If you’re a lover of the world’s epics, then make room this season for a new book to place alongside the Ramayan and the Mahabharat, The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Shahnameh and The Tale of Genji. Urdu scholar Musharraf Ali Farooqui’s new translation of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza (also known as the Hamzanama), for the first time, brings into English a collection of colourful oral narratives of adventure, trickery and fantasy much beloved in the Persian, Arabic and Urdu-speaking worlds, and passed down over the centuries and across civilizations by professional storytellers called dastangois.
Like all the great world epics, the Hamzanama has its origins in some remote historical fact or happening, which then served as a frame for a richly detailed and continuously expanding story in which each episode could take up an evening or more of narration. “The performative aspect of the story,” writes Iranian literary scholar Hamid Dabashi in his introduction, “is already evident in its narrative tropes, the manner of its suspenseful storytelling…the interplay between its ordinary and outlandish plots”. Farooqui’s translation from a 19th century Urdu version of the text summons an ornate and mellifluous English that brings to life all the legendary power of these stories about the travels of the valiant adventurer Amir Hamza. Edited excerpts:
Who is Amir Hamza? Is he a static character, “fixed” once and for all in the story, or has he grown as the story has been passed on in space and time?
The Amir Hamza of this tale is a completely fictitious character. Yes, he is depicted as Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, but that is merely one historic reference
used to build his legend. There are countless other references which have no relation to the real Amir Hamza of Islamic history. Many legends of well-known and lesser-known figures became part of the Amir Hamza legend as the tale was carried from one land to another by storytellers, adventurers, sailors and travellers. Amir Hamza’s character did not change in its essence as the tale developed in the oral tradition, but it did become more expansive and complex.
The storyteller: This is the Toronto-based author’s second novel. The Adventures of Anix Hamza: Random House India, 948 pages, Rs750.
Is that why the text reveals the influence of so many traditions? For instance, some men at the Persian sultan’s court are dressed “in Banarasi garters”.
That is true. The Indian legend of Amir Hamza was garbed in an Indian world—from dress to food to idiom. We must also remember that it was a popular legend of our oral tradition. It would have served a storyteller’s purpose to quickly acquaint his audience with the furniture of the world he was describing, so that he could go ahead and narrate the action.
What was emperor Akbar’s interest in the Amir Hamza story? And what is the influence of the book on the Indian subcontinent?
Akbar commissioned the production of a huge illuminated manuscript of the Hamzanama, so now the text had magnificent illustrations prepared by his court painters to go alongside the narrations of storytellers. Thus, in addition to its literary influence, Akbar’s Hamzanama also had a formative influence on Mughal miniature art. Only one-tenth of Akbar’s Hamzanama paintings are known to have survived. We can only make a guess from studying them that the fantasy element was becoming more prominent in the Hamza legend, and the rather prosaic Persian Hamza tale was developing into a major Indian fantasy through the creative inputs of Indian storytellers.
I think this is why Hamza was so popular in India and why it is called “India’s most beloved Islamic epic”.
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