Lost art of storytelling

Lost art of storytelling


Lost art of storytelling

It was in 2005 that Danish Husain first saw Mahmood Farooqi perform a dastangoi. “Two things made it look daunting when I first saw the performance in Dehradun at the Virasat Festival in October 2005 — the archaic Urdu language and reams and reams of pages one had to memorise before a performanc


I wasn’t unfamiliar with Urdu but I was skeptical of my ability to remember and perform with the comfort I saw Mahmood (Farooqi) and Himanshu (Tyagi) do it,” says Danish, who was shortly thereafter asked by Mahmood, writer, director and revivalist of this 16th century Urdu oral art of storytelling, if he would want to perform.

Resurrecting a form

When Mahmood sought to revive dastangoi over a decade ago, it certainly wasn’t an easy task. One of the earliest references to dastangoi in print is the 19th-century text Dastan-e-Amir Hamza containing 46 volumes of the adventures of Amir Hamza. After reaching its pinnacle in the 19th century, the art form had almost vanished when Mir Baqar Ali, the last of the dastangos, died in 1928.

With the help of his uncle, Indian poet and Urdu critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Mahmood started working towards his goal. And he knew he had a winner on his hands. “I had a sense it would become popular primarily because the stories themselves were so dramatic and so gripping that I had not read anything like that before. When I was practicing for the first show with Himanshu, I told him that there would be many many takers for such stories and that turned out to be true.”

Yes, it is in Urdu. Yes, there are only two performers. And yes, it is a two-hour, largely seated performance. But it is captivating audiences in just the way that it possibly used to mesmerise the Persian kings of yore. “Frankly, we have no idea what the old technique was. When we first heard Mir Baqir Ali’s only surviving audio tape from the Linguistic Survey of India 1894-1928, we realised it was more an art of recitation and breath control, yet when we read Ashraf Saboohi’s description of Mir Baqir Ali’s performance in his book Dilli Ki Chand Ajeeb Hastiyaan, it seemed as much as a one-man act on stage.

Thus we really didn’t have a template. A lot of what Mahmood and I do is self-discovered, sometimes invented through trial and error, sometimes pre-meditated, and sometimes as hindsight learning implemented on stage,” reveals Danish.

While envisaging its revival, Mahmood had sensed that the main challenge lay in its medium of delivery — Urdu. “Although there is a lot of love for Urdu in India, few people can read or write it and we were dealing with a text that was over 200 years old, with a lot of arcane expressions and a lot of Persian. But I am glad that people are still enjoying it,” he says, adding, “We use our gestures, tone of voices and facial expressions to help elucidate difficult Urdu words or phrases. So far it is working.”

Alterations & variations

Of course, he made some changes — firstly by making it a duo performance. “I felt it would help make it more theatrical and dialogic. Plus, we aren’t as skilled as the traditional performers were, so we can’t really hold an audience for two hours on our own. Also, it helps the audience if there are two performers,” says Mahmood. He is weaving different stories, specifically those with a socio-political stance, into the dastangoi.

“Entertainment itself is a political act. If we bring a neglected form, neglected stories and neglected language on to the centre stage, then it is an act of cultural contestation, a political act in itself. And if people continue to enjoy traditional stories in the present, then that means that those stories are still relevant,” says Mahmood.

Rabindranath Tagore’s work Ghare Baire was commissioned by a group in Calcutta on his 150th anniversary and became Dastan-e-Ghare Baire. When he read the English translation of Vijay Dan Detha’s Chouboli, Mahmood felt that this would make a great dastan for the stage, and he translated it from Urdu and performed it, making the Dastan-e-Chouboli their “super hit number”!

There is an old-world charm about a dastangoi performance and it’s not just the content. Even the ambience and audience interaction can transport you to the 16th century. So you are urged not to clap if you wish to appreciate but respond with wah-wah instead! Danish says, “It is a highly interactive performance, which feeds on audience response. Articulating appreciation is a part of our culture and dastangoi, like most traditional forms, weaves that into the performance seamlessly. The synergy created transcends the performance to another level for both the performers and the audience.”

Mahmood is not only keen to nurture dastangoi, but also dastangos. “More and more people are joining us to perform and the group is expanding, as are the stories. This year, we did two new stories for children, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and of Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne.

My vision is to have two or three dastangos in most cities of North India over the next 20 years. And we should have hundreds of stories. But for that we need patrons and sufficient audiences,” he says. That shouldn’t be a cause for concern for Mahmood. India, Pakistan, US, Dubai and recently, Singapore... dastangoi seems unstoppable.

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