Storytellers struggle to survive onslaught of modern media

Storytellers struggle to survive onslaught of modern media

Not long ago, before the advent of television, the tradition of Dastangoi (story telling) was one of the most important aspects of Kashmiri life. Come winter, storytellers would arrive at dusk and safely tucked under their arm would be a story book filled with astonishing array of stories.

In the days of little entertainment possibilities, storyteller captured and expanded children’s imagination.

The stories to explain the physical world, the world of gods and demons, fairies and star-crossed lovers, he fulfilled artistic and creative needs.

He spoke of the fantasies and provided hope and brought magic into people’s mundane lives.

He chronicled people’s lives lending immortality to their ancestors and his stories helped people to understand the ups and downs of life.

The moral subtext of these stories was always universal, that truth would triumph over the evil.

Crime never paid and, however, mighty the tyrant might be, it would always be the hero with the right moral conduct who carried the day. Storyteller for Kashmiri children was what Santa Claus is to children of Euro­pe.

He would begin with romancing couplet of “Shireen and Farhad” and go on telling how Farhad burrowed a tunnel of milk in the rugged mountains of Mashad to get the hand of his lady love Shireen in marriage.

Reminiscing his childhood days, master Ghulam Hassan says: “I remember vividly those chilly winter nights when my father would invite a dastango (storyteller) to our home. All in the family would sit close to him to listen to stories of fairies, princes and demons.

“When I chose teaching as profession I realised how crucial storytelling is to the holistic development of a child. Children picked up their sense of morality through the stories their parents or the professional storytellers told them at home,” Hassan told Deccan Herald.

“In winter, days being short and night longer, the storyteller would start his night-long epics, children would be more engrossed listening to the vast reservoir of fables and fairy tales,” he added.

The stories of eternal love were commu­nicated by one generation to the other in every home of Kashmir.

“Laila Majnu (Arabian Nights) was the other eternal love story from Arabia which the storyteller would have explained to children. In his single deep and occasionally lugubrious baritone voice, the storyteller would try to convey the agony of famished and love-stricken Majnu when he serenades in jungles,” Hassan recalls.

Official apathy

However, the tradition of Dastangoi seems completely to have died out in Kashmiri homes due to the influx of television, internet, modern means of entertainment and official apathy.

Though as part of cultural dialogue series, the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages had a few years ago decided to revive the dying Kashmiri folk traditions particularly Dastaan, little success has been achieved on ground.

“Our folk traditions like Dastaan are dying and there is an urgent need to preserve them. But people at the helm of affairs are least bothered. To revive the dying traditions so as to preserve them for posterity, there is a need to have a concrete plan,” a senior official at the Academy told Deccan Herald.

Muhammad Ismail Mir, the master Dastango of Kashmir, has been narrating stories to generations in the Valley. His stories about righteous outlaws, epic-power struggles, legendary wrestlers and star crossed lovers broadcast on Radio Kashmir and Doodarshan.

Srinagar over the decades caught the attention of people cutting across age. However, nowadays Mir seldom comes on radio.

“I learnt the art from my father-in-law Muhammad Abdullah Dar at a very young age and became a professional storyteller.

I introduced Saaz in Dastangoi (introduction of musical instruments like Noot, Harmonium, Rabaab, and Sarang),” says the maestro Mir.

Mir’s two sons – Ghulam Hassan Mir and Abdur Rashid Mir--have stepped into his shoes and have taken Dastangoi as a profession.

Even Mir’s college-educated grandson, Parvez Ahmad Mir has chosen to take the family profession.

But, how long Dastangoi will survive in Kashmir, only time can tell?

Prof Bashir Ahmad Dabla, head, Department of Sociology at Kashmir University, says Kashmiri society needs to recreate moral police in the shape of the traditional storyteller.

“We are battl­ing with problems of old parents being abandoned, crimes against women, drug abuse and other problems as we get drift away from our rich herit­age and culture.

We ignore the fact that real treasure houses lie in our backyard,” he told Deccan Herald.

Prof Dabla said earlier in Kashmir moral education was taught at home through storytelling by parents, grandparents and professional storytellers.

“To check crimes in society, we must revisit our history and see how this was addressed among the older generations of Kashmiris,” he suggests. 

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