Dastangoi is an art and tradition of storytelling that goes at least as far back as 9th century Iran. Heavily inspired by the verse epic Shahnamah, dastans eventually evolved into rollicking adventures involving djinns, fantastic beasts, demons, parees (fairies), princesses, magicians, evil kings and wizards.
A good dastan employs at least one of these four arts: razm (warfare), bazm (elegant gatherings, elaborate feasts, revelry), husn-o-ishq (beauty and love) and ayyari (magic and trickery). A great one like the dastan of Amir Hamzah employs all four in spades.
Dastangos (storytellers) always begin their dastans (tales) with claims of great antiquity – “between the hills Marjan and Nazer, in the time of King Rustom”, short hand for once upon a time, in a place far far away. The dastan of Amir Hamza, the most famous and elaborate of all known dastans, purports to tell the story of Hamzah ibn Abd-ul Muttalib, the Prophet’s uncle. But like Alexander romances, the figure of the Prophet’s uncle is barely recognisable under centuries of embellishments. Accompanied by his childhood friends Amar Ayyar, a dazzling trickster and Muqbil Vafadar, a great archer, Hamza proceeds to win the hearts of many parees, princesses and fair maidens, slay demons with the aid of talismans (lauh) and enchantments/magic spells (tilisms) and learn the secret names of gods (ism-e-azm) in encounters with the enlightened like Hazrat Khizr. Over time Hamza’s dastan travelled a far greater distance than even Hamza ever had: versions of it have been found in Georgia, Turkey, Bosnia, Malaysia, Bali and Indonesia.
The dastan of Amir Hamza today is the world’s single longest romance cycle. Lucknow’s famous Nawal Kishore Press started compiling all the dastans of the Hamza cycle in 1893. The project eventually spawned 46 volumes of text, averaging 900 words per volume. The Hamza cycles were an immediate success and popular volumes like the tilism-e-hoshruba (the sense stealing enchantment) remain in print even today.
The dastan of Amir Hamza and dastangoi in general was, in fact, once so ubiquitous that it feels a little strange having to write an introduction for it. We know for a fact that Babur scoffed at it – “a farfetched lie opposed to sense and nature” was his response when a dastango from Khursan presented Babur with his imitation of the Hamza cycle. His grandson Akbar, far from sharing his disdain, frequently took to narrating the Hamza dastans in the harem to entertain the women. Akbar’s personal dastango was so frequently present in court that he earned the epithet Darbar Khan.
Akbar was so enamoured with the dastan-e-Amir Hamza that he commissioned an illustrated manuscript that took 14 years to complete. At 1200 folios, each more than a yard and a half by a yard in size, it became the crown jewel in the Mughal collection for centuries to come.
Indeed when Nadir Shah was carting off loot after laying siege to Delhi, Akbar’s Hamzanama with its ‘painted images that defy the imagination’ was the only artifact that Emperor Muhammad Shah pleaded to have returned to him.
But like most art forms of its day dastangoi remained confined largely to the royal court. It was only in the 18th century, with the power of the Mughal empire waning and the ascendency of Urdu that dastangoi moved out of the court and into the street.
In his seminal 1847 text Asar-as-sanadid, Syed Ahmed Khan writes, “In the evening a qissah-khvan arranges a reed stool on the steps of the Jama Masjid, sits down, and narrates the dastan of Amir Hamza. To one side the qissah of Hatim is being told, and somewhere else the dastan Bostān-e khiyāl. Hundreds of men gather to hear the performances.”
In Peshawar, an entire street – the Qissa Khwani Bazaar or the street of storytellers came up. A.H. Sharar in Guzishta Lucknow writes that by the 1880’s, the raees (wealthy) of Lucknow all employed a dastango. Sharar also informs us that Afeemkhanas (opium dens), too, had their own in-house dastangos.
The last great dastango, Mir Baqir Ali, was born in 1850 in such a milieu, in the Pahari Bhojla locality of Shahjahanabad. By the time of his death in 1928, Mir Baqir Ali was reduced to selling paan (beetle leaf) for a living. In a brief period of 70-80 years, dastangoi had all but vanished from the sub-continent.
So how or why did this happen? More has been written about Mir Baqir Ali than any other dastango since he was the last custodian of a great tradition. From the anecdotes about him and the records of his performances we can speculate on the causes for the decline and death of dastangoi.
Mir Baqir Ali was the last in a long line of Persian dastangos. He was trained in the art by his uncle Mir Kazim Ali.
Gyan Chand, who wrote an essay on Mir Baqir Ali barely 20 years after his death and who seems to have attended many of his performances, wrote, “He never told dastans. He presented lively, moving pictures; or rather, you could say that he himself became a picture. If he described a battlefield he would neigh and stamp his feet to imitate a horse and then you will feel that you are in the middle of the combat of Rustam and Isfandyār. If he evoked a romantic gathering, an air of intoxication began to pervade the atmosphere.”
An audio recording of Baqir Ali — allegedly the only audio recording ever made by him — is available here.
But more than anything else the reputation of a dastango rested on the length of the performance. When two dastangos went head to head as they often did in the bazaars of Lucknow, they competed to see who could retain the interest of the audience for longer. Mir Baqir Ali had many tricks up his sleeve to tell a long and tall tale.
“In describing the beauty of a noble woman, Mir Sahib could easily spend an hour or two. He would begin by enumerating the different types of chaal (style of walking) and what they meant. He would then elaborate on the names, types and origins of jewelry worn not only by her but by other women of the harem such as the sakhniyan (wine bearers).”
Ashraf Saboohi Dehlavi provides a detailed account of an evening of dastangoi at Mir Baqir Ali’s house in his book Dilli Ki Kuch Chand Ajeeb Hastiyan. By the end of the dastangoi, Mir Baqir Ali had rattled off the names of 43 different wrestling holds, 19 types of wrestling equipment and the names of 30 types of boats.
Thus, a great dastango was in essence a great repository of knowledge, of all things past and present.
But can the enumeration of 43 wrestling holds really keep an audience in thrall?
It wouldn’t, unless of course the audience was high which they most likely were.
Sources inform us that Mir Baqir Ali never began a dastan unless he had had opium and we already know that afeemkhanas in Lucknow had their own in-house dastango.
Consider the following passage from the Tilism-e hosruba or the sense stealing enchantment.
“Over the river of blood, there is a bridge of mist and two tigers stand on it in the mist. On the bridge of mist is a building of three tiers. On the first tier, pari youth are standing with pipes and horns between their lips. On the second tier, stand pari maidens shaking bags filled with pearls so that the pearls fall into the river and the fish swim around with their mouths full of pearls. On the third tier, very tall, young habshi (Ethiopians), stand, drawn up in ranks, with naked swords and fight among themselves. The blood flowing from their bodies falls into the river, so that the river water is that same blood and it is thus called the blood flowing river.”
The language is hypnotic and its rhythm is repetitive. One can clearly see the kind of appeal such dream like imagery – tigers guarding a bridge of mist, habshi clashing over a river of blood – will hold for afeemchis (opium eaters).
Structurally dastans were always the same. Amir Hamza, by dint of being the hero, always perseveres. Amir Hamza the archetype of good is destined to succeed just as the powerful wizard Afrasiyab as the archetype of evil is condemned to fail. In that sense, unlike most stories we enjoy today, the dastan of Amir Hamza is a foregone conclusion. It is not with its facts or plot but the richness and fullness of its detail – the description of clothes and types of food, details that would today be considered trivia — that Amir Hamza entertains. It is this that eventually doomed dastangoi.
In the mid 1800’s, a number of Urdu vernacular newspapers and periodicals championed a new literature and aesthetic influenced by the West. Periodocials such as the Avadh Akhbar and the Akhbar-e-Alam were founded by young graduates from the Delhi or Agra College which imparted Westernised education. Their periodicals also regularly carried translations of English classics in a serialised format.
Like most languages, Urdu had a far longer and more illustrious tradition of poetry than of prose. Early novels like the Fasana-e-Azad were very much like dastans (the tale of Azad is over 3,000 pages long). But soon enough, writers taking their cue from the translations of English classics made a dramatic break from fantasy (and thereby) the whole canon and tradition of dastangoi.
In 1899, Mirza Muhammad Hadi Rusva published Umrao Jaan Ada, a novel in the strictest and most modern sense of the term. In its preface, Rusva unapologetically skewered Ratan Nath Sarshar who wrote Fasana-e-Azad.
“I have not the inventive power to portray events that happened thousands of years ago, and moreover consider it a fault to produce a picture which tallies neither with the present day conditions nor with those of the past. The Fiction writer is a kind of historian and that his aim is to simply and faithfully portray actual proceedings as and when and exactly as they happened”.
Of all the Urdu novels to have come out of that tumultuous century that marked the end of a civilization, Umrao Jaan remains the most popular and well known. Its phenomenal success marks the decisive victory of realism over fantasy, the novel over dastangoi.
With the cinema halls robbing Mir Baqir Ali of his regular patrons, he tried his hand at writing racy potboilers like ‘Garhe Khan ne Malmal Khan ko talaq de di’ and ‘Paaji Pados’ — “Jo ki ek bar chapne ke baad doobara nahi chapi” (which was published once and never again).
In 1821, the Tibbia Ayurvedic and Unani College was established in Gali Qasim Jan. Mir Baqir Ali enrolled in the college at the age of 61. Presumably nothing much came of it as Baqir Ali ended up selling paan on the streets of Shahjahanabad. And so, a nearly 1000-year-old unbroken tradition of storytelling shrivelled to a sudden and ignominious death.
And it would have stayed dead had it not been for the efforts of literary critic Shamsur Rehman Faruqi and his nephew Mahmood Faruqi. Since 2005 Mahmood Faruqi has been spearheading a revival of dastangoi. His troupe now includes 20 dastangos, including Danish Hussain, and together they have created a number of new dastans (like dastan Alice ka based on Alice in Wonderland and dastan sedition ka based on Binayak Sen) and have performed in venues across the world.