Written by Vrinda Rawal
On Saturday, an ancient form of storytelling called Naqqali will highlight the life and works of Rumi at a cultural space in Lullanagar, Raah: Literary and Cultural Centre. The performer or ‘naqqal’ is Ashwin Chitale, a scholar of Indology, who started learning Persian four years ago and travelled across the country with the piece ‘Rumi Hai’.
Often, he’s asked if there is a reason for choosing Naqqali and Rumi. “I want to share Rumi’s story with the audience. I truly believe Rumi’s work is universal and highlights what you seek is within you,” he says.
Naqqali is an ancient form of storytelling that literally translates to “narrating.” The theatre form originated in ancient Persia where it was often performed at Qahve Khaneh, or coffeehouses, historically significant places, nomadic tents as well as at noble houses. Traditionally, folk legends and mythological stories were narrated with music, hand gestures and expressions using verses or prose. With the passage of time and the decline of oral culture, the practice of Naqqali faded away. To remedy this, in 2011, UNESCO inscribed Naqqali in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Safeguarding.
To learn Persian, says Chitale, one can either master its grammar or delve deep into its vocabulary. He chose to do the latter, fascinated by the multiplicity of meanings and connotations in Persian vocabulary. He took to reading the works of classical Persian poets like Hafez, Saadi Shirazi and Umar Khayyam. There, he came across Rumi and was instantly drawn to his work. He felt the need to share Rumi’s work with an audience and started an Instagram page called “Rumi Hai.”
In the beginning, Chitale only wanted to share his English and Hindi translations of Rumi’s poems, he later decided to convert it into a live performance on the life of Rumi. Naqqali, away from the rigidities of other storytelling formats such as dastan goi, became his chosen medium. Prior to this, Chitale was part of Shwas, a 2004 Marathi film; India’s official entry to the Oscars that year. Shwas won the National award for Best film and Chitale won the award for Best Child Artist.
Today, very few people who perform Naqqali remain. This meant that there were very few teachers of the theatre form. “There is a very thin line between drama and Naqqali. While Naqqali gives you the freedom to sing, act, and move around the stage, it is at its core, a form of storytelling,” says Chitale.
Subtle nuances about when to be loud, or quiet, when to narrate and when to act need to be understood and observed carefully to bring out the essence of the form. Aaftab Pournazeri, a scholar pursuing his PhD in Naqqali helped Chitale learn these crucial details. Apart from this, Chitale was mostly self-taught. “I watched a lot of videos and contacted my friends from Iran who guided me in the process,” says Chitale. The show at Raah on June 4, will be his 30th performance of ‘Rumi Hai’.