DASTAN is among Urdu’s classical genres that have their unique characteristics. A dastan is a long, fantasy tale with supernatural elements: genies, fairies, sorcerers, kings, princesses, magic castles, wise birds talking like human beings and often a saint clad-in-green that appears from nowhere to help the hero whenever he is in trouble.

Many dastans were written in a story-within-a-story technique, with several subplots. Early Urdu dastans were composed in verse, but latter-day dastans were mostly in prose. Urdu dastans were a product of a society that had ample time and desire for leisure. Interestingly, most of them were written in 18th and 19th centuries, a period of political turmoil and economic downturn.

The rise of Urdu dastan was so phenomenal that dastangoi, the art of telling a dastan, became a profession. A dastango was a narrator whose job was to describe the tales. Not only did the aristocracy hire them, common people too could enjoy their services. A dastango would tell the tales quite late into the night in front of an audience packed in a room. These seemingly unending tales would be picked up the next night from the point where dastango had left it. A good dastango would draw the picture of, say, a battlefield or love scene, with words and his gestures, tone and pitch would add to the effect and audience were simply enthralled. Many dastangos are known for their art of storytelling, Mir Baqar Ali Dastango being most well-known of them.

It was legendary publisher Naval Kishore from Lucknow who began publishing Urdu dastans on a grand scale in 1883, though the earliest prose dastan published in Urdu was Dastan-i-Ameer Hamza, written by Khalil Khan Ashk and published by Fort William College, Calcutta, in 1801. Mirza Amaan Ghalib Lakhnavi had also translated it and it was published from Calcutta in 1855.

As for the origin of Dastan-i-Ameer Hamza, Dr Gian Chand Jain wrote that this dastan was originally conceived in Iran and written in Persian. Many of the manuscripts, some of them preserved at British Museum, presenting the early forms of the tale in Persian, narrate the battles between Nausherwaan and Hamza. Nausherwaan Nama and La’al Nama are such manuscripts, to name but a few. The earliest Urdu translation is in a manuscript from at Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, and is titled Qissa-i-Jang Ameer Hamza. It was handwritten in 1198 hijri/1783-84 AD.

Some manuscripts of early versions, preserved at different libraries in India and Pakistan, prove that the tale was either translated or rewritten in Urdu by various authors. Gian Chand has concluded, after a long-drawn discussion, that there are different traditional views on the origin and authorship of the earliest versions, but the origin of Dastan-i-Ameer Hamza is the Persian work named Maghaazi-i-Hamza, written in the ninth century AD, describing battles and travels of Hamza Bin Abdullah Al-Shari Al-Kharji. Khalil Khan Ashk’s Dastan-i-Ameer Hamza is the translation of one of the early versions, says Gian Chand.

Gian Chand has also mentioned that Urdu Tilism-i-Hosh Ruba is the extended version of Dastan-i-Ameer Hamza’s text and in Urdu it has been rendered with so many changes that it has become an original work and may not be considered a translation. He also said that the eight volumes of Tilism-i-Hosh Ruba, each consisting of three parts, were the latest version and were first narrated by Mir Ahmed Ali.

Naval Kishore Press truly immortalise Dastan-i-Ameer Hamza and Tilism-i-Hosh Ruba by publishing its entire collection. As noted by Shamsur Rahman Farooqi, the Naval Kishore edition of Dastan-i-Ameer Hamza has 46 volumes and some 42,000 pages. Tilism-i-Hosh Ruba is a part of it. In 1883, Naval Kishore began publishing it, with first four volumes written by Syed Muhammad Husain Jah and the other four by Ahmed Husain Qamar.

With the advent of new literary genres — such as novel — the fall of dastans began. After the first quarter of the 20th century, hardly any new dastan was written in Urdu and the interest with the ones in print too began to wane.

Now Musharraf Ali Farooqi has begun editing Tilism-i-Hosh Ruba. The first part has been published with new, computerised calligraphy and modern orthographic principles as the older editions posed difficulties to readers who are not used to old ways when various spellings of certain Urdu words were in vogue and it was considered quite normal to join many words together. Punctuation has also been taken care of.

Strangely enough, the cover does not mention any names, but the first part of the first volume of Tilism-i-Hosh Ruba is edited by Musharraf Ali Farooqi and is published by Kitab Limited, Karachi. A glossary has been added, making it more useful. Contrary to the practice in vogue, the text is composed in naskh font and not in nast’aleeq font.

drraufparekh@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2023

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