This is the story of a story that lay dead for over a hundred years before a young actor picked it up, flipped through its pages and found himself getting drawn deeper and deeper into the world of enchantment it opened. When the actor finally looked up from its pages, his mind was made. This story was too alive to be dead. And it had to be told, to whosoever cared to listen.
The actor’s name was Mahmood Farooqui and the story he stumbled upon was the very art of story-telling — dastangoi. Not just any dastan, or story, but the tales of Amir Hamza, the uncle of the Prophet, written in 46 volumes, each running into a 1,000-odd pages. “These were stories that described the battles of Amir Hamza against infidels, sorcerers and other pretenders of divinity,” says Farooqui. These were stories that had to be performed — not as a play, but in a narrative form by a story-teller or dastango.
Originally composed in Persian, the oral narration of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza once enchanted people from all walks of life. The dastan was performed in the court of Akbar, in Peshawar’s Qissa-Khvani Bazaar, on the steps of the Jama Masjid and in the bylanes of Delhi. It used to be a popular form of entertainment in Central, Western and South Asia and North Africa. It also influenced Urdu literature and Parsi theatre and through it, Hindi cinema.
Then one day, the art completely vanished. “In 1928, Mir Baqr Ali, Delhi’s last known dastango, died,” says Rhodes scholar Farooqui, who has also translated Urdu and Persian documents for William Dalrymple’s latest book, The Last Mughal.
That would have been the end of dastangoi, had Farooqui not picked up the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza lying with his uncle, SR Faruqi — the only person who now possesses a full set of 46 volumes. And last May, dastangoi was breathing again. Several performances followed — in Delhi, Lucknow, Dehradun, Patna and Mumbai.
For the performances, tales are mainly picked from the Tilism Hoshruba, which literally means ‘enchantment that steals away the senses’ and comprises seven of the 46 volumes. “It is just two people telling a story — it could be in a room, a theatre, under the sky or at the nukkad,” says Farooqui, who found a fellow dastango in Danish Husain, a corporate banker-turned-story-teller.
There was only one problem. They had no way of knowing how dastangoi was performed. So, the duo went with what felt right, experimenting, improvising and following their instincts. “We found that as story-tellers, when we looked at each other during passages where the characters interact or confront each other, we ended up snapping that crucial umblical chord with the audience,” says Husain. “As story-tellers, we had to be outside, with the audience, opening a window into the story,” he says. So, they decided that they would not look at each other, but in different directions to keep the audience involved at all times.
Farooqui and Husain — both in their 30s — also found that their contrasting styles complement each other. While Farooqui is more lucid and poetic, Husain’s style is more theatrical. “The eloquent parts of the story are narrated by Farooqui and the ones requiring action, drama and dynamism come to me,” says Husain.
Through the narration, they create a kind of hyper-reality for the audience. “The audience can flow in and out of the story and construct its own images depending on the strength of its imagination,” Husain says. The frame is not frozen, as in a play.
The two actors initially thought that language might be a problem, given that the dastans are in Urdu with a sprinkling of Persian. But they were surprised. “We have had people who do not understand even a word of Hindi also coming up to say it was pure magic,” says Farooqui.
The performance that, in the words of Mir Baqr Ali, requires an exceptional command over rhetoric, delivery, mimicry, ventriloquism and spontaneous composition, casts that spell.
On December 9, the duo will cast their spell in Delhi at The Attic on Parliament Street. But dastangoi will not remain silent till then. This month, the story will be on air across the world. “November is going to be a dastan special month on Worldspace,” says Husain.