Earlier this summer, angrakha-clad Dastangos enthralled New Yorkers as part of the Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas Festival in the city. The slightly unsure audience at Asia Society gaped at theatre actors Mahmood Farooqui, Danish Husain and Naseeruddin Shah as they sat on white divans flanked with ornate silver pitchers, narrating fantastical tales of sorcerers and seductresses in Urdu.
Dastans are epic narratives and their performers are Dastangos. The bulk of the text for Dastangoi comes from the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza (Adventures of Amir Hamza)—a grand epic of Islamic culture that narrates the exploits of Amir Hamza, the uncle of Prophet Muhammad. Popular in India since the 11th century, the art of Dastangoi is at once the art of composition and performance. It is woven extemporaneously as one is narrating it. And Dastangos perform without leaving their seats—trading costumes, music and stagecraft for sheer poetic jugglery. It is a battle of wits: a storytelling qawwali.
Showmen: Danish Husain (left) and Naseeruddin Shah in New York. Kamran A Hashmi
This tradition of storytelling was popular in royal salons during the Mughul era as well as in the chowks and bazaars of Delhi and Lucknow, rising gradually to prominence in the 19th century. But like most oral traditions, the art form declined slowly in popularity. And the last old-time Dastango died in Delhi in 1920.
Scholar and actor Mahmood Farooqui has been working on reviving this lost cultural tradition for four years. It was while going through the 46 volumes of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza at his uncle’s place—Urdu critic and writer S.R. Faruqui—that he came upon the idea of turning it into a Dastango. With an MPhil in Indian history from the University of Cambridge, the former Rhodes scholar has been working to advance the tradition both academically as well as in practice.
Since the start of his revival initiative, Farooqui and fellow actors have travelled to venues abroad and across India with their performances. Past venues have included the steps of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi and the Mohatta Palace in Karachi, Pakistan.
Farooqui is now looking forward to a series of performances in schools. This week, Farooqui and Husain will weave Dastans for students and visitors at St Stephen’s College and at the National School of Drama in Delhi. Farooqui is also planning workshops with second- and third-year students of the National School of Drama to initiate young artists and performers into this forgotten art form.
The Dastans have every element of a modern masala film. They speak of everything from whoring to trickery and betrayal and one might wonder how these elements of popular narrative culture could have possibly fallen out of favour. The issue, most plausibly, is the linguistic barrier. As Farooqui points out, the humour of the stories lies in the colloquialisms that are lost to our generation. But while a knowledge of Urdu is required for a deeper understanding of the performance, for theatre enthusiasts the novelty of a Dastangoi performance should suffice.
To initiate novice audiences, Farooqui charmingly elaborates on Dastangoi etiquette before each performance: He asks the audience to make eye contact with performers, refrain from clapping (these Western ways of appreciation don’t go down well with Dastangos) and express its appreciation verbally with variants of “Wah wah” instead. Most importantly, he asks audiences to believe.
So if you do get carried away into the world of djinns and four-headed demons, remember to be creative in your appreciation.
The Dastangos will perform on 3 August at 1.30pm at St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. For more performance dates, visit Dastangoi.blogspot.com
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