This study seeks to explore dastans, oral fictional narratives of epical length that flourished in Urdu between the 18th and 20th centuries. While they drew on an older tradition in Arabic and Persian, the Urdu storytellers turned what were often one or two volumes of longish stories into adventures of mammoth proportions. Apart from being performed live they also came to be published to great popular acclaim. The most famous of these, the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, ran to 46 volumes in total, each volume being a folio-sized book of around 1000 pages each, surely the longest fictional narrative in the world. This narrative's narrator-composers, the dastangos, were also oral performers of an extraordinary calibre who combined the arts of mimicry, ventriloquism, pantomime and voice control to keep their audiences enthralled and captured. Due to their sheer size, inventiveness and narrative power, dastans deeply influenced the nature of other fictional narratives, such as novels, theatre and cinema, that emerged later in North India.
This outstanding fictional and performative tradition has today so disappeared from our memory that not a single public library in India or Pakistan contains the entire Hamza collection. Critics and scholars of Urdu are content to highlight a few bowdlerized single volumes of dastans, produced under British patronage, while wholly and insufferably neglecting the larger body of work. This study seeks to highlight the uniqueness of dastans and dastangoi by collecting archival and photographic materials that might enable the tradition to occupy a rightful place as the most outstanding example of prose narration in Urdu.