A Dastango who spins tales for the modern age

Hindustan Times | By
Apr 29, 2017 08:02 AM IST

Fouzia Dastango is one of the few women storytellers in the oral tradition of Dastangoi.

Toh baat hai saat sau saal purani

Fouzia Dastangois among the few women practitioners of Dastangoi, a centuries-old oral storytelling style.(Ravi Choudhary/HT Photo)
Fouzia Dastangois among the few women practitioners of Dastangoi, a centuries-old oral storytelling style.(Ravi Choudhary/HT Photo)

Suno dhyan se pyaare

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Hamelin namak ek shahar tha

Weser nadi kinare

Yu toh sheher woh bahut sundar tha

Hamelin tha jiska naam

Par vahaan ke logon ka

Ho gaya tha chain haraam!

Fouzia Dastango effortlessly adjusts her tone and pitch: she starts off on a wondrous note, awed by the timeless tale she is about to narrate; and ends emphatically, packing enough vigour into that “Haraam!” to convey the frustration of the people of Hamelin.

Those eights lines are just a peek into an upcoming performance on Sunday for children: a lively retelling of the medieval legend, Pied Piper of Hamelin, but in Hindustani. Fouzia will be narrating the translation by playwright and writer Safdar Hashmi, set to music by Hemant Chakravorty of Trippy Tales, an artists’ collective. The production will use a variety of instruments from the DJembe, a west African drum to the Cajon, a Peruvian box-shaped instrument, and plenty of ambient percussion to bring the story alive for five-to-10-year-olds. She will also be narrating two other Hindustani short stories - Kijari Gaye and Natkat Gadha.

Fouzia Dastango, as her name suggests, is a storyteller of the medieval Urdu tradition of oral storytelling, Dastangoi. But when she narrates the Pied Piper and other stories she will be combining her storytelling skills with plenty of action. She can’t stick to a traditional Dastangoi format, she says, because it requires sitting in one spot and relying solely on your voice to convey all the drama. That, she adds, would bore children.

Fouzia is among the few women known to practise the craft of Dastangoi. She trained as an educator and worked several years developing curriculums. But she says all it took was one performance in 2006 — when she visited Dayal Singh College to watch Dastangoi — and she fell in love with the form.

Mughal miniatures of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, a Dastangoi muse (Wikimedia Commons)
Mughal miniatures of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, a Dastangoi muse (Wikimedia Commons)

“There was always a storyteller in me,” says Fouzia, now 39. Her childhood was filled with tales spun by her grandmother. She and her cousins would huddle together on summer nights on their roof or gather around on winter evenings to hear stories of war (razm), love (ishq) and ayyari (magic) — the three essentials, she says, of any dastan or story.

And she saw Dastangoi as her calling — after all, she had lived most of her life in Old Delhi’s Pahari Bhojla, which had once been home to Mir Baqar Ali, the last legendary Dastango.

But Fouzia’s productions have gone well beyond the traditional Urdu retellings associated with Dastangoi. She has also produced renditions of material as diverse as the Mahabharata and Gandhi’s political struggle. Her goal, she says, is to reach a wider audience in vernacular languages such as Urdu and Hindustani, which, she believes, are neglected in the pursuit of English.

As someone who studied in an Urdu-medium school, Fouzia says she didn’t get the same opportunities as those who were educated in English-medium schools. “There was some anger in me,” she says. “And I thought, Issi zabaan mein kuch karna hai.”

How does the audience understand her if they don’t already know Hindustani or Urdu? The expressions and tone help a lot, she says. “Whatever stories I tell I want them to be poetic, she says. “I want them to get used to the rhythm, the idea of listening to poetry

She’s had some success. After a recent performance at The Doon School, students approached her saying they would learn to love Urdu. “You ask me why i do this? It’s to evoke that interest,” she says.

Her favourite dastan to narrate? “Ghummi Kebabi,” she says without hesitation. It’s a sketch of a man who sells kebabs in Old Delhi by Urdu writer Ashraf Sabuhi Dehelvi. What she loves about it, she says, is the kebab seller himself, a stickler for rules. He lets no one, no matter how rich or influential, skip the line, she explains.

Fouzia identifies with her craft so closely that it’s become her last name too: Dastango. She chose it when she tried opening a Facebook account, which required a last name. “Whatever my identity is, that’s what my surname should be,” she says. “I consciously want this to be my identity. I feel happy when people identify me as that.”

What: Storytelling for kids by Fouzia Dastango

When: 5 pm to 6 pm, April 30

Where: OddBird Theatre, Dhan Mill Compound, 100 Feet Road, SSN Marg, Chhattarpur

Nearest metro station:Chhattarpur

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    Aparna Alluri was part of Hindustan Times’ nationwide network of correspondents that brings news, analysis and information to its readers. She no longer works with the Hindustan Times.

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