They step on stage in crisp white angarkhas and skullcaps and seat themselves on a low white-sheeted mattress, surrounded by white pillows, books and silver bowls. And the stories they tell you, full of adventure, romance, magic and fantasy, are in pure Urdu.
These are today’s dastangos, a handful of men and women practicing the 16th century art of Persian and Urdu oral storytelling, dastangoi.
The tradition flourished across north India from the time of Mughal emperor Akbar up to the late 1800s, but died out at the turn of the century as other art forms came to the forefront.
Dastangoi was revived in 2005 by Delhi-based historian and filmmaker Mahmood Farooqui, and has become a new phenomenon in performing arts. Now, Mumbai will play host to the first dastangoi festival, to be held at the National Centre for Performing Arts from December 2 to 5.
“When I read the classic dastans (epic-style stories in Persian and Urdu), I felt they were timeless stories waiting to be told again,” said Farooqui, who performed his first dastangoi show in Delhi in May 2005, and has since then done more than 160 shows across India and abroad.
Farooqui believes dastangoi died because of the crisis of confidence Orientals had in their own culture after years of colonial rule.
“Even Urdu literary academicians began marginalising this form as childish and not relevant to contemporary problems,” said Danish Husain, former banker who became a dastango in 2006.
The stories that Farooqui and his team of 13 narrate are the same as the ones that enthralled audiences in courts and street corners before – the numerous episodes of adventure from the Hamzanama, a compilation of stories about the ancient traveller Amir Hamza. The language they use, too, is the same rich, undiluted Urdu. “We stress on the meanings of words through gestures and facial expressions, so the audience gets the gist and derives joy even if they miss the nuances,” said Farooqui.
The only innovation Farooqui introduced is roping in a second dastango instead of just one. “The interaction between two storytellers heightens the drama and holds the audience’s attention,” he said.
(The festival will be held at NCPA from December 2 to 5, from 6.30pm to 8.30pm)