This week’s post is essentially going to be a cut and paste job, and starts with a long quote from Mahmood Farooqui, who’s doing work on Dastans [epics] –
While I have been aware of the existence of something called Dastans in Urdu literature, I had never mustered courage to pick up the odd volume that I chanced upon. A large-sized book in arcane print, often illegible, they always occupied the fringes of
what was handed down to me as literary heritage. One was supposed to read them to improve oneís Urdu. One heard of an assortment of names, Qissa Chahar Darvesh, Bagh-o-Bahar, Fasana-e-Ajaib that fell under the Dastani tradtition but even when I read a little bit
about their production, when studying Urdu literary tradtitions at University, I never grasped the scale of their publication.
Dastans were oral narratives, much longer than a simple tale or Qissa, that usually centered around the exploits of the fictionalized personality of an Uncle of Prophet Mohammed, Amir Hamza and his family as they battle against infidel and pretentious Gods to establish the sway of righteous faith. Popular in most parts of the Islamic world, the oral narratives relied usually on a single volume tale called Dastan-e-Amir Hamza that was compiled by a variety of people in most parts of the Islamic world.
However, as I discovered when interacting with S R Faruqi, the pre-eminent modern Urdu critic, that in India this simple, one-volume story was so embellished that it stretched to a whopping 46 volumes by the legendary Nawal Kishore Press of Lucknow in the nineteenth century. Each of those volumes is a thousand pages or more, which in its totality is certainly the longest single fictional narrative composed in Urdu and probably one of the longest in the world.
This huge body of work, volumes of which were published until the 1940s, has today so vanished from our memory that not a single library in the country today has the entire 46 volume set. Further, the syllabi of Urdu in Universities prefer to gloss over this huge corpus. In the name of Dastans what is taught there is a single volume précis, Mir Amani’s Bagh-o-Bahar, prepared and suitably edited and bowdlerized … at Fort William College.
Yet, this mammoth literature sprang from an oral tradition and its recitation was an important cultural practice for Indo-Islamic regimes well after the onset of colonialism. We have not only neglected their literary status, we have also ignored their unique place in our dramatic and performative tradition, for Dastangos – the narrator-composer of Dastans were
usually highly accomplished actors who combined mimicry, ventriloquism, pantomime and voice modulation to command the complete attention of their audience….
Fascinating stuff. Especially since dastangoi, this brilliant epic oral tradition seems to have died out completely in India, with the death of the last master dastango in Delhi in 1928. Mahmood Farooui’s invocation is imbued with nostalgia. Ghalib once wrote – It’s raining, I have a bottle of wine, six volumes of dastans – what else could I ask for?
But is dastangoi lost to us? Is that art of storytelling lost forever in the subcontinent? There is a bazaar in Peshawar called the QissaKhwani Bazaar, the market of Storytellers/storytelling. But a humble Qissa, a mere anecdote, is not the same as an epic Dastan. And I have the suspicion that QissaKhwani Bazaar, where the caravans just in from Central Asia and Afghanistan had many tales to tell, has less time room for fantastic stories now… So Dastangoi really doesn’t have much of a hope now, does it?
But the fantastic worlds of Dastangoi that Mahmood opens to us, with their traditions of Razm, Bazm, Tilism and Aiyyari (Battle, Romance, Enchantment, (Black) Magic; are strangely familiar to me – who grew up in modern India without any access to these traditions… I don’t even read Urdu. But as far back as I remember, I’d read the stories of the wandering, puzzle solving prince, Hatim Tai and his quest for the answers to seven puzzling statements. Like, Neki kar dariya mein daal [Do good, and throw it into the river]. This was serialised in Chanda Mama, the monthly children’s magazine in Hindi. And then of course, there was the Hatim Tai film, starring Jeetendra. And a whole host of other tacky B-Grade Bollywood costume dramas replete with Tilism and Aiyyari, which kept me pretty happy as a kid.
A scholar of medieval Hindi-Urdu romance traditions … told me about an exhibition based on the HamzaNama, the illustrated text of the story commissioned by Akbar that was the first major art project undertaken in the young Mughal Empire. His guess is that the large size of the folios in that exhibition, as well as the fact that episodes drawn are written at the back, mean that the Dastango would stand behind the panel-folio narrating the tale and they would be changed as the scenery and action changed. Dastangoi as practice was then perhaps a proto form of Television.
On Lucknow Doordarshan, they told the story of Hatim-Tai as a series of water colour stills, slowly dissolving from one to the other, as a single deep, and occasionally lugubrious baritone voice told the mystical, philospohical story of Hatim Tai’s quest for his Zen Koans. Neki kar dariya main daal, indeed! On Indian television in the nineteen eighties, Dastangoi had pretty much the same form of narration as it had back in the time of Akbar!
And Hatim Tai has now moved on to become a totally whacked out serial on Star TV. But the true queen of them all is Chandrakanta, an immensely popular Sunday morning serial which hit us in the early nineties. It lived up to all the traditions of dastangoi – stories within stories; and of course, razm, bazm, tilism, and aiyyari. Most notably tilism and aiyyari. Who can forget Kroor Singh? Of course, Chandrakanta the serial (directed by Neerja Guleri) was based on Chandrakanta the novel (along with its ‘sequel’,the Chandrakanta Santati) by Devaki Nandan Khatri, generally agreeed upon as being the first prose work in Hindi, early in the twentieth century…
So the first prose work in Hindi (as opposed to ‘Urdu’ and the largely Islamicate tradition they are identified with; though incidentally, Hatim tai was supposedly Christian!) was essentially a bowlderized dastan, the tradition of oral narrative put into print.
The tradition of printing Dastans began at the Fort William College, established at Calcutta at the turn of the century to introduce the freshly arrived Englishmen to the languages of the region they were to administer. Khalil Ali Ashk, who claimed to belong to a line of Royal Dastango serving the Mughalia Sultanate, was employed at the College and translated a brief Persian Dastan into Urdu.
Fort William College, of course, was where the differences between ‘Hindi’ and ‘Urdu’ were first cultivated (I am being reductionist here, so go read Alok Rai’s Hindi Nationalism and S R Faruqi’s Early Urdu Literary and Cultural History) so it is an interesting to think about and make stupid, airy fairy generalizations – the fixing of fluid oral narratives into print; the fixing of fluid identities into distictlve religious/linguistic communities.
But the dastans lived on, in newer forms of story telling; which I guess has something to say about the redemptive, transformative power of story telling, and the power of storytelling to survive and transcend Otherness.