Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Hamzanama: Homer meets Tolkien in medieval Islamic world

This past Sunday, New York Times had a book review of The Adventures of Amir Hamza. Unless you are from South Asia, there is a good chance that you may not have heard of this before. But this is Iliad/Odyssey meet Lord of the Rings in a medieval Persianized world of the Indian subcontinent! (really)

There is a fascinating history of how this tale has been told for the past few hundred years. But I was first introduced to to it via an Urdu version of these adventures written/translated for young adults by Maqbool Jahangir. It has 10 parts (~200 pages each) and it is written in a style that once you start reading it, its hard to put it down. Yes, it includes giants, jinns, fairies, sea voyages, romances, and battles - all linked to Amir Hamza and two of his trusted friends. In fact, I got into the habit of reading books through this series and my siblings (and now their kids) had the same experience. I absolutely loved this epic and I still have these books with me. However, I read the young-adults version, and now a new translation of the adult version of Hamzanama has just been published and it is this that has been reviewed in the Times.

But wait...there is more to it: the adult version of the epic was first told pictorially in the Mogul court of the 16th century! Some of these paintings were displayed for the first time at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. in 2001:
On display was a single work of art: a painted manuscript of the “Hamzanama,” a spectacular illustrated book commissioned by the sympathetic and notably tolerant Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605). To the delight of art historians, the Sackler brought together the long-dispersed pages of what is probably the most ambitious single artistic undertaking ever produced by the atelier of an Islamic court: no fewer than 1,400 huge illustrations were commissioned. More than anything else, it was the project that created the Mughal painting style, and in the illustrations one can see two artistic worlds — that of Hindu India and of Persianate Islamic Central Asia — fusing to create something new and distinctively Mughal.
This is incredible - the Moghul painting style came out as a result of this epic! More on the story below, but here are some of the paintings (and check out the exhibition website The Adventures of Hamza that has more paintings with excellent descriptions).
In this painting, Zambur, a spy, brings a maid named Mahiya to town on a donkey.

Battle scene with an 'ayyar', probably Khaja Umar the master spy and friend of Amir Hamza, being lifted into the sky, illustrated page from the Emperor Akbar's manuscript of the Hamza Nama, Mughal, c.1570

Arghan Dev Brings the Chest of Armour to Hamza, c.1557-1572

Here is more about the Hamzanama:
The “Hamzanama” was once the most popular oral epic of the Indo-Islamic world. “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is the “Iliad” and Odyssey” of medieval Persia, a rollicking, magic-filled heroic saga. Born as early as the ninth century, it grew through oral transmission to include material gathered from the wider culture-compost of the pre-Islamic Middle East. So popular was the story that it soon spread across the Muslim world, absorbing folk tales as it went; before long it was translated into Arabic, Turkish, Georgian, Malay and even Indonesian languages. It took particular hold in India, where it absorbed endless myths and legends and was regularly performed in public spaces in the great Mughal cities. At fairs and at festivals, on the steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi or in the Qissa Khawani Bazaar, the “street of the storytellers” in Peshawar, the professional storyteller, or dastango, would perform nightlong recitations from memory; some of these could go on for seven or eight hours with only a short break.
Alas - I did not hear this story from a dastango. But it is still cool to imagine how it would be like listening to an epic from a master story teller from memory - probably while drinking tea (and smoking hukkah in the older times).

“The Adventures of Amir Hamza” collected a great miscellany of fireside yarns and shaggy-dog stories that over time had gathered around the travels of its protagonist, the historical uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. Any factual backbone the story might once have had was through the centuries overtaken by innumerable subplots and a cast of dragons, giants, jinns, simurgh, sorcerers, princesses and, if not flying carpets, then at least flying urns, the preferred mode of travel for the tale’s magicians.

Across the Persian-speaking world, from Tabriz to Hyderabad, people gathered around the dastango as he told story after story of the chivalrous Hamza and the beautiful Chinese-Persian princess he longs for, of the wise and prophetic vizier Buzurjmehr and of the just emperor Naushervan. Then there were Hamza’s enemies: the ungrateful villain Bakhtak, whose life Hamza spares, only for Bakhtak to work unceasingly for the hero’s demise; and the cruel necromancer, giant and archfiend Zumurrud Shah. In its fullest form, the tale grew to contain an astounding number of stories, which would take several weeks of all-night storytelling to complete; the fullest printed version, the last volume of which was finally published in 1917, filled no fewer than 46 volumes, averaging a thousand pages each.

This would be roughly 46,000 pages!! Yes, I read a seriously abridged version. This new translation is about 1000 pages, but looks wonderful:
Although a fraction of the size of the 46-volume edition, this unabridged translated version still weighs in at an impressively heavy 948 pages. Even in translation, “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is a wonder and a revelation — a classic of epic literature in an interpretation so fluent that it is a pleasure to sit down and lose oneself in it. The story line itself is endlessly diverting and inventive, and the prose of the translation is beautifully rendered.
Yay! And this is what makes it really fascinating:

Moreover, the book gives a unique insight into a lost Indo-Islamic courtly world. For although “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” was originally a Persian production set in the Middle East, the Urdu version shows how far the story was reimagined into an Indian context in the course of many years of subcontinental retelling. Though the original Mesopotamian place names survive, the world depicted is not that of early Islamic Iraq, but of 18th-century late Mughal India, with its love of gardens, its obsession with poetic wordplay and its extreme refinement in food, dress and manners. Many of the characters have Hindi names; they make oaths like “as Ram is my witness”; and they ride on elephants with jeweled 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 hangers-on 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 faces crowd around.

Read the full review here, and here is the author's website. If you like epics, this would be perfect summer reading.


hedge said...

That sounds like the perfect thing to read after I finish Beowulf!

Deepa said...

I watched a Dastangoi performance recently and blogged about it. You might find it interesting to read.


I didn't realise there was an Amir Hamza book in English, I'll see if I can find it in the bookstores!

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