There is rapt attention in the theatre as Urdu words paint the picture of a battlefield. Dressed in white Anarkali and kurta-pyjama, Dastango Firoz Khan and Fouziya are not narrating war tales from the Mughal era or the Karbala — but parts of the epic Mahabharat.
Written and directed by playwright Danish Iqbal, Dastan-e-Mahabharat is an attempt to reinforce the cultural harmony of India. It is a rendition of the epic using the art form of Dastangoi — a tradition of Urdu storytelling that dates back to the 13th century. Using poetry from various Urdu versions of the epic, and alternating this with the narration of the great battle, this dastan grips audiences not just for the intensity of the story, but also for the harmony of the two facets of Indian culture.
Dastangoi is a mix of two Persian words — “Dastan” and “Goi” which means storytelling. The subjects covered can range from ancient classical literature to its modern adaptations. The art form is believed to have died with the death of Mir Baqar Ali, the last practitioner of Dastangoi, in 1928. However, recently artistes like Danish Iqbal, Mahmood Farooqui and several others are striving to revive the art form.
Farooqui, an award-winning writer and Dastan performer, says there has been a long tradition of narrating Hindu epics in Urdu. Farooqui, who began reinventing Dastangoi in 2005, says Hindu epics are part of Urdu tradition. In the 18th-19th century, a lot of writings on Hinduism took place in Persian. “I can compose Bhajans on Krishna because I know Urdu,” Farooqui quotes poet Javed Akhtar to explain the heritage of Hindu epics in Urdu tradition.
“There are more than 70 books on Gita and 100 on Ramayana in Urdu. All versions of Gita indirectly talk about the story of Mahabharata. So, I curated the material, shortlisted the more evocative passages and then edited and modified the draft to make it performance-friendly,” explains Danish Iqbal.
Farooqui believes that as political artistes they must reinterpret themes. “When you tell a traditional tale, you have to tell it in a way that it speaks to the contemporary times,” he said.
The audience, generally a mix of people from all religions, is appreciative. For most of them, the most fascinating aspect is listening to a Hindu myth in Urdu.
“Mahabharata is undoubtedly a classic, but the portion which is selected and highlighted through poetry and narration are so morally accurate and humanising,” says Shubhra Sharma, who retired from All India India Radio after many years of new reading. “Because of this particular essence, Dastan-e-Mahabharat is an unparalleled classic presentation.”
“Once an audience member from Bhopal told me that he knows all my sources and he said that he has read them in Hindi and Sanskrit, but his spiritual experience was heightened when he heard these epics in Urdu and Persian,” Farooqui remembers.
For Iqbal, the stories they choose to tell over and over again create an emotional connect. “What we call shared culture is the stories which showcase our ethos. And that is why we have been presenting the most popular stories of Hinduism in a language and idiom of inclusiveness and emotional integration.”
“I have never seen anything so aesthetically and poetically presented. The whole experience from beginning to end is so fluid and so exhilarating. Both scripting and presentation of Mahabharat is superb,” sums up Amit Mehra, a photographer.
Besides ‘Dastan-e-Mahabharat‘, ‘Dastan-e-Radha Krishna‘ and ‘Dastan Apne Ram Ji Ki‘ too present the classic tales in chaste Urdu and the fabled Daastangoi tradition.
Fouzia is India’s first woman Dastango. Having performed over 200 shows all over India and in the UAE, she has focused her efforts to promote communal harmony through her performances, while also covering a diverse range of other issues.
In a toxic environment where hate crimes are on the rise, these Muslim artistes believe their challenge is to find a way to overcome social divisiveness and help create a sane and more understanding society. Fouzia says shared stories like the Ramayan and Mahabharat create empathy and build emotional bridges.
Fouzia quotes Jigar Moradabadi
/Un kā jo farz hai vo ahl-e-siyāsat jāneñ/
/Merā paiġhām mohabbat hai jahāñ tak pahuñche/
(Politicians may know what they are doing.
My mission is to spread love wherever it reaches)