By Mahmood Farooqui
Dastangoi, the lost form of Urdu storytelling, completes 10 years of its revival this year. This revival has been made possible by two factors. The first, of course, is the greatest living Urdu writer and critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, who gifted us this form in the present times. The other is the deep and abiding love that our people have for the Urdu language. When our finance minister opens his budget speech with an Urdu sher in Parliament, we can safely say that the future of Urdu is still secure in this country. One could add the names of Sakshi Maharaj and our prime minister to that list, for they too have quoted Urdu poetry in and off Parliament.
Urdu poetry and Urdu storytelling are important to us because Urdu is the confluence of many cultures and civilisations. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi has not tired of telling us how deeply Urdu has been influenced by Sanskrit and Sanskrit poetic ethics. Since as a people, we have forgotten Sanskrit and its deep contributions to our making, Urdu poetry still stands as a reminder of how great that literature was. It is appalling that we have not been able to commemorate and honour poets like Kalidas, playwrights like Bhasa, and rulers like Harsha, who was a poet himself. For this is a country where rulers were not just supposed to patronise poetry and the arts, they were supposed to be poets themselves. As far as my limited knowledge goes, no other country has produced as many rulers who were poets as Bharatvarsha. And it is intriguing that the party ruling us, which claims to speak for Hindus and Hindus alone, is doing nothing to bring back our Sanskrit legacy.
The other influence Urdu and Dastangoi carry is the legacy of Persian. There is no language in Hindustan — from Punjab to Bengal and from Nepal to the Deccan — that has not been deeply influenced by Persian. I include languages like Marathi, Telugu, Braj, Awadhi, Bengali, Hindi and, of course, Urdu. It was the great Sufi poets like Mulla Daud and Jayasi who translated entire phrases of the Quran and the greats of Persian poetry into a language that later came to be called Awadhi. Without them, there would never have been a Tulsidas. And is it not to be wondered at that what we call the greats of Hindi poetry, poets like Surdas and Tulsi, should have their manuscripts preserved in the Urdu script? It is a great tragedy that when Tulsi or Jayasi is recited from the stage today, people are unable to understand.
Being a dastango, according to one 16th century theorist, was greater than being a poet. That is a huge compliment in a land of poets.
Dastangos of old recited mainly the story of Amir Hamza, an uncle of Prophet Muhammad. They recounted stories of his valour, his adventures and his exploits in an entirely secular way. They successfully converted the sacred into something profane. When a dastango could recite these stories from the steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi, as they used to, and sing odes to wine sellers, and when our people used to listen and be regaled by it, they were greater than they are now.
We have now used that legacy and carried it forward, thanks to the fact that we have a large team working behind us. Two names must be mentioned here. First, my partner and collaborator, the filmmaker Anusha Rizvi, and the other, my partner in performance, Danish Husain. It was Anusha who helped me conceive the form and designed our show and it has been Danish who has, to bring some Hindi into our English, Rushdie-style, kandhe se kandha milaoed me, to take it to audiences in remote corners of this country and abroad. They have collaborated with me to create new stories — stories about Partition, Binayak Sen’s sedition case, the life and times of one of the greatest writers of 20th century India, Saadat Hasan Manto, stories borrowed from two of the greateast folklorists India has produced, A.K. Ramanujan and Vijaydan Detha.
The importance of Dastangoi for our times is that its performance manages to break the class barrier. Anybody, from the driver to the bearer to the most elite audiences, can enjoy our stories. We tell stories that teach our rulers rajdharma. In fact, our next show is about the most idealised ruler in India, Raja Vikram. As a modern performance form, it is a singular achievement. This is a land of stories. Everything here is a story. Our religion is stories, what else is the Ramayana or the Mahabharata or the Gita or Amir Hamza’s Dastan?
So my grouse is this. The public intellectuals that we have unfortunately been served in this country have no knowledge of pre-19th century India. Perhaps that is why they serve us so ill. I humbly request them to not be so subservient to the West and learn a little bit more about
our own culture and the traditions of storytelling in this country. For stories have a lot to tell.
The writer is a historian, filmmaker and dastango