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Once Upon a time...

... tales were told by professionals trained in the art. Lend your ears to storytellers Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain who take you back to that era. Storytelling is a performance art, just like dance, opera and music. It thrives on an audience that needs to be entertained...

art and culture Updated: May 29, 2012 16:24 IST
Parul Khanna Tewari

Remember your grandmother narrating stories from the Arabian Nights? Her raised eyebrows when the evil khalifa, yet again, kills his young wife, her victorious smile when the earnest king wins over his cousin and her eyes widening in shock when she told of the giant roc made those tales a pleasure to listen to. Her theatrics were what made them memorable.

Storytelling is a performance art, just like dance, opera and music. It thrives on an audience that needs to be entertained. And according to historian, theatre actor and author Mahmood Farooqui (who also co-directed and did the casting for the movie Peepli Live with his wife Anusha Rizvi), “It is the most expressive and challenging of all performance arts. Text is illustrated through gestures, facial expressions and voice modulation. It is an expansive medium. You are playing to lots of people as a storyteller.” And it is this passion for performance that led Farooqui, along with fellow dastango (storyteller) and actor Danish Husain, to revive the lost tradition of Urdu storytelling, dastangoi, a few years ago.

The lost art
Dastan means story and dastangoi means to tell a story. It is a unique form of Urdu storytelling that uses no musical instruments, no props or other visual stimuli. Only the story is told. The tradition was very popular during the Mughal era and Akbar was known to patron dastangos in his court. The stories were about magic and sorcerers. While the traditional storytellers of the Mughal era innovated and improvised stories depending on their audience, Farooqui and Husain, the dastangos of today, mainly re-tell those tales. “We usually perform chapters from Dastan-e-Amir Hamza,” says Farooqui. “Though there are many dastans, this was the most popular. Based on the legends of the valour of the prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Amir Hamza, the text tells the tale of the fictional Hamza and his exploits.”

Telling tales: Professional storytellers Mahmood Farooqui (right) and Danish Husain (left) at a performance, in costume

Dastangoi remained popular till the early 20th century. Dastangos would recite stories in public squares and on the steps of Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. But then, in the 1920s, the art just vanished. And Farooqui only came across it in 2002. “That’s when I had my first encounter with the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza,” he says. “Although I had been an avid reader of Urdu fiction and had even formally studied it for my M Phil dissertation, I had never actually read a dastan. That year, SR Faruqi, the leading scholar of the form, asked me to help somebody who was interested in making a film on dastangoi. Though the film was never made, I read the first volume of his marvellous study of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza.”

Farooqui became a Sarai fellow that year, intending to collect material for a documentary on the tradition. Today, the dastangos are toying with the idea of incorporating newer languages into the form, so that it reaches a wider audience. And also tell stories from the Urdu Mahabharata and Ramayan.

Charming notes
In 2005, Farooqui did his first show at the India International Centre in Delhi. He was apprehensive about the reception, considering not many people understand Urdu. “We first performed the story Tilism-e-Hoshruba (Hamza pursues Laqa who takes refuge in the enchanted kingdom of Hoshruba. The story talks about how Hamza’s grandson fights sorcery and magical snares to conquer Hoshruba), the best known chapter of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza. The crowd mostly consisted of Urdu scholars and journalists. They understood the language and the performance was applauded. But the real test was when I performed solo to a non-Urdu and even non-Hindi speaking audience. People loved it and responded to the twists, the turns and the way the stories are narrated, the expressions, the drama,” says Farooqui. Since then, the group has done over 130 shows and has performed at college festivals in Delhi, the Jaipur Literary Festival, Karachi, New York, Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai and smaller towns like Aligarh, Patna. Even on the banks of the Ganga in Allahabad, with doped sadhus as an audience.

In spite of possible language problems, people return again and again to see the shows, claim the duo. “Even foreigners enjoy the dastans,” says Farooqui. “It is the pleasure of listening and the anticipation of what will happen that captivates the audience.” It’s likely too, that storytelling in this manner is a big change from all the visual stimuli people are used to now. “It’s a rarity for people to listen, form a picture and use their imagination. And that is what stories get them to do,” says Farooqui. Also, listening to old texts is a delight because of the sheer richness of the language and content, says Danish Husain. “Once you hear the stories, you will be taken with the language. Good language attracts people.”

Contemporary tales
The moment they found an audience for dastangoi, the art was contemporised, says Farooqui. The dastangois did not have to fiddle with the basic stories. But what they did was take up new issues and write stories around them. At a recent performance, the group told a story on partition and another on Binayak Sen. Now they’re working on a story based on the works of Rabindranath Tagore for Rabindrotsav, a Tagore festival in Kolkata.

“We have also been approached to do a story on Gandhi and another one on our nuclear plants,” says Husain. Even as new stories are being added to their repertoire, the dastangos have changed the form somewhat. Traditionally, only one dastango would perform at a time. To break the monotony and to add drama, Farooqui decided to use two people.But not anyone can be a dastango, even though Farooqui feels that, to truly revive the form, it is essential to have more dastangos. “Like all performance arts, you need to learn storytelling,” he says. “But unless many more people take up the art, the form itself will not be revived. It will just remain a successful show. The first step in extending its reach is to create new storytellers.”

Currently, there are 17 dastangos in India, including actor Naseeruddin Shah, all trained by Farooqui and Husain.Since so little has been documented about the actual performance – how the storytellers sat, how much they moved around, their individual stylistic quirks, whether they took breaks, how the audience was arranged, whether they sang the poetry – Farooqui and Husain devised their own performance methods to suit the 21st century. “Traditionally, dastangos would perform through the night but we put up 90-minute shows,” says Danish. “There is a three-minute audio clip of the last dastango who performed in 1920. We’ve referred to that. We focus on our linguistics. We wear white achkans and topis and sit on a white mattress. But we have no evidence that this was the proper dress. We suppose this is what they would have worn as achkans were common then.”

New dastangos will be taught all this and will also have to learn the art of improvisation to appeal to newer audiences. So what is the duo looking for in a dastango? “Passion for languages, especially Urdu, and a passion for performance,” says Farooqui. “Diction, expressions, voice modulation, all can be taught. And, yes women are welcome,” he adds. “We have a 33 per cent reservation!” To create more dastangos, Farooqui and Husain need to conduct a series of workshops with aspiring performers, give them basic training, hand them some of the texts in a Hindi transliteration and see what they can make of it.

“With the emergence of new dastangos, we might have newer styles, variations in performances and eventually, even newer texts,” says Farooqui. The essence of the art of dastangos of old lay in improvised storytelling. They started with bare essentials and wove in the colour depending on the audience, added humour and poetry in other areas. New dastangos will have to learn this art too. Apart from giving performances, Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain also conduct workshops to train people in the nuances of the art of Urdu storytelling. If you’re interested, go to their blog, dastangoi.blogspot.com.


The Adventures Of Amir Hamza
The Adventures of Amir Hamza or the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza narrates the legendary exploits of Amir Hamza, the uncle of the prophet of Islam. The stories are supposed to be told through performances. The book was compiled more than 1,000 years ago, probably in Persia, and its stories spread through the Islamic world. In 1562, Akbar commissioned a manuscript of Amir Hamza which became a favourite text for dastangos. The stories create a world of seduction, imagery, secrets and fantasy. They’re quite similar to Bollywood potboilers: formulaic, with heroes vanquishing villains and demons. They’re also very funny, shift from one location to another, and have sorcery, magic and battles.

Naseeruddin Shah is also a dastango
Naseer read an interview with Mahmood Farooqui about dastangoi. When Farooqui and wife Anusha went to Mumbai for Peepli Live, they met Naseer and Farooqui gave him lessons in the art. Naseer finally debuted as a dastango at the Asia Society Muslim Voices Festival in New York in 2009.

- From HT Brunch, June 26

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