Annual of Urdu Studies, v. 7, 1990 p. 76.

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Frances W. Pritchett


Urdu dastan literature, so long neglected, is finally appearing on the literary map. For most critics it still looms as a kind of large unknown continent, with vague boundaries and "Here be Dragons" in the waters around it. Everyone remembers dastans from childhood—and few have looked at them since. Progressives have found them "decadent" and have heaped scorn on their lack of "realism" and indifference to didactic sodal purpose« Modernists have bypassed them entirely, preferring to view Urdu fiction against the backdrop of the Western fictional tradition. Dastans have been so thoroughly neglected that not one single library anywhere in South Asia-or anywhere else in the world, for that matter-contains a complete set of the forty-six-volume Newal Kishore Press Ddstan-e Amvr Hamza, the crowning glory of the tradition.

Even dastan defenders have often fought a rear-guard action, justifying dastans by finding in them small embedded bits of the "real world"—examples of Lakhnavi women's idioms, names of obscure garments, lists of wrestling terms, information about elegant foods; or they have pointed proudly to brief snatches of colloquial dialogue or naturalistic South Asian landscape description; or they have given dastans some credit for their role in developing Urdu prose.

Yet the roster (see Appendix B) of dastan defenders is a serious and honorable one. Ashraf Subuhi Dihiavi occupies a special place as a kind of early appreciator:

his unique memoir of Mir Baqir 'Alt, published in 1943, contained not only a biographical sketch but also an actual transcript apparently based on a dastan recitation. Ten years later Muhammad Hasan 'Askari, a voice crying in the wilderness as usual, issued his volume of selections from Tilism-e Hosruba (1953). Only in the early 1960's did any serious scholarship at all begin to appear: it included Raz Yazdani's excellent articles, and Viqar 'Azim's general defense of the tradition (1964). Ra'is Ahmad JaWs abridged version of Tilism-e Hosruba also appeared during 1964. Within a brief period around the end of that decade, Farman Fathpuri on verse dastans (1971), and above all Cyan Chand on prose dastans (1969), provided us with invaluable bibliographical resources. Kalimuddin Ahmad, showing with his usual perversity more kindness to dastans than to other classical genres, also joined—in his own fashion—the ranks of the defenders (1972).

After this first generation of work appeared, not much happened until quite recently, except for Rahi Ma'sum Riza's painstakingly detailed study of the "Indie" cultural content of Tilism-e Hosruba (1979). Now, in rapid succession we have had three Urdu books on dastan, all published in 1987: two by Suhail Ahmad Khan, and one by Suhail Bukhari. One of those by Suhail Ahmad Khan, Dastan-dar-Dastan,

Annual of Urdu Studies, #7 -j^

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