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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Qissa Kahani Ka: The Story Tellers Of The Raj

Dosto, grab your drinks, and smokes (if you do), put on something warm and comfortable and follow me to the fields. Let us find a large tree. There, that one would be fine. Make yourself comfortable. Let's get the fire going.

Come with me to the waning days of the Mughals and the rising days of the Raj.

India was largely agrarian and feudal. Fort William College and the invitation of tum likho, hum chapay ga (you write, we will publish) surreptitiously whispered into Indian ears was yet to come. (My conjecture: another seedy ploy to divide and rule through cultural subversion.)

Gutenberg's revolution through Fort William College was yet to show its mixed impact.

The nights were long. After a long day in the sun people would gather around the campfire. And the duel between the spell and quiet of the dark and the magic of the storyteller's yarns and tales would begin. The storyteller would spellbind his audience and try to win them away from sleep.

The calm and peace offered by the night will be fought with magical tales of bravery, romance, wisdom. The intuitive story teller would introduce turns and twists in plot to keep sleep at bay. He would draw tricks from his bag of oration. This magic lasted till later into the night.

In later times the campfire gave way to shama (lamp). And the crowds would move into courtyards. But the wooing of the listener's attention by the storyteller would continue.

The oral traditions still held sway over the visual.

The qissas people heard were a blend of those passed from generation to generation as well as those created by storytellers on whims of creativity.

Enters the Raj and the centuries old traditions of Mother India with contributions from Persia and beyond began to disintegrate. The printed word became a blessing in disguise killing off the oral traditions with a merciless stroke.

The only tradition that withstood this onslaught was the mushaira.* But Urdu had to pay a hefty price too: by adapting itself to continue the oral traditions of the classic ghazal only! The jadeed (new) ghazal and naz'm, qissa-kahani (short stories and tales) were abandoned and orphaned to fend for themselves in print only. Other forms of poetry like marsia, qasida also suffered.

The qissa-kwani (storytelling) succumbed to the imported versions of the short story and later novels. Intezar Hussain quoting Jean-Paul Sartre said literature is created by the writer and the reader.

When the story telling gave in to the printed word, the immediate and spontaneous interaction between the narrator and the listener withered away giving rise to the more distant and aloof relationship between the writer and the reader. Millions who could not read became the casualty. Fort William irrevocably cut off the umbilical cord between the story teller and the listener.

The tradition brewed over centuries met instantaneous death. Few of the qissa's oral traditions survived or were incorporated in this new printed form.

Disappeared forever the flexibility, innovation, voice inflection and the theatrical gestures of the animated story teller.

Now more digressions: Let's move from the qissa kahanis of old to the short stories and novels of today. And continue this journey from the novel to shaeri

The old classic ghazal survived through the offices of mushairas, but the jadeed ghazal (or new ghazal) and the naz'm (poem) found itself unwelcome there. Like short stories and novel they also embraced the printed word. Because of the education spread it was accessed by an ever shrinking percentage of the population further decimated along ethnic and linguistic lines. The erosion of Persian from court language and its replacement with English also contributed to the decline of qissa-khwani.

Ending digression: the film director of today is perhaps the true successor to the Chahar Dervish (story teller's) of yore.

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* This is not entirely correct as I learned here from Anil


In the 70s and 80s, Staal showed how the ancient Indians devised elaborate cryptographic schemes (Kramapatha) to ensure that nothing in the main Vedas — RigVeda and SamaVeda — was lost during oral transmission. And it wasn't. As the British discovered to their astonishment, different groups of Brahmins across the country were still chanting the very same verses, almost 3500 years later

The above was from various sources but in particular this owed a great deal to an excellent essay/column by Urdu short story writer Intezar Hussain. (Those of you not familiar with him can go to Dr. Muhammed Umar Memon's the Annual of Urdu Studies - where you will find articles about him and some of his stories translated into English). I read the essays and articles a while ago.

Caveat: While Intezar's column/essays provided the catalyst for this some of the wider curves and liberties I have taken are entirely mine-t

Some more links for those interested:

Bagh O Bahar -Introduction by F.W.P.

A Tale of Four Dervishes

3 Comments:

Blogger Dr Jawwad Khan said...

nice share!
The chrisma, the atmosphere, the social interaction and romanticism is almost absent in writing.
The problem of written literature is that every thing is left on your imaginations.Some time message is not conveyed properly to every one.
i always dreamed of a cold,silent nights of December with many people around a fire with professional story teller,telling the story with all his commond on delivery and understanding of the core atmosphere of the story.
i wish some day some one take this initiative and revive the tradition of story telling.
Nice share

March 30, 2010 5:34 AM  
Blogger Dinesh Babuji said...

Hey Temporal..really nice. I would like to post the link on twitter. Permission granted?

-LighterVein

April 08, 2010 1:46 AM  
Blogger temporal said...

dinesh...to link, a permission is not needed:)

and thanks for your comments dinesh and jawwad

April 08, 2010 12:24 PM  

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