Revisiting Awadh, One Cultural Trait At A Time

Revisiting Awadh, One Cultural Trait At A Time

by Book Excerpts - Jul 7, 2017 02:55 PM +05:30 IST
Revisiting Awadh, One Cultural Trait At A TimeDastangoi, the art of Urdu storytelling ( Syed sahil agha/Wiki Commons)
  • Revisiting Lucknow, the capital of erstwhile Awadh and its cultural legacy through author Aslam Mahmud’ s book Awadh Symphony: Notes on a Cultural Interlude

If there is one cultural practise which is as old as civilisation itself and common to cultures across the globe, it is storytelling. For all of interaction is in someway ‘storytelling’. Every language, every culture has had its own unique tradition of oral storytelling, with many also having their own performative forms. Dastangoi, the art form of Urdu storytelling is one such and author Aslam Mahmud in his book Awadh Symphony: Notes on a Cultural Interlude, gives us a glimpse into its origins, history and forms.

Here is an excerpt:

The tradition of dastangoi or oral storytelling can be traced back to the times of the Mughal Emperor Akbar when the language in use was Persian. Dastangoi, a Persian word, is a compound of the words dastan (story) and goi (to narrate a story). Although it is not certain when the narration of tales started in Urdu, educated guesses place the emergence of this tradition in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Delhi is often associated with the beginning of dastangoi, which later spread to Faizabad, Rampur and Lucknow. In Urdu literature, dastangoi has been set down in writing as a cycle of lengthy tales, called dastans, often published in multivolume series. Loose plotlines and verbosity are some of the defining characteristics of dastans.

Hamid Dabashi, an author and Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York City, has stated that ‘[…] what in Urdu is called dastan is a mode of storytelling that combines popular fantasies and literary tropes to produce highly readable and entertaining stories. These stories give an account of heroic deeds […] whose very out-of-the-ordinary flamboyance place them on the two extremities of legendary lives and thus mark their heroes from mere mortals […]’

The Urdu dastans are a precious heritage and a gem among them is the Dastan-i Amir Hamza, which was composed in Lucknow in forty-six volumes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, at the time when the Naval Kishore Press of Lucknow started printing Dastan-i Amir Hamza, the Western form of the novel was also gaining a following in areas where Urdu was in use. Though the dastan was not abruptly replaced by such novels, readers were gradually moving away from the dastans.

The eminent Urdu critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi of Allahabad has stated that a dastan is a narrative that is created for listening, irrespective of whether it is spontaneous or has been composed thoughtfully. In contrast to a novel, the oral storyteller can see his audience and can assess whether it is paying attention or becoming jaded. He has suggested that reading the cycle of dastans should have a significant gap between volumes so that immediate overlapping does not take place. Oral narrative can also be great literature. Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey and Valmiki’s Ramayana were conceived by tellers and singers of tales.

Although single-volume dastans and even a few volumes of the Dastan-i Amir Hamza could be found in personal libraries, the entire forty-six-volume opus of Amir Hamza did not exist in any private or public library. It was only in the 1970s that the significance and relevance of the dastans in Urdu literature were realized. There was then a scramble to pick up stray volumes of Dastan-i Amir Hamza to form complete sets, but very few people were able to acquire all forty-six volumes. Faruqi was one such rare person. He diligently pieced together the lost and abandoned volumes to complete his set. There is perhaps only one library, in the United States, which has the complete Dastan-i Amir Hamza, besides Faruqi’s personal collection. Also, he seems to be the only person to have read all the volumes.

The world of the dastan is not related to our world but is a realm where there is enchantment, magic, sorcery and wizardry. The Urdu dastan’s domain is similar to that of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Like the two aforesaid English fantasy books, the dastans have their own invented methodology, mainly borrowed from earlier tales, but made fascinating by the innovative, ingenious and gifted narrator. Characters seesaw between the real world and the world of enchantment. Strictly, the cosmos of the dastan is teleological, the regulations and criteria are governed by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes.

The voluminous Dastan-i Amir Hamza does not have any punctuation. Indeed, punctuation in early Urdu printing was limited to a small dash, which signified the full stop. Traditional Urdu presses in the nineteenth century, particularly in prose, never bothered to put even a full stop or divide the printed form into paragraphs.

One may well feel that reading a work lacking any punctuation or delineation would be difficult. However, once one starts reading it, the cadence, rhythm and intonation of the words work out naturally, and the reader is astonished by the swing and flow of the language. This prose is akin to reading poetry where the meaning and the subtlety of the language acquaint you with the pauses, intervals and flow of the language in all its richness and solemnity.

Book Cover of Awadh Symphony: Notes on a Cultural Interlude
Book Cover of Awadh Symphony: Notes on a Cultural Interlude

Excerpted from Awadh Symphony: Notes on a Cultural Interlude by Aslam Mahmud, Rupa Publications India, 2017, with the permission of the publisher.

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