The Fine Art Of Making Stories Come Alive
A new form of entertainment has evolved out of Dastangoi Collective’s creative energy
The night is bathed in a balm of musk, crowned with stars like diamond and sailing across the sky, giggling to the sorrowful tinkle of anklets made of flowers in deep purple… When hearts sunk into the bosom sigh and wait for the hand hidden behind sleeves to stir.
It is in similar seasons of darkness that ‘Tilism-e- Hoshruba’, a 19th Century text is able to uplift the spirits and wake up the senses with its display of many tricks and chicanery on stage.
‘Tilism-e-Hoshruba’ means such magic, such enchantment that it is able to sweep the senses away. The 10-volume ‘Tilism-e Hoshruba’ is only one part of the Amir Hamza stories.
That is why all roads in Mumbai led to the iconic Prithvi Theatre recently where producer Anusha Rizvi hosted a three day festival of six Dastangoi performances. Despite a heavy downpour, bureaucrat Vibha came to witness the Dastangoi performance for the first time in her life.
“I love theatre and my workplace is close by. I often come for a show at the Prithvi Theatre after office hours. I don’t know much about the art of Dastangoi but I am curious to find out more about this kind of performance,” Vibha told The Citizen as we stood in a long line waiting for the doors of the theatre to open.
The performances over three days showcased the story of Karn, the warrior from the ‘Mahabharata’, the adventures of the Arab hero Amir Hamza, Jallianwala Bagh, Saadat Hasan Manto and ‘Raag Darbari’, a novel written by the late bureaucrat Shrilal Shukla in 1968.
Actor Kunal Kapoor was already inside the auditorium. Kunal is the eldest son of the late actors Jennifer, and Shashi Kapoor. He sat in the audience and said that he tries to see as many performances as possible at the Prithvi Theatre.
He is a trustee of the Shri Prithviraj Kapoor Memorial Trust and Research Foundation and he looks after the day to day affairs of the theatre named after his paternal grandfather who had founded the theatre company in 1942 as a travelling troupe.
It was the dream of the thespian to have a permanent home for his theatre activities and with that purpose he had bought land in Juhu. But Prithviraj died in 1972, and it was left to his children to make his dream become a reality and to build the present auditorium that was inaugurated in 1978.
Kunal Kapoor is happy that the Delhi based Dastangoi Collective of Mahmood Farooqi has revived and restored the extinct form of entertainment. He is also pleased that in Mumbai the Dastangoi Collective is performing at the Prithvi Theatre. The packed auditorium included many celebrities including actors Rajat Kapoor and Vinayak Pathak in the audience.
The ‘Dastan’, or oral prose narrative was most popular in the 19th Century when it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. It was the winter of despair as the age-old institution of the monarchy had crumbled away and colonialists were breathing down the neck of South Asians.
But it was also the spring of hope for other things to come, including the immense popularity of the world’s first magical fantasy epic full of marvel and wonder. Like in the world, the stage was crowded with warriors and princesses, transformations and trickeries, love and humour.
Large magical battles and individual magic combats were shared with audiences by some of the most colourful men and women characters in fiction. The Persian ‘Dastan-e Amir Hamza’ had arrived in South India from Iran during the last quarter of the 16th century. In 1590 Emperor Akbar became a fan of the thrilling tales of the adventures of Hamza. Akbar commissioned 1400 paintings to illustrate the stories about Hamza.
It is the nature of the art of oral storytelling that it only grows with each telling. Over time the Arab tales became Persianised stories and by the 19th Century, the Urdu version of the adventures had appeared warm and fresh from the printing press of Munshi Newal Kishore. The Lucknow publisher had printed 46 volumes of the Hamza tales in Urdu as recited to scribes at the press by at least four of its leading local oral storytellers. It is the print version that has immortalised the text.
Covering more than 42,000 closely written pages and containing around 25 million words, the corpus is perhaps the largest written–oral romance in the world. According to historians, ‘Dastangoi’ came to Urdu in the 18th Century and achieved great prominence in the 19th century.
It became even more popular when the oral storytelling tradition was converted into print. But, with the passing of the last great dastango, Mir Baqar Ali, in 1928 the art of oral storytelling had died. Other forms of entertainment like radio, gramophone, bioscope and cinema had appeared to elbow out the art form and also because British influences had turned citizens away from the traditional arts.
‘Tilism-e-Hoshruba’ is a fascinating epic narrative of the adventures of the legendary hero Amir Hamza, a protagonist of a tale originally from the Arab world. Reviewing the magnificent translation of ‘Hoshruba’ by Musharraf Ali Farooqi into English, the Delhi based translator and writer Gillian Wright gushed that once a mere footnote in literary history, Amir Hamza has been very seriously rediscovered now that Random House has published two fat volumes of his adventures translated from the original Urdu.
The latest of these volumes, is full of humour, verve and just the right amount of old-style language to capture the legendary world of Hamza. Hamza’s fight is with Laqa who thinks he is the creator of the world.
Helping the bloated arrogance of Laqa to continue gloating is Afrasiyab Jadoo, ruler of the enchanted kingdom of Hoshruba. On the side of the chivalrous hero Asad, the grandson of Hamza is the supreme trickster Amar with extraordinary props like a cloak of invisibility and a magic pouch filled with parallel worlds. Aided by powerful allies like seductive sorceresses, the good people on earth are eventually able to regain the enchanting kingdom of Hoshruba.
Magical stories from this text were an essential form of entertainment and had enchanted audiences throughout the 19th Century till more forms of entertainment had killed the art in the early decades of the last century. After the death of the last dastango in 1928, the vibrant art of storytelling was lost for nearly a century. An entire way of performance had disappeared from the literary and cultural horizon of the average Urdu speaker as quickly as it had emerged.
In 1980, the late Urdu writer and critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi had chanced upon a book of stories published by the Munshi Newal Kishore Press. He hunted for more and began collecting stories from the 19th century and eventually published them in five volumes between 1998 and 2020.
Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is Mahmood Farooqi’s uncle. The nephew first discovered the Dastan on the bookshelf of his uncle and mentor. Farooqi, the history student, read his first Dastan in 2000 after he had returned from the University of Oxford.
Farooqui was always interested in films and theatre. He combined his studies in history with his passion for Urdu literature. When he read Faruqi’s book on Dastangoi, he was enchanted. He found the stories charmingly theatrical.
They were full of suspense, imagination and exciting plots and he began to think of reviving the dead art of storytelling on stage. He had already decided to make a career in the performing arts and today the writer, performer and director says that his uncle’s research on the Dastangoi was a godsend.
The text helped him decide that storytelling is what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He liked the idea of being a one person theatre company.
Farooqui designed the first contemporary Dastangoi performance in 2005, combining elements from tradition with contemporary stage acting. Soon after he began to train other people in the art form.
He was bowled over by the act of composing stories on the spot and was thrilled to perform them. Memorising lines is a habit with Farooqui as he grew up learning by heart the tables, the verses of the Quran and poetry. He began his research in 2005 and revived the art form of story-telling that was lost for 90 years with the help of his uncle.
Then he set up the Dastangoi Collective, training dozens of story tellers including women like Punam Girdhani who said that the best thing about the art of Dastangoi is that it has taught her to listen to herself.
Meera Rizvi had studied engineering and taught the subject in Mumbai. When she first heard a Dastango narrate a story she wanted to do nothing better in life than to spin yarns. She fell in love with the style of performance of the Dastango.
She left her job and joined the workshops hosted by the Dastangoi Collective to learn the art of telling enchanting stories in the Urdu language. Today her switch to storytelling bewitches audiences wherever she performs.
Farooqui is most inspired by the work of the late Intizar Husain, a great modern Urdu writer who wrote about Hindu mythology, Buddhism and the Jataka stories. Husain was inspired by Kafka and by the Puranas and wrote existential stories as well as reworked folk stories.
He had cared deeply about the environment and about the cruelties of man on nature. Husain was born in India and moved to Pakistan and was accused of nostalgia by some and of being a turncoat by others. Husain has surely influenced the work of Farooqui on stage.
Anusha Rizvi, producer has updated the look of the traditional art form. She has reimagined the night long performances of yore and trimmed scripts to a stage show of about two hours. She has rearranged the sets for the contemporary stage.
She puts a platform centre stage, and covers it with a mattress, flinging a snow white sheet over the seating arrangement. Two bolsters in white covers are arranged for the comfort of at least two storytellers at a time, who appear on stage in starched muslin white robes and trousers, and a white on white embroidered skull cap. This way the stage in white is ever ready to show off the most wicked tales of black magic in the world at each performance.
There is a purpose to living with enchantment and magic in life. It is to make use of the power of imagination and to keep it fresh and fertile. It is to strengthen the possibility that there might be parallel worlds beyond the experience of individuals that are unseen, but often felt.
It is the acceptance that there are many different ways to live life and not just the way each one of us is familiar with in the limited perspective of individuals. Besides, it only enriches life to listen to the stories of others and to have them listen to your story.
Armed with similar ideas Farooqui and his troupe picked different passages from the text of the adventures of Amir Hamza and performed them for almost a decade. Those action-packed, spicy storytelling tales with countless love affairs were laced with ancient stories of daring kidnappings and battles with sorcerers, demons and dragons.
Chivalrous heroes, breathtakingly beautiful princesses, powerful other worldly creatures and demons had floated in and out of the stories.
Over time it was felt that the time was ripe to explore contemporary tales. Under the guidance of Farooqui, today the storyteller has multiple stories in the bag. Apart from stories written by other people about other parts of the world in different times, members of the Dastan Collective are encouraged to tell personal stories of their private world, of their times and about the here and now.
“We are in the process of documenting personal stories,” said Girdhani who performs, but is also working on a script, unfolding her own story.
Writings that zigzag their way between Hindu mythology and mediaeval history with ease is the flavour of the day. Shlokas from the Mahabharata and Urdu poets such as Mir and Ghalib confluence in performances and passages from the ‘Panchatantra’ and the ‘Ramayana’ are woven into each other like embroideries. And the audience loves it all!
Amazing actor Sadia Siddiqi sat in pin drop silence next to me in the auditorium. During the break she said that she has done workshops in Dastango with Farooqui and loves the use of the Urdu language by the storytellers. Indeed it is music to the ears to listen to Farooqui perform Karn, the brave warrior from the Mahabharata.
From the birth of Karn to his death the storyteller holds his audience captive with the language he uses, including Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit and Urdu. The gestures he adopts add to the drama on stage. It is most charming when the actor becomes a tease, stepping out of the character he is playing for a moment to enjoy a little heart-to-heart with the audience.
When Farooqui’s skull cap accidently flew off his head at one performance, he paused to sip some water from a silver bowl and to ask if the audience had not always wondered what lay beneath the cap?
The story of Karn may be from a prehistoric tale but the psychological state of the troubled warrior is timeless and it merits endless visits. Farooqui is mesmerised by the angst and anxiety that Karn had lived with.
Attempts to understand the state of the mind of Karn is what makes the character work for Farooqui. The Dastangoi Collective has also worked on stories about Ambedkar, Buddha and Gandhi.
The Arab and Persian tales were transformed into South Asian stories a long time ago. In the early 19th century at Rampur Mir Ahmad Ali, the Dastango or storyteller at the court of the ruler of Rampur had told South Asian stories in the style of Dastangoi that was further elaborated at Lucknow during the 1870s.
The Hoshruba stories are about three different regions of the obvious world or ‘zahir’, the invisible or batin and the dark world of ‘zulmat’. The ‘zahir’ world is peopled with ordinary human beings, the batin with seers and few had access to the hidden world of ‘zulmat’ which is the home of two powerful sorceresses.
The stories proceed to introduce us to the bottom of an untold past and to sorcerers who defy the laws of God and the physical world. They create illusions, transfer spirits between bodies, transmute matter, make talismans, and create extraordinary marvels in the land of Hoshruba with ravishing beauties, gardens of delight, wine-laden banquets, rhino-riding sorcerers, flying magic claws, and cross-dressing tricksters.
Eventually the enchantment was narrated in Urdu making it the most popular form of entertainment amongst both the pauper and the prince. The text is a priceless treasure of Urdu prose and poetry. There is Persian poetry in the text and a generous pinch of dialogue and poetry from other Indian languages like Awadhi.
Together a new form of entertainment has evolved out of the creative energy of the Dastangoi Collective. About 50 people have been trained in the art and more are waiting. Many of these have made the art of storytelling a full time profession.
The Dastangoi Collective has nearly 800 shows to its credit, including 15 contemporary stories like on ‘Partition', 'Jallianwala Bagh’ and ‘Raag Darbari’. Three books have been published on Dastangoi and it is now performed in Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati to mostly enthusiastic audiences, making sure that the tale never ends.