed, for which he credits his uncle and prominent Urdu scholar S.R. Faruqi.

Dastangoi was as popular as the mushaira [Urdu poetry soirees] of the 19th century, said Mahmood Farooqui, discussing the form. It died out later because of a Victorian mindset that existed then. Dastangoi had many aspects that could be classified as bazaaru'. It was much easier to sanitise the mushairas, he continued.

Urdu poetry was encouraged and patronised, while the fantastic stories of Amir Hamza, some of which are great Urdu literature, did not receive much patronage. It survived in the mehfils (gatherings) of the mushaira as the most visible marker and legatee of an Indo-Islamic culture that flourished in the palaces and lanes across the country, whereas dastangoi met with a gradual and neglected death by the early 20th century. The strength of the art of storytelling, like any other form of entertainment, lies in its power to captivate first and then to engage its audience in another realm sometimes real and at other times fantastic.

Dastangoi operates completely in the realm of fantasy, and to listen to Amir Hamza's dastans is to enter another world guided by the narrative fervour of the dastangos. It is a separate Tilism, or a world of a different dimension, peopled by fairies and princes, sorcerers and tricksters, kings and houris, slaves and warriors, and clairvoyants and winged steeds. These magnificent adventures have two main characters Amir Hamza and his childhood friend, Amar the Aiyyar (trickster).

Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Hussain, the most established contemporary duo of dastangos, transport the audience to Tilism-e-Hoshruba, or the world of enchantment. (The seven-volume Tilism-e-Hoshruba was the most popular subset in the 46-volume canon of Amir Hamza's dastans.) The duo's rhetoric is flawless and their style mesmerising. Their tones are consonant with one another, and their entire person seems to be inhabited by the characters from their story. The exaggerated theatricality in their performance is filled with a verve that enthrals the audience, so much so that as a particular vignette of the story is being led to its denouement, the audience waits with bated breath, for the next bewitching succubus (demonic female spirit) or for another great soldier.

In his brief prefatory explanation to their performance, Mahmood Farooqui forbids clapping and says that the audience is supposed to express its appreciation with wahs', fitting in with the Indo-Islamic culture of endorsing great performances across northern India. The best wahs from the audience are reserved for the descriptions of the ravishing beauty of princesses, when the dastangos demonstrate such a felicity and finesse of the Urdu language that the audience is carried away by the mellifluence of the language without really comprehending the words sometimes. A translation of one brief Urdu passage should give the reader a feel of the original text of the dastans:

Talking together they all approached a garden. Amar saw that its gates were open like the yearning eyes of a lover, and the cold wind which wafted there was such that it would revive the breath of the Messiah itself. Those beauties entered the garden, the splendour of which had no equal, and Amar beheld those wondrous grounds that were the envy of the Garden of Paradise.

For readers who would like to read the wondrous stories of Amir Hamza, there is a new translation of one volume of The Adventures of Amir Hamza. This version, published in 2008 and translated from Urdu by the well-known Urdu scholar Musharraf Ali Farooqui, is a remarkable tome. While reading this tale, one can easily comprehend why Mirza Ghalib, the great Urdu poet and an avid fan of dastans, wrote to a friend that he had acquired six chapters of the Hamza dastan and sixteen casks of wine, what more do I [Ghalib] want from life. Frances Pritchett's work The Romance Tradition in Urdu: Adventures from the Dastan of Amir Hamza, published in 1991, also has some excerpts of these idle tales' in English, as some scholars have described the dastans.

The revival

About the process of reviving dastangoi, Mahmood Farooqui writes in his blog ( that when he actually engaged with the texts he found it an exhilarating experience, both as an Urdu lover and as a theatre actor. The lines were literally crying out to be read aloud. As he began to dwell on the possibility of performing' an actual dastan, he realised that he had to innovate as due to the neglect of the form we had very little information about the actual practices of the art.

Traditional dastangoi was performed by one performer alone but Mahmood Farooqui roped in another actor and they began to conceive a performance. How did dastangos sit, how much did they move around, what were their individual stylistic feats, did they have breaks, how was the audience arranged, did they sing out the poetry, none of these things were very clear. Working closely with [S.R.] Faruqi Saheb and drawing on our experiences as theatre actors, we devised our way of putting together a one-hour show, Mahmood Farooqui writes about his early struggles to revive the lost form. The only oral source of an actual performance of dastangoi is a three-minute recording from the early 20th century, of India's last famous dastango, Mir Baqar Ali Dehlavi (1850-1928).

The best academic resource on dastangoi is Mahmood Farooqui himself, and his training as a historian seems to have given him the necessary depth to facilitate the revival with sensitivity. He combines in his rare personality the rigour of a scholar and the bombastic hauteur of a trained theatre actor. He has published a work of translated documents called Besieged: Voices from Delhi 1857, which provide a subaltern perspective of the events around 1857 (when the Great Indian Rebellion took place). Mahmood Farooqui, along with his wife, Anusha Rizvi, is also the director of Peepli Live, a well-received film that was produced by the actor Aamir Khan.

In his blog, Mahmood Farooqui traces the growth of the Hamza narrative and the art of dastangoi in India. The main character in the dastans is Amir Hamza, believed to be an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. Hamza has been a popular figure in mythopoetic creations across the Islamic world. Akbar, the third Mughal emperor, had a grand portfolio made on the adventures of Amir Hamza, called the Hamzanama. By then, dastangos also emerged and soon became popular.

In an article in The Annual of Urdu Studies, Musharraf Farooqui writes that the dastan was assured of an enthusiastic audience the decadent society of India which developed in the intervening years between the Battle of Plassey (1757) and the Mutiny (1857). Musharraf Farooqui also writes that the escapist element was a factor in the popularity of the dastans, and dastangos were included among the retainers of nobility; and poets and writers consulted them as lexical authorities. As listening to dastan recitals became a popular pastime for all classes, the dastango acquired a mass audience. It also played a vital role in the development of Urdu prose.

With the gradual colonisation of India and the efforts of the colonialists to understand the colonised, institutions such as the Fort William College were established by the East India Company in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Indian texts, such as the Hamza narratives, were also edited and published by the college. The dastans flourished as an oral tradition in Urdu in the 19th century, and some of them also made it into print when the print revolution came about in the late 19th century.

It was at this time that Munshi Nawal Kishore, a well-known publisher from Lucknow, commissioned a grand literary project. He assembled some of the leading dastangos of Lucknow (including non-Muslims such as Amba Prasad Rasa) and, as Mahmood Farooqui writes in his blog, commissioned them to produce the entire Hamza narrative as it existed in oral and written records.... The result, by the end of a labour of 25 years, was a series consisting of 46 huge volumes, each about a thousand pages long. It is this massive repertory that provides Mahmood Farooqui and his team of dastangos the texts for their storytelling.

In his blog, Mahmood Farooqui sums up the value of these volumes thus:

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.... 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 main textual source for the performance of dastangoi now is the Tilism-e-Hoshruba, Mahmood Farooqui has also tried to create contemporary dastans with Danish Hussain. So far, the duo has performed dastans on the partition of India, on the Dalit poet Bant Singh of Punjab and on the incarceration of Dr Binayak Sen. There have been demands that Mahmood Farooqui devise more such dastans dealing with current themes and to make them more political, but he is clear that he wants to focus on the dastans of Amir Hamza for now. If we start doing topical stories, who will look after this legacy and what will we do with the magnificent stories that we have? he asks.

While dastangoi is seen as a highly entertaining form, its essence also involves, according to Mahmood Farooqui, an engagement with cultural politics. Dastangoi was lost because of the cultural politics of that time. By our performances, we are bringing back something that had been discarded from our canon of consciousness. It is cultural politics that is allowing us to bring this back. Also, this is important because it allows us to talk about the faith (Islam) in a manner in which the sacred and the profane can mingle, which rarely happens within Islam nowadays as the faith has been elevated to an august pedestal, he says. And the most important act of cultural politics is that we use Urdu and this is a valid, native form of Urdu drama, he adds.

The point about Urdu is particularly interesting because intricate meanings of the text of the dastans are mostly lost on the modern audiences of dastangoi, but the performances are spectacular successes. Audience respondents to whom this correspondent spoke cited a number of reasons ranging from the theatricality of the form, its uniqueness, and the beauty of the Urdu language for their appreciation of the form.

While preparing their performances, Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Hussain stubbornly try to stick to the original text, thus providing a platform for Urdu in the public discourse. And even though the language languishes in India for various reasons, the success of dastangoi demonstrates that it still has the ability to draw in audiences.

In a way, Farooqui has not only managed to revive an Indian form of storytelling that was lost in the early 20th century but also helped high literary Urdu to wedge in and regain its rightful place in the performance panorama of modern India.

Mahmood Farooqui has grand plans for dastangoi and is trying to build a team of dastangos who can focus on the many stories that the 46 volumes have to offer. Danish Hussain said, If I and Mahmood narrate new stories from these 46 volumes for two hours every day for 365 days a year, it will take us 13 years to get through the entire corpus.

Mahmood Farooqui tried hard to rescue this art form and the literature of the dastans from obscurity, and going by the enthusiastic responses, he has managed the arduous task of revival of dastangoi to some extent. But there is still a lot of work to do.

As Mahmood Farooqui himself says, I don't even have an exact definition for dastangoi yet. We are working our way through something without many signposts.

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