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Dastangoi magic revives lost medieval tales

There are no props, no music and no elaborate costumes -- and if these performers have their way, no applause either.
/ Source: Reuters

There are no props, no music and no elaborate costumes -- and if these performers have their way, no applause either.

Dressed in white from head to foot, the two men sit on thick white pillows. Candles flicker nearby as they conjure up a world of sorcerers and djinns, tricksters and kings, using only their voices and a few simple gestures.

It's the lost art of Dastangoi, storytelling based on medieval Urdu tales, brought back to life by two men determined to pass this ancient art form on to future generations -- and not doing badly, if the spellbound response of audiences from New Delhi to New York is a guide.

That's quite an achievement for Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain, considering that they had only the bare bones of the extinct Mughal art form to work with: a treasure trove of volumes of forgotten stories from the late 19th century.

"All we have is those 46 volumes of printed stories," said Farooqui. "We don't know how they performed, what they did and how they did it."

There is also a rare 1920 audio clip of a performance by Mir Bakar Ali, the last great storyteller -- or "dastango" -- in this tradition.

At its peak from the late 16th to 19th centuries, Dastangoi performers entertained audiences with tales of war, magic and adventures that revolved around the adventures of Amir Hamza, titled "Dastan e Amir Hamza," a man said to be an uncle of Prophet Mohammad.

Unlike Scheherazade of "Arabian Nights," whose stories lasted a thousand and one nights, those of Amir Hamza could be never-ending.

"There are about 50,000 characters, there are lots of talismans. Amir Hamza has 500 sons, they have 500 grandchildren, so it's like a whole plethora of characters and peoples," Farooqui said.

"Amir Hamza is kind of a thread around which these stories hang."


But the pair also gives the art form a contemporary twist, adding stories on themes from the trauma of the 1947 Partition, which created the two nations of India and Pakistan from the British colony, to the poetry of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

They have also done performances called "Dastan-e-Sedition," Story of Sedition, a tale about Binayak Sen, a doctor recently released on bail after getting a life sentence on charges of sedition and conspiracy against the state.

The performance part of the art -- which is said to have once amused emperor Akbar and people on the streets of Delhi and the northern Indian city of Lucknow -- had almost completely faded since the death of storyteller Mir Bakar Ali in 1928.

All that remained of two to three centuries of storytelling tradition then were the printed volumes.

Farooqui, a student of Urdu literature, first started reading the Dastan stories in 2002. He began to explore the possibility of performing them after being asked to lecture on them in 2005, also the date of the first performance, and hasn't looked back since.

"The lines were literally crying out to be read aloud," he wrote in his blog.

"It is an important theatrical genre for our times, one that has the potential to transcend the proscenia and reach out to the masses."

Despite the minimalist style, Farooqui and Husain have a huge following among modern Indian audiences more used to the glitz of Bollywood cinema.

Audiences immediately warm up to the storytelling sessions, which are seasoned with phrases bordering on vulgarity, elaborate descriptions of amorous behavior, women drinking alcohol and a bag full of tricks.

"The audience may not know Dastangoi but it knows Hindi cinema. It knows the villain will die, a villain has a gun in his hand, he's got 20 gunmen there but still the hero beats them," Farooqui said.

Farooqui and Husain are also training new storytellers and have started fortnightly gatherings for people interested in Dastangoi.

Their only request is that audiences should reciprocate with cries of "wah" and not clap their hands because that's how the dastango is traditionally meant to be appreciated.

"You can't revive a form which is set in oral culture in today's culture, which is a visual culture, so it's part of a process, but you can make it popular and see how far it goes," said Farooqui.

"It's a journey, it has just started, six years is a very short time. In six years a classical musician wouldn't be allowed to perform on stage."