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Reviving the lost art of storytelling

India’s first female ‘dastango’, Fouzia Dastango, aims to bring back a love of literature across all generations

long reads Updated: May 05, 2017 18:24 IST
Veenu Singh
Fouzia Dastango is passionate about stories that tell us about our own culture
Fouzia Dastango is passionate about stories that tell us about our own culture(Raj K Raj)

Fouzia Dastango grew up being warned by her mother not to cook up stories. Fortunately, she couldn’t stop herself, because today, she has mastered the art of dastangoi (storytelling), and turned it into a profession, making her one of the very few women in this male dominated world.

Perhaps her mother was a bit of a hypocrite: Fouzia’s interest in stories was sparked by the read-aloud sessions her mother brought her up on; unfortunately, there were never enough of the old Urdu classics to keep Fouzia occupied, because her father, a motor mechanic in Old Delhi, couldn’t afford to buy her all the books she wanted.

“While other children were keen to study English, I decided to study Urdu as I wanted to read the classics,” says Fouzia. “I even did my masters in Hindi literature – I was completely fascinated by these languages and the huge amount of literary work done in them. It’s really sad that today nobody appreciates the amazing work by writers like Ismat Chugtai, Sadat Hasan Manto and many others.”

Telling tales

Fouzia began working as a lecturer at the State Council of Educational Research & Training (SCERT) before deciding to take up dastangoi. “My mother couldn’t comprehend why I would want to leave the respectable and well-earning job of a lecturer and become a storyteller. ‘Lecturer ki naukri beta kaun chodta hai’, is all she said. Surprisingly, my younger brother stood up in my support and asked my parents to let me do what I felt so passionate about,” says Fouzia.

Over the nine years since she made her decision, Fouzia not only became the first female dastango, but learned the craft of her art all by herself. “I had no one to guide me initially. No theatre experience, no voice training, nothing,” she says. “The good thing was that I worked with Mehboob Farooqui for seven years which built my confidence.”

My mother couldn’t comprehend why I would want to leave the respectable and well-earning job of a lecturer and become a storyteller.

Though her Old Delhi background helps Fouzia give her stories real life ambience, it also works against her in a way.

“Purani Dilli ke logon ko mera profession hi samajh nahin aata. They say that I just sit at home, without understanding that my work happens from home. People have commented about me not wearing a burqa, and even trying to enter what has primarily been a male bastion,” she complains.

But confidence in her abilities keeps Fouzia going. “You cannot afford to be an introvert as you need to involve as well as engage the audience. So your own body language and personality plays a big role in how people perceive you,” says the 40-year-old.

Fouzia Dastango reading out Nanhi Ki Nani in her inimitable style at Art Hub, South Extension (Raj K Raj)

Listen and learn

Her audience is usually a mix of men and women, but there was one occasion when she performed for an all-male audience, something she found a bit odd. “I was in a small town called Burhana in Uttar Pradesh (the hometown of actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui), and during my performance, the women all remained in the zenana, and refused to come to my show,” she laughs, remembering.

“I look forward to reading out stories to even three-year-olds. I just want the younger generations to read and listen to stories about our great culture.”

Fouzia’s biggest fear is losing her voice and forgetting her lines. It happened to her on one occasion during a performance, and it left her terrified. “Someone’s mobile suddenly screamed during my performance, and for the next 10 seconds, I was frozen and blanked out. Fortunately, I recovered soon, but the episode was very scary,” she says.

But there are touching episodes too, such as a lady in the audience weeping during Fouzia’s rendition of Ismat Chugtai’s Nanhi Ki Nani, one of the her favourite stories.

“I choose the stories I love,” she says. “Main jab koi kahani sunaati hoon, to main usme ram jaati hoon. Nanhi ki nani is a personal favourite. I have actually seen women like the ones on the story. I also love Ghummi Kebabi.”

Both dark and slapstick humour are integral to Fouzia’s storytelling, but she performs serious tales too, and stories beyond the Urdu classics, including episodes from the Mahabharata and the story of Mahatma Gandhi’s life.

Meanwhile, Fouzia also leads workshops on dastangoi at colleges and schools, to keep the art of storytelling alive. She also ties up with schools and places like Art Hub in South Extension that organises storytelling session for children as well as adults to read out stories (an art called padant) , exploring popular Hindi stories and translations of children’s fiction such as Alice in Wonderland.

“The over-use of technology is killing this age-old tradition of storytelling, which really scares me,” she explains. “I look forward to reading out stories to even three-year-olds. I just want the younger generations to read and listen to stories about our great culture.”

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From HT Brunch, May 5, 2017

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