I am absolutely engrossed in Hoshruba, The Land of the Tilism by Muhammad Husain Jah, and translated from the Urdu by author Musharaf Ali Farooqi. The tale is rich in sorcerers and tricksters -- both male and female -- giants and demons, outrageous acts of magic, magical devices, villainous rulers, plucky princesses, hapless princes, dazzling splendor and unspeakable punishments. In short, everything one could wish for in an Arabian Nights style epic. (For Cat Valente readers of The Orphan's Tales, this is a short trip to the wellspring of ornate, embellished, exotic tale-telling).
As soon as I finish reading the novel I will write a much longer review of the work. But in the meantime -- because this novel is only the first of twenty-four volumes to come of this 8,000 page fantasy epic -- I wanted to write about the amazing tale behind the tale. Farooqi has a brilliant (and very amusing) introduction that lays out the remarkable origin of the Hoshruba, and at times, I felt I was in a Borghesian moment when I was left to wonder whether the tale of translation was part of the whole tale itself -- especially when in the middle of this peculiar history, Farooqi writes: "Only an infidel would doubt that it did not happen exactly in this manner."
The epic finds its origins and inspiration in a well-known cycle of Persian tales The Adventures of Amir Hamza, which were collected and lavishly illustrated in 1562 by the Indian Mughal Emperor Akbar. (Go here to the Smithsonian's exhibit and swoon over some of the art!) Included in the text were Persian mnemonic devices to aid the court storytellers as Persian was the language of the court. Additionally, oral storytellers used the dastan genre of storytelling -- which was also Persian in origin. (Go here for a fabulous article on the dastan genre.) By the 19th century, two things had changed: there developed a particularly Indo-Islamic form of dastan in India and the tales were being performed in Urdu rather than Persian.
In Lucknow, the local storytellers decided that the Amir Hamza legend needed a re-make that would include the wealth of Indian fantastic creatures left out of the Persian narratives. Enough with the djinns, the peris, the devs,....bring on the black magic, the white magic, the occult, the tricksters and the sorcerers, and a host of magic flora and fauna. There was simply too much good local stuff waiting to be incorporated. Farooqi explains how these enterprising Lucknow storytellers accomplished this feat:
"...The storytellers were clear about one thing. The course had to be changed without rocking the boat. The proposed story had to remain a tale related to The Adventures of Amir Hamza -- the brand that was their bread and butter. As long as the audience understood that the tale was a part of the famous cycle of tales, the storyteller would not lack an audience....The godfather of this group of conspirators -- and the likely mastermind of the planned hoax -- was a Lucknow master storyteller, Mr. Ahmed Ali. He sat down to prepare a fantasy tale that would have all of these ingredients and more."
With extraordinary skill and cleverness, Mr Ahmed Ali managed to extend the narrative beyond the borders of the original tale in such a way as to allow the storytellers to always refer to the original narrative and thereby maintain the illusion (and what sorcerers they were!) that these "lost and then found" editions to the tale were related. What followed then was intense explosion of the tale that expanded over two generations of storytellers and involved many accomplished authors and poets (including two rival storytellers) set to the task of writing down this massive "oral epic." At 8,000 pages of text and numerous published editions, the Hoshruba has found an enduring and iconic place in Indian letters.
If you find this as interesting as I do, I recommend you have a look at a terrific interview with Musharraf Ali Farooqi here on the original The Adventures of Amir Hamza (which he has also translated), the history of the Hosruba here, a condensed version of the introduction to the Hoshruba here and stop by the Urdu Project whose mission it is to publish the entire 24 volumes of the Hoshruba (talk about gift to the world!). And best of all...go here to buy a copy of the book!
*the last three images are: 1) The giant Laqa fleeing, attributed to Shavranna and Madhava Kurd, c 1570. 2) Hamza Attacked by a Leviathan attributed to Basavana and Shvrana, c 1570. 3) attributed to Dasavranta and Shvavrana, c 1570. All of these images and more can be viewed at the Smithsonian Museum online here. And clicking on the images in this post will give you larger versions as well.