Published in SouthAsia (June 2009)
Two men dressed in white are seated on a stage. One of them speaks poetically in Urdu with a hint of Persian, making smooth gestures with his hands. The other looks on and then speaks, adding drama and dynamism to the performance.
The scene belongs to a dastangoi performance. The lost art of storytelling, dastangoi was popular as early as the ninth century, in medieval Iran (Persia). It was appreciated by the elite as well as the common man.
The tales (dastan) were originally composed in Persian but different versions gradually spread in all languages of the Islamic world, such as in Indonesia, Azerbaijan, East Bengal, Constantinople and so on. These tales were later translated in Urdu in the Subcontinent and performed in Emperor Akbar’s court, in Peshawar’s Qissa-Khvani Bazaar, on the steps of Jama Masjid and in the streets of Delhi. The most famous of these performances were related to Dastan-e-Amir Hamza (tales of Prophet Muhammad’s uncle).
Then the art was suddenly lost with the death of Mir Baqar Ali, the last known dastango (storyteller), in 1928.
It was rediscovered only four years back, by a Rhodes Scholar, actor and writer, Mahmood Farooqui. He came across the tales of Amir Hamza, written in 46 volumes, with each volume comprising a thousand pages or so. These tales revolved around Hamza’s triumphs against infidels, sorcerers and others who laid claim to divinity.
The epic belonged to the Islamic cultures of the Middle East and beyond. It depicted Amir Hamza’s courage and was a unique collection of his adventures. The stories were as powerful as the Arabian Nights and led to Farooqui’s discovery of the art of dastangoi, in which these stories were performed in a narrative form by the storyteller.
Farooqui was fascinated and compelled to revive the art. In this endeavour, he was joined by a corporate banker and also a poet and an actor, Danish Husain. However, neither knew how a dastan was actually performed. There were no references and they had to experiment and improvise.
They were helped and guided by S. R. Faruqi, Urdu’s pre-eminent critic and writer, and Mahmood Farooqui’s uncle; the only person who owned the entire set of 46 volumes.
The result was spectacular, leading to immense popularity and critical acclaim, first in New Delhi and then elsewhere, including Pakistan.
“Their performances are unbelievably good,” opines Fatma Alam, a Delhiite; one of many who have been enchanted by the magical performances of Farooqui and Husain. The tales are mainly picked from Tilism Hoshruba (enchantment that steals away the senses) which constitutes seven of the forty-six volumes.
Farooqui lends his poetic and lyrical style to the performance while Husain is more theatrical. In order to keep the audience engaged, they do not look directly at one another but rather in different directions while speaking.
The two have also explored other themes, such as partition, in some of their shows. They are now set to perform at the Muslim Arts and Voices Festival in New York with the famous Indian actor, Naseeruddin Shah, in the second week of June.
This will be followed by a performance at the Motley Festival in Mumbai in July and then at National School of Drama’s orientation program in early August.
The two also plan also to conduct a workshop with the second and third year students of the National School of Drama next year. The dastangoi duo is working on publishing the stories they perform, in simple language and making audio CDs of their performances so that more people can easily join them.
Their flawless acting and beautiful recitation continues to enthral even non-Urdu speaking audiences. Farooqui and Husain have successfully created a new platform for performing artists through the revival of a forgotten tradition.