Andaaz-E-Bayaan Aur…

June 22, 2012 at 9:15 PMJun (Literature, Media, Music, Poetry, Theater)

The word ‘Dastangoi’ comes from combining the Persian words for epic (dastan) and telling (goi), and involve narrating medieval romantic tales full of magic and adventure. The ancient form of Urdu story telling, Dastangoi, has been revived and made popular by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain. They have taken the form to various national forums and international. These two storytellers are unique in the sense that they not only pursue their own professions, but also make the form contemporary by telling stories from our midst. Excerpts from an interview conducted by Samvartha ‘Sahil’ after their performance for SPICMACAY, in Surathkal, Karnataka.

Was the reviving of Dastangoi an artistic or aesthetic exercise for you or was it also a political act?

Mahmood Farooqui : I wanted to tell these stories, which were being told by the Dastangos (storytellers) and that is what led me back to Dastangoi. My theatre background made it an artistic exercise. Though it is not a conscious political act, the very act of reviving a forgotten art form and the very act of telling stories in Urdu, especially in post-independent India, becomes a political act.

Like Urdu, has Dastangoi also been associated with Islam in the popular mindset?

MF : I can’t say if it actually is. There are non-Muslim performers also in our team. But the visual image, especially the skull cap, makes the performance go well with the popular image of Islam. But the cap we use is called ‘Dopalli‘, and these caps are neither Hindu nor Muslim. They are traditional Indian caps, which later also took the form of Gandhi topi. And though traditionally Dastangois were stories about great Muslim warriors, its audience base was not Muslims alone. So it is difficult to say if it is associated with Islam or not.

Courtesy: The Hindu

How different is Dastangoi from Mushaira, apart from one being story and the other being poetry?

Danish Husain : Mushairas were a conglomeration of poets who would read out new works. There used to be some kind of showmanship and it was like a competition between poets. Though Mushaira has a performative angle, it is very different from Dastangoi because Dastangoi is not about competing but telling and listening. And Dastangois, like your Yakshagana or Pandvi, Lavni, have a community attached to it. The audience knows the stories being told beforehand, but they come to relive those stories. Mushaira, in that sense, need not have a community and it is mostly a recital of new works with which the audience is not familiar.

Was there any attempt by the Progressive Writer’s Association (PWA) or the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) to revive or use the Dastangoi tradition, as many of the people associated with the two groups had memories of Dastangoi?

Danish : Dastangoi faded out in the year 1928 with the death of Mir Baqar Ali. PWA came into existence in late 1930s and IPTA in early 1940s. I guess they had ideological differences. For them the definition of art was different. It must serve the people. It must have a political end. Their focus was to use art for politics and not to revive forgotten art forms. Though political issues can come into the daastaans of Dastangoi, the very idea of Dastanagoi is not to serve people or bring a revolution but just tell stories. The writers had their ways of reaching to people through street plays. But yes, it is interesting as to why they did not use Dastangoi, when it would have come so handy to mobilise people and reach out to them, probably because most of the people associated with these associations had a western model of revolution. So street play was closer to them than a traditional Dastangoi which could have also been used for political purposes. This could also be because by then, the colonial gaze had injected inferiority complex is us not just about ourselves but everything about us including our art forms.

You have also performed in Pakistan. So what do you think could be the contribution of Dastangoi – an oral tradition in Urdu – to bridge the cultural gap between India and Pakistan, where our common language is broken because of two different scripts?

MF : I think bringing the two nations together is a far-fetched idea. Dastangoi is new to both countries and even in Pakistan there is a major set of people who do not follow Urdu, as there are in India too. To bridge the gap there must be attempts not in the shared culture of Urdu, but in the shared culture of Punjabi. Moreover our idea and focus is not that. We are here just to tell stories.

On similar lines what is the contribution of revived Dastangoi to the language Urdu which, like Dastangoi, has been marginalized from early 20th century?

Danish: The contribution to the language Urdu was major by gazal singers like Jagjit Singh, Ghulam Ali who kept the river of Urdu flowing. The taste for Urdu survived majorly because of them. The cassette culture and revolution also helped them. Will Dastangoi play a role of that magnitude only time can tell us.

Has Dastangoi always been performed in closed atmosphere?

MF : No. Dastangoi was performed in the streets of Jama Masid and was very popular there. It was being performed in a closed atmosphere too. Ghalib is said to have organised Dastangois in his house.

Danish : We too have performed in open spaces, amphitheatres, gardens – all sorts of places. Our requirements are also minimal – a mike set and a few lights. At times, we have done without equipment too.

Courtesy: Tehelka

Has there been any instance, in the past, of women being Dastangos?

MF : Yes, there has been. Not in open-space Dastangois, but in closed-atmosphere Dastangois, such as inside the house.

The other forms of storytelling in India use music and songs. Why doesn’t Dastangoi use music and song?

MF: Its just not designed that way. The stress is on narration as it is an art of narration. But recently in one of our shows in Kabul one of our artists broke into a song and it not just went in tune with the performance but was also well received.

It has been seven years since you have revived and been performing Dastangoi. You have performed in various parts of the country. So, are there attempts of artists of other languages using this form- Dastangoi- to tell the stories in and of their language?

MF: No. But it can be done. If we can tell the story Ghare Baire in Urdu why can’t the Bengalis narrate it in Bengali? It might pick up sometime because it is low cost theater and an interesting one too.

This one is for you Mahmood Farooqui. How do you divide your time? The roles of a Dastango, a historian, a filmmaker all demand different kind of preoccupation and outlook.

MF : (laughs) I am being pulled by both my legs these days. The role of a filmmaker is different. But the role of historian and a Dastango flow into each other. A Dastango should know about everything. The last major Dastango Mir Baqar Ali used to attend anatomy classes though not a medical student. That is because if you are narrating a story where you need to describe the body you should know about it thoroughly. In that way the interest in history actually strengthens the performance of Dastangoi for me.

(An edited version of this interview was published in The Hindu, Friday Review on 22 June 2012)

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