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The Irreverent Hero Islam Forgot

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  • mohammad imran
    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 11, Dated Mar 22, 2008 CULTURE & SOCIETY literature The Irreverent Hero Islam Forgot
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 17, 2008
      From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 11, Dated Mar 22, 2008

      The Irreverent Hero Islam Forgot

      Magic and adventure made the Hamzanama the most popular oral epic of
      the Islamic world. WILLIAM DALRYMPLE tracks its mad energy in its
      first-ever compilation in English

      IN JUNE 2002, as Pentagon strategists were making their plans for the
      invasion of Iraq, a short distance away down Washington’s National
      Mall, the Freer- Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian were showing one
      of the most interesting exhibitions of Islamic art seen in the US for
      years. Ironically, the show was made up of illustrations of a story
      largely set in the very Iraqi cities which were shortly to find
      themselves as targets for the Pentagon’s munitions.

      The Sackler show was unusual in that it displayed just one single
      painted manuscript — the Hamzanama: a spectacular, illustrated book
      commissioned by the Emperor Akbar (1542-1605). For art historians, the
      show was fascinating for it brought together the long-dispersed pages
      of what was the most ambitious single artistic commission ever
      undertaken by the atelier of an Islamic court: no fewer than 1,400 huge
      illustrations were produced.

      Before commissioning the Hamzanama, the Mughal miniature painting
      atelier seems to have contained only two artists, Mir Sayyid Ali and
      Abdus Samad, whom Akbar’s father, the emperor Humayun, had lured from
      Persia and who had, between them, produced only a handful of pictures
      since their arrival in India. Akbar changed that for ever by
      commissioning no fewer than 1,400 huge illustrations to the Hamzanama —
      the largest single commission in Mughal history. The project forced the
      atelier to train more than 100 Indian artists (many of them apparently
      Hindu painters from Gujarat) in the Persian miniature style, as well as
      troops of poets, gilders, bookbinders and calligraphers.

      The resulting volumes took more than 15 years to produce and in the
      process, effectively gave birth to an independent Mughal miniature
      tradition, a wonderful combination of Persian, central Asian and Indian
      styles, and a revolutionary leap forward from all the artistic currents
      that preceded it; one in which you can see the two artistic worlds of
      Hindu India and of Persianate Islamic Central Asia fusing to create
      something new and distinctively Mughal.

      Some of the illustrations are very Persian in style: flat linear forms
      remarkable for their precise, angular, geometric perfection. Other
      pages are pure Indian in spirit: there are Indian clothes and Indian
      gestures; the palette is brighter and more dramatic than is common in
      Persian art, and there is a love of the natural world that is very
      specific to the subcontinent. The playful elephants that charge across
      the canvases seem to have arrived straight off the walls of the Hindu
      rock sculptures of Mahabalipuram. But already in the canvases of the
      Hamzanama you see the two worlds beginning to fuse, hear the soft
      ripping of gossamer as wholly Mughal images emerge fully formed from
      the chrysalis of Akbar’s atelier.

      Akbar’s hagiographer, Abu’l Faizal, recorded extensive details about
      individual artists, and was especially proud of the way that the
      Persian masters of the atelier had trained up ordinary Indians so that
      “novices have become masters”. One of these, Daswanta, “was the son of
      a palanquin- bearer who was in the service of the court. Urged by
      natural desire, he used to draw images and designs on the walls. One
      day the far-reaching glance of His Majesty [Akbar] fell on those things
      and, in its penetrating manner, discerned the spirit of a master
      working in them. Consequently, His Majesty entrusted Daswanta to the
      master of the atelier. In just a short time, he became matchless in his
      skills.” There was, however, a sad ending to this prodigy: “Insanity
      shrouded the brilliance of his mind and he died a suicide.”

      Over the centuries, the different volumes of the great Hamzanama
      manuscript were dispersed and became detached from each other: indeed,
      most were apparently stolen from the Mughal library in the Delhi Red
      Fort by the Persian emperor Nadir Shah at the same time as he removed
      the Koh-i- Noor and the Peacock Throne. From Persia, a large number
      found their way to Austria, where they are currently in the MAK, the
      Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, while others drifted around the Middle
      East and the subcontinent. The beautiful leaves now in the Victoria and
      Albert Museum were found 100 years ago, being used to line the window
      of a junk shop in Kashmir. The Freer exhibition brought the surviving
      images back together for the first time in 250 years.

      Although few recognised this at the time, the Freer Hamza exhibition
      was of great literary importance too, and started a process that
      resulted in the translation of the wonderful book under review, The
      Adventures of Amir Hamza.

      The Hamzanama was an illustrated edition of what was once the most
      popular oral epic of the Indo-Islamic world. The Adventures of Hamza is
      the Iliad and Odyssey of the mediaeval Persianate world: a rollicking,
      magic-filled heroic saga, full of myth and imagination. It was
      originally composed in Iraq around the 9th century, but contained
      material gathered from the wider culture-compost of the pre- Islamic
      Middle East. Such was the popularity of the story that it soon spread
      across the Islamic world absorbing folk tales as it went, and before
      long, was translated into Arabic, Turkish, Georgian, Malay and even

      It was in India, however, that the epic took on a life of its own. Here
      it grew to an unprecedented size, absorbing endless Indian myths and
      legends. In this form it began to be regularly performed in public
      spaces of the great Mughal cities. At fairs and at festivals, on the
      steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi, or in the Qissa Khawani, the
      Storyteller’s Street in Peshawar, the professional the story tellers,
      or dastango, would perform night-long recitations from memory; some of
      these could go on for seven or eight hours with only a short break.
      There was also a great tradition of the Mughal elite commissioning
      private performances of the epic. Ghalib was, for example, celebrated
      for his dastan parties at which the Hamza epic would be expertly
      Ghalib Lakhnavi and
      Abdullah Bilgrami
      Tr. Musharraf Ali Farooqi
      Random House
      984 pp; Rs 750

      THE TALES of Hamza collected together a great miscellany of fireside
      yarns and shaggy dog stories which over time had come to gather around
      the story of the travels of Hamza, the historical uncle of the Prophet
      Muhammad. Any factual backbone the story might once have had was, over
      the centuries, swamped with a flood of subplots and a cast of dragons,
      giants, djinns, simurgh, sorcerers, princesses and, if not flying
      carpets, then at least flying urns, the preferred mode of travel for
      the magicians in Hamza.

      Across the Persian-speaking world, from Tabriz to Hyderabad, people
      would gather around the dastango as he told story after story of the
      chivalrous Hamza and his beautiful Chinese princess lover; the wise and
      prophetic Vizier Buzurjmehr and the just Emperor Naushervan. Then there
      were Hamza’s enemies: the ungrateful villain Bakhtak, whose life Hamza
      has spared, only for Bakhtak to work unceasingly for the hero’s demise;
      and the cruel necromancer and archfiend, Zumurrud Shah. In its fullest
      form, the tale grew to contain a massive 360 separate stories, which
      would take several weeks of allnight storytelling to complete; the
      fullest printed version, the last volume of which was finally published
      in Lucknow in 1905, filled no less than forty-six volumes, each of
      which averaged 1000 pages each.

      Today, however, the Hamza epic is more or less extinct as a living oral
      epic: while some children in Persia and Pakistan may still be familiar
      with episodes, the last of the great dastango, Mir Baqar Ali, died in
      1928, a few years before sound revolutionised the nascent Indian film
      industry that itself had borrowed much of its style and many of its
      plots from the dastango’s story telling tradition.

      If the Freer Hamzanama exhibition was the first time a Western audience
      was exposed to Hamza, it also acted as something of a wake-up call to
      specialist Urdu and Persian scholars. It was quickly realised that this
      epic, said to be the longest single romance cycle in the world, had
      been almost forgotten: barely a handful of scholars had engaged with
      it, no modern scholarly edition of the epic was in print in any
      language, and no translation of it into English had ever been made. Yet
      the epic had had huge influence, not least on Indian drama and cinema
      as well as on the development of the Urdu and Persian novel, early
      versions of which were often derived from the Dastans.

      Hence, the importance of a remarkable new translation of the Hamza epic
      which has just been published by Random House India. The translation is
      the work of the Pakistani-Canadian scholar Musharraf Ali Farooqi, who
      has worked from the Urdu edition published in 1855 by Navab Mirza
      Ghalib Lakhnavi, and later revised by Abdullah Bilgrami in 1871.
      Although a fraction of the size of the 46 volume edition — only one
      complete set of which still exists — the translated version still
      weighs in at an impressively heavy 944 pages.

      Even in translation, The Adventures of Amir Hamza is a wonder and a
      revelation — a real classic of epic literature available in English for
      the first time, and in a translation so fluent that it is not just
      addictive reading but a real pleasure to sit down and lose yourself in;
      the storyline of the epic itself is endlessly diverting and inventive,
      and the language and prose of the translation is beautifully rendered.

      MOROEVER, THE epic gives a unique insight into a lost Indo- Islamic
      courtly world. Although the Hamza epic was originally a Persian
      production set in the Middle East, the Urdu version shows how far the
      epic had been reimagined into an Indian context in the course of many
      years of subcontinental retelling. Though the orginal Mesopotamian
      place names survive, the world depicted is not that of early Islamic
      Iraq but that of 18th century late Mughal India, with its obsession
      with poetic wordplay, its love of Mughal gardens, and its extreme
      refinement in food and dress and manners. Many of the characters have
      Hindu names; they make oaths “as Ram is my witness”; and they ride on
      elephants with jewelled howdahs. To read The Adventures of Amir Hamza
      is to come as close as is now possible to the world of the Mughal
      campfire — those night gatherings of soldiers, sufis, musicians and
      camp-followers that one sees illustrated in Mughal miniatures: a
      storyteller beginning his tale in a clearing of a forest as the embers
      of the blaze glow red and the eager fire-lit faces crowd around.

      The Adventures of Amir Hamza has significance beyond mere aesthetic
      enjoyment. It is good to know that the book has been widely reviewed
      and read in the US and the UK, two countries with a growing problem of
      rampant Islamophobia and massive ignorance about the Islamic world. For
      the narrative opens in Ctesiphon, not far from Baghdad, and encompasses
      places now in modern Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, most of
      which the US and its allies regard as little more than breeding grounds
      for terrorism.

      At this perilous moment in history, the Hamza epic, with its mixed
      Hindu and Muslim idiom, its tales of love and seduction, its
      anti-clericalism — mullahs are a running joke throughout the book — its
      stories of powerful and resourceful women and its mocking of male
      misogyny is a reminder of an Islamic world which the West seems to have
      forgotten: one that is syncretistic, imaginative and heterodox and as
      far as can be imagined from the puritanical Wahhabi Islam that the
      Saudis have succeeded in spreading throughout much of the modern
      Islamic world.

      William Dalrymple’s new book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty,
      Delhi 1857, (Penguin India) has been awarded the Duff Cooper Prize for
      From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 11, Dated Mar 22, 2008

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