Photo © Hemant Sareen
Photo © Hemant Sareen
Photo © Hemant Sareen
Before the Mutiny of 1947, the steps of Delhi’s Jama Masjid were witness to a regular scene---amongst the bustle of the faithful, hawkers, and an assortment of entertainers, stood storytellers regaling crowds with their endless, tall tales. Most likely, these improbable, digressive tales at times piously pushing faith, at others teetering on the edge of bawdy, were the storyteller’s take on Dastan-e Amir Hamza, or Hamzanama, or The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a long rambling, lusty tale about the adventures of one Amir Hamza, generally recognised as an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed. The Islamic connection is an uneasy one. As the latest critically-acclaimed translator of the Dastan, Musharraf Farooqui, points out: The Koran trashes Dastan as ‘idle tales’, confirming for present day scholars the availability and popularity of the Persian Dastan in Arabia at the time The Koran came to be written---early in the 7th century.* Later, of course, Dastan was roped in by Islam to spread the word. Akbar had his own illustrated version done in his ateliers. Dastan has been acknowledged as an oriental and Islamic equal to Western canon’s narratives like Homer’s Iliad and Bewoulf. But unlike these works of Western classical literature that are fixed and unchanging, the Dastan-e Amir Hamza is a work in progress. Every Dastango, or storyteller, is not merely reciting the tales from Dastan, but is in fact a co-creator. Former Rhodes scholar and writer, Mahmood Farooqui, and the New Delhi-based stage actor Danish Husain have taken up Dastan to revive the almost extinct, ancient, oral art form and for the love of the equally endangered Urdu language. Exploring their art, its history and practice, and its future, Hemant Sareen tries to find out whether they are the last in the line of Dastangos or the first of our times. Or perhaps, it is too early to tell.
Hemant Sareen: What is Dastangoi? Where does this art form come from?
Mahmood Farooqui: Dastangoi as an art form, as a form of storytelling, has been around in India and in other parts of the Islamic world for a very long time. Its uniqueness as a way of storytelling is in the fact that it relies only on the spoken word. It doesn’t use any musical instruments; it doesn’t use any pictures. It is basically, therefore, the art of oral narration and improvised storytelling. The story is built up as you narrate it.
HS: So you make it up as you go along?
MF: On the spot! And it is this combination of spontaneity and rehearsal that distinguishes Dastangoi from other [traditional, oral] forms of storytelling.
HS: So, the Dastangoi has to be not just a master of the language but also an inventive story writer?
MF: Well, in an ideal scenario, yes. But we [Mahmood and Danish Husain] rely mostly on stories created by traditional Dastangoi in the Urdu language, especially from places like Lucknow, Rampur, and Delhi.
HS: Are most of these prototypical stories recorded and written down?
MF: Yes a lot of them are recorded. What happened was that at the fag end of the 19th century, these stories began to be printed. Many big Dastangoi of Lucknow were invited by the leading publishers of the time, Munshi Naval Kishore, who compiled their Dastans in book form. The particular story of the Hamza-cycle was printed in a textual canon which ran into 46 volumes.
HS: Were the Nawabs of Lucknow big patrons of Dastangoi and Dastangos?
MF: Yes, a lot of patronage and not just from the Nawabs, every notable in Delhi cultivated a Dastangoi in his retinue. And when there were no Nawabs and the city had been taken over by the British [after the Mutiny of 1857], it was performed at various locales -- at street corners, on the steps of Jama Masjid, at the nobles’ salons.
HS: As Dastango in the modern times, have you brought in contemporary elements, subjects, references into your Dastans?
MF: Not so much in each Dastan, but we have tried to create Dastans which are about contemporary themes and concerns. Say, we did a Dastan on the Partition last year which we performed many times and it went down very well with the audience. The original Persian elements, are they still to be found in the Dastan. Afrasiyab is a character from ancient Persian lore, also mentioned in tenth century verse epic Shahnama by Firdausi, the greatest Persian literary text; as is Nausherwan, also known as Nausherwan the Just is a legendary Sassanian, old Iranian, Emperor; Samri and Jamshed are Zoroastrian deities.
HS: And, the Amir Hamza’s Dastan still retains its Pre-Islamic framework?
MF: Yes, the framework is Pre-Islamic but the content and the telling is very much India.
HS: Did Dastan change with the arrival of Islam?
MF: No, the earliest Dastans which we can date are the ones written after the coming of Islam. The 8th century or so is the oldest [available] Dastan. And Islam had been there for almost 200 years before that. So, I don’t know if it is a case of Pre-Islamic story continuing in an Islamic form, we don't know enough to say for certain.
HS: After Akbar, we know for sure because he had the Dastan-e Amir Hamza illustrated in his ateliers.
Danish Husain: Yes, and there was the text written at the back [of each illustration], though not the entire text. It is called Hamzanama. It ran into around 1400 folios and each folio had this painting depicting a scene from Dastan-e Amir Hamza, and at its back was the text written in the form of poetry in Persian. [Apparently], in Akbar’s court, you would find people standing in front of the Emperor with the folio. And as he admired the painting, somebody would read the text at the back. It was a sort of a prototype of cinema.
MF: Of the 1400 folios, only around 100 have survived, preserved in museums abroad.
HS: When did it get translated into Urdu?
MF: The first printed version of the Urdu Dastan we get is around 1803 or 1804. But one can safely say that Dastan had been around before that. The tradition would have been there for it to find itself transcribed as a text. So, sometimes in the 18th century, as Persian gives way to Urdu in Poetry, so also was the case with Dastan-e Amir Hamza.
HS: In the Random House edition of The Adventures of Amir Hamza recently published amidst universal praise in the West, the translator Musharraf Farooqui says in his introduction that the popularity of Dastans owed much to the conducive ‘decadence’ of the times from 1707 to 1857, a time which William Dalrymple approximately portrayed in his The Last Mughal as a time of flourishing for Islamic education, Urdu language, and other Mughal art forms, especially in Delhi.
MF: The popular understanding of the 18th century is it being a time of weakness and indulgence. In the last twenty years historical research has rehabilitated the 18th century as a formative period for Urdu poetry and Hindustani classical music, certainly khayal. So, the period couldn’t have been decadent in that sense.
HS: In the Qur'an damns Dastangoi s ‘idle tales’ which lead people astray from the ‘Path to Allah’ and promises ‘humiliating chastisement’ for those partake of them.
MF: But there are Dastans about the conquests of Hamza or Islamic armies over the infidels. This was the framework of [many of] the stories. But when you read the stories, the Islamic aspect is not at all at the centre. Dastans are very secular stories. These are not, unlike other folk tales like The Panchatantra, moralising tales. Dastans are meant completely and exclusively to entertain. You just sit there, enjoy the telling, enjoy the tale, and go home. There are no moral strings attached.
HS: Indian Islam is not considered very Book-oriented. Still, was there a pressure on Dastangoi to exercise restrain and genuflect to Islamic tradition?
MF: Not in the pre-modern period. The pressure came in the modern times. In the 19th and 20th century, reformers attacked Dastangoi as a genre. Key reformer Ashraf Ali Khan wrote a text called Bahishti Zaver -- ‘bahishti’ means feminine, and ‘zaver’ is ornament. The primer told young women how to be ideal women and wives and it became a necessary accompaniment with every dowry for a girl. Dastans were one of things the primer attacked and proscribed. Even literary reformers thought Dastans were not good enough literature. They were all fantasy, there was no characterisation, there was no attempt to depict the internal life of the characters. And also, Dastan-e Amir Hamza is not like a novel essentially, therefore it couldn’t be called literature.
HS: What about the present times, how is Dastangoi perceived today?
MF: It’s early days yet. Let’s see how it develops. We have been giving Dsatangoi performances for the last three years and the response so far has been very enthusiastic.
HS: But you perform in cultural festivals, colleges, and at book launches which makes it an elitist form. Did Dstangoi enjoy popularity and support of the masses beyond the patronage of the wealthy and the powerful?
MF: Yes, it did. The last renowned Dastango, Mir Baqar Ali, died in 1928. After that there might have been some Dastangos because traditions don’t peter out like that. But in the last 20 years or so we haven’t had anyone performing Dastan. We are the only Dastangos around. So obviously it is difficult to perform everywhere at the same time. But we do what we can. In earlier times Dastangoi was a popular form with both the elite and the common man, because if you perform on the steps of Jama Masjid, as it Dastangos did regularly in the 19th century, then its the masses you are catering to. That’s another uniqueness of Dastangoi that it is very literary in its lineage, but in terms of he twists and turns of the plot it can very easily be a party to the popular and even to the vulgar. It can be even very bawdy. It is full of scatological references, like about pissing and shitting, all matters to be avoided. Dastangoi can scale the heights of refinement and it can go very low as well.
HS: How did you come to Dastangoi?
MF: I came to Dastangoi because I was interested in Urdu literature. I had never read Dastans though, because they are not taught as part of the mainstream canon of Urdu literature. They are prized, as they should be, but they also seen as part of a heritage that is bygone about which we don’t need to bother. But it was S. R. Faruqi, the leading Urdu critic spent twenty years collecting different volumes of Dastans and published a three volume study of the long Hamza version who got me into this. In a sense, he started the revival. And he asked me to get into it. I was not thinking about being a performing Dastango myself. I was more interested in doing a documentary on the genre. Then I got a fellowship at the Sarai, and around the same time the India International Centre (IIC) asked me to do a show. So it was the Sarai and the IIC along with S. R. Faruqi who together created a space for me to put on my first Dastangoi performance. I did my first few shows with Himanshu Tyagi, but he moved to Bombay. Then Danish, whom I had seen in Habib Saab’s plays, joined me and since then we have been working together for the last two years.
HS: Danish you are in the theatre? How does the theatre experience sit along with Dastangoi and how separate or close are the two from and to each other?
DH: I don’t see Dastan outside the theatre purview. If we were to strip Dastan to the basics, and specially the way Mahmood and I do it, it does fall under theatre. The actors are using their body, their voice, their memories, the text as they perform for an audience. The genre is different in a sense that it is not your mainstream theatre where you can have other devices to augment your performance. You have light, sound, design, props, sets, costumes. All these things are not a part of Dastan. You are limited to your voice and facial expressions and the text. So it is challenging as if we have our hands tied at our backs in a match with someone who is free to move around. A lot of times especially in experimental theatre find this tendency to shun the text as if meaning has to be found in the body movement of the actors on stage, or in visual texture, light, etc. I don’t subscribe to this all the time. It may work sometimes and it may not. I believe that he text is t the heart of any performance, unless you move to dance or something else. And this is what excites me about Dastan. Here the text is the core of the performance and it is primarily the text that props us up on the stage.
HS: Is Dastan still associated with Islam? You are both Muslims, does that help or hinder?
DH: No, I don’t think we ever approach Dastan as an Islamic art form. The way Mahmood and I do it, it is definitely not an as Muslims. MF: It is an Urdu art form. In popular perception anything in Urdu is Islamic or Muslim. If you were to walk around and flash a very secular Urdu text at anyone on the street and ask what comes to their mind, they will say Islam, Muslims. So, in that sense, yes. But I don’t think we personally approach it as an Islamic genre, or doing it because we were Muslims. The advantage we have is that because we grew up in families and cultures where things that go into making Dastans had a strong tradition...
DH: ...language, poetry, literature. So we were not alien to these elements. We might not have read Dastans but we were aware of its existence and the tradition that it comes from.
MF: Let me add another aspect to t. Here is a narrative which is purportedly a narrative speaking the truth of Islam. But it is a narrative which partakes so heavily of the secular and the profane, and of things that even today would be regarded as complete no-no by a lot of Muslims in the country, yet yolks such elements to sacred Islamic figures. It gives one the sense of how once there were Muslims in this country and elsewhere in the past who would sit and listen and enjoy stories which might raise a lot of frowns. The orthodoxy today would hardly allow to create these texts. But it does not mean that texts like Dastans would not be created or are not being created, but the relationship of the orthodoxy of those times and these texts would have in all likelihood been similar. So, Dastans open an imaginative space which lets us see what people, and especially Muslims, were like in earlier times.
DH: To our surprise, we did a show at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), and in the audience were many traditional, orthodox-looking Muslims. Our tales were bordering on the vulgar. Yet no one from the audience chastise us or had any misgivings. On the contrary, they had enjoyed the show.
HS: It is very telling that you are at all times testing your audience for their response?
DH: At AMU we were in two minds about doing certain things which were almost blasphemous. Then we decided that we should go ahead because these tales were not our creations, we were just reciting them. If somebody had a problem with them, they should ban the whole tradition of Dastangoi. But surprisingly the response was very good, which encouraged us. We performed in Pakistan too. But we must say that we did not perform for the real, ordinary Pakistanis, but to an elitist, deracinated, acculturated audience.
HS: Pakistan has a strong Sufi tradition. Bulle Shah is big there. So, you were performing to the enlightened Pakistanis perhaps?
MF: They are somewhat aware of the Dastans because in Pakistan children's version of the Hamza stories continued to be published for a long time. But most of them were ignorant of Hamza and Dastangoi. They were even surprised by our usage of the Urdu language. They said to us, ‘Oh, we didn’t know Urdu was such a beautiful language.’ But that could have been because we were performing to a select, westernised audience. Dastan-e-Hamza in translation has been received in the West as the next Rumi, another rare piece of evidence that the present suppression seen in Islamic societies is a product of bad myopic politics which is in constant denial of the real liberal core of Islam.
HS: Is Dastan perceived similarly in India, as a rare instance of liberalism in Islam?
DH: The usual mistake of the West is to regard Islam as a monolithic religion. But in India I don’t think it is seen as coming from a liberal tradition. It seen more as a performance, or as something embedded in Islamic culture. In our times, one can’t be very conclusive about how Dastan registers on the audience, but they certainly relate to it. We performed in a college in Delhi where there were no Muslims. The audience had had no truck with the Urdu language. Yet it turned out to be a cathartic moment for them. That is because Dastan is an encounter with Islam. We begin our performance by invoking the name of Mohammed Sahib, whose uncle was Amir Hamza.
HS: Have you had any Western response to your performance?
MF: Yes and no. We have had Westerners and Easterners amongst our audience who have enjoyed the performance a lot. But the performance is so deeply embedded in the Urdu language that it is very difficult to translate. How long can you sit through two people talking without you understanding a word? Their appreciation would be greatly enhanced if they could understand it. We have to figure out ways to take it across to them.
HS: Have you considered using bits from an English translation like the recent---and acclaimed one--- done by Musharraf Farooqui?
MF: We have thought about that but the idea doesn’t appeal to us. The level of language and the orality which is inherent in the Urdu text cry out to be read aloud. English translations, however excellent like Musharraf Farooqui’s, are not oral driven like the original in Urdu. The Urdu text has been honed by decades of telling by numerous Dastangois, each one adding something to the original. When we say a beautiful line and people respond with ‘Wah, wah!’ that’s where the joy of performing comes from. That’s what we aspire to. We might try a bilingual approach or translate the text and give it to the audience before the performance.
HS: Does the urban Indian audience have any problem with Urdu?
DH: That’s another myth. People in the cities might not speak it, but understanding Urdu is fairly easy. Not just because of Bollywood movies, also because you do hear it spoken in many places in India.
MF: There’s no one around who can understand everything we say, except maybe Ahsan Farooqui. And even he admits regarding some passages of Dastan that, ‘Iski daat to Mir aur Ghalib hee dey sakte hain jo samajhne aur taareef karne ki ehmiyat rakhte hain. Chotte-motte aadmi to iss kabil hee nahin hain ke iski tareef bhi kar sakain. Unhe samajh bhi nahin ayega ki baat kya kahi gayi.’ So, for most it is enough if they get the gist and enjoy it. Urdu maintains a cultural prestige even though it has declined. That works to our advantage.
DH: If we were storytellers in any other Indian language, I don’t think we would have stood out as we do as Urdu storytellers. Is Urdu all but lost? MF: It is, but part of our endeavour is to put it up there and present it to the world and tell them what they are losing out on. It is the country’s loss. It is all of us’ loss.
Farooqui, Musharraf, ‘The Simurgh-Feather Guide to the Poetics of Dastan-e Amir Hamza Sahibqiran’, The Annual of Urdu Studies, Vol. 15, 2000, http://www.urdustudies.com/pdf/15/11farooqim.pdf