Dastangoi Revival:The Story so FarThe Re-discovered Art of Urdu Storytelling

In August 2002, my producer Anusha Rizvi and I had our first encounter with the Dastan-e Amir Hamza. Although I had been an avid reader of Urdu fiction and had even formally studied it for my M Phil dissertation I had never actually read a Dastan nor had I paid any heed to the genre. In that year S. R. Faruqi, Urdu’s greatest living writer and the leading scholar of the form, asked me to help out somebody who was interested in making a film on the subject. Although the film never got made, I read the first volume of his marvelous study of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza which was called Saheri, Shahi, Saheb Qirani: Dastan-e Amir Hamza ka Mutala. I was overwhelmed with the richness of the form, the incredible vitality of the tradition and the breathtaking quality and length of the stories and narratives that were produced by the tradition. The actor in me was awed by performers who could act, mimic, impersonate, ventriloquise, recite beautifully and also generate their own material. I wrote about it, discussed it with whoever would care to discuss it, toyed with the idea of making a documentary on it. I kept returning to it without any clear idea of what I could do with it or to it.

It was not until 2004 that I actually attempted to engage seriously with Dastangoi. I became a Sarai fellow that year with the intention of collecting material for a documentary on the tradition. It was only then that I actually approached the actual Dastan, or more precisely the Tilism-e Hoshruba, its most famous section, and when I did so, I found it an exhilarating experience, both as an Urdu lover as well as a theatre actor. The lines were literally crying out to be read aloud. But creating a performance was still far from my mind. During the course of that fellowship as I read more I realized that rather than looking at them merely as a literary achievement, I would have to situate them in performance. Midway through that I was given an opportunity by the India International Centre to present a lecture demonstration on the form. It was while devising that lecture demonstration that I first explored the possibility of actually performing the text. The best way to demonstrate its prowess was to actually let the text speak.

Traditional Dastangoi was restricted to a single performer. The innovation I made was to rope in another actor so that we would alternate our recitations and participate as listeners to each other’s stories. The partner I chose for this first performance was Himanshu Tyagi, who had been with me at school and had had an extensive training in theatre. Due to the neglect of the form we had very little information about the actual practice of the Art. How did Dastangos sit, how much did they move around, what were individual stylistic feats, did they have breaks, how was audience arranged, did they sing out the poetry, none of these things were very clear. Working closely with Faruqi Saheb and drawing on our experiences as theatre actors, we devised our way to putting together a one hour show.

The first modern Dastangoi performance took place on 4th May 2005 at the India International Auditorium. There were a lot of Urdu writers and journalists, apart from some theatre goers and the members of the centre. From the very beginning the descriptions began to evoke a spontaneous wave of enthusiasm from the audience, soon enough the hall was swinging to wah-wahis and we were borne aloft in this vocal and passionate response to our presentation. What was brought amply home was the vitality of the texts and their ability to regale contemporary audiences. But this was still a predominantly Urdu crowd, how would non-Urdu speakers react to it? I next gave a solo performance at Sarai at the annual fellows workshop and it was a largely non-Urdu, even non-Hindi crowd and they responded to it differently, not so much to the nuances of the language as to the twists and turns of the plot. The India International Centre invited us to perform again, this time at their first annual festival of the Arts and that ratified our effort further.


One of the earliest Dastangoi performances,
here Himanshu Tyagi recites from Tilism-e Hoshruba at the first ever IIC festival in 2005

But in those initial moments my greatest moment of satisfaction as a Dastango came at an unusual venue to an unusual audience. I did a solo show for a group of children from the Spastics Society of India at the steps of the Jama Masjid. The children responded magnificently to the story, in spit of the noise and the crowds and the incidental group of observers who gathered to hear the story provided further joy.

Dastangoi Revival-The Story so Far
Since then, we have worked with innumerable people. Apart from innovating on the form by bringing two performers, I have also worked with several woman narrators. I have trained dozens of performers many of whom have gone on to become celebrated Dastangos in their own right. I have created new stories for the form. We have altogether performed over fifteen hundred shows in different spaces, cities and countries. These include, the Kala Ghoda festival, Bandra Festival, Mumbai, the Jaipur Literary Festival, the Virasat Festival at Dehradun, the Asia Society Muslim Voices Festival in New York, the National School of Drama annual festival Bharat Rang Mahotsav, performances at Colleges in Delhi under the aegis of the SPIC-MACAY society, the Khuda Bakhsh Library at Patna, the Aligarh Muslim University, Jawahar Lal Nehru Univeristy, the NCPA experimental auditorium at Bombay, the Habitat Centre at Delhi, at Prithvi Theatre Bombay on the invitation of Naseeruddin Shah and his group Motley, shows at Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore on the invitation of the Citizens Foundation of Pakistan, and Faizghar, Lahore, and numerous other performances at Delhi, Jaipur, Bangalore, Calcutta, Chennai and even Kerala.

We have performed at Colleges, universities, at literary departments, to regular theatre going audiences and we have unfailingly met with an enthusiastic response. While the appreciation and feel for language varies from place to place, almost everybody enjoys the twists and turns of the story that are a hallmark of the oral tradition. The tropes of the story- the triumph of the hero over the villain, the combination of different rasas in one single story, the descriptions of magic, the womenspeak, the role of the sidekicks, find a ready response also because they are so much a part of our contemporary imagination through Hindi cinema which subsumed many of the Dastani variants. Films like Hatim Tai and serials like Betal Pachisi and Chandrakanta have provided a continuity of contact with the Dastani tradition. Then there are others who respond to our performance purely from a theatrical point of view, to the possibilities of drama without props, of creating tension without effects and to the simplicity of the form-two narrators on a bare stage, usually still, dependent wholly on their voices, face and gestures to create drama. This is theatrical storytelling, where it is difficult to determine where enactment stops and narration begins, or where acting takes over from recitation and mimicry from reporting.

We usually perform stories from the Tilism-e Hoshruba, the most well known chapter of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza, and one which is still in print, although it is a misnomer to refer to something as a chapter which extends over eight hefty volumes. But the oral nature of the texts means that we could pick up stories from any part and recite it, repetition and circularity being important devices in oral traditions, since linearity is not the of highest priority for the rendition. The way we work in practice is to study and scan portions from the published texts, edit it down to a stand alone half an hour capsule and then hone it in rehearsals to create a story which can be performed anywhere.

Simultaneously, I have tried to improvise on the form and use it to service different concerns and tastes. Having already innovated on the form by using two performers, I have tried to experiment on the content as well. At a special event to raise funds for a worker activist from Punjab whose limbs had been chopped off by upper caste landlords, we tried to create a Dastan, in the existing form, which would incorporate Bant Singh’s story, accounts of caste oppression and the situation in contemporary Punjab. The show was successful in communicating itself and its concerns even to sections of the audience which had come from rural Punjab. Earlier in 2007 we were invited by Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan Books at the Habitat Centre and Zubaan books to create a Dastangoi performance on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the partition of India. We were preceded at that show by Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi, the Pakistani theatre group Ajoka also participated in that evening. Our presentation centred aound an allegorical retelling of some of the most memorable fiction around the theme of partition. We re-presented older stories or composed new ones like the old and groped our way to a form which was a combination of the dialogic, stand up comic, storytelling and ritual lamentation.

Since then other celebrated modern Dastans have included works centering around the partition of the country, on the sedition laws, on the life and times of Saadat Hasan Manto, on the legend of Raja Vikram, an adapation of Tagore’s Ghare Baire, adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and the Little Prince, an epic adaptation of the life of Karna from Mahabharata and several other productions that have gone on to have a life of their own. Today, we perform both the traditional stories and modern ones with equal elan and most members of our team have achieved some dexterity in juggling between them.

Importance of Dastangoi for our times
Dastangoi is a form of storytelling, a specific form of it which has been honed for centuries by practitioners. At the same time it is also a form of theatre, which relies on intense performances by actors. It can be used to perform traditional stories, created by the Dastangos of the past, and it can also be successfully used to tell contemporary stories. As a performing art, it extends the boundaries of poetic recitation and takes it to the level of performance, as a form of narration it extends to dramatized rendition, and as a form of storytelling it extends to drama through the device of using two actors. Given the history of neglect of the form and given that there has been no known Dastango in the last seventy years, it is important to resurrect a practice that has now been lost to us. But at the same time, it is an important theatrical genre for our times, one that has the potential to transcend the proscenia and reach out to the masses. The simplicity of the form means that it can be performed with equal felicity at a street-side corner or in a proper auditorium. Instead of imposing a given product on the audience which they should passively receive, it invites them to be an active participant in the process of the creation by setting up constant dialogue with them and by resorting to direct addresses to them. At a time when theatre in India is struggling to create new forms and to generate new contents for itself, the importance of Dastangoi as a form which contains both need hardly be emphasized. We have shown the vitality of the tradition by creating new Dastans which can speak more directly of and to our times.

At the same time there is much to be said about the stories generated by the Dastangos of yore. It was the practice which generated texts and it would obviously have been some practice which could generate texts of this size, speculated by some to be the longest fictional narrative ever composed anywhere. The stories in themselves share all the conventions and devices used in the immense storytelling repertoire of the Indic tradition. Dastangoi shares parallels with Mahabharata and the Odyssey, as also with medieval fables and qissas but it is also a world onto its own, a teeming universe of beings, objects, spaces and realms. Ostensibly the story of Islamic conquests over non-Islamic peoples, its treatment could not be more profane or secular. The deployment of revered Islamic figures into a secular, fictional narrative, in the most casual way possible, would seem a highly revolutionary act from the perspective of today. And then to invest those figures with a life which freely breaks many Islamic taboos is further evidence that the audiences of the past reacted much more freely to entertainment than we do today. To take just one example, the Muslims in these stories drink very regularly, but they only drink ‘Islami sharab,’ and they have conjugal relations with several women, many of whom are not Muslims. The attitude to body and to bawdiness, to humor and to the realm of the possible is of a kind that is difficult to find in latter day Urdu prose. The stories can cater to high literary tastes as well as plebeian ones. With their teeming worlds, they are also a repository of social mores and norms of the medieval era. The descriptions of fairs, religious events, musical soirees, market places and the representation of all classes and castes and professions of peoples makes the Dastan-e Amir Hamza an invaluable source for learning about our selves in the pre-colonial era.

The Dastan-e Amir Hamza is a highly important chapter of our literary, performative and fictional history. Its neglect is not the neglect of Dastans alone but also of several other forms of performances and creations which have today been entirely lost to us. The art of bhandgiri and its subsequent denigration is something that comes instantaneously to mind, but there was also the amazing world of Parsi theatre, of the theatrical forms of nautanki, swang, naqqali which have been systematically degraded because of the reformist zeal unleashed by colonization. Its excavation and revival is also a way of reconnecting with the self which has been rent asunder by the recasting of our minds, bodies and cultures by a process of an unequal interaction with the hegemonic west.

In the years to come we hope that our team will be able to provide our audiences with stories and tales from different eras, different traditions and genres. We hope to retain the richness of the traditional stories and also to be able to tell stories more urgently demanded by our times.

Raah-e Mazmun-e Taza Band Nahi
Ta Qayamat khula hai Baab-e Sukhan

The path to new themes is never shut
The gateway of speech is open till the day of Judgment