The very first books I was asked to write were stories about those perennial favourites, Akbar and Birbal. India Book House published them at Rs 2 each. Strange as it may sound, they weren’t easy to write.
|Mamta Dalal and Saker Mistri’s book retells one of Akbar’s favourite stories
Most of the material I collected, from friends who translated Hindi and Gujarati versions was anecdotal, sometimes barely a few lines each. This had to be turned into stories with characters who were alive in more than name.
Stories about Akbar proliferate even today. It’s not surprising. He emerged, even from the anecdotes, as an endearing person, ready to take correction. A book for children I came across recently, re-affirms this image.
The Kidnapping of Amir Hamza (Harper Collins, retold by Mamta Dalal Mangaldas and Saker Mistri) tells us that it was one of Akbar’s favourite stories, and well-known from Iran to Indonesia. It was about a Persian warrior and hero, and the 13-year-old Emperor often asked the court story-teller Darbar to recite it.
Akbar also asked artists to illustrate the story, and it is said it took 100 artists to complete the illustrations. These paintings are said to have remained in the Red Fort for nearly 170 years, until the Persian ruler Nadir Shah looted Delhi, took away the Peacock Throne, the largest diamond in the world, the Kohinoor, and the Hamzanma paintings.
When Muhammad Shah, one of the last rulers of the Mughal dynasty sent a special request for the return of the Hamzanama paintings, Naddir Shah said, “Ask but the return of all your treasures, and they are yours — but not the Hamzanama paintings.”
Many of the surviving paintings have been used to illustrate the book. In addition, portraits of the main characters are reproduced at the beginning, and notes on Akbar’s workshops, the way certain shades of painting were created end the book. A wonderful buy for children.
Another beautifully produced book is Anand Thakore’s Mughal Sequence published by Hemant Divate’s Poetrywala. Divate is a poet, translator, editor of a small but influential magazine for poetry. His poetry has been translated into several languages. It’s also unusual that he is interested in and publishes poetry in English. In this, he is unusual.
Most poets who see themselves as “bhasha” poets, (as if English is not a bhasha) behave as if writing in the “vernacular” languages , defines their authenticity, whether they write well or badly. He has just published a handsome volume of poems by Anand Thakore called Mughal Sequence, written in English.
The volume consists of monologues by various players in the imperial game. Here is the “Dancing Girl,” who, according to Babur had to be delivered to each Begum, “ with one gold plate full of jewels…”
In her monologue, the girl says, “I was born with a gift but now I have become one. /Kabul is cold. /Hardly the place to be dancing with naked feet, /The women I live amongst understand nothing/Of the craft I was bred for./I would be lying if I said I no longer miss home.”
And on the Kohinoor which was sent to Queen Victoria and exhibited at the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, the Kohinoor feels “Here, in this tower,/Bound by gold clamps to thin walls of gold,/I who am pure mineral, neither moral nor ghost,/Remain doomed to abide./ Of those who are sent here only the living escape.”
Anand Thakore is both a poet and a Hindustani classical vocalist by profession. He trained with Pandit Satyasheel Deshpande and Pandit Baban Haldankar of the Agra gharana, and with his father Sandip Thakore. According to the note on him, he describes his work as poet and musician, as having arisen “from a fortuitous confluence of seemingly disparate cultural histories.”
Lessons in Lore
Eunice de Souza’s column ‘Coming into their own’ (PM, May 17) about folklore and tribal literature, did two things. First, the Bharath narratives of the Dungri Bhil tribe brought back memories of Pandavani of Chhattisgarh, in the robust voice of the formidable Teejan Bai. Her Tambura doubled up as a Gada, as she paced the stage, her swagger changing with the cadence of the verse.
As a child in the glorious days of Doordarshan, the performance telecasts cleverly scheduled over the weekend drew me to the adventures this boisterously colourful woman narrated. It tweaked my interest in folklore, which I found, extended vastly beyond Panchtantra and Hitopadesha.
Secondly, the column brought home the unfortunate fact that the ‘PlayStation’ generation, growing up on a staple diet of cable-TV banality and bubble-gum literature, may be missing out on the culturally rich and perennially relevant treasures of tribal literature and folklore. In a time when all things Indian must be endorsed by the West to be appreciated by Indians themselves, the columnist raises a valid issue of a lack of strategised marketing of such work to appeal to the evolving taste of readers and viewers.
The task of popularising such important work must be undertaken by academic institutions and government-funded agencies, and also by individuals within their families and communities. After all, what began as an oral tradition can still be propagated the same way. Thank you for the nostalgia and the wake-up call.
- Dr Shabnam Sharan