“You have no other option but to believe us,” says Mehmood Farooqi (a Delhi-based historian, writer and performer) while performing the Urdu traditional art form of story telling—Dastangoi—as he along with his partner Danish Hussain (an actor and an poet) weaves the tapestry of the world that is full of magicians, pythons, beautiful princesses and horrifying dragons taking the audience straight to their battle grounds, mystery palaces and also to the lake of blood—all with words and gestures.
Dastangoi is a compound of two Persian words dastan and goi which means to tell a dastan (story). Dastans were epics, often oral in nature, which were recited or read aloud and in essence, were like medieval romances everywhere. The storyteller is referred to as dastango.
“I started working on Dastangoi in 2004 with the support of organizations like Sarai and finally got my space through the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), Bangalore but the awareness came from my uncle S.R. Farooqi who is a prominent Urdu scholar,” said Farooqi.
The art was prevalent in the sub continent during the 11th century when the dastangos used to recite their tales on the steps of Jama Masjid or in some bazaar ( market place). But in present scenario, the steps and the crowded market places have been converted into swanky auditoriums and the kadardaans are high class audiences who are mostly unfamiliar with the traditional art.
Recently the duo performed in Delhi’s Stein auditorium reciting the tales from Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, a 46-volume collection of dastans of Amir Hamza.
The language being pure Urdu was not understandable to many, but the animated performance by both the artists enthralled the audience and was appreciated with the sound of energetic wah wahs.
“The major challenge in front of us was that we were dealing with very rich Urdu that is not understandable to many people. Also training the audience to listen and create their own imagination and become a part of the performance themselves is very difficult as now people are accustomed to visuals and seeing everything in front of them through various effects and all,” said Farooqi.
Adding to that Hussain says, “We are dealing with anecdotes that are a little ahead of the normal and deal with the characters and situations that none has heard of but that gives them the opportunity to create their own imaginary things and in a way make them the performer themselves.”
Having said that, Farooqi feels rich literature also calls for the need of many more storytellers as there are still about 46,000 stories yet to tell and hence are training more people the same. Currently we have 14 new Dastangos to take forward the art.
“I came to know about Dastangoi in a workshop conducted by Mehmood Farooqi and took it to fulfill my creative trust. Also since it was a dying art form, I instantly grabbed the opportunity”, said Ankit Chaddha , a trainee Dastango who also performed alongside the veterans.
Even the people from non theatrical background, took up the art form “I have never done the theatre before but watching the clips and narratives performances helped me to improve my skills. Also it is a form that is very promt that you can play with the characters and the story,” said another trainee Dastango, Yojit Singh.
But as Farooqi tries to revive the art, he feels there is still a long way to go in order to retrieve these dying art forms in India, “I don’t even have an exact definition for dastangoi yet. We are working our way through something without many signposts”, says Farooqi.