When the audience chuckled, dropped their jaws, applauded and wah-wah-ed

“Now with his voice, now with his flamboyant gestures, and now with beating a dholak (drum), Kafeel held the audience completely enthralled,” writes Arun Bhatia.

Kafeel Jafri was a model alongside me in an adfilm. I liked his acting, and looked forward to his performances on stage to a live audience in the role of a dastangoi at Atta Galatta. At the end of his one hour performance, I said to my daughter Sonali: “Yaad rahegi yeh tilism ki shaam” (this magical evening will be long remembered) as we left the Atta Galatta auditorium.

Dastango is a story teller (Dastan:story, go:teller). The title of the performance was ‘Dastan-e-Amir Hamza’ (Adventures of Amir Hamza) and Kafeel’s Urdu storytelling was flawless. He had great rapport with the audience, who had chuckled, dropped their jaws, applauded, clapped and wah-wah-ed. Anger, frustration, joy, sorrow romance, patriotism, comedy all came through in turn sometimes rapidly overlapping one another. Now with his voice, now with his flamboyant gestures, and now with beating a dholak (drum), he held the audience completely enthralled.

Dastan-e-Amir Hamza (also known as Hamzanama) is one of the seminal classics of Urdu literature. Kafeel began with an introductory for the modern day Bengaluru audience: dastangoi is an ancient Urdu story telling form, the most popular form of folk entertainment in India till the late 19th century. His choice of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza was because it was the most popular story in this form and is full of trickery, fantasy, love, magic and comedy.

Amir Hamza, an uncle of Prophet Muhammad, in this dastan, has his legendary exploits, fanciful and romantic interludes as also threatening events, narrow escapes, and violent acts. Now, the actual Hamzanama contains 46 volumes (48000 pages) and the first Moghul emperor Babar had described it as “one long far fetched lie, opposed to make any sense.”

Kafeel narrated a few episodes where Amir Hamza’s friend Amar Aiyyar (trickster) with his other aiyaar trickster friends fought the magicians of Afrasiyaab, the villain.

The characters are Arab, and Indian dastangois have made them quite Indian using local language, anecdotes and characters. For instance, when the story of one aiyaar magical cloak came up, Kafeel said with the cloak on, you would be invisible to others but would see normally. “And mind you, this was happening several hundred years before J K Rowling and Harry Potter came up,” as the audience clapped.

Kafeel ‘s interactions with the audience became more elaborate as the performance progressed. At one point, he narrated four or five lines of chaste Urdu poetry very quickly accompanied by great flourishes of his hands. Immediately after he finished the last word, he turned to the spectators, winked, and quipped, “Did you understand that?” He then went on to translate the lyrical words into simplified and prosaic English, raising a chuckle.

Amir had adventures in the Island of Confusion, where his friend Amar the trickster’s fort is treacherously attacked through a tunnel, but the plot is discovered and the treachery defeated. Amir marries Asman Pari (sky fairy), who was imprisoned in the Dungeons of Solomon, in an attempt to reach the world.

For the narration, Kafeel was transforming himself – now a golden bird who descends and cackles the name ‘Ameeer’ in a frenzied tone, now playing three different characters that are talking to each other, In his rendering, there was never a doubt whether he was a coy, flirting beautiful woman, or a king, or Amir, or a bird.

There was ovation. Kafeel thanked the audience, mentioned the attempts being made to revive this lost folk art of dastangoi and requested to be put in touch with like minded people to take the movement forward.

Back in the house, I explored this unfamiliar terrain, and learned about Babar’s grandson Akbar’s fascination with the Hamzanama. Babar had pooh poohed it, but Akbar was led to commission an enormous illustrated version of the story. The project entailed dozens of artists and took many years to complete. (Parts of this 1532 tome still survive mostly in the west in museums and so on.) One illustration in Wikepedia shows the witch Anquarut in the guise of a beautiful woman who hopes to seduce the handsome King Malik Iraj whom she has captured and tied to a tree.

I am still probing how the dastangoi tradition had spread far and wide to Bengal and Arakan (Burma) and how there are Indonesian wayang puppets of Amir Hamza known as wong agung jayeng rana.

Kafeel Jafri in his solo one hour performance, opened a door for me to this ancient romantic Urdu literature. Yaad rahegi woh tilasmat ki shaam!

Arun Bhatia is a resident of Bengaluru and an avid reader, writer, and photographer. He has also modeled in TV commercials.

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