Very queer ‘qissas’
Why a millennium-old epic with adventurous cross-dressers and ambitious women is a timely reminder of what we are losing
When I first stumbled upon Tilism-e-Hoshruba, the most celebrated seven-volume section of the vast Dastan-e-Amir Hamza romance epic, little did I know that I was venturing into a textual realm that has been off limits for women since the time it first went into print over a century ago. The tradition of reciting the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza is called Dastangoi (the storytellers are called dastango) and has been around for over a thousand years, from Morocco to Indonesia, Bosnia to India. The form, however, was not uniform everywhere. The stories of Hoshruba, for instance, are specific to India and began floating around the mid-19th century.
I never heard of this master text till much later, though I grew up in an Urdu-Persian-dominated literary household. My mother, Syeda Bilqis Fatema Husaini, a Persian scholar, told me that women were discouraged from reading the Hoshruba as it was considered morally corrupting.
When I was performing Tilism-e-Hoshruba in 2006, however, I found nothing bawdy. Even couplets describing women’s breasts or backs were composed with aesthetic élan, and the audience of the over 1,000 shows that have been held in the past decade, was always floored.
Those familiar with the Hoshruba tales would know that it details a perennial war between Afrasiyab and his sorcerers and Amar Aiyyaar and his army of tricksters. Both the sorcerers and tricksters have women members in their respective camps. The sorcerers’ army is led by Hairat, who is Afrasiyab’s queen. The tricksters are represented by sorceresses Mahrukh and Bahar Jadoo.
Bahar Jadoo possesses unimaginable beauty. She is Hairat’s sister and Afrasiyab is smitten by her. In order to please his wife, however, he banishes Bahaar from his court. Miffed, she joins Amar Aiyyaar’s camp. Bahaar has such magical powers that she just wills and creates the season of spring everywhere to entice the sorcerers. She also partakes equally in the affairs of state and warfare.
The four principal women characters—Hairat, Maharukh, Bahaar and Sarsar Aiyyaara—are, as Musharraf Ali Farooqi writes in the introduction of his translation, Hoshruba: The Land And The Tilism, “complex and powerful women entirely comfortable with their sexuality. They hold their own against male tricksters and sorcerers in intellect, physical prowess and magical powers."
The tales threaten the patriarchal social order—there is no public space where women don’t venture. They inhabit marketplaces, court proceedings, battle zones, performance arenas and wilderness. They don’t seem to be burqa-clad or hijab-wearing women. They participate in public functions and merriment in equal measure. As I read the descriptions of these female characters interacting with their male counterparts, it was clear that they demonstrated agency over every matter.
The tricksters also indulge in cross-dressing. Men impersonate women without any stigma attached to this. The tales transcend gender stereotypes to such an extent that one forgets whether one is experiencing a woman character or a male character dressed as a woman and vice versa. The story runs over 7,000 pages and almost every second episode has a cross-dressing scenario.
Did these characters exist in a social vacuum? The truth is that despite the patriarchal system prevalent then, the storytellers were aware of multiple references to women like Ayesha, the Prophet’s wife, or Hinda, Amir Hamza’s assassination plotter, in battlefields. Ayesha and Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, even entered mosques during prayers and addressed the imams leading congregational prayers. These then were representative of the cultural experience of the storytellers. After reading and performing these texts, I can only conclude that we have much to learn from them.
Danish Husain is a storyteller, actor, poet and director. His next performance, Qissebaazi, will be held on 19 February, 7pm, at The Barking Deer, Todi Mill, Lower Parel, Mumbai. Tickets, Rs300, available on Insider.in.