Dastan: a review

over the years i must have seen over a dozen of these performances, from the Dastangoi evening at Prithvi, 16th april, 2006 Farooqi and Husain have evolved into telling contemporary stories along with the Dastans from the Hamza

dastan: the performance: a review

imagine two men dressed in white cotton angarkha/jama and delicate white chikan ‘topis’ 

 imagine them seated, on the floor, on white sheets with bolsters  

imagine minimal props: silver bowls with water, a snuff-box, marigolds and a few other odds and ends 

imagine, now, these two men narrating  

imagine flying fingers detailing a woman’s costume and make-up or 

imagine perhaps a town with a blood red river and pearl eating fish 

imagine stories of kings, of simple men, of beautiful women and of sorcerers 

imagine these stories from very animated faces  

imagine the twists and turns in stories 

in the style of the caravanserai storytellers

imagine this in poetry  

imagine it in ‘bazaaru’ ,  in urdu-hindustani 

 imagine, also, an alive, throaty, laughing,  awestruck audience  

imagine happy faces fed with stories

imagine the applause now

imagine what you missed now

imagine you could see it one day

imagine, till then



as explained by Mahmood Farooqui (Director-Actor)in an introduction

The Sea of Eloquence – An Evening of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza

The oral narration of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza was a popular past time in most parts of Central, Western and South Asia and North Africa since medieval times. Originally composed in Persian, the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza describes the battles of Amir Hamza, the Prophet Muhammad’s Uncle, against infidels, sorcerers and other pretenders to divinity.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza was singularly successful in entertaining a whole range of people, from the commoners at chauks and nukkads to the elites in their palaces; it was performed at the steps of the Jama Masjid where Dastangos gathered. While their neglect as literature is inexcusable, they have been wholly obliterated from the canon of performing arts. As anecdotes of Mir Baqar Ali, the last known Dastango of Delhi, testify, their performances required an exceptional command over rhetoric, delivery, mimicry, ventriloquism and spontaneous composition.

The present performance of Dastangoi builds upon some recent shows that were enthusiastically received in the Capital. The performance consisted of portions of the best-known daftar, or chapter, of the 46 volume Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, the Tilism Hoshruba, the ‘Enchantment that Steals away the Senses’, which is itself in seven volumes.

The performances have come about as a result of a collaboration between S.R. Faruqi, the foremost living authority on these Dastans and the only person to possess a full set of all the 46 volumes, and the performers. Faced with neglect and systematic devaluation we now have very scanty evidence for the way in which these Dastans were compiled and performed. Even basic things such as movements, gesticulation, stage setting are wholly unknown. The current performance is therefore merely an exploration of an Art form which, astonishingly in a culture where poetry was regarded as the supreme art, was considered by some to be of a higher order than poetry itself. Dastangos were supposed to be a repository not just of language, common speech as well as literary, but also of social mores, craftsmanship, and all other forms of knowledge.

The Dastangos of old performed in an oral culture where memory, sound and directness were much prized. As modern actors we neither have skills to memorize whole daftars, nor the inventiveness to do spontaneous and extempore improvisations which are the hallmark of oral performances.

Mahmood Farooqui
New Delhi

Mahmood Farooqui is a self-trained actor and performer whose most recent foray into acting consisted of a role in Mahesh Dattani’s English film, Mango Soufflé. Initiated into theatre as a schoolboy, and as stage manager, by Mohan Maharishi, former director of the National School of Drama, he directed several plays at school and college, and prepared for the final entrance workshop of the NSD, before founding his own amateur theatre group called Dastak Theatre. After completing his M Phil in Indian History, Mahmood went to Mumbai and performed in IPTA’s Aakhri Shama and the Company Theatre’s Hindustani presentation of Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead. Earlier this year, he was given a Fellowship by Sarai, CSDS to work on the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza.

Danish Husain has done theatre with the best names in the country – Habib Tanvir, M.S. Sathyu, Barry John, Rajinder Nath, Sabina Mehta Jaitley, Aziz Quraishi, et al in a wide variety of roles. His latest assignments include a play called Raja by Rabindra Nath Tagore and a movie, Losing Gemma, by Granada Productions for a British TV Channel called ITV. He’ll also be performing at Bonn Theatre Festival in May 2006 as part of Habib Tanvir’s Agra Bazaar troupe. Besides being an accomplished actor Danish is a poet and a writer, whose work has been published across a cross-section of media, including Tehelka and other journals. He is a member of few collaborative blogs and a writer’s group called Wriyaz supported by the British Council. Danish holds a Master’s degree in economics from the Delhi School of Economics and an MBA from the Faculty of Management Studies, University of Delhi.

February plus Rabbit plus Blue equals Start Again

February plus Rabbit plus Blue equals Start Again.

Roselyne is just back from India and has sent me (posted earlier by Bill on Dubious Saints) her translations. I’ll post them by author. (She also has even more even more magnificent photos over on Facebook – I’ll have to look into getting a widget to display pics on this site.)

It occurs to me this is a timely return, as all the participants are just getting too busy at what we normally do, and are beginning to think, ‘Did all that even happen?’ Well, it did, and here’s some evidence.

If anyone has work you’ve not posted yet, or are unsure how to post, do send it to me, and let’s kick off the Year of the Rabbit as we ended the Month of the Otter! (As losers…)

Arjun into Scots 1

Arjun into Scots 1.

Here’s the first of Arjun’s poems in English (apologies about losing the centre margin!) then in Scots. I loved the teasing relation between his shopping list of necessities and the short, oblique commentaries/asides/non sequiturs. This piece we performed as a sort of triple act where Arjun would read his English, I’d retort with the Scots, and Meena would interrupt with the Tamil.

To write, you need

to tell stories
or you might burst
paper, pen or a laptop
as if, it were an addiction


an eye for the bad
the good
and most importantly
the grey


a love for words and
their cosmic dance


hurt, pain, loads of love
a passion for life
and everything it throws
at you


a smile and a tear
a dark heart of gold

more yoga

a need to experience everything
once, twice, aw! all the time

mirchi pickle in mustard sauce

arrogance only if
coated in humility


meet aliens
at your doorstep
as if it happened
all the time

tight underwear

have sex atleast once
on the beach
to understand sand

been to a morgue lately?

fears: don’t forget them
little monsters you know
fairies, goblins, elves
chudails and their cousins

a friendly personality

essential: a schizophrenic existence
walk an imaginary pet
or friend in the park
conversations with self
are normal

the ability to talk to strangers

wax your legs
if you are a guy
hairy underarms
natural eyebrows
as a style statement
if you are not

pranayams: they ease the pain

an education
if you want to be a writer
none, if you are a storyteller

finally, get a muse
then nothing matters


Tae scrieve, ye need

tae tell tales
or bust
paper, laptop, pen
lyk a yen


an ee fur thi guid
thi bad
and abune aa
thi dreich


luve fur wurds
thir Siva shimmy


pangs, paiks, love in spades
passion fur life
that lobs at ye aathin
and uts wife


a grin and a greet
and a daurk gowd hert

mair yoga

need tae hae and dae aathin
aince, twice — ach, aa thi time

mirchi pickle in mustard sauce

cockiness anerly
in a coat of iver sae humble


meet ETs
in yir lobby
like ut happent
aa the time

ticht underpants

huv it away at least thi wance
oan thi strand
tae understand

been tae a morgue lately?

dreids: dinnae furget them
wee monsters ye ken
brownies, banshees, selkies
kelpies and thir cousins

a freendly face

must have: schizo leanins
walk thi ghostie dug
bump intae absent fiends
blethers wi yirsel
ur thi done thing

an ability tae chat wi strangers

wax yir legs
gin ye’re a dude
hae hairy oxters
and furry eyebrows
fur fashion notes
gin ye’re no

pranayams tae ease thi pain

waant tae be a writer
get an education
want tae tell stories
get lost

last thing, get yirsel a muse
then ye can drap aathin

Translation into french : three poems of indian poets published in “Terre à ciel” (Sampurna Chattarji, Meena Kandasamy, Arjun Bali)

Prakriti 2011

Arjun into Scots 2

First Posted on March 6, 2011 by Bill Herbert on Dubious Saints

This second piece by Arjun really spoke to me, and I started producing a version in India which I finished on getting back home. It seemed to want to move toward ballad, and when I said that to Arjun, he replied that this would be in an odd way the poem coming full circle, as it specifically, but also a lot of his other work, drew its inspiration from the Sufi poetry he heard while growing up.

(Arjun, I’m starting to paraphrase you here: do you want to say more? – And sorry again about losing your layout.)

Under a gold desert sky

a sparrow sat
my foot
a slumber
i stood in
looking up
it whirred
little wings
dropping dominoes
opening memories

stretching a wing out
to make a point
it twittered
“we flew together
under a gold desert sky
to the giant tree
of the hermit prince
do you remember?”

she hovered
and pricked my finger
drawing me
out of
a trance
“you’re done, my love
now be
a bird”
i fell to fly
light by her
to my tribe
that waited
not far

“greetings friends, how goes?
che, you look a bit used up
tahir, you bend at your spine
lee, you been sleeping with william?
m.m. are you a grandma now?
i had left you all”

tired, sad
eyes glow
inner peace
and question
with kindness
“and where
were you
all this

i whirred
my wings
from a branch
“i…i…was living
out of boxes
gathering dust
growing a beard…

you been around
since i turned two
you stood by me
at maya’s birth
do you still hate me?
you really must smile more
sorry i muddled your lives
in transit

hey! but we twitter well together
i must confess

now i did
not intend
to jumble
you up
like i did

by light
i had to
put you
all away”


Under a gold desert sky

Yestreen a speugie percht upon meh tae,
stertin me fae thi dover Eh sat in;
ut lukeit up and burred uts wee wings,
drappin dominoes, openin doors.

Streekin ae wing oot tae mak uts pint,
ut chirpt, ‘You and me flew thegither
ablow a gowden desert lift
tae thi ettin tree o thi eremite prince –

dae ye no mind thon?’ She hovert and peckt
meh finger, draain me oot o meh dwaum.
‘Ye’re din noo, ma dear, sae be a bird,’
and Eh fell tae flehin, licht beh hur flank.

Meh clan wiz bideit no far awa:
‘Peter, you look a wee thing disjaskit,
Paul, ye’re gey humphy-backit;
Maureen, ye’re niver a granny?’

Thir weary een askt wi a mensefu gleid,
‘And whaur were you thi hail o this time?’
‘Me? Eh wiz jist livin oot o boxes,
gaithrin dust and growein a beard…

‘Mojo, you’ve been aroond
since Eh wiz fehv; Mike, you stood beh me
at Izzie’s birth. Helen, dye still hate me?
Jamie, ye shid really learn tae crack a smile.

‘Sorry Eh plaistered wi yir lives in passin
but, ach, we natter well thigither.
Eh must confess Eh didnae mean
tae maxter you up lyk Eh did –

blinnert beh the licht, Eh hud tae pit
ye aa awa…’

Poetry Connections: DW’s Docu

Kala Ghoda 2011

Forgive the Flies in Bambaiya

When the invitation for the LAF workshop arrived i thought Hindi would be the one language i would go with. On day three, at Adishakti, while discussing ‘Dogs, Mobs and Rock Concerts’ with Sampurna i mentioned it might work well in Bambaiya being a Bombay poem. I was a bit hesitant as Bambaiya is a street language and not ever been considered as literary. The fact that a few million people speak it, is an aside.

To Sampurna’s credit, she pushed me with such infectious enthusiasm that i think we sat and wrote ‘Cities’ in Bambaiya in twenty minutes. The response we got from the audience in Adishakti, Amethyst in Chennai and Pune was heartening.

‘Forgive the Flies’ by Bill Herbert: i had mulled over for days and had a working draft in Hindi in but something was not quite right till it reworked itself in my head as a Bombay poem. ‘Mauf kar Makhi ko’ was a pleasure to write. The overall tone in Bambaiya was kept conversational though a bit more direct than in the original. A few more liberties to work in the cultural context were taken and it changes its character, a shade, by becoming more of a spoken word/performance poem.

Like Meena mentioned there were no words for cortices in Tamil, here it became bheja = brain. Itta Sa, is what you do when you indicate with your thumb against the first digit of your index finger to mean small or a little bit. i added haath jodey meaning hands joined which flies do if you look at them closely enough into the lines, They greet everything\like little deities because that is how we greet the Deities and they, us. They vomit in their nervous\pleasure became kare ulti bokhlayee khushi mey literally meaning they vomit in angry happiness. Dying hands, did not quite work itself well into Bambaiya. I could have gone with thakele haath = tired hands but the visual of a person trying to swat flies made it garba karte haath – a Gujarati dance form, very popular in Mumbai – and waving back became ok – tata – bye bye which is such a desi thing to say and knowing Bill I knew it would appeal to his humour. It also tied in the English influence on Bambaiya.

A short note on Bambaiya: the language kind of evolved around the 1800’s when the Gujarati (Hindu and Bohri) / Parsee traders, Marathi/Konkani fishermen, the Deccani Muslim and Hindu dockworkers, the Hindi belt working class and the English came together. It evolved in chawls – community town houses, a very Mumbai character – and on the docks. In the 1970’s arrived a movie called ‘Deewar’ meaning The Wall, a brilliant adaptation of Cagney’s The Public Enemy, where Amitabh Bachchan plays a character (based on Haji Mastan) that works his way from the docks to become Bombay underworld’s most feared Don. Amitabh went on to play Bombay characters from then on and made Bambaiya popular across the nation. In these temples of popular culture, guided by a flickering light, we all learned Bambaiya. In 1992, i landed in Bombay and the first friends i made were from Nagpada – the area around Bombay Central – who spoke the best Bambaiya possible and my familiarity/fluency with Gujarati and Deccani-Hindustani, two of the three major influences, made the learning easier.

Bambaiya has no defined script nor is it taught in schools. You can write it in Roman, Devnagri, Urdu or whatever you write as long as you make the right sounds. Here it appears in Devnagri, Roman Bambaiya and the original English.

In Devnagri:

Mauf kar Makhi ko

अरे! मॉफ कर मक्खी को
छोटी है
और भेजा इत्ता सा
वोह क्या समझे
किसपे बैठने का |
सबको साली मिलती है
हाथ जोड़े , छोटे भगवान के माफिक :
टट्टी और चीनी
दोनों बराबर उसके लिए, समझा ?
वोह करे उलटी बोख्लाई ख़ुशी मे
और सोचे
वोह मुर्डेली अख़बार
और तेरे गरबा करते हाथ
करे उसको ok-tata-bye bye

In Roman Bambaiya:

arey! mauf kar makhi ko
choti hai
aur bheja itta sa,
woh kya samjhey
kispe baithney ka.
sabko saali miltee hai
haath jodey, chote bhagwan ke maafik:
tatti aur chini
dono baraber uske liye.
woh kare ulti bokhlayee khushi mey
aur sochey
woh mudi li akhbar
aur terey garba kartey haath
karey usko ok-tata-bye bye

Bill Herbert’s

Forgive the Flies

We must forgive the flies
because they are so young,
their cortices so small,
that they don’t understand
what it is they crawl on.
They greet everything
like little deities:
sugar and excrement
are each as good to them.
They vomit in their nervous
pleasure and mistake
our rolled up newspapers,
suppose our dying hands
are merely waving back.