At our rambling family home in Aligarh, the inevitable power cuts on feverish summer nights meant we all gathered in the dimly-lit courtyard, its brick floor still moist from the water sprayed to cool it each evening. Under the moonlight, our cook, Zubaida Bua, would lead a qissa mehfil, or storytelling session.

My Rampuri Nani Amma loved these qissa mehfils with the shifting population of her daughters, daughters-in-law and granddaughters in attendance. Zubaida Bua would begin narrating the travails of the unfortunate Princess Abida as we lolled on cool white beds, taking turns to swish bamboo fans while sniggering – with our educated conceit – both at the illogical, fantastic tale and at Bua’s rustic aphorisms.

Princess Abida, condemned to a life of misery, is kidnapped by an evil magician and changed into a bird while her besotted fiancé, the king, has to accomplish daunting tasks to rescue her. Finally, the king kills the evil magician and turns the bird-woman Abida back to human form and the Princess exclaims, “Badshah salaamat main nangi!” [“O my king, I’m naked!”] Nani Amma would blush, and glare at our shameless laughter. This was our first brush with the magic and romance of qissa.

Legacy of storytelling

Dastan mehfils with the dastango, or storyteller, performing a narrative over several months and years had been a part of the Indian socio-cultural milieu for centuries. In contrast, a qissa is a short story, which is narrated in a single sitting. By the 19th century, Delhi, Lucknow and Rampur were well-known centres of this performative genre and master dastangos told their tales at the court, in the houses of noblemen, at fairs and other places where people would congregate. The zenana, the female section of the house, had its own lady dastango, an elderly begum or an educated relative replicating the amusement of the male section as parallel lives were lived in the two sections of the household.

Sketches of dastangos at the Raza Library in Rampur. Author provided

The court of Rampur, a relatively younger settlement of the Rohilla Pathans, was acquiring a cultural sheen from the Lucknow court and, along with other maestros of various art forms, famous dastangos were employed by Nawab Ahmad Saeed Khan (1840-’55) and his successors. Around 1855, the great dastango of Lucknow, Mir Ahmad Ali Lucknowi, became the court dastango of Rampur, employed by Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan (1855-65) at Rs 60 per month. He was followed by his two famous disciples, Amba Prasad and Mir Asghar Ali, engaged at Rs 50 each, and the foundation of dastan as a literary form was laid at Rampur.

These were the “three conspirators” who created the Amir Hamza tale, Tilism e Hoshruba, according to author Musharraf Ali Farooqi in his translation of the Hoshruba. They added the mind-blowing element of tilism, or magical fantasy, to the rather drab ancient Persian tale of Amir Hamza, the great warrior of Islam. Hamza, a superhero armed with powers granted by the prophets and Amar, his sidekick, fight epic battles against the dastardly magician Afrasiyab to win beauteous princesses and rescue the righteous. This was the basic storyline of the immensely popular Tilism e Hoshruba – the Magic Stealer of Senses – a voluminous work encompassing 46 volumes. It is believed by scholars to be a response of the Indian Muslim culture to the elements of Hindu mythology.

A page of the Dastan-i Amir Hamza (Hamzanama). Photo credit: National Gallery of Victoria/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Commissioned by Nawab Yusuf Ali, the trio and their disciples penned several volumes of Tilism e Hoshruba tales. These volumes, preserved in the Raza Library of Rampur, were consulted and adapted into an edition of Tilism e Hoshruba printed by Naval Kishore Press, Lucknow, in the 1880s.

Preserving tales

Shams ur Rehman Farooqui, the great Urdu scholar, remarked in an interview that, were it not for Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan of Rampur supporting the British in the Revolt of 1857, all cultural treasures of dastan would have been destroyed. Under the various nawabs from 1840 till the 1920s, the dastangos of Lucknow and Delhi settled in Rampur and were commissioned to commit the great dastans on paper for posterity. And so the five elements of Indian dastan – razm (war), bazm (gathering), husn o ishq (romance), tilism (magic) and ayyari (trickery) – were written down, though the stories did lose the extempore brilliance and individualistic oral appeal of the narrator.

M Pasha Khan, Assistant Professor and Chair, Urdu Studies, McGill University, in his unpublished work, The Broken Spell: The Romance Genre in Late Mughal India, writes that Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan of Rampur would listen to Amba Prasad’s dastan before he went to sleep, often making a protesting whine as Amba rose to go.

Thus Rampur became an important centre for the development of the dastan tradition in its oral and written form. The subject matter of the dastan also moved away from the Amir Hamza tales to a more eclectic mix – Afsana Ram o Sita, Qissa Chahar Rafiq, Naghma Bulbul Sanj, Qissa Putli. It is also noteworthy that the dastangos who came to Rampur created a silsila, or conduit, of master and disciple, ensuring the continuation of the dastan genre. The disciple listened to the master’s narration, wrote down the tale from rough notes or memory, improvised and contributed to the development of the form.

Though a number of dastangos were engaged in writing down the dastans, the measure of their fame was still their style of narration, becoming the tasveer, imitating the characters and creating a fictional dream for their audience. Amba Prasad, Ghulam Raza and Asghar Ali are highly praised in the accounts of the period for their performance at the Mela-e Benazir, a yearly event to celebrate the birthday of Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan. Mir Ahmad was known for the creation and the brilliant oral performance of Tilism e Hoshruba while Mir Nawab, the great master, never wrote down any of his dastans.

Thrilling performances

The dastans would go on for several years and oral accounts of Rampur testify to sessions held generally on Thursdays or Fridays evenings and carrying on till late night, ending at a cliffhanger pulling the audience to the next session. Opium and hookah contributed to the surcharged atmosphere. Mohammad Ilyas, a scholar of Rampur poetry, writes in his Urdu sher o adab key farogh mein nawabeen Rampur ka hissa that “the general cultural scenario of Rampur in the second half of the 19th century was, that a dastan mehfil was a fairly common affair and people listened to dastans in their houses and mohallas [neighbourhoods]”.

Mir Yaar Ali Jaan Rekhtigo’s Musaddas i Tahniyat e Jashn-e-Benazir, the historical account of Mela e Benazir, speaks of the begums listening to the dastan, which makes it difficult to conclusively say that the dastan sessions were purely male affairs or if women listened in from behind the purdah. But it is highly improbable that young women were allowed to witness a session where opium and boisterous tales of war and love with tantalising descriptions of female beauty won loud praise.

Khusroe Bagh Palace in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh (circa 1911). Photo credit: University of Chicago/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Oral testimonies speak of nightly mehfils where mughlanis or sayedanis – ladies’ maids from genteel, impoverished families – told homely tales or simpler versions of Amir Hamza stories to amuse the begums. Raffat Zamani Begum, wife of Nawab Raza Ali Khan, narrated and penned a dastan. And so it was that my Nani Amma was replicating her earlier life at Rampur with the rustic qissa sessions by Zubaida Bua.

I was skimming through a handwritten manuscript of Dastan Tilism Batin Hoshruba by Amba Prasad (probable date 1860-’80) which describes a market place of a fictional town in great detail with shops selling all kinds of wares from jewels to aphrodisiacs, people playing chess and ganjfa cards and various performers displaying their skills. In this melee, a dastango is described thus: “…the dastango sits on a wicker stool, a sheet spread out (for the coins), narrating the dastan. The tamashabeen, onlookers stand and listen to him.”

Assuming that the portrayal of the fictional city reflects the socio-cultural setting of the time, this account makes the narration of dastan a common street corner affair at that time – a tamasha. Thus the dastangos themselves connected to not only the court and the genteel educated upper classes, but also to the common man.

One would agree with Francis Pritchett (The Romance Tradition in Urdu: The dastan of Amir Hamzah in oral narration) that the importance of bonding with the audience and winning a following must have contributed to a simpler, colloquial style of Rampuri dastans – a more down-to-earth, hardy, crowd-pleasing expression. Thus, Rampur with its dastan mehfils became the crucible where the ornate Lucknowi style of dastan mixed with the more straightforward Delhi style, connected to the man on the street and took on a martial colour to appeal to the warrior in the Rohilla Pathan.

The contribution of Rampur to the dastan genre is the distillation of the numerous dastans that had been echoing in the town for generations. It preserved them and gave them a stylistic clarity that went on to greatly shape the Urdu novel.