Category Archives: Bangalore

Dastangoi

India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) recently brought down Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain for a Dastangoi performance. Dastangoi is a tradition of oral story-telling, which goes back a gadzillion years to medieval Iran. The dastan-gohs (narrators), inspired by the Shahnama—a story of kings composed in verse by the famous poet, Firdausi — recited tales wherever they found willing listeners. The stories revolved around commonly loved themes. Brave princes. Evil kings. Lovable tricksters called ‘ayyars’. Then there was the usual assortment of demons, magicians, jinns and other evil people. Dan (as Husain is popularly known) and Farooqui have resuscitated this dying art and have been performing for a couple of years, but I think this was their first time in Bangalore.

I tend to believe I’m a bit aurally challenged. Hearing tests have said that my hearing is perfectly sound but what do they know? Gah. In any case, I usually prefer to read rather than listen. Which is why I was faintly skeptical about a Dastangoi performance. I mean, I had heard only good things but would they really hold my attention with two hours of story-telling? I was happily gobsmacked to find that they did indeed.

The stories Hussain and Farooqui perform are mainly from the Dastan-e-Amir-Hamza and the first episode was a story in which Amar Ayyar cleverly tricks a jadugar and gets into his palace by pretending to be a woman. Early on, Farooqui told us not to balk if we didn’t get all the words. A necessary warning in Bangalore where many people don’t know Hindi, and therefore would find it harder to understand Urdu. ‘Hold the thread of the story’ and you’ll be fine, he said. At least, that’s what I understood. And going by the post-performance discussion, that seemed to have worked well for most people. With my limited exposure to Hindustani, I missed some of the more poetic descriptions. But I found that it didn’t matter too much. Urdu is such a mellifluous language; I just let the words wash over me, enjoying their warm soothe, trying to hold on to the thread like he said.

When the Amir Hamza story ended in a little more than an hour, I wondered if attention would flag. It may have if they had continued on a similar tack. I like clever con artists and stupid, vain villains just as much as the next person, but I need to close the book on them at intervals. But they quickly launched into a very different type of story — a script they have written themselves about the Partition. Using an ancient art form to communicate something with so much contextual relevance is clever and, if not done well, can fall flat on its face. But they did it well. So well in fact that I found myself moved anew by their narrative on corpse-filled trains, lost houses, abducted women. These are stories one has heard before and there is the danger of feeling jaded. But there was an intensity they brought to the telling, an authenticity to the characters they spoke about that was engaging. I saw many women surreptitiously wiping their eyes when they talked about how abducted women chose the protection of the rapists and kidnappers because things could be so much worse.

Farooqui says in this interview:

The Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, which runs into 46 volumes, is ostensibly about the life of Hamza, the paternal uncle of the Holy Prophet Mohammad. At one level, it purports to be an account of the triumph of Islamic armies over infidels and worshippers of other Gods. But in its essence, it is a highly secular narrative. Its modern day equivalent would be Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or even Hindi cinema. Its world is fascinating, full of magic and sorcery and tricksters, tilisms governed by fantastical characters and qualities. It is an unstoppable riot of names, places, scenes, descriptions, battles, love-making, seduction. It is really about letting go.

There was a sense of this ‘letting go’ that they brought to their Dastangoi performance. They used plenty of tonal shifts to ensure that the telling did not become a drone, but in places they were also frankly loud or emotive. In one scene, they did a hammy crying routine. Quite over-the-top and utterly hilarious. Yet, in places, they were restrained. And it was this careful control over the tension between emotional spill and subtlety that gave the performance texture. Dastangoi itself, as an art form, lies somewhere in between recitation and theatre, and stepping stealthily in between these lines is something that probably defines its success.

The duo worked well together. At a very obvious level, their voices complemented each other. When one picked up from where the other left off, there was a pleasing shift, not jarring but clear. There was something underlying as well. They were dressed alike and there was no conscious effort to delineate themselves but each had a strong, distinctive personality, which made for nice interplay. For instance, Dan (or his dastan-goh persona) seemed more self-assuredly aware of his own cunning and it made sense when he impersonated a beautiful woman to get into the jadugar’s palace. Farooqui’s quiet thoughtfulness was excellent for the second part when he read out the correspondence between a Hindu in India and a Muslim in Pakistan on the insurance papers one has left behind.

On an entirely separate note, ITC Windsor had set up a cute, little stage with bolsters and all but I couldn’t help imagining how a more baithak-style gathering would have felt. Of course, it would be hard to fit as many people in. But maybe, next time. Anyway, afterwards, I did what I normally do when I’ve enjoyed a performance. I retreated into a corner with my drink. And refused to socialise like other nice people do. And had to apologise for my rudeness to Dan on FB. But all that’s another self-indulgent story and I will get into it in another post.

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You’re invited…

So, this Saturday, some of us will be reading / performing poetry. The event has been organised by Unisun to showcase the poems in their upcoming anthology. Jeet Thayil will be performing some of his poems. I will read one of Meena Kandasamy’s poems and two of my own. The Rajas will be performing some of the other poems featured in the anthology. Should be fun. Drop by if you can.

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Poetry and bombs

These are poetry days and I’m swimming in it. The Toto Funds the Arts (TFA) monthly poetry reading happened yesterday and Keki Daruwalla read. (For those who don’t know, TFA organises poetry readings once a month at Crossword book shop.) The other poet who was supposed to read with him, Trina Nileena Banerjee, couldn’t make the trip from Kolkata and had to cancel. So three of us, who are participating in Keki’s writing workshop, read some poetry instead. More about the workshop later but first, the reading.

Keki read a range of his poems — environmental, political, personal. What strikes me most about Keki’s poetry is his variety of subject matter. He has tackled such diverse themes and, while doing so, varied tone and style so comfortably. He also used some interesting techniques during the reading to make his poems more accessible to a listener. (And the key word here is ‘listener’ as opposed to reader.) He started with the shorter poems and then moved on to longer poems. It makes it easier for the listener to “digest the poems”, he said. He explained context often, sometimes even interrupting himself in the middle of poems to do so. He repeated lines that he felt he hadn’t read well the first time. During the discussion session, he was firm about his beliefs without being abrasive. And he quoted extensively. Entire poems. In this rhythmic, foot-tapping way with a beatific smile on his face.

You can read some of his poems online here and here.

My reading went off smoothly enough. I think. Which basically means that I’m getting more used to it. There is something to be said for the more immediate experience of reading out poetry and having people respond to it there and then, as opposed to just writing it and sending it out into the void.

The other readers were Parvati Sharma and Madhulika Desai. Parvati’s a friend and it was lovely to see her read her poetry. At her last reading, she read an extract from her short story and both times, she connected with the audience in an amazing way. Her writing is clear and honest and says unexpected things without being gimmicky about it. Madhulika was very confident considering it was her first reading.

Now, the workshop. It’s being conducted by Keki and Anjum Hasan (another poet I admire a lot). It’s over three whole days and there are about twelve of us. I’m exhausted after the first day but have written three poems in a day after a long time, which is the power of writing on tap. It’s commonly said that nobody can teach you how to write and I believe that but having a space to flex your writing muscles is a terrific thing. It clarifies. It concentrates. I wish I had the luxury of doing this more often.

But also, this was not an ordinary day of workshopping. You know what happened in Bangalore today so here’s another, slightly refractional view of it.

A little after lunch, one of the participants passed a note to Anjum and almost immediately, as if on cue, our phones started ringing. The note said there had been bomb blasts in the city. Of course, there was some fluttering — phone calls (which didn’t go anywhere much because all the lines were jammed) and some discussion on what we should do. We were stuck in Centre for Social and Cultural Studies in Jayanagar, which is a fairly quiet place, and there had been no bombs blasting nearby. But the sense of general panic could not be ignored. And everyone was worried about how they would get home.

Finally, unanimously, we decided to go on until 5, which is what we had scheduled. What surprised me is how we went back to the workshop almost seamlessly. I don’t know what this says — that writers are used to isolating themselves from what’s happening around them, that they thrive on stress and tragedy, or simply that when people have no other way to respond to a crisis, they will continue with life. Later, we discussed Yehudi Amichai’s Diameter of a Bomb

The Diameter of the Bomb

~ Yehudi Amichai

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making

a circle with no end and no God.

Outside, there was chaos for some time but by the time we came out at 5, things were calmer. At least, outwardly.

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Pictures of Bengaluru Pride

I’m not the kind of person who likes participating in marches. Most of the time, I’m not sure what difference they’ll make. But in a country where homosexuality is still illegal, the sheer visibility of the gay pride parade on Sunday made it something worth talking about. (It was Bangalore’s first gay pride parade.) And because sexual freedom is something I feel strongly about, I actually stirred myself (and A) post lunch and made it to JC Road where we joined the parade halfway.

Guesstimates of how many would turn up had ranged from 50 to 1000. The actual number was 500, which most of us agreed was not bad. This consisted of gays, lesbians, hijras, kothis and many straight people who wanted to express solidarity. The mood was an edgy mix of defiance and celebration; lots of colourful flags swished in the breeze; and while some faces were masked, others were joyfully bare. The media had turned up in droves and the police were surprisingly un-troublesome. Here are some snapshots…


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About Ram, Anurupa Roy and Puppeteering

Published in The Hindu today.

“I am fascinated by the relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet,” says Anurupa Roy, founder of Kat Katha and director of About Ram, a new media theatre presentation that had the audience spellbound when it played recently as part of the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) New Performance Festival. Produced by Kat Katha in collaboration with Vishal Dar, About Ram germinated three years ago when Roy watched a Balinese Ramayan. “Watching the Balinese version made me realise that the story changes as it travels,” she explains. “As it travels, it takes on different nuances. I started studying different versions of the Ramayana and came across Bhavabhuti’s Ramayana, which looks at it as the ultimate, tragic love story. It revolves around the theme of universal loneliness—that each human being is ultimately alone. So when Ram chooses kingdom over Sita, the last lines of the poem say ‘he ruled for ten thousand years—alone’.” Continue reading

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Gieve Patel and poetry with young people

Originally published in The Hindu.

“Poetry may be the most misunderstood of genres among the arts.” So says poet and plawright Gieve Patel in his introduction to Poetry with Young People (Sahitya Academi, Rs 100), an anthology introduced and edited by him. Featuring over a hundred poems written during Patel’s workshops at Rishi Valley School over the last decade, the anthology is emblematic of his success in demystifying this misunderstood art. Continue reading

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