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In New York,the city where two collapsing towers inextricably linked Islam with terrorism,a unique initiative is under way to celebrate another facet of the religion — art and culture.

Written by Dipanita Nath |
May 9, 2009 1:17:32 am

Delhi’s dastangos and Naseeruddin Shah will treat New Yorkers to the tales of Amir Hamza

In New York,the city where two collapsing towers inextricably linked Islam with terrorism,a unique initiative is under way to celebrate another facet of the religion — art and culture. Performers — from US to Iran,from Pakistan to France — will come together for “Muslim Voices: Arts and Ideas”,a 10-day festival that begins on June 5 and is organised by the Asia Society,Brooklyn Academy of Music and the New York University Center for Dialogues. India will be represented through an old art form — dastangoi or dramatic storytelling,which dates to medieval Iran and once brightened up balmy evenings on the steps of Jama Masjid. Delhi-based dastangos (storytellers) Danish Hussain and Mahmoud Farooqui,who have been keeping the art alive,will be joined by actor Naseeruddin Shah in New York.

“It is a narrative technique without music,songs and stage props,relying only on intricate detailing,gestures and vocal skills to describe the action. The stories are about warfare,trickery,magic,love….,” says Farooqui. The stories are from Dastan-e-Amir Hamza,originally composed in Persian to describe the adventures of Amir Hamza,Prophet Mohammed’s uncle. From the stories,Hussain and Farooqui have selected those that combine “high literature with loads of masala”.

For instance,the two pieces chosen for “Muslim Voices” are full of magic,sorcery,warriors and tricksters. One story,to be performed by Farooqui and Hussain,is about a sorcerer called Azlam who lives in a huge python and commands an army of pythons,each of which contains a magician inside. “There are so many snakes that even daylight turns green. How do Amir Hamza and his ayyars fight them?” teases Farooqui. The other story is equally intriguing,as it revolves around a woman who is to perform Sati and is rich in Hindi poetry which,Farooqui says,was very much part of Urdu tradition till the 19th century. Hussain says,“The plays are not about making a statement. As far as I’m concerned,it is just another story. Dastans are sprinkled with secular references as the writers were deeply entrenched in India’s secular culture.”

Shah says he has been practising for the past year and has understood the intricacies of dastangoi,thanks to his long association with the stage.

They are scheduled for two performances — on June 7 and 8 at the Asia Society Lila Acheson Wallace Auditorium. Farooqui would have been thrilled if they weren’t the only Indian performers. “I thought it was awful that we were the only ones. India is the biggest centre for Islamic art and culture in the world,yet we look towards the Middle East as a Muslim hub,” he says.

The trio hope that the English subtitles will help bridge the gap between the Urdu dialogue and a largely English-speaking audience. “Even in India and Pakistan,most people are not aware of the stories. They are as ignorant as a western crowd about the setting and context of these stories,” says Hussain. He will have to rely on an ancient skill to spellbind the audience. Just like it used to be long ago in Delhi when dastangos gathered on balmy evenings.

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