The chroniclers of Dastangoi tradition

Listening to Dastangoi one of the oldest forms of storytelling is being successfully pulled off by young and enthusiastic viewers and performers. This year is the tenth year of the revival of this art form after the Mughals presented it at their courts.

Anusha Rizvi, director of Peepli Live and the producer of the group ‘Dastangoi: The Lost Art Form of Urdu Storytelling’ and designer of the modern sets and costumes for the dastangos tells Metrolife, “It was leading Urdu critic and theorist Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s scholarship that brought back Dastangoi from oblivion. Writer Mahmood Farooqui reinvented it in a performance form.”

She says that the team of dastangos led by Farooqui, the audience of the form who have been loyal listeners for over 10 years now, the collaborators in academicians and litterateurs and the patrons who have supported – all of them are the upholders of this tradition. “I see the new generation who would remember seeing Dastan Alice Ki (which was recently performed in the capital to mark the 10th year of the artform) as their first Dastangoi experience when they grow up as the youngest upholders of this art form,” she points out.

Sitting on a dewan laden with white cloth, a dim yellow light spots on Ankit Chadha, a dastango and he narrates the wise stories. In Dastan Alice ki, he modulates his voice according to a different character in the story. Though Dastangoi stories are at times difficult because of pure Urdu, Alice’s adventures are purely for children and easy to comprehend. Chadha modulates the animal voices, squeaking of the rabbit that Alice follows  into a hole and snorting of the Unicorn with whom she shares a blueberry cheese cake which would excite any child. Tales such as Dastan Alice Ki are modern stories told in old style. It is a dastan based on Lewis Carroll’s world famous classics like Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. The story starts with Alice entering the fantasy land and discovering the world through the looking glass. After her size changes multiple times, Alice begins her journey on the chessboard to become a queen.

Chadha says that in his first debut performance as dastango was a simple story for him. Since there is no systematic schooling for artforms such as this, the most beautiful part of learning this art has been the informality of instruction.

As a ‘dastango’ Chadha says, “There is no need of school or academy for teaching this form. We have grown as ‘dastangos’ under direct guidance from the man who conceived the oral performance of the medieval text, as well as adaptation of the form as a medium to tell modern tales. For the facility of those aspiring to join the form, Mahmood Farooqui launched a book that compiles all the episodes, as edited by him for performance.

Being part of the group which says, Dastangoi is the lost art of storytelling, Chadha believes that for an aspiring practitioner, it is necessary that he goes beyond the image of Dastangoi, and commits to making it his or her way of life. It is much more than a performance form. Only when you develop some level of interest in literature and history, and love for Urdu, can you ‘live’ this form.

He recounts, “As as a beginner, I struggled with how little I knew of Urdu (I still know very little). But, that is a humbling experience. As a mentor, I have noticed many aspirants struggling with memorising the text. When performing as a pair, it is of utmost importance that one finds the right chemistry with the partner. Finally, one must take getting stuck at performance of text as a challenge, and engage deeply with dastan narratives as a genre to construct new texts as a dastango.”

He says that Dastangoi is as lucrative and as risky as any enterprise. If one dedicates themselves to it, Dastangoi can earn them a good living.

 “All of us are born storytellers. I believe if I can learn this art form, anybody can,” adds Chadha.

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