Danish Husain returns to Delhi with qissebaazi, a form he invented
This week, the talented dastango and actor Danish Husain acts in a play in Delhi and presents a performance of qissebaazi - a form he inventedart and culture Updated: Oct 14, 2017 12:41 IST
Dastangoi, a form of dramatic, yet controlled storytelling, was an Urdu urban art form popular in the Indian subcontinent in the 19th century. Wherever there was a flourishing court, or a thriving nobility, actors spoke of their times mixing poetry with history, lyricism with satire. In this way, the artiste took risks and spoke truth to power; the ruler and the elite heard it; the citizenry was informed and entertained. Dastango Danish Husain has been at the forefront of the revival of this art-form. Since 2016, he has, however, been focussing on a new form – Qissebaazi – and has toured with it to, among others, Pune, New York and Boston. Husain who now runs his own theatre company, The Hoshruba Repertory, has also been concentrating on a Bollywood career. His latest: a cameo in Newton, India’s Oscar entry for 2017. Excerpts from a conversation:
Delhi looks forward to seeing you in Bandish.
Bandish is a play about the conflict between the traditional and the modern. Two yesteryear bais - one a baithak bai and other a nautanki bai - are invited to a sarkari function for felicitation but are not asked to perform at their own felicitation ceremony. For that, two younger singers are invited. There are a series of mishaps which lead to none of the artistes performing. The play becomes a tell-tale of the anomalies of the system and culture of our times. I play the role of Munnu Ustad, an ubiquitous Man Friday who would hang around with these bais.
You are also presenting an evening of qissebaazi. What is the difference between dastangoi and qissebaazi? Is qissebaazi a living tradition or did you invent this?
In dastangoi, I think it is the immediacy of the performance, the mixing of high art and poetry with something personal and anecdotal, a nostalgia for tehzeeb and adab, and the pure cadence of the language that brings mehfils alive and leaves people craving for more.
Qissebaazi is something I invented. Last year when I decided to return to storytelling after a break, I felt why just perform in Urdu? I feel most Indian languages are being neglected. We are anyway living in a visual age where people have less and less time to read. If I could slip in stories from our various languages on to the stage then perhaps we can revive interest in our own stories and languages. However, one of our initial challenges was how to take these stories to people who do not understand the language of these stories. We decided to make every performance bilingual. The story will have a core language component and a bridge language component. Hindi and English invariably become the bridge language. We divided the story in a manner where all the plot points are in the bridge language and the descriptions are in the core language, and bingo, we found people getting the stories even though they didn’t know the language. As of now we have a Sanskrit, a Marathi, two Malayalam, and scores of Hindi and Urdu tales in our repertoire.
Qissebaazi departs from dastangoi in that it frees the storyteller from the platform on which s/he is performing. Modern dastangoi necessarily restricts the storyteller to a static position where the storyteller is only using the upper torso, hands, facial gestures and voice to project the story. In qissebaazi, the storyteller is free to walk around and even bring in other skills. For example, Saattvic who performs the Sankrit tale also plays the tabla while telling the story. Or Padma Damodaran who performs the Malayalam story uses mudras and moves from Mohiniyattam while performing her story.
In terms of stage we also thought that the greatest story of our land is the Mahabharata, and in some sense all local myths find a strand connecting to this meta-tale, so we made our stage look like the playing board of the dice game chaupar.
We premiered qissebaazi last year at the National Centre for Performing Arts’ theatre festival Centrestage 2016 in Mumbai. And have toured with it to Pune, Tripura, Vanderbilt University Nashville, University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Columbia University New York City, and Harvard University Boston. We’re excited to premiere Qissebaazi in Delhi on October 20 at Studio Safdar.
Dastangoi’s heyday in the Indian subcontinent was from the 16th to the 19th century. So what living memory did you possibly have of dastangos?
Unlike as in the West, our culture doesn’t have the practice of studying art forms. If you wish to learn an art form, you become an insider – you practise it. There is very little literature about how it was practised.
But you had some help?
Historian Abdul Halim Sharar mentioned the proliferation of dastangoi in Lucknow post 1857 in his book Guzishta Lucknow, and Sir Syed Ahmed mentioned dastangoi being performed on the steps of the Jama Masjid in his book Asar-us-Sanadid but none mention the nuts and bolts of the art form.
But we do find a description of Mir Baqir Ali’s performance, the last great dastango, in Ashraf Subuhi Dehelavi’s collection of biographical sketches Dilli Ki Chand Ajeeb Hastiyan. And it does help in some way in understanding the style. Dehelavi writes of how Mir Baqir Ali became a moving picture of his narrative. This confirms what the recently-accessed manuscript Tiraz-al-Akhbar (A Handbook of Storytellers) by a medieval courtier and storyteller, Fakhr al-Zamani in Jahangir’s period, says. He also asserts that the storyteller should become the visual pictures of the text s/he recites.
It would be interesting to know more about Mir Baqir Ali, the last known great dastango of Delhi.
We do not have many details of his initial period but during the later part of his life, he lived in the vicinity of the Jama Masjid. He had regular dastangoi mehfils at his house, and died in penury, selling betel nut and lime in his neighbourhood. The only description of him or his art form is in Ashraf Subuhi Dehelavi’s book.
What did Delhi and Lucknow contribute to the dastangoi tradition? Why was this a north India tradition?
Dastangoi was more an urban art form and flourished with elite patronage. It was not a folk art form, and that also contributed to its vanishing. When the patronage vanished, so did the art form. That’s why we see it flourishing more in Delhi and Lucknow where the court existed. Further, it was an art form in Urdu, therefore it flourished more in regions where Urdu was the lingua franca.
You now divide your time between acting on stage and films. How does the practice of the craft differ in both according to you? Please mention some of your latest film-work.
The fundamental difference is that on stage you have to reach out to your audience, and in front of the camera, the audience is coming to you. So, the tonality and the texture of the performance changes. Storytelling on the other hand is a different ball game. There you are not an actor but a performer. One doesn’t lose once individuality while telling the story. In fact, one builds upon it to enhance the performance. If I was doing a film, I would necessarily become a character.
My latest release is Newton, India’s official entry to Oscars this year. I have done cameos in Nikihil Advani’s next film Bazaar, and Nandita Das’s Manto. There are a couple of more films in pipeline but these are early days to talk about them. I have also written dialogues for a film, Saaya. The film will go into pre-production soon.
What kind of roles in theatre and in film are you looking for – or are you looking for different kind of roles in both?
I am open to every kind of role. An actor really must be choice-less in his or her choices but I certainly want roles where I can show my acting chops.
What should the role of an artist be in India today?
Society comprises of individuals. And each of us dynamically transact with the collective/ the society, and respond to it based on our understanding of the same and our respective value systems. As an individual, if I find friction between what I see around and what I hold dear, I respond to it through my art, just as I respond to it in other spheres of my life.
What: Bandish 20-20000 Hz, directed by Purva Naresh
When: October 15, 4-7:30 pm
Where: The Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road
Book tickets through Booksmyshow.com
Nearest metro station: Jorbagh
What: Qissebaazi, directed by Danish Husain
When: October 20, 7 pm
Where: Studio Safdar, Shadi Khampur, New Ranjit Nagar. Donor passes are available at the venue for Rs 200. Please call +91-9818386114/9051496456 for phone booking.
Nearest metro station: Shadipur. Exit: Satyam Cinema