The lost art of storytelling

Published in SouthAsia (June 2009)

Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain continue to mesmerize audiences by reviving an old art form, writes Ayesha Hoda

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.

Related links:
Dastangoi (Blog)

Article on Dastangoi blog

Artists of Dastangoi

‘I can never be an entertainer only’ – Nighat Chaudhry

Published in Slogan (January 2010)

Ayesha Hoda sat down with Nighat Chaudhry to talk about the artist’s life journey as a Kathak performer and her dream of preserving the art of dancing in Pakistan.

‘Dance, when you are broken open. Dance, if you have torn the bandage off. Dance, in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance, when you are perfectly free.’

Nighat has quite aptly chosen Rumi’s verses to reveal her passion for dance. As she handed me her brochure – adorned by these verses – I realised that dancing isn’t only her profession or hobby. In some mysterious way, it is a part of various aspects of her life, guiding her and making her the graceful and elegant person that she is.

On that calm Sunday afternoon, we discussed Nighat’s sojourn into the world of dance and her plans to contribute even more towards this performing art in Pakistan.

Shifting the gaze from ballet to Kathak

Nighat discovered her love for dance when she was only five. Born in Lahore and brought up in London, she just knew she was very happy while dancing and started creative dance movement classes while still in school.

“I started off with modern dance and wanted to be a ballerina,” she recounts. “Then I met Nahid Siddiqui, one of the most renowned Kathak dancers from Pakistan. I had received six months training in Bharatnatyam from an Indian guru previously but Nahid Apa opened a window to dance in Pakistan. I was mesmerized by her performances.”

Nighat decided to pursue a degree in dance but had to make a choice between modern dance and Kathak. She completed a foundation course in Modern Dance and Classical Western Ballet at the Laban Center for Movement and Dance, Goldsmith’s College, London University. But then she decided to opt for Kathak, after which there was no looking back. She lived in Pakistan and India, learning from Kathak masters like Maharaj Ghulam Hussain Kathak, Pandit Durga Lal and Uma Dogra. She gave up dancing for a year,
when Pandit Durga Lal passed away.

“He was like a father and a mentor. He taught me a lot, not only about dance but also about life. I was very emotionally disturbed by his death until one day when he appeared in my dream. He asked me not to give up dancing after which I resumed it.”

On her unique style and movements

“My Kathak looks different due to my western training. It disciplined me and I have also been experimenting a lot, combining Kathak with other dance styles such as salsa and creative dance. As an artiste, you can be at your peak but the search for something new and different never ends.”

The cultural shock

Nighat moved to Pakistan to learn Kathak and reconnect with her roots. Even though her parents tried to convince her not to, she insisted on coming here but was quite unprepared to experience ‘the cultural shock.’

She witnessed an inhibited attitude towards dance. “’What is wrong with dance?’ I used to question. From where I was coming, it was the most natural thing.”

Shocked by the negative perception of dance, Nighat went about looking for the root cause. She watched local films and stage shows and realised how dance was considered a synonym for mujra.

“Still, for me it was only a concept; not the reality. Courtesans like Umrao Jan Ada used to live in another time altogether and whatever their background, they were actually highly trained women and all respectable nawabs used to go to them.”

Shocked and, at the same time motivated to make a difference, Nighat decided to stay on and work on the image of dance – ‘to purify it.’ Her first performance took place at the Pakistan American Cultural Centre in 1983, during Zia’s regime. But Nighat was quite daring and devoted; she never backed down despite several threats from extremist parties.
“After Zia’s era, dancers in Pakistan had to start from scratch and develop the art once again. We have moved on from that time but deep-rooted mindsets are still the same.”

Imparting socio-political messages

“I can never be an entertainer only,” declares Nighat. It is obvious that she is someone who always wants to give a meaningful message. She mentioned some of her recent projects that touched upon important social and political issues.
“I worked with Wahab Shah, a young creative dancer from Australia, to create a concept revolving around Adam and Eve. It was about men and women and how we started off by being in total harmony with one another. Adam and Eve is the perfect couple. We questioned why our society has repressed Eve – she no longer has a voice.

Why does society need to be defined as patriarchal or matriarchal when we are equal?”

Nighat worked on another interesting piece with Wahab Shah called ‘Kathalino’ (Katha from Kathak and lino from Latino).

“It was a very demanding piece, full of energy, as we mixed moves of both dance styles. It is good to learn from young blood. Plus, since we were both trained abroad, we had the same level of commitment for rehearsals.”

Nighat also performed in a very powerful political piece called Kursi (Chair). It depicted the power game between males and females, with focus on the hostility between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Kursi was all about the political experience in Pakistan. We showed men in black clothes grabbing on to the chair. In the end, the kursi is taken away. The performance was close to what is happening and so was very well-received.”

Another remarkable piece was Aaina (mirror), which was a reflection of what is happening to the social fabric in Pakistan and how people are becoming materialistic to the point of losing their real identity. This was part of the Rafi Peer festival.

“The best thing about performing at this festival is that the masses come there. They understood and appreciated everything,” Nighat relates.

Fulfilling her destiny

Nighat is concerned about the future of dance and various dance styles in Pakistan. Four years ago, she established the National Dance Foundation (NDF). She has developed its website and collected articles and other archival material related to dance.

Nighat has two projects in the pipeline. In the first one, she will document the numerous dance styles of Pakistan, beginning with mountain dances, which is a three-year project.

“This is a huge project. But I feel it needs to be done. Otherwise we are going to lose all the traditions. There is still peace in Sindh and Punjab so I think we will be able to document dance there. But I am worried about the northern areas.

For the last two years, my husband and I have been working on it. We have been going up in the mountains. We have people there who have been filming and showing us the dying arts.”

Nighat is just waiting for funds and has been in contact with a dance NGO in Chicago for this purpose. She will also spend three months next year conducting research in New York.

Simultaneously, she is working on a bilingual (English and Urdu) coffee-table book based on the classical dancers of Pakistan, from partition to the present day. It will include a brief profile of all the dancers, the school of dancing that they followed and some remarkable photographs.

“This book will not be for intellectuals. I want to make it very attractive so that everyone picks it up and is interested in reading about the dancers featured.”

The next stage of the book is to make and market a documentary on the dancers and their performances.

“People ask me why I am doing all this…no other dancer seems to have thought about it. Again, it is a result of my western background – people abroad are in the habit of documenting everything. Or perhaps it is my destiny – may be that is why God created me and sent me to Pakistan.

“It is actually a very good thing. One day I will need to sit down and redefine myself. God has simultaneously created a platform so that when I stop performing or I only teach or choreograph, I will have this work to do. When I look at the projects that need to be done, I feel it is a lifetime’s work.”
Nighat plans to create a dance archival library containing all articles on Pakistani dance, interviews of dancers, documentation of performances and so on. She also intends to write a book about Kathak in Pakistan, how the style has changed and why it should be accepted as a national art form. This will be more of a personal book and Nighat has already started recording notes and points in her Ipod – that is what she does while travelling. That is how much dance means to her!