By Raghavendra Madhu
We are living in a time when the world is reeling under violence and unstable socio-political scenarios raising questions on humanity. Artists and storytellers need to take the stage with urgency and contribute in the powerful ways they can to spread love and art. As the famous writer Philip Pullman says, after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.
Dastangoi is a traditional art of storytelling and is distinct from the theatre tradition. In Dastangoi, the main aspects are voice, expression, content and the connection with the audience. Voice-modulation should be perfect and one must remember the entire story, each and every word, by heart. One needs to create a remarkably detailed picture and scene for the audience. Unlike theatre, in Dastangoi there are no sets or props that assist the storyteller. So eye contact, voice and perfection over language become doubly critical in creating an experience.
The storytelling duo, Fouzia Dastago and Fazal Rashid, from Delhi are creating exceptional storytelling experiences for people. They have been performing across the country at renowned institutions, universities, colleges and literary festivals.
No artist is made overnight, especially in a niche space like storytelling. It takes time for one to realise that they will be taking up this concept of performance, and will not only have to deliver but simultaneously create a need for it in people’s fast moving lives. What better place to begin than the cultural vibrancy of Delhi, where Dastangoi has been practised for ages.
Fouzia hails from a modest family. She was born in Old Delhi and fondly remembers growing up on the streets of the walled city. Her father has been a motor-mechanic, who runs a small workshop and repairs two-wheelers to make our ends meet. She had a difficult childhood due to lack of finances in the family. She recalls the helpless times when the family was always short of money and barely could make ends meet. Although her parents were not well educated, they ensured that both their children complete their graduation. Fouzia did her schooling from an Urdu school. She realised her responsibilities soon and started taking tuitions for children since high school to earn money. She went on to pursue Bachelors in Sociology and Masters in Educational Planning and Administration – both from Jamia Millia Islamia University.
On the other hand, the fellow-storyteller, Fazal Rashid, has had a very contrasting life. He attended an English medium school. Although he occasionally speaks some Urdu at home, he considers English his primary language. Interestingly, he pursued his graduation in History and languages from Colby College, US. He moved to Delhi around four years ago to work with the Random House publishing company. Post that, he worked for an organisation that makes kitchen gardens and enables city folks to grow their own food. He started Dastangoi alongside these jobs.
Talking of how Fouzia got introduced to Dastangoi, it all started when her friend Prabhat told her about two known storytellers, Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Hussain, performing Dastangoi. She found it to be a very interesting concept as she always wanted to be associated with art and theatre, and couple it with her love for the Urdu language. Once she witnessed the show herself, she instantaneously felt that Dastangoi is the kind of art she has been looking for. She approached Mahmood with her interest and thus began her association with Dastangoi.
In 2016, Fouzia decided to work in this field independently and set up her own group, “Dastango The Storytellers”. She realised that the challenge of being an independent Dastango and not having a known cultural background made it difficult for her to get shows. This meant she had to make all the effort on her own to create an identity. But then in a year’s time, with all her grit and commitment towards to art, she bagged a space for herself in the art circuit. Dastangoi also turned out to be beautiful for her due to the grandeur of the Hindustani language, which makes one realise that knowing English is not everything and certainly not a mark of success. Fouzia used her strengths in Urdu and propelled it into her passion for storytelling.
Fazal recalls his influences for Dastangoi from many things, including his upbringing on a hill overlooking the big lake in Bhopal. He believes Bhopalis around him, in his family, friends, acquaintance circle loved telling beautiful, exaggerated stories. But he remembers his first encounter of Dastangoi on YouTube when someone had sent him a link. He loved the sound of the language, and especially the humour. It sounded very familiar despite him not understanding all of it. One of the difficult things for Fazal was finding the right partner. He tried working with a few people before but things didn’t work out. He felt he needed to find someone who would have similar taste in culture, literature and food, and with whom one can do a lot of aawaragardi, one of the key ingredients for good storytelling.
They both believe their style of Dastangoi is different because Fouzia belongs to Old Delhi, due to which, she can effortlessly lend the characters genuineness. They try to ensure that their stories are strong in terms of humour and content. They reflect upon literary texts of legends such as Ismat Chughtai, Ashraf Subuhi Dehelvi and Intizar Hussain. They have performed across the country, including places such as India Habitat Center, India International Centre, Patna Gandhi Museum, Dilli Haat, Red Fort, Ashoka University, Lucknow Literary Festivals, at many known cafes and schools.
As they keep performing at various events, reactions of people are also intriguing. Not many have attended Dastangoi sessions in urban spaces. Once, they were performing at a Lohri function in Noida, where no one really bothered to pay heed or follow the story. After the show, a man came up to them and suggested, “Bahaut acha tha magar aap apne iss system mein koi gajal [ghazal] nahin daal sakte hain?” As true artists they laugh it off as to put forth a good show is an artist’s responsibility. Rest lies with the audience. There are also happy anecdotes where they recall that at festivals or post performances, people click pictures with them or merchandise stalls don’t charge them, making them feel like celebrities in the making.
Currently, they are preparing a dastan on the Mahabharata. In times like these when the societal disruption and communal discriminations are on the rise, there is a need for artists who work beyond stereotypes, beyond religion, and above political barriers. They are also preparing content on Meena Kumari’s life and a few dastans with Sufi themes are in the pipeline.
Note: This article was first published in the Quint
(The writer is a poet, social activist, curator and founder of Poetry Couture. He can be reached @NotSoMadhu. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.
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