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SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 23 MARCH, 2017

Ismat Chughtai And the Lost Art Of Dastangoi


Recently, a small slice of Kolkata lovers of cultural events will be witness to an unique event. The Alka Jalan Foundation will be presenting a beautiful Dastangoi performance on March 25th where the dastangos or storytellers will be reciting the story Gharwali by Ismat Chugtai. The story turns the very concept related to marriage, man-woman relationships – sexual, emotional and social, on its head to offer a different perspective on these. Considering that Chughtai, one of the most radical writers of her time, wrote this story way back in the 1940s, one is amazed by her futuristic look at women and their questioning of codes set for them by patriarchy.

What precisely is a dastangoi performance? Dastan means “story” while “goi” stands for “telling a tale,” Taken together, this means the art of telling a story. This story was performed by Sunil Mehra, a Delhi based author, journalist, curator, filmmaker, social commentator and Askari Zaidi , a Lucknow based lawyer, human rights activist and a celebrated exponent of Sozkhwani : a lyric recounting of the tragedy of the Karbala.

Not many culture aficionados who live beyond Delhi and Lucknow and other Muslim-dominated cities are familiar with the performing art of Dastangoi. The art form reached its zenith in the Indian sub-continent in the 19th century and is said to have died with the demise of Mir Baqar Ali in 1928. Indian poet and Urdu critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and his nephew, writer, director Mahmood Farooqui, have played significant roles in its revival in the 21st century.

At the centre of dastangoi is the dastango, or storyteller, whose voice is his main artistic tool in orally recreating the dastan or the story. Notable 19th-century dastangos included Amba Prasad Rasa, Mir Ahmad Ali Rampuri, Muhammad Amir Khan and Syed Husain Jah. It is performed in Urdu which is sometimes simplified for a wider audience that does not know Urdu but this also opens the linguistic visions of culture by perpetuating the beauty of Urdu as a language.

The traditional “dastans,” or stories, were tales of war, magic and adventures that revolved around the adventures of Amir Hamza, titled “Dastan-e-Amir Hamza,” a man said to be an uncle of the prophet Muhammad. But these two artists broke away from this tradition by venturing into a relatively different area of performance with their choice of subject - a short story penned by Ismat Chughtai several decades ago with a woman as the protagonist of the story. Earlier, two stalwarts of dastangoi, namely, Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Hussain broke away from conventional subjects and set this new trend by telling stories authored by Sadat Hasan Manto under the title Mantoiyat. 

Sunil Mehra and Askari Zaidi will be wearing beautifully tailored kurtas that are a slight variation on the angarkha, embroidered in white thread, with the traditional cap perched on their heads and begin with a brief introduction to their recital that has no props, no music, no song and no theatrical styles of presentation.

They will seat themselves in the traditional kneeling position adopted by quawali singers and without much hand movements or gestures, they naturally recite the story bringing back the typical tongue-in-cheek humour Chughtai spelt out in her short stories that were way before their time. Gharwali is just one example of the many short stories she wrote and was socially castigated and was also tried for obscenity for her short story Lihaaf.

Gharwalli is about a young woman who breaks every ‘law” in the book of morality strictly for women simply because she is not even aware of them and so, not scared to break them. Analysed today, it would be considered a powerful critique of patriarchy and a tongue-in-cheek satire presented through a woman, Lajjo, an illegitimate, illiterate orphan who works as a domestic maid and sleeps with men not necessarily for money but because she enjoys sex. She does not resist the suspicious and sensual advances by the local men when she comes to work for Mirza Saheb, an ageing bachelor who runs a grocery nearby.

Just with slight changes in voice, pitch, throw and tone, invested with inflections that spell out the emotions just so, the right pauses and a slight turning of a head this way, the two dastangos bring out the beautiful radical tone of the story that also flesh out the main characters of Mirza, Lajjo and the other cameo characters.

The two perform in perfect harmony and the manner they narrate the story t from memory without any frame of reference is astounding for one who is watching dastangoi for the first time. They chuckle, they laugh, they entertain and they push you to laugh when you listen to the very sarcastic manner they take you to the culmination of what “gharwali” really means! Gharwalli is an ironical term in one sense, because no woman is really the master of the house of which she is the prime female member. Lajjo realises this and is thrilled when Mirza utters talaq three times and throws her out of the house.

She cherishes freedom that marriage denies every woman. But when he finds the house in complete disarray after she has gone, he repents and she comes back. He embraces his “gharwali”. While Mirza was her lover, he adored her and did not dictate terms to her and did not bother about the gossip around her. But once he took her for his begum, he began to treat her like property and she did not like this. All this is brought out with a humorous undercurrent that does not make the story sad or sentimental at any time.

The Urdu is quite comprehensible for those who know good Hindi. The dastangoi is generously peppered and spiked with sexual innuendo that does not hurt or sound vulgar at any point.

There is another edge to this performance. This story, authored by a woman, with the central character a woman, is being performed by two men! This is an underscoring of one characteristic feature of Chughtai’s writings. She was very democratic in her writings and did not distinguish between men and women. If her men appear to be feudal and demanding and autocratic, this is because that is how they were brought up and that is what they understood as being “Men.”

This is one reason that led to the tremendous popularity of Naseeruddin’s Shah’s theatrical performance of Gharwali in which he played both Mirza and Lajjo. This was a part of his group Motley’s portrayal of Ismat Apa Ke Naam.

Naseeruddin has rightly said, “She would always talk of dysfunctional relationships. She would write about the less privileged. She has written a story about a bhangan, a jamadarni. She’s written about an Englishman who refuses to leave India after Independence because he was in love with a prostitute and ends up dying on the streets, a penniless beggar. These kind of things were shocking back then. She writes about child abuse, about childbirth on the train—the kind of things we read about in the papers now. Her writing is universal.”

It is remarkable for these two dastangos, Sunil Mehra and Askari Zaidi chose this writer to bring to us, who have loved Chughtai’s stories and more importantly, motivating those who have not read her, to rush to the nearest bookstore to buy a copy of her short stories translated beautifully in English.

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