The art of story enacting is now gradually fighting its way back despite competition from theatre and cinema
Apne ghar ko chhor ke Alice,
Neend ki goli tod ke Alice,
Saare taale khol ke Alice,
Sabko tata bol ke Alice
Rolam polam girti Alice,
Hai re daiyya karti Alice
Ulti pulti nagri dekhi,
Gappein moti tagdi dekhi
Aadhe din ka raaj dekha,
Apne sar pe taaj dekha
Alice ne bas ek pahar me,
Apna kal aaj dekha…
As the verse of ‘Dastan Alice ki’ ends, the audience, which comprised of children and adults alike, filled the auditorium with ‘wah wah’. In an austere setup, Ankit Chaddha and Poonam Girdhani went on to narrate ‘Alice in Wonderland’ for the next 60 minutes. The audience was so captivated that no one buzzed for even a second during the performance. Such is the power of Dastangoi, an art form which is steadily capturing the entertainment space.
In Persian, dastan means a tale and when the suffix goi is added to the word, it translates to storytelling. The idea of this storytelling form is so simple that the lack of any extravagant stuff intrigues a first-timer. There are no props or external sound effects. The stage is kept to the bare minimum, except for a cushioned mat and a couple of bolsters. Two storytellers walk in, dressed in stylish kurtas and flared pyjamas. They sit down and start declaiming in lyrical Urdu, with a narrative flourish, which leaves the audience wanting for more. Generally, the dastans are quite long, sometimes stretching for hours.
Folklores, fables and other known form like Jatak stories (tales about Gautam Buddha’s previous births) and Panchatantra (philosophical tales of ancient India) have existed in India since ages. Not only the stories but the story tellers have also been present since ages. But dastangoi has a different flavour, where the performance of the story takes a front seat. Critically acclaimed writer-director Mahmood Farooqui says it’s an art of improvised story telling where the roles of the author, narrator, performer and poet are all fused into one. Dastangoi, the art of storytelling in Urdu, has attracted a great deal of attention.
zenith to nadir
The origin of Dastangoi can be traced from pre-Islamic Arabia. Later, with the eastward spread of Islam, dastangoi travelled to India via Iran. As the Persian culture travelled to medieval Delhi, it brought this art form with it. Mughal emperors patronised Dastangoi; it started getting attention from all classes of society. Delhi’s Jama Masjid is a surviving witness to its prestige, as Dastangoi performances were held on the stairs of the mosque. Dastangos, or the storytellers, preferred the stories of mythology, fantasy and adventure, as they captured the fancy of the common people. The Arabian Nights, Panchatantra, etc., were the primary sources of their stories. The story of Amir Hamza, the uncle of Prophet Mohammed, was one of Mughal emperor Akbar’s favourite dastans. Hamzanama, as it is known in dastangoi circles, narrates the adventurs from the life of Amir Hamza.
In the tumultous years after the Mughal Empire fell in 1857, dastangoi was starved of patrons. New forms of fictions, viz., short story, novels, etc., started capturing the space which was once ruled by dastangoi. The stories which were once narrated live got cocooned in books. Theatre started occupying the prominent space of public performance. The onset of cinema finally put this engaing art form into a comatose state. Mir Baqar Ali, considered as ‘The Last Storyteller of Delhi’, fought a lone battle to keep the art form alive. But, with his death in 1928, the art of dastangoi itself turned into what it once narrated: a folktale.
“Dastangoi was as popular as the mushaira (Urdu poetry soirees) of the 19th century,” said Mahmood Farooqui, discussing about the the art form. “It died out later because of a Victorian mindset that existed then. Dastangoi had many aspects that could be classified as ‘bazaaru’ (sluttish). It was much easier to sanitise the mushairas,” he continued.
The revival story
Dastangoi would have become a part of the history texts, if not for the sincere efforts of Mahmood Farooqui, the Delhi-based dastango. Farooqui went through the text of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, a massive 46-volume collection of dastans of Amir Hamza. His uncle Shamsur Rahman Faruqi had introduced him to the stories of Amir Hamza. Farooqui found it very appealing. Another dastango, Danish Hussain says about the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza: “If Mahmood and I narrate new stories from these 46 volumes for two hours every day, 365 days a year, it will take 13 years to get through the entire corpus.”
Farooqui writes about it in his blog: “The 46-volume Hamza cycle is the crowning glory of Urdu literary tradition and the summit of a thousand years of the Indo-Islamic storytelling tradition. The sheer fecundity of the dastan – with thousands of invented names, tools, weapons, beings, with an overflowing vocabulary – as also its immense popularity had a long-lasting effect on other forms of narratives. For sheer literary virtuosity, for its treatment and range of linguistic tenors, its use of metaphors, similes, and all the other conventions of literary and poetic conventions, the Dastan-e Amir Hamza is an outstanding achievement.”
Year 2005 saw the fruits of Mahmood Farooqui’s efforts, when he along with Himanshu Tyagi narrated ‘Dastan-e-Amir Hamza’ at India Habitat Centre, Delhi. The show was well received by the audience. A section of the audience was completely new to Urdu, yet the auditorium was filled with ‘wah wah’ and ‘subhan allah’. Farooqui’s moment of reckoning had arrived. He partnered with Danish Hussain and went on to perform several other shows of Hamza’s stories. More dastans were developed which were lapped up by the audience. Numerous performances of ‘Mantoyiat’ (stories of Indo-Pakistani literary giant Sa’adat Hasan Manto), Dastan Dhai Aakhar Ki (story of Kabir), Dastan Little Prince Ki (story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince) were held. Farooqui’s team grew as the ‘story’ of Dastangoi started reaching places. They started experimenting with different narratives, making it contextual. The one, Dastan-e-Sedition, on the incarceration and trial of Dr Binayak Sen, incorporated the elements of satire to highlight the issue. The dastan was performed last year in JNU campus, when the saga of sedition charges against JNU Student Union President Kanhiya was raging. It was narrated by the duo of Himanshu Tyagi and Ankit Chaddha.
The way forward
Dastangoi has certain elements which gives it its unique identity. A dastango establishes his connection with the audience through questions or small musical snippets. The tone, expression and gestures of the dastango play the most important role in a Dastangoi performance. They engage the audience’s senses and keep them captivated. A dastango monitors the feedback from the audience and calibrates the performances accordingly, either by cutting short the story, or changing the flow.
It has been more than a decade since the lost art of Dastangoi came out of the ventilator. It has enthralled thousands, and is consistently expanding its fan base. Dastangoi performances have broadened their horizons by incorporating more contextual stories in their gamut. The revival of Dastangoi and its progress can be an exemplar for several other Indian art forms which have perished in the sands of time.
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