The Art of Storytelling and the Tale of Dastangoi

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It’s a silver moon setting. An ethereal throne on a luminous floor, flanked on either side by thick cushions and ‘paan-daan’, with two celestial beings in velvety white clothes adorning the throne. A whiff of a gesture and a gentleman gets water in dazzling silver bowls for the duo. They both take little sips of water and clear their throat…and then one of them begins, spinning a yarn: (above: Danish Hussain and Mahmood Farooqui performing Dastangoi)
These times when the heart is nobody’s destination
When stones are used to pay respects to glass
In these times, the infidel voices of the heart, with defiance
The one who kept voicing, he was called Manto   
Manto, who kept consuming poison all his life,
And kept calling for ‘life’ all his life
Peeling the layers of culture’s wounds of deception
He kept avenging for us humans all his life
(‘Ye daur jisme dil ka nahi hae koi maqaam
Patthar se kar rahaa hae jo sheeshe ka ehteraam
Is daur mein bajurrate rindaanaa dil ki baat
Kahtaa rahaa thaa koi to Manto thaa uskaa naam
Manto ki jisne zahar piyaa hae ba har nafas
Aur zindagi ka naam liyaa hae tamaam umr
Tahzeeb ka khurach ke harek gaazaa e fareb
Insaan ka inteqaam liyaa hae tamaam umr’)
In response, the second Dastango (a person delivering the Dastangoi performance) continues: “Manto was a 14-15-yr-old boy when I first saw him. A thin boy with a broad, black-framed pair of spectacles, ruffled hair, fair complexion, medium height, and an attractive voice. He would say things off the beaten track and think out of the box. He spoke and wrote fluently in English…” And thus the story begins. The audience is already listening with rapt attention, mesmerized by the scene and the performance.

Dastangoi, an ancient form of theatrical art in the subcontinent, is a special genre which presents both sad, epic tales and romantic stories. The genres of stories and novels in Urdu literature can be said to have developed from this art form, which could even be called a lost and forgotten metaphor in Urdu literature. The legendary Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib said: “Dastangoi is a fine art which is a good source of entertainment (‘Dastaan taraazi mann jumla funoon-e-sukhan hai, sach hai ke dil behlaane ke liye achcha funn hai’).” According to Urdu writer Kalimuddin Ahmed, Dastangoi is a long, detailed and complex style of storytelling. Famous Urdu scholar Gian Chandra Jain says that the literal meaning of Dastangoi is that of a story, a tale, a narration, whether it involves a poetic form or prose or opinion making. The story always has a relation to the past/history–it could be a natural and realistic tale or unnatural and fictional. According to famous writer Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi, Dastangoi is basically a form of ‘performance’. In the Preface of his work Saahiri, Shahi, Sahib-e-Qurani, Dastan Ameer Hamza ka Mutaala (Volume 4), he says that a Dastan (story) might be written and published several times, but its language and form has to be essentially that of the oral tradition of storytelling. It is meant to be narrated verbally and heard.
Storytelling is a tough art. A Dastango is expected to have an ocean of words and expressions at his fingertips. He creates an entire milieu through voice modulation, painting various scenes. Sentences with punch, enticing language and an ability to sketch such images that keep the audience at the edge of their seats, curious about what will happen next––this, in a nutshell, is the art of Dastangoi.
The practice of translating Persian stories or Dastans to Urdu began in Lucknow at the end of the 19th century. It was during this time that Mir Baqir Ali was famous in his art of Dastangoi. His maternal grandfather Mir Aamir Ali and his maternal uncle Mir Kaazmi Ali, both of them acclaimed Dastangos, were associated with the Dilli Durbar. But after Mir Baqir Ali, for a very long time, we don’t find any major name connected to the art of Dastangoi. And in the present time, one has to look hard to even find the traces of this art form, which was once believed to be the pride of Awadh and Dilli.
Mahmood Farooqi and Danish Hussain, two young men in Delhi, were so moved by this loss that they tried to revive the tradition and within a few years, they were successful in their attempt to infuse a new lease of life into this theatrical genre. Their group that presents Dastangoi recently visited Lahore from Delhi and staged performances at various places. They had a candid, detailed conversation with this reporter about the art of Dastangoiand its revival in the contemporary world.
Much of the credit for the revival of Dastangoi can be given to Mahmood Farooqi. Talking about his first brush with this art from, Farooqi said that he heard the Dastans (stories) from his granduncle, famous Urdu writer and critic Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi, who has also authored a book on Dastangoi. It was Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi’s book Saahiri, Shahi, Sahib-e-Qurani, Dastan Ameer Hamza ka Mutaala that influenced him immensely with regard to the art of Dastangoi. “I have always been interested in theatre and films but this book opened up the doors of the new world of Dastangoi for me. Initially I was preparing to make a documentary film on Dastangoi. For that I started investigating the history of this art form. I read many Dastans and wrote quite a lot on the subject. I was immensely impressed by the art form and was totally in the grip of its magic,” Farooqi, who has a Masters in History from Oxford University, confessed, adding that much before he presented the Dastans on the stage, he was deeply moved by the elements of humour, drama and the lucidity and succinctness with which so much was said in the Dastans in so few words. “I was very influenced by the story of Ameer Hamza and his heroic fight with various negative forces, and the stories of Afra Sayaab and Umroo Ayyaar. I strongly felt that the Dastans could be presented on the stage in the manner of Dastangoi.”
Farooqi said that he got a chance to undertake detailed research on the tradition of Dastangoi when a Delhi-based non-government organization, Sarai, granted him a fellowship for this work. “During that time, I also gave a lecture on Dastangoi at India International Centre in Delhi, and that was when I got an opportunity to present this art form before common people,” he said. As a student of history and a theatre artist and a student of this art form, Farooqi believes that many idioms went into making the genre of Dastangoi–literature, theatre, history and a novel way of presenting history. Dastan Ameer Hamza, which is in 46 volumes, helped the art of Dastangoi reach its peak. These stories, which are hundreds of years old, still interest the audience, but the art from was becoming extinct and hence they decided to put in efforts to revive it, he mused.
Initially, Farooqi staged Dastangoi performances alone. But following Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi’s advice, in May 2005 he decided to have two persons present these stories and after that Danish Hussain joined him in the performances. Farooqi feels that this change increased the entertainment value of the performances since it included dialogue between the two Dastangos and the atmosphere became more interactive. He gave his firstDastangoi performance with Danish Hussain in Mumbai in 2006 and from then, Dastangoi, the art form, embarked on a fresh journey. The two performers have already enthralled audiences with over 500 spellbinding performances in India and other countries. They are also currently training some 15-20 youngsters in this theatrical form, and each one of the students has already staged some 30 performances!
Farooqi and Hussain suggest that the theatrical art of Dastangoi should also receive patronage and be developed in Pakistan. Since at present there is no group in the country that performs Dastangoi, they offer to guide any Pakistani artist who wishes to be trained in this form.
Regarding his own journey vis a vis Dastangoi, Danish Hussain said that Marsia goi (elegy performance) was at the root of his interest in Dastangoi, adding that Marsia-goi of the works of classical Urdu elegy (‘marsia’: elegy) writers, Mir Anis and Mir Dabir, is quite similar to Dastangoi in its impact. “I have read and have been impressed by marsia writers since my childhood. But there is a little difference between Marsia goi and Dastangoi–as an art form, Dastangoi has similarities with Marsia goi but the former is very secular in its core. It is not associated with any specific community or group. Anyone can present it anywhere,” Hussain explained. He said that till mid1990s, he was associated with Marsia-goi and theatre, and was also employed in a bank. But in 2002 he left his job with the bank and since then has been totally dedicated to Dastngoi and theatre. He also shared that a radical turning point in his theatrical journey came when he acted in legendary playwright Habib Tanvir’s  famous play ‘Agra Bazar’, which was adopted from the life story of Nazir Akbarabadi and is one of the finest theatre plays in Urdu.
The two Dastangos recalled that when they first started performing, this art form had almost gone extinct in India and they had to go through a tough phase to revive this beautiful part of the subcontinent’s literary and cultural heritage. Initially they were not very optimistic about succeeding, they confess, but with time, they managed to win the hearts of the audiences and got them interested in their storytelling. They also pointed out at another crucial aspect of the revival of Dastangoi. Urdu, about which once upon a time the famous Urdu poet Dagh Dehlavi had said, “It is us who know the language called Urdu, the language that is so immensely popular worldwide (‘Urdu hai jiska naam humi jaante hain “Daagh”/Saare jahan mein dhoom hamari zabaan ki hai’), has now been unfortunately overshadowed by English and Hindi in India and does not enjoy such popularity and favour. In such an atmosphere, presenting Dastangoi in Urdu is a very encouraging step for the Urdu language too, they noted. Farooqi further observed that although the status of Urdu in India is almost like a minority language now, they perform Dastangoi in Urdu and have done so in many cities where the audience’s Urdu proficiency would be low, but still they have received considerable appreciation and acclaim.
Regarding their performances in Pakistan, they said that they have performed 5 times in the country and the greatest joy in performing here comes from the fact that the audience here is more proficient in Urdu as compared to India and so they relish the language and the dialogues much more and understand the contexts better. As a result of the their understanding and enjoying the performances more, the appreciation received here is also more.
Expanding further on their journey with Dastangoi, Mahmood Farooqi said that they initially used extracts/stories from ancient epics like Tilasm Hoshruba and Dastan Ameer Hamzain their performances. Presenting these stories before modern audiences was a unique scene and a successful experience, and their art form received a lot of appreciation in cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai and Delhi. However, they slowly started creating newDastans (stories) too. This was a difficult task which required not only a high level of proficiency in the language, but also the art of creating a story and retaining the story element in the narrative–all these skills had to be woven together. But they did it. Some of the Dastans that they created and presented as Dastangoi were: The Partition Tale, Mantoiyat, Chauboli, Sedition, and Ghare Baire (based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novel).

The enthusiasm of the two artistes, however, is tempered with pragmatism. Danish Hussain believes that it may not be possible to fully revive the art from of Dastangoi to the extent of making it mainstream. But he feels that through their efforts, they are increasing people’s awareness of their heritage and history and creating in them a love for a lost art form and tradition. This is their biggest achievement. Hussain also pointed out that as an art form,Dastangoi is more difficult than regular theatre, but the benefit is that one doesn’t require any special sound system or other infrastructural elements for this. As an example, he reminisced about his Dastangoi performance on the stairs of Delhi’s famous Jama Masjid, and underlined that it was one of the most memorable experiences of his personal theatrical journey.
Elucidating further on the art form, Mahmood Farooqi observed that after being lost for a long time, the traditional art of Kissagoi (“kissa”: story) or Dastangoi was now emerging as a new genre of theatre, a parallel theatre form. In this regard, he touched upon the ever persistent debate about mainstream cinema and theatre versus serious/parallel cinema and theatre. He said that the audience for the latter is limited in numbers everywhere in the world and it would be unfair to compare the two. Bollywood has its own place and characteristics and serious cinema and theatre shouldn’t be compared to it. There is more scope for experiments in serious theatre and films and it is in these that people get to see unique things. Notably, Mahmood Farooqi was also an assistant director and writer of the critically acclaimed film ‘Peepli Live’ produced by Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao. He had assisted the film’s director Anusha Rizvi.

Highlighting the egalitarian nature of Dastangoi, Hussain said that this art form can be appreciated by all sections of society, which is how it should be, since no art form should be made niche and reserved for any specific section. Having sad that, he affirmed that a look at history will reveal that various traditions that began in the subcontinent at the grassroots and were meant to cater to all sections of the society (like various types of performances that happened in Dargahs, village squares (chaupals), or as street theatre) suffered utter neglect and were now becoming extinct. The persistent quest should be to not let that happen.
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