Dastangoi - storytelling on its way back

Dastangoi - storytelling on its way back

Modern day story tellers

Under the practise two men dressed in white seated before the audience start narrating a story that conjures up a magical world of 'Aiiyars' (tricksters) and magicians who fight each other with the former always managing to outsmart the other.

Mahmood Farooqui, who has been working over the past few years to revive the art says, "It has been five years since I began. For my first show I did not have a clear sense of direction but was encouraged by the number of people who turned up to watch."
"We continued to perform dastans and people listened. I hope Dastangoi makes inroads in the street, in mehfils and there are dastans everywhere," he says.
'Tilism-e-Hoshruba' is the favourite 'dastan' of Farooqi, who travels with his companion and narrates in places in Delhi and Mumbai.

Translated it means 'enchantment that steals away the senses' this particular narrative follows closely the practice that evolved in 18th century in India and was popular both among aristocracy and the lay people in Lucknow.

The most famous 'dastan' version, the 'Dastan of Hamza' was printed in 46 huge volumes at the end of the 19th century in Lucknow. The illustrated manuscript created during the rule of Mughal emperor Akbar takes a look at the conflict between the righteous Amir Hamza and Laqa who falsely claims divinity.

Though parts of the Hamza Nama had been printed earlier, it was the famous Munshi Naval Kishore one of the early pioneers of printing in India who undertook the task of printing the whole dastan late in the nineteenth century.

Danish Hussein, who teamed up with Farooqui for the Dastangoi performance at the annual Journalism fest of Kamla Nehru College says, "I joined Mahmood in 2005 when Habib Tanveer introduced me to him in 2005 and it was very challenging for me as an actor. Fortunately, we always found people receptive towards Dastangoi."

"In 1928, Delhi's last dastango Mir Baqr Ali died, I cannot say we perform dastans like the 'dastangos' of ancient times, we do it as per our understanding. We don't know how dastans were performed but all we know is we need to take it more beyond.
"It would be fun if there are more dastangos who can recite a 'Dastan' and spread this oral tradition," says Farooqi who picked up the 'Dastan of Hamza' lying with his Uncle SR Faruqi, said to be the only person who possesses a full set of 46 volumes.

JK Rowling's Harry Potter took the world by a storm as the public got bewildered and amused with the world of magic.

But Dastangoi, full of magical wits which was once popular in the streets of Delhi and the courts of kings and travelled across continents went into extinction.
"The colonial mindset spelt doom for Dastangoi and it was not just. They termed it superstitious and people found novel to a better form of fiction which degraded Dastangoi and it became extinct. We will perform as long as there is an audience otherwise we will do something else like Mir Baqr Ali started selling utensils at one point," says Farooqi.

With stalwarts like national award winning actor Naseerrudin Shah joining to promote the art, Dastangoi is set to catch the public interest.
"He (Naseerudin Shah) really enjoyed performing it a lot and if someone like him is curious about the art form it would naturally make others sit up and take notice but art form is far greater than any individual personality and at the end of the day its the art form that should work. It's not about one person and the art has to be popular at a very collective mass level," says Hussein.

But since the art of Dastangoi uses literal Urdu, was language ever a barrier to connect with the audience?

"Even if people don't understand the language you still can enjoy Dastangoi. There is no one who understands Urdu and even those who know the language find it difficult to comprehend the nuisances. The words have there audio sound which makes you understand the story," says Farooqi.

The duo have also tried to contemporarise the art form and make it a platform to raise contemporary issues in the society.

"There is direct conversation in dastangoi and we have performed dastans on Chattisgarh which is in turmoil and on Partition. For the Partition dastan we have taken excerpts from other writers and woven it to create the partition dastan.

It depends on the dastango to take the art forward and create a dastan which can talk about politics and contemporary social issues, says Hussein.

"People go and see the opera even though not all of them would understand Italian. We want to take the the art beyond, I have heard about an epic 'Ganga Avtaran' in Sanskrit and we would love to perform that. We want people to listen to Ramcharit Manas and much more," says Farooqi.

Now, 'dastans' are being translated into English and the duo reckons that they have no problem if dastans are performed in English but they believe the orality has to be maintained in the translation.