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.