About Shiraz Hassan
Shiraz Hassan is a magazine reporter and feature writer for Sunday Magazine in Lahore, Pakistan, where he covers social issues, art and culture. At the magazine, he has published more than 400 features related to social problems, culture and 'show biz.' Shiraz has also worked as a news editor at the radio network “MAST FM 103” in Lahore.
He writes about culture and heritage of South Asia, particularly Pakistan. He advocates rich culture of this land and tries to explore facts. Recently he was given an award from the Federal Ministry of Population Welfare for his article on population crises. Writers Guild also awarded him a Medal of excellence for his work.
Latest Posts by Shiraz Hassan
The history of Rawalpindi is a scattered one spread across a vast area. Rawalpindi, commonly known as Pindi, is a city in the Pothohar region of Pakistan. Rawalpindi is only located 9 miles from the city of Islamabad, in the province of Punjab. To draw a complete picture of our history, one has to collect the scattered pieces and put them together.
Most of us know that Rawalpindi was used as a convenient route by the invaders coming from North Western regions and later British Army used the city as one of the most important cantonments in North Western region of British India in the days of The Great Game.
Before the Partition, Rawalpindi was an urban center mainly populated with Hindus and Sikhs. Even today, one can see the old remnants of their existence in the old areas of the city in the form of houses, abandoned temples and gurdwaras.
However, during the last 60 years post partition, the city has undergone a lot of changes. The Hindu and Sikh population migrated to India in 1947 and the city provided shelter to the Muslim migrants from Punjab, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
The city of Rawalpindi, home to several Hindu temples and Sikh Gurdwaras, was also renowned for some other historic landmarks, be a Dhobi Ghaat, a Haveli or a public space. With the passage of time and the increase in population the demography of the city changed gradually. Most of the old and historic places fell victim to the advent of modernization and gave way to countless commercial buildings, markets and concrete matchbox structures.
Mai Veero di Banni (The Abode of Lady Veero) is one such victim.
It is said that Mai Veero was an aged Hindu lady, who was saintly in her behavior others and respected among the masses. Banni Mai Veero was built by her, for the benefit of the people where they could bathe, swim and rest and freshen up. It was a sort of a gathering spot, much like the Greek Agora, for the public in the very heart of the city. The water source of the pool was from a clean water stream nearby (an area on the opposite side known as Kartarpura).
Some old residents of Rawalpindi say that the area around Banni Mai Veero was densely populated by Khatri Hindus.
While hunting for Banni Mai Veero I managed to reach the exact spot where the pool once had been. Today, it is a market housing video shops. I met the president of the market who, on my request introduced me to the oldest living person of the area.
That is how I met Muhammad Ilyas, popular in the area as Bhiyya ji, a Fruit-Chaat seller in this market.
Born in Ambala Cantonment area (now in Indian Punjab) in 1936, Muahmmad Ilyas migrated to Rawalpindi in 1947 along with his family.
“I remember it very clearly; there was a pool here, I used to take bath and swim in it” says Ilyas.
“When we came from Ambala we lived in Bazaar Talwaraan, near Raja Bazaar” he added. He goes on to further narrate that one of his elder brothers was a government employee working in the Railways and other had a shop of shoes in Ambala.“I also worked for the Pakistan Railways as porter after partition, for some 20 years” Muhammad Ilyas tells me while showing his old employee’s identity card.
Initially, Ilyas started his Fruit Chaat business in Raja bazaar, as a part time engagement later shifting his shop to the newly built market where the government allotted stalls to the street vendors. This market, he adds, was built in 1980s right on the same spot where the pool of Banni Mai Veero’s once had been.
Needless to say, today there are no traces of any pool anywhere near the market that was built in 1982 and inaugurated on May 5, 1982. The market has more than one hundred shops, most of them selling CDs and DVDs and a few repairing shops for electronic appliances.
So, what happened to the pool? Muhammad Ilyas recalls confidently that back when the pool did exist, the water had been clean and fresh, there had been stairs on all sides of the pool. People used to take bath and women washed clothes there. There were even fresh water fish in water!
Unfortunately people eventually started polluting it. The link to the stream that was the source of the water to the pool was cut off; new houses were built and the pool slowly dried up. It did not take much time for the locals to turn the place into a garbage dump.
Probably that was how Mai Veero di Banni made a silent exit from the history of Rawalpindi.
Much later, the city district government planned to use this place for commercial purposes and built the market in 1982. But the businesses that initially set up shop here didn’t really flourish. It was only in the late 80’s when the VCR culture was “exported” to Pakistan (mostly by the overseas Pakistanis in Middle East) the market gradually became the hub for VCR and video films, as there was a huge demand for VCR and Indian film VCD rentals.
The main square outside the “video market” still goes by the name of “Banni chowk”, though some people tried their best to change its name to “Sunni Chowk” (Why Sunni Chowk? Because the main procession of Ashura Juloos ends here with Zanjeer-zani: hope you will get the hint).
Once, there used to be a Tonga stand outside the market at Saidpur Road, which is now turned into a Qingqi (Motorcycle Rickshaw) stand. Added to this crowd are numerous shops selling flowers and materials for wedding decorations. This area is also known for its desi food culture.
Muhammad Ilyas looks back at the past and reminisces that he has seen the changing demographics of the city. “The city wasn’t this noisy, but now it’s traffic and people everywhere”, he almost laments.
When I asked him why his family chose to settle down in Rawalpindi and not in any other city, he replied that they had some relatives in Rawalpindi, so they came here.
“Do you want to see Ambala once again?” I asked him as I was preparing to leave.
“No, I don’t want to go to Ambala. Everything has changed. We have some relatives in Delhi and some other cities in India, but the elders have all passed away and their children don’t know us”, he answered ruefully.
“But there would be no Visa issue for you, you know that… “
“I know visa restrictions are relaxed for senior citizens (above 65), but why would I go there? Nobody knows me there. That was in the past and that time has passed” he replied this time, almost matter-of-factly.
Then I hugged and thanked him and walked away, promising to meet him again, very soon.
Top photo: Muhammad Ilyas
Over the last few weeks, I have been meeting children from different parts of Punjab. They were between 3 to 5 years of age, and included the children of my friends and extended family. I was pleasantly shocked to hear these kids speakin Punjabi. “Kithay chalay o”, “aa ki aey”, “ki karde paye o” are some of the Punjabi phrases I recall having heard. Below is a rare sight of a shop that displays a sign board in Punjabi “Billay d Hatti” (Shop of Billa) in Raja Bazaar in Rawalpindi.
Punjabi is the most widely spoken language across Pakistan. However, most of the people in Punjab, especially in urban centers, do not encourage their children to speak their mother tongue, Punjabi.
But “kids will be kids” and they will always find ways to learn new things. So, through methods best known to children, they quickly pick up the language, continuously learning (mimicking to be more precise) from various people around them and their parents, as the adults speak in Punjabi among themselves regularly. The end result is that the children learn Punjabi quite effortlessly; such is the beauty of mother tongue.
Incidentally, in your average Pakistani school, a child goes through the experience of learning two new languages, English and Urdu.
Since reading Quran and prayers are also considered as mandatory teachings in the Pakistani society, he or she she learns Arabic as well. So, a 3-5 year old child in Punjab starts to learn almost four languages at this stage. Other than this, the teaching of all other subjects is also via the medium of Urdu or English.
However, as far as the effectiveness of learning is concerned, it is in the best interest of any child that primary education be imparted in mother tongue. Children learn more efficiently and quickly if he / she start learning various subjects in his / her mother tongue instead of learning a completely new language first. This is the reason when a 3 year old enrolls in a nursery class he / she naturally reads “Meem Kukri” instead of “Meem Murghi” (which is enforced on him / her) because he / she already knows and relates to the picture of a hen as a “Kukri”.
However, in Pakistan, it is a popular practice to label a child as an “illiterate” and “uncivilized” if he / she speaks in Punjabi. This is why parents try their best to refrain from speaking in Punjabi with their kids. Somehow, one cannot blame the parents as the harsh reality is when a 3 or 4 year old kid enrolls in school and begins to speak in Punjabi with the other children or teachers, he / she is promptly tagged as “illiterate”. Needless to say, it’s quite depressing for young minds. Naturally, the parents want to prevent this from happening. Hence, the mother tongue is sacrificed.
In addition to this, there are strong arguments that “talking about ‘people not encouraging their children to speak Punjabi or their mother tongue is like dishonoring their mother’ is just a hollow slogan”. This line of argument strongly believes that it is common knowledge that in real life knowing Punjabi is not of any use and learning Urdu and English are more important for education and a career. When I look at the current scenario, I realize that for all practical purposes this line of thinking is not entirely wrong. One has to get a job after all! Again, Punjabi is forced out.
Frankly speaking, discrimination against the Punjabi language is nothing new in our society. It started during the British period with the end of Sikh rule in Punjab. Later, it was somewhat obtusely assumed that Urdu is the language of Muslims, Hindi,of Hindus and Punjabi, of Sikhs. By this oversimplified formula not only our land divided on the basis of religion but languages were also divided on the same basis. Today, in Indian Punjab one observes the regular usage of Punjabi everywhere – signage on the highways, in schools, colleges, universities and in public offices. This is exactly why Mian Shehbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Pakistani Punjab, while visiting the Indian counterpart delivered a speech in Punjabi to win their hearts!
But I am afraid I have rarely heard the Chief Minister of Punjab or any other leaders delivering a speech in Punjabi in Gujranwala, Faisalabad or any other city of the Pakistani Punjab. This is what I call the inferiority complex of us Punjabis in Pakistan.
It is obvious that Punjabis are living in some kind of confusion. It is a bitter truth that Punjabis have gradually destroyed their own language, as we never confidently owned it. Inspite of being the largest spoken language in Pakistan it is not taught in any schools! You wouldn’t find any sign boards in Punjabi anywhere in Punjab (except “Billay di Hatti” shops in various cities). As I see it, the future of Punjabi in Pakistan is not bright.
Strangely, quite contradictory to this phenomenon of our self-denial, there is this interesting practice of Punjabi being popularized all across, without Punjabis even wanting it to! And the reason behind this is the televised musical program, Coke Studio – Pakistan.
I am sure, you would have heard on countless episodes of Coke Studio, numerous Kalams of Baba Bulleh Shah or Sultan Bahoo being performed by the participants. Be it Bulleh Shah or any other Sufi poet of Punjab, it is becoming quite a fashion to be associated with their music as an enthusiast. Don’t we simply love to listen to them and share Punjabi music by whatever means available to us and feel good that they project the secular and moderate culture of Punjab? Many people were introduced to Baba Bulleh Shah or Punjabi Sufis after the launch of Coke Studio. I feel, it is quite ironic that today we actually rely on a corporate giant and thankful to them for introducing Punjabi to the world because at the same time, we hate this language too!
This contradiction in our behavior baffles me completely.
However, I see rays of hope, coming from completely unexpected quarters though. Recently, a friend who shifted from Karachi to Lahore, complained “why the hell everyone speaks Punjabi here? I spoke to Rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers and a few other people and everyone replied to me in Punjabi!” It was a welcome realization that Punjabis have not completely given up on their mother tongue, at least not yet. It was a relief that at least a visitor to Punjab has realized that Punjabi is the language of Punjab. Deep inside, that made me immensely happy.
“I am working here for more than 20 years and during this time none of the elders or even a kid spoke harshly to me” – the 70 year old man told me, while clipping the grass at the lawn of the Parsi Place of Worship.
“I am their employee and they are always so polite to their workers”, he added.
I guess Baba realized I wanted to know more, and this encouraged him to look back and reminisce. “Once some leaders from the community visited while I was having my lunch. I was about to leave it halfway and get up, in order to serve them. They simply asked me to finish my lunch, take rest and only then come and serve them. That’s how they were, always!” He fondly remembered.
My journey to this amazing place kick-started when a couple of months back my friend told me about the existence of a Parsi Place of Worship somewhere at Murree Road, Rawalpindi. As I have a keen interest in heritage buildings and old architecture, I kept on searching for this place. I asked around, spoke to people residing in the area but none of them had any idea about such a place!
The irony of the situation is that most of the people living in Rawalpindi (or may be in other cities as well) are too busy with their own lives and do not have the time to look around or know much about their own locality, even if it is right next door. No wonder, this sheer neglect and indifference is turningour historic landmarks into ruins, right in front of our eyes.
Anyway, after many such visits around the city, I finally managed to find out the exact location of the place and one fine Sunday morning I went out to visit the place.
As it is, Murree Road is the commercial hub of Rawalpindi city. Moreover, near the Benazir Bhutto Hospital there is a sprawling jewelry market and one cannot even imagine that amidst this congested area there could exist a historic landmark!
However, it is a fact that hidden behind these lavish jewelry shops, there is indeed the Parsi Worship Place that I had been looking for. I already knew that such a place, according to Parsi traditions, would be called a “Fire Temple” and I was excited that finally I had my chance to explore it in detail.
As I reached the area, close to the location, I came across a commercial place, and took the lane behind it.
My earlier experience with several old Temples and Gurdwaras had prepared me well and I was expecting to walk into an old building in ruins, its architecture in shambles, its walls crumbling and the ever-present foul smell of garbage rising from its grounds.
And here came a pleasant surprise as I came face to face with a completely different scene! A red-bricked single story building stands there. Neat, clean and well-maintained. The path below was shadowed and lined with rows of tall trees of Evergreen and Dates variety. It was a treat for the eye and I was taken by surprise, almost awestruck.
One the right hand side there stood an old colonial style building and in front there was a gate to the Parsi Graveyard. A lush green lawn surrounded the building and an old man was busy with his gardening tools, digging the clay and cutting the grass. It was a peaceful scene.
The stone plate at the gate of read:
together with the buildings well and compound wall was erected to perpetuate the memory of the late Set Jahangiriji Framji Jussawala
Set Jamasji Hormasji Bogha
both of the Rawalpindi Parsi merchants
by their respective grandsons
Set Dorabji Cowasji Jussawala
Set Nasarwanji Jehangiriji Bogha
Shahshai month Tir 1367, January 1898”
The graveyard was also very calm and clean.
I asked the old man(the gardener)if the Place of Worship was still functional.
“Yes” he nodded, “There are some 30 to 40 Parsi families in Rawalpindi and whenever someone passes away in their community they perform funeral and religious rituals here”
Given that we all know that there was a Parsi community (mostly merchants) in Rawalpindi, some hundred years ago, it was indeed news for me that they still live in Rawalpindi in present day and time!
The old gardener also informed me that this place belongs to the owner of a famous brewery company and they often visit this place to pay homage to their elders buried at this graveyard.
I also noticed that the doors to the building arekept locked and the whole premises is well taken care of.
While walking back,what I felt was immense joy and relief that a place of worship, which belongs to a minority community of Pakistan, is well managed and looked after.
All I can wish for is to see our tolerance towards the other religious minorities in Pakistan and that we live along with each other in harmony, peace and prosperity.
Text and Photos by: Shiraz Hassan
Pakistan has been a hotbed of terrorism and militancy for almost a decade now. In this period of time, more than 50,000 people have become victims of terrorism with the north western areas being especially vulnerable to militancy and bloodshed. Many Pakistanis see the country’s future as dark and hopeless, however, Ansar Abbas is not one of them. Below, Ansar Abbas uses his computer with his feet after losing his arms in a tragic suicide attack.
Syed Ansar Abbas, aged 30, is one of the many victims of terrorism that has plagued Pakistan. He lost both his arms in a suicide attack in Dera Ismail Khan. However, despite such a grave and life-altering tragedy, he is still hopeful and passionate about the days to come. With an indomitable spirit he says,
“I don’t like to be labelled as disabled or a victim”.
Currently working as a news editor with a news agency in Pakistan, Ansar is pursuing his career confidently and hopes to make Pakistan a better country. He also worked as a field monitor in DI Khan for PakVotes for the recently concluded by-elections. The life of Ansar Abbas is a true story of hope and resilience.
He hails from the north western city of Dera Ismail Khan. Son of lawyer Syed Muzaffar Shah and youngest among his ten siblings, he belongs to a noble family in his district. Ansar drew inspiration from his father, as he was well connected to literary circles. This also encouraged Ansar to take up Mass Communication as a subject for his Masters’ degree at the Gomal University, DI Khan. Having completed his Masters’ in 2006, he began his career as a journalist with a national daily. Looking back in time, he recalls,
“I was passionate about writing since my childhood; my father was my inspiration, and hence I chose to be a journalist.”
However, as fate would have it, around five years ago his life changed forever.
On August 19, 2008, while in Dera Ismail Khan, Ansar came to know about a target killing incident in the city. He reached the district hospital along with other reporters where he learnt that the victim belonged to his family. Soon, many of his family members and others gathered at the hospital. There was a crowd of some 200 people there when tragedy struck; a suicide bomber blew himself up, resulting in a death toll of 32 people. More than 50 people were injured, and Ansar was one of them. He narrates how around 20 of his relatives and friends died on that tragic day.
Recalling the incident he says,
“I guess I was in my senses after the blast, or maybe I wasn’t, but I saw my arm cut off from my body laying in front of me.”
If this trauma was not enough, both his legs were also fractured in the blast. He was sent to Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) hospital, Islamabad the next day for treatment, where he was operated on almost 50 times in six months. He recovered physically with the passage of time but lost his arms.
Ansar’s real arms were replaced by artificial ones which he cannot even move – such is the sorry state of prosthesis in Pakistan.
Yet, Ansar did not lose hope. He did not give up, and he moved on.
He says it, in a matter-of-fact tone,
“What had happened cannot be undone; it’s time to move forward, to live my own life”
And that is what he has successfully done.
He restarted his career in journalism with a renewed vigour. Though it took almost two years to fully recover, he started using the computer while sitting on a wheelchair at home, and he learned to use his toes as his fingers till he mastered the skill of typing with his feet.
Ansar started using social media and connecting with people from different parts of the world. He wrote blogs and articles narrating various incidents of terrorism in his home town, criticising the militancy and addressing terrorism related issues. Last year, he completed another Masters’ degree in Political Science.
“The internet gave me a new lease to life. I was not used to the internet earlier, but after this incident, it has opened new gateways to the world for me. Now I read news, write and edit articles. This is how I keep myself busy.”
An activist, Ansar Abbas is keen on working for social welfare. He, along with other people of his area, organises sports and other events for the welfare of Dera Ismail Khan. He is also helping an organisation working for disabled individuals, which once helped him too.
In Pakistan, sectarian killings are on the rise and the people of the north western areas of Pakistan, especially Dera Ismail Khan, still remain the main victims of sectarian killings.
Incidentally, Ansar thinks otherwise; according to him, DI Khan was once known as the city of flowers. There were no sectarian killings among Sunnis and Shias in the past. He also believes that sectarian harmony among the local people still exists. He says that right after the the suicide bombing incident, the first person to donate blood to him did not even belong to his sect.
He goes on to narrate that DI Khan is home to the famous graveyard of Chah Syed Munawar Shah where not only the Sunni and the Shias bury their loved ones, but several Christians are even buried in the same grounds. Moreover, the mosque next to the burial ground is open for all sects and both the Shias and Sunnis offer their prayers in same mosque. He adds,
“That is an excellent example of sectarian harmony and I doubt you would find such an example anywhere else.”
Given from where he is coming, Ansar is not in favour of negotiating with the militants and also critical of the role of government and security forces to counter terrorism.
“If incidents like Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan jail breaks continue then how will we eradicate terrorism?” he asks.
Confident and hopeful that someday in the near future Pakistan will see peace again, Ansar pays a rich tribute to the people of Pakistan, who, in spite of countless acts of terrorism that devastate their lives, are still moving forward.
“Pakistanis are brave people and they will never let militants to takeover this country,” says Ansar, a proud, hard working Pakistani himself.
This article was originally published at Express Tribune. Photo and article BY SHIRAZ HASSAN.
Holi – the festival of colors – celebrated across Pakistan by the Hindu community of the country. In Rawalpindi, there are hardly 600 Hindu families, most of them belong to Valmiki sect of Hinduism. There are two Valmiki and a Krishna Mandir in Rawalpindi. As colors of Holi are in the air, here, sharing some photographs of Holi celebration at a Valmiki mandir in Rawalpindi. The curator of mandir Jagjit Bhatti says that tell the world that Hindus in Pakistan are celebrating Holi with its full colors, we are safe here. This Valmiki mandir, located at Chaklala area of Rawalpindi is a pre-partition temple. It was built in 1935 and since that time it is active. After the partition most of the Hindus migrated from the area reducing Hindu population to the minimum in the city. This Valmiki mandir is of the three active temples of the city where Hindus pray and celebrate their religious festival on regular basis.
A friend comments that these are sad pictures, these faces demonstrate their minority status rather religious freedom or festivity, as Holi is not a ‘temple festival’, it is celebrated outdoor during day time. I have no words to argue but all I have these photographs that I would to share with you.
A trek through the old areas of Rawalpindi reveals to us many examples of old architecture: silent testimonies of our heritage, narrating tales of our past, stories of our land. Unfortunately, these exponents of our history are in a state of utter neglect and cry out for immediate attention by the authorities.
In the middle of the area that is commonly known as Kohati Bazaar, one can see the dome of a temple which is almost blinded by the high walls of an academic institution. Here stands one of the beautiful, historic landmarks of the city: Kalyan Das Temple.
Outside this building, you can see the board of Government Qandeel Secondary School for visually impaired children. On entering the main gate of the school, one is at once confronted with the sight of a magnificent architectural form which stands right in the middle of the school courtyard
As I entered the building, I turned to the security guard, and queried him casually, “I just want to see.” He nodded his head in agreement and asked me to go ahead.
This temple was named after a generous resident of Rawalpindi, Kalyan Das, who laid its foundation stone in 1850s, and it is said that it was completed in 1880. The Kalyan Das temple is believed to have had more than 100 rooms and was spread over an area of about seven acres, besides a vast pond around the main temple building.
According to some reports, Kalyan Das had no children but his brother had. One of the grandchildren of his brother is Saghir Soori, the owner of Saghir Apartments — the tallest residential tower in Delhi. Kalyan Das’ family had a residence by the name Soori Building in Kartarpura (a locality near Kohati Bazaar), which is now known as Noori Building.
One of the significant facts of the Kalyan Das Temple is linked to the Amarnath Yatra, which is an important religious ritual in Hinduism. Hindu pilgrims used to stay at this temple en route to Amarnath in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir, making it a very important place for Hindu worshippers
Like many other temples of the city, in 1947, during the partition of India, Kalyan Das temple was also left abandoned as the Hindu population left the city. Today this magnificent architectural piece still stands tall but the complex has been brutalised and vandalised over decades and is in a state of decay.
The beautiful paintings engraved on the walls of the temple are fading away; the damp roof of the main architecture pours in rainy days. The rooms of the main complex are used as store rooms and are kept locked. The idols are missing but their marks attract the attention of visitors. The many spires in the temple complex are still imposing but 60 years of neglect has made them colourless. The white paint used to brighten a canopy inside the complex has, in fact, buried its original floral work.
After the partition and migration of the Hindu population from Rawalpindi, the temple remained functional. In 1956, it was taken over by the Auqaf Department and survived as a place of worship until 1958 when a school for the blind, started by Begum Farooqi, was shifted into the complex. At that time it had a Baradari with rooms for worshippers, a pond and an Ashram.
In 1973, the school was taken over by the Punjab government. A new building was erected for the school in 1986 during the time of General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, when the wave of Islamisation was in full boom. It was the time when the original buildings surrounding the temple, the rooms and the pond were demolished and deprived of their beauty. A seminary nearby acquired almost half of the temple land.
The security guard at the school’s gate said that Muslims vandalised the temple at the time of partition. In 1992, in the wake of the demolition of the historic Babri Mosque in Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh) by Hindus, when several Hindu temples were demolished across Pakistan, luckily the school administration prevented this temple from meeting the same fate.
“Its our national heritage and we should preserve it,” the security guard asserted!
According to him, some people in the school’s administration are thinking of demolishing the temple to increase the space for the school. But there are some good people too who do not wish so, he added, urging that this heritage building should be renovated so that it doesn’t meet any mishap.
The Punjab government has constructed some new rooms and hostels for the visually impaired students of the school in the complex. It can be claimed that despite its decaying condition, this temple is still much better preserved as compared to other abandoned temples of the city.
I saw some visually impaired kids playing cricket in the school yard. I asked one of them named Mustansir, “What are you doing here?” He said, “I am studying.” On asking what he was studying, he said, “ABC and 123.” It made me smile. When I was leaving, he urged me, “Where are you going, stay here!”
In my view, this is the best use that an abandoned temple can be put to: for providing shelter and home for visually impaired kids. And I think Kalyan Das will also not be annoyed with us, seeing this magnificent building being used for a good cause.
That said, it is also true that this architectural marvel is in desperate need of renovation and restoration work and the government must take notice of this need; this is not just an abandoned place of worship, but also an important heritage site of the city. And given the noble cause that it endorses now, this place serves to provide a huge symbolic impetus to people to open up their eyes blinded by hatred.
It’s a silver moon setting. An ethereal throne on a luminous floor, flanked on either side by thick cushions and ‘paan-daan’, with two celestial beings in velvety white clothes adorning the throne. A whiff of a gesture and a gentleman gets water in dazzling silver bowls for the duo. They both take little sips of water and clear their throat…and then one of them begins, spinning a yarn: (above: Danish Hussain and Mahmood Farooqui performing Dastangoi)
These times when the heart is nobody’s destination
When stones are used to pay respects to glass
In these times, the infidel voices of the heart, with defiance
The one who kept voicing, he was called Manto
Manto, who kept consuming poison all his life,
And kept calling for ‘life’ all his life
Peeling the layers of culture’s wounds of deception
He kept avenging for us humans all his life
(‘Ye daur jisme dil ka nahi hae koi maqaam
Patthar se kar rahaa hae jo sheeshe ka ehteraam
Is daur mein bajurrate rindaanaa dil ki baat
Kahtaa rahaa thaa koi to Manto thaa uskaa naam
Manto ki jisne zahar piyaa hae ba har nafas
Aur zindagi ka naam liyaa hae tamaam umr
Tahzeeb ka khurach ke harek gaazaa e fareb
Insaan ka inteqaam liyaa hae tamaam umr’)
In response, the second Dastango (a person delivering the Dastangoi performance) continues: “Manto was a 14-15-yr-old boy when I first saw him. A thin boy with a broad, black-framed pair of spectacles, ruffled hair, fair complexion, medium height, and an attractive voice. He would say things off the beaten track and think out of the box. He spoke and wrote fluently in English…” And thus the story begins. The audience is already listening with rapt attention, mesmerized by the scene and the performance.
Dastangoi, an ancient form of theatrical art in the subcontinent, is a special genre which presents both sad, epic tales and romantic stories. The genres of stories and novels in Urdu literature can be said to have developed from this art form, which could even be called a lost and forgotten metaphor in Urdu literature. The legendary Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib said: “Dastangoi is a fine art which is a good source of entertainment (‘Dastaan taraazi mann jumla funoon-e-sukhan hai, sach hai ke dil behlaane ke liye achcha funn hai’).” According to Urdu writer Kalimuddin Ahmed, Dastangoi is a long, detailed and complex style of storytelling. Famous Urdu scholar Gian Chandra Jain says that the literal meaning of Dastangoi is that of a story, a tale, a narration, whether it involves a poetic form or prose or opinion making. The story always has a relation to the past/history–it could be a natural and realistic tale or unnatural and fictional. According to famous writer Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi, Dastangoi is basically a form of ‘performance’. In the Preface of his work Saahiri, Shahi, Sahib-e-Qurani, Dastan Ameer Hamza ka Mutaala (Volume 4), he says that a Dastan (story) might be written and published several times, but its language and form has to be essentially that of the oral tradition of storytelling. It is meant to be narrated verbally and heard.
Storytelling is a tough art. A Dastango is expected to have an ocean of words and expressions at his fingertips. He creates an entire milieu through voice modulation, painting various scenes. Sentences with punch, enticing language and an ability to sketch such images that keep the audience at the edge of their seats, curious about what will happen next––this, in a nutshell, is the art of Dastangoi.
The practice of translating Persian stories or Dastans to Urdu began in Lucknow at the end of the 19th century. It was during this time that Mir Baqir Ali was famous in his art of Dastangoi. His maternal grandfather Mir Aamir Ali and his maternal uncle Mir Kaazmi Ali, both of them acclaimed Dastangos, were associated with the Dilli Durbar. But after Mir Baqir Ali, for a very long time, we don’t find any major name connected to the art of Dastangoi. And in the present time, one has to look hard to even find the traces of this art form, which was once believed to be the pride of Awadh and Dilli.
Mahmood Farooqi and Danish Hussain, two young men in Delhi, were so moved by this loss that they tried to revive the tradition and within a few years, they were successful in their attempt to infuse a new lease of life into this theatrical genre. Their group that presents Dastangoi recently visited Lahore from Delhi and staged performances at various places. They had a candid, detailed conversation with this reporter about the art of Dastangoiand its revival in the contemporary world.
Much of the credit for the revival of Dastangoi can be given to Mahmood Farooqi. Talking about his first brush with this art from, Farooqi said that he heard the Dastans (stories) from his granduncle, famous Urdu writer and critic Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi, who has also authored a book on Dastangoi. It was Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi’s book Saahiri, Shahi, Sahib-e-Qurani, Dastan Ameer Hamza ka Mutaala that influenced him immensely with regard to the art of Dastangoi. “I have always been interested in theatre and films but this book opened up the doors of the new world of Dastangoi for me. Initially I was preparing to make a documentary film on Dastangoi. For that I started investigating the history of this art form. I read many Dastans and wrote quite a lot on the subject. I was immensely impressed by the art form and was totally in the grip of its magic,” Farooqi, who has a Masters in History from Oxford University, confessed, adding that much before he presented the Dastans on the stage, he was deeply moved by the elements of humour, drama and the lucidity and succinctness with which so much was said in the Dastans in so few words. “I was very influenced by the story of Ameer Hamza and his heroic fight with various negative forces, and the stories of Afra Sayaab and Umroo Ayyaar. I strongly felt that the Dastans could be presented on the stage in the manner of Dastangoi.”
Farooqi said that he got a chance to undertake detailed research on the tradition of Dastangoi when a Delhi-based non-government organization, Sarai, granted him a fellowship for this work. “During that time, I also gave a lecture on Dastangoi at India International Centre in Delhi, and that was when I got an opportunity to present this art form before common people,” he said. As a student of history and a theatre artist and a student of this art form, Farooqi believes that many idioms went into making the genre of Dastangoi–literature, theatre, history and a novel way of presenting history. Dastan Ameer Hamza, which is in 46 volumes, helped the art of Dastangoi reach its peak. These stories, which are hundreds of years old, still interest the audience, but the art from was becoming extinct and hence they decided to put in efforts to revive it, he mused.
Initially, Farooqi staged Dastangoi performances alone. But following Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi’s advice, in May 2005 he decided to have two persons present these stories and after that Danish Hussain joined him in the performances. Farooqi feels that this change increased the entertainment value of the performances since it included dialogue between the two Dastangos and the atmosphere became more interactive. He gave his firstDastangoi performance with Danish Hussain in Mumbai in 2006 and from then, Dastangoi, the art form, embarked on a fresh journey. The two performers have already enthralled audiences with over 500 spellbinding performances in India and other countries. They are also currently training some 15-20 youngsters in this theatrical form, and each one of the students has already staged some 30 performances!
Farooqi and Hussain suggest that the theatrical art of Dastangoi should also receive patronage and be developed in Pakistan. Since at present there is no group in the country that performs Dastangoi, they offer to guide any Pakistani artist who wishes to be trained in this form.
Regarding his own journey vis a vis Dastangoi, Danish Hussain said that Marsia goi (elegy performance) was at the root of his interest in Dastangoi, adding that Marsia-goi of the works of classical Urdu elegy (‘marsia’: elegy) writers, Mir Anis and Mir Dabir, is quite similar to Dastangoi in its impact. “I have read and have been impressed by marsia writers since my childhood. But there is a little difference between Marsia goi and Dastangoi–as an art form, Dastangoi has similarities with Marsia goi but the former is very secular in its core. It is not associated with any specific community or group. Anyone can present it anywhere,” Hussain explained. He said that till mid1990s, he was associated with Marsia-goi and theatre, and was also employed in a bank. But in 2002 he left his job with the bank and since then has been totally dedicated to Dastngoi and theatre. He also shared that a radical turning point in his theatrical journey came when he acted in legendary playwright Habib Tanvir’s famous play ‘Agra Bazar’, which was adopted from the life story of Nazir Akbarabadi and is one of the finest theatre plays in Urdu.
The two Dastangos recalled that when they first started performing, this art form had almost gone extinct in India and they had to go through a tough phase to revive this beautiful part of the subcontinent’s literary and cultural heritage. Initially they were not very optimistic about succeeding, they confess, but with time, they managed to win the hearts of the audiences and got them interested in their storytelling. They also pointed out at another crucial aspect of the revival of Dastangoi. Urdu, about which once upon a time the famous Urdu poet Dagh Dehlavi had said, “It is us who know the language called Urdu, the language that is so immensely popular worldwide (‘Urdu hai jiska naam humi jaante hain “Daagh”/Saare jahan mein dhoom hamari zabaan ki hai’), has now been unfortunately overshadowed by English and Hindi in India and does not enjoy such popularity and favour. In such an atmosphere, presenting Dastangoi in Urdu is a very encouraging step for the Urdu language too, they noted. Farooqi further observed that although the status of Urdu in India is almost like a minority language now, they perform Dastangoi in Urdu and have done so in many cities where the audience’s Urdu proficiency would be low, but still they have received considerable appreciation and acclaim.
Regarding their performances in Pakistan, they said that they have performed 5 times in the country and the greatest joy in performing here comes from the fact that the audience here is more proficient in Urdu as compared to India and so they relish the language and the dialogues much more and understand the contexts better. As a result of the their understanding and enjoying the performances more, the appreciation received here is also more.
Expanding further on their journey with Dastangoi, Mahmood Farooqi said that they initially used extracts/stories from ancient epics like Tilasm Hoshruba and Dastan Ameer Hamzain their performances. Presenting these stories before modern audiences was a unique scene and a successful experience, and their art form received a lot of appreciation in cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai and Delhi. However, they slowly started creating newDastans (stories) too. This was a difficult task which required not only a high level of proficiency in the language, but also the art of creating a story and retaining the story element in the narrative–all these skills had to be woven together. But they did it. Some of the Dastans that they created and presented as Dastangoi were: The Partition Tale, Mantoiyat, Chauboli, Sedition, and Ghare Baire (based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novel).
The enthusiasm of the two artistes, however, is tempered with pragmatism. Danish Hussain believes that it may not be possible to fully revive the art from of Dastangoi to the extent of making it mainstream. But he feels that through their efforts, they are increasing people’s awareness of their heritage and history and creating in them a love for a lost art form and tradition. This is their biggest achievement. Hussain also pointed out that as an art form,Dastangoi is more difficult than regular theatre, but the benefit is that one doesn’t require any special sound system or other infrastructural elements for this. As an example, he reminisced about his Dastangoi performance on the stairs of Delhi’s famous Jama Masjid, and underlined that it was one of the most memorable experiences of his personal theatrical journey.
Elucidating further on the art form, Mahmood Farooqi observed that after being lost for a long time, the traditional art of Kissagoi (“kissa”: story) or Dastangoi was now emerging as a new genre of theatre, a parallel theatre form. In this regard, he touched upon the ever persistent debate about mainstream cinema and theatre versus serious/parallel cinema and theatre. He said that the audience for the latter is limited in numbers everywhere in the world and it would be unfair to compare the two. Bollywood has its own place and characteristics and serious cinema and theatre shouldn’t be compared to it. There is more scope for experiments in serious theatre and films and it is in these that people get to see unique things. Notably, Mahmood Farooqi was also an assistant director and writer of the critically acclaimed film ‘Peepli Live’ produced by Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao. He had assisted the film’s director Anusha Rizvi.
Highlighting the egalitarian nature of Dastangoi, Hussain said that this art form can be appreciated by all sections of society, which is how it should be, since no art form should be made niche and reserved for any specific section. Having sad that, he affirmed that a look at history will reveal that various traditions that began in the subcontinent at the grassroots and were meant to cater to all sections of the society (like various types of performances that happened in Dargahs, village squares (chaupals), or as street theatre) suffered utter neglect and were now becoming extinct. The persistent quest should be to not let that happen.
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