Of Qissaahs & Dastaans: Chimeric Travel

I was recently introduced to dastangoi, the dramatic Urdu art of oral story-telling. On invite by a friend, one of the handful of female dastango (story-tellers) involved in its revival, my sister and I sat enthralled. The two angrakha-sporting performers, sans props except gao-takiyas to lean on, presented lively moving pictures of a fantastical world peopled by warriors, evil kings, tricksters and sorcerers. It was the trusting innocence of childhood revisited.

The episode unfolding before us vividly brought to life the trials and triumphs of a warrior from the most famous of dastans (long stories), the 46-volume Dastan–e-Amir Hamza. It had Hamza’s grandson, Asad, setting out to conquer the enchanted kingdom of Hoshruba, ruled by Afrasiyaab, king of magicians. He is aided in this task by the clever trickster Aman who possesses magical artifacts such as a cloak of invisibility and a pouch that contains parallel worlds. They are beset by magical snares and seductive sorceresses at every step but finally succeed in defeating Afrasiyaab. A classic triumph, that of good over evil, regardless of the means.

Dating back to the narrative genre of medieval Iran, this vastly popular form of rich story-telling entered the sub-continent with the Mughals. Emperor Akbar would become one of the most significant patrons of this art by commissioning the Hamzanma: canvas folios painted with scenes from the dastan on one side and poetic narration on the other. These painting were then held up by two people for an audience to view, while a narrator stood behind to read out the inscriptions.

After reaching its zenith in mid-nineteenth century Lucknow, this splendid art form would be devoured by technology and ironically by that other ‘talkie’ in the twentieth. The verbal depiction of epics and heroes was no competition for the allure of radio and cinema; the last known dastango, Mir Baqir dying in poverty, selling paan in Delhi to earn his livelihood.

Culturally, the dastan or qissah, had no religious or official purpose. They existed purely for the sheer pleasure of the story-telling experience. Created by the narrator’s artistry, they were sustained by the listener’s continual query: then what happened? A similar refrain I recall an old retainer, Bhikam Shah, insisting upon while tucking us into bed as children. His never-ending tall tales, too, were prompted by a sleepily mumbled ‘pher ki hoya’? Silence from our comatose forms, an indication for him to stop conjuring up a perfect world for believing young ears. Could he have been our very own dastango? I am left wondering…

PS: This was later published as a middle in The Tribune.


  • Wow! Refreshingly different. A travelogue of a journey into an entirely new world…

    Just as you mentioned, I am reminded of the ‘Orderly’ (or ‘Sahayak’, as they are called nowadays in the Army) who was assigned to take care of me and my sister. Every afternoon, as the rest of the household stood still because it was siesta time, he would treat us to a story. Sometimes a parable, sometimes an anecdote from his village life or the wars that he had fought. But very often, it was a story that he spun on the spot.

    I realised this many years later; the trusting child who heard them was too busy following the mazes and labyrinths of the stories he created and at that time it never crossed my mind that it was merely a good storyteller’s instantaneous creation. He had this amazing ability to pick up a thread from a story he was ending and use it as a beginning the next time. Creating a dastaan out of qissaahs, I guess!

  • Sounds like a truly magical evening.

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