Review: Dastangoi 2 by Mahmood Farooqui
Munshi Naval Kishore and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi are responsible for the continued existence of the dastan tradition in our cultural imagination. Naval Kishore, the biggest publisher South Asia has seen, published a variety of categories of books simultaneously in Urdu, Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Punjabi and Bengali. He had the foresight to hire the most reputed dastangos like Muhammad Husain Jah, Tassaduq Husain, Ahmad Husain Qamar, and with their help, published the Dastan-e Amir Hamza in 46 volumes comprising 2.5 crore words. The dastangos were masters of not only narration but also language and, for the Naval Kishore Press (NKP), these geniuses with elephantine memories recited the dastan in the presence of scribes who wrote it down for publication. This singular achievement in the history of Urdu publishing proved to be NKP’s swan song. Naval Kishore died in 1895, and in 1928, eleven years after the last volume of the dastan was published, Delhi’s last great dastango, Mir Baqar Ali, died in penury. With him, and with the onslaught of radio, bioscope, cinema, new theatre, and language politics, the great performative tradition faded away.
In the early 1980s, eminent writer and scholar SR Faruqi, began looking for the NKP volumes. It took him nearly two decades to collect and read them. Apart from the Hamza cycle, he read several others, including the one written by emperor Shah Alam in his state of blindness, and Mir Taqi Khayal’s Bostan-e Khayal. Faruqi showed that the Urdu dastan of Amir Hamza with its linguistic exuberance, thematic fecundity, ebullient narratives, and abundance of phantasmagoria combined with centuries of Indo-Islamic cultural commingling was a truly majestic oral narrative tradition. Yet, for nearly a century, these narratives swam in the subliminal rivers of our cultural traditions until they were revived by Mahmood Farooqui. Since 2005, he has been presenting these dastans. Some of these are in the classical mode; others have been crafted anew assimilating Mir and Manto, Ramanujan and Tagore, Totaram Shayan and Vijaydan Detha, Ved Vyas and Valmiki.
Raj Kamal Prakshan has published two compilations of dastangoi in Devanagri. The first, which came out in 2011, included nine dastans from the Hamza cycle and one on Partition. The recently-published second book has one dastan from the Hamza cycle and nine very successful contemporary dastans including the Dastan-e-Chouboli based on subversive and gender-bending Rajasthani folktales, and Dastan-e-Sedition, that brought together the Hamza world with the real world of Binayak Sen, a doctor falsely incarcerated for possessing ‘pamphlets’. As theatrical presentations, Chouboli, Manto, and Partition have been performed over 500 times across the world. Others like Dastan Alice Ki and Little Prince see a varied group of kids, young adults and adults in the audience. It is rare to see modern dramas being performed and accepted the way dastangoi has been over the last 15 years, regional and linguistic hurdles notwithstanding.
When it started in 2006, dastangoi was wholly fresh for the 21st century audience. Neither a drama, nor a dramatized reading, nor a lecture, nor a katha vachan, it was something in-between. A discursive performance amplified by the unique use of Urdu poetry, it connected the teller and the listener in the alchemy of narration. The edifice of Farooqui’s modern dastans uses tradition as the foundation while emerging from the socio-political concerns of our time. Though the ingredients of the traditional Indian dastan – razm o bazm tilism o ‘ayyari (battles and elegant gatherings, enchantments and trickery) – are not always part of these works, they have a distinct dastani flavour. Having seen many dastangoi performances, when I read them, I find myself enunciating the lines out loud as it is done on stage. The power of the language, the action of the text that has a certain grandeur, the poetic sensibility, and the buoyancy of the narrative gives the dastan its distinct flavour. Its orality envelops the audience in that moment, forcing them to create their own images, an experience that scarcely arises in reading a short story or a novel. A character in the great Albanian writer Ismail Kadare’s novel said: Written words are but corpses of the spoken ones.
It is said dastangos could be found on the steps of Jama Masjid narrating the fantastic tale of Amir Hamza and Amar Ayyar. In its prime, dastangois were also often part of the mehfils of elite households. We do not know what the stage setting looked like then but I was surprised to learn from this book’s introduction that the contemporary minimalist stage design with two dastangos in resplendent white reclining against masnads, sipping water from a katora, and wearing a topi, was the handiwork of director Anusha Rizvi. This unconventional form has ramified into several new performance formats like musicals, biographicals, and dramatized storytelling. In the hands of the old dastangos, while the structure remained fixed, there was allowance for a performative latitude and exploration. The narrative could meander or stay on one scene for hours depending on the audience’s demands: all of which was often created extemporaneously. Modern dastans, given in the book, have tighter scripts and are steeped in literary and historical research. For example, the Dastan-e Mantoiyat is compiled from not only the texts of Manto’s contemporaries like Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai and Upendranath Ashk, but also from rare texts like the one written by his nephew Hamid Jalal. The Dastan-e Karn az Mahabharat refers to texts as varied as Razmnama (the Persian translation of the Mahabharata commissioned by Akbar) to Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s Rashmirathi and Dharamvir Bharti’s Andha Yug. Similarly, the newer dastans that are not included in the book, like the ones on Jallianwala Bagh and Gautam Buddha, are based on thorough research. This paves the way for using cultural scholarship in new ways.
The re-emergence of dastan has come about because of the strength of the tradition, the power of Urdu, and because of the tenacity of its proponents. Pursuing this art form has been an act of sheer defiance; a declaration in the belief in the persistence of memory. Carving a new path in the rocky terrain of theatre, and dealing with subjects such as Partition, sedition, gender and nationalism in an atypical format is the work of a mind that is both imaginative and political. Even the inclusion of the topi is an act of defiance. Farooqui has deliberately replaced Hindi words with Urdu ones in dastans like the Dastan-e Ghare Baire based on Rabindranath Tagore’s treatise on nationalism. In contemporary India, when reciting Iqbal’s poetry is seen as anti-national, Farooqui’s uncompromising usage of Urdu and Persian in Devanagari script cannot be criticised as an elitist literary conceit. It nudges the reader to understand what we have lost as a civilization. These dastans must be read and heard for the new and old tales they feature, for the richness of the language of those tales, and for the preservation of our unique culture.
Nikhil Kumar is a public policy analyst and freelance writer. Tweets @niksez