Whatever form it takes, a story is nothing less than a shared experience. In an era of digital technology and social media, when culture is increasingly savoured in isolation through a pair of headphones, and the pleasures of direct experience have been forsaken, a new generation of Indian storytellers is exploring almost forgotten tales, and bringing back true power of stories through dastangoi, a 13th-century art of storytelling.
Distinct from theatre, this dramatic Urdu oral tradition, especially the range and vulnerability of the human voice, make it comes closest to expressing pure emotion.
“In times of fake news, fact-distorting and rising societal disruption, stories are the thing we need most in the world,” says Danish Hussain, an actor, poet and an exponent of dastangoi credited with reviving the art form. “Everyone loves a good story, and storytelling will always be an integral part of the human experience.”
A means of cementing community bonds and passing folk narratives on to the next generation, dastangoi — which originated in Persia, travelled to Delhi, Lucknow and other parts of India with the spread of Islam in the 11th century — was ubiquitous in India’s culture until 19th century.
However, in the early 20th century, the art form lost its appeal owing to shrinking audiences and the death of the last known dastangoi practitioner Mir Baqar Ali Dehlavi in 1928.
Now it is slowly seeping back into popular consciousness. The reason, its exponents say, is that it is storytelling at its most vivid, with no sets or props, visuals or music. A dastango (storyteller), dressed in a white kurta (a long tunic-like shirt) and pyjamas, befitting 19th-century elegance, sits on a sparse, white couch, with few bolsters thrown in, and in chaste Urdu recreates age-old fantastical stories, with two of the simplest rhyming patterns — the couplet and the quatrain.
Fouzia Dastango, India’s first female dastangoi artist, received glowing reviews when she first performed in 2006. Over the last decade, she has lent immense depth and variety to the art form, elevating stories of eminent Urdu writers into compelling performances — bringing each one fleetingly to life through the inventive use of voice, pitch, throw and tone.
“Dastangoi chose me,” says Fouzia. “I was born in the Pahari Bhojla locality of Old Delhi, the place where Mir Baqar Ali lived and breathed his last. Every nook and corner of the walled city has interesting dastans [stories], and I have grown up listening to them.”
To her, conveying the intensity and intimacy of the epic tales seemed natural and easy growing up in cultural vibrancy of Old Delhi. “The language and accent that I heard and learnt is prominent in my performances,” says Fouzia, who has carved a space for herself in dastangoi using her strong knowledge of the Urdu language. “I try to stick to the traditional form.”
Everyone loves a good story, and storytelling will always be an integral part of the human experience.
The first modern dastangoi performance was staged by writer-director Mahmood Farooqui and actor Himanshu Tyagi, after years of research and drafting, in Delhi in 2005. A few months later, Hussain and Farooqui travelled across India and abroad, mesmerising the audience with fantastic stories of fairies and sorcerers, kings and slaves, and clairvoyants and winged steeds. They became the most popular contemporary dastango-duo.
“When we first arrived on the scene, we did not know of any living practitioner of dastangoi. There was barely any information about the actual practices of the art,” says Hussain. “For the longest time Natya Shastra (a Sanskrit text on the performing arts) was the only treatise on the performing arts in India… That made our task difficult.”
Comprehensive manuals on dastangoi, especially Abdul Nabi Fakhr Al Zamani’s Tiraz al-akhbar (The Embroidery of Tales) in 17th century, are difficult to access, says Hussain. “Some are in the libraries in Iran. But sparse mention of the performing art in Ghalib Lakhnavi’s The Adventures of Amir Hamza, Abdul Halim Sharar’s Guzishta Lucknow, and in few other writings helped us to get to grips with dastangoi.”
In modern times, writings of poet and an Urdu critic Shamsur Rahman Farooqi and Frances Pritchett, who teaches and writes about modern South Asian literature at Columbia University, have been most enabling, Hussain adds.
Questions about the relevance of the oral tradition are not new. In the late 19th century, many began writing down “vanishing” oral traditions. In the early 20th century, further folk stories were captured by wire recorders, then movie cameras. Books and digital recorders, many assumed, were destined to take the place of storytellers.
But oral traditions have not disappeared. The settings may have changed now but dastangoi’s power remains. The art form has evolved. “Dastangoi was a solo act in ancient times but to introduce theatricality in the performance, improve audience engagement, and make it richer in terms of presentation, it’s now been made into a two-person show.”
Rather than devaluing the traditional approach, it just shows there is another way of doing it,” says Hussain, who has now expanded the art form to include other languages and styles, and termed it Qissebaazi (storytelling). “With time, we will see more new innovations.”
To make the storytelling effective, content, performance, space and context are important while research, drafting and preparation of a story depends on the subject matter, and varies considerably from a couple of years to a couple of months. “Some subjects require long and intense research. Once a dastan is ready, we need at least a month of rehearsal for a rich artistic performance, full of nuance,” says Hussain.
To Fouzia, who has narrated varied stories of Sufi musician and poet Amir Khusrau and iconic writer Ismat Chugtai to Sanskrit epic Mahabharata in the last 12 years, content is king. “Stories have to be impactful. Telling the right stories, with interesting messages, can keep the audience on the edge of their seats until the end.”
But the immediacy of the moment changes from one telling to the next depending on the voice and mood of the dastango, the place of its telling, the response of the audience. The story breathes with the teller’s breath.
Traditionally, the content of dastangoi was made up of war, magic and adventures of Amir Hamza. “The charm of the classic Amir Hamza tales is still there, but modern dastans resonate better with the audience because of the language and content,” says Hussain, who, along with Farooqui, broke away from conventional subjects and told stories on India’s partition written by daring Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto. They narrated dastans on the Dalit poet Bant Singh, and on the incarceration of doctor-activist Binayak Sen.
According to Hussain, while dastangoi is seen as a highly entertaining form, its essence also involves an engagement with politics. “We are never free from politics, as in the choices we make in terms of language, faith, attire and identity assertion.”
“Literature, art, poetry, history and culture are also inherent in this art form,” he adds.
“In the last 13 years, I have performed in over 500 shows in India, Pakistan, UAE, US, Canada and Australia, and always been bowled over by the response,” says Hussain.
The power of literature to engage, the special kind of intimacy gained from a communal experience, direct connection between an artist and the audience, and the ability to communicate with so many different people, says Fouzia, is the power of sharing a story. “The best thing is that I get to reach out to a variety of people, and many are visibly moved by the experience.”
There is undoubtedly an appetite for dastangoi as performers reach out to new audiences. It seemed to tap into something — a kind of long-forgotten tradition that many still felt in their bones.
But while there has been a welcome resurgence of the art form over the past decade, it will need “churning” for few more years before it becomes a practicing genre, Hussain says. “However, the fact that dastangoi has attracted artists from all backgrounds, from Fouzia and Valentina Trivedi, who are involved with teaching and activism, to actor like Kafeel Jafri, is very encouraging,” adds Hussain who performed with veteran Bollywood and theatre actor Naseeruddin Shah in New York few years ago.
It’s an art form that has to be nurtured with patience and time, just like Indian classical dance Kathak, or Sufi devotional music Qawwali, says Hussain. “It is not something you can do for a show or two and then move on. It demands commitment. And like wine, it gets better with age and experience.”
Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.