The dastan starts with an apology, and a Jataka tale. It’s autumn and Buddha is travelling with his disciple Anand in a jungle, when he picks up a few leaves. “Do I have all the leaves in the forest in my hand?” he asks. It surprises Anand, who says, “What are you saying Tathagat? It’s such a huge jungle and its autumn, how can you have all the leaves in your palm? It is then that Buddha says, ‘Likewise, there many truths lying around, I’m giving you whatever I could grab in my palm.’ In the same vein, dastangos Poonam Girdhani and Rajesh Kumar pick up bits and pieces from Buddha’s life and teachings and present it in the form of Dastan-e-Irfaan-e-Buddh.
While Girdhani has been performing Dastangoi, a form of storytelling in Urdu, for the last five years, it is for the first time that she has penned a dastan, which has been in the works since October 2018. “When you read Buddhist literature, it deals a lot with the idea of loss and how life and death are two important truths in life. I have lost so many people close to me recently that through the process of reading, I could process the loss too,” she says. Jataka tales helped her cope, and she soon moved on to reading works by Pakistani writer Intizar Hussain, who was heavily influenced by Buddhism, and the stories found place in his work. “There are various sources to acquaint oneself with Buddha. You see him in the Jataka tales, in the contemporary world, you can find him in the writings of BR Ambedkar and Kancha Illiah. When Hussain writes about Buddha, he gives him a new face and colour. And you realise how the Jataka tales were as relevant in 1947 as they were 2,500 years back,” says Girdhani, who has also incorporated languages such as Pali, Hindi and Sanskrit, apart from Urdu, in the dastan.
“What I learnt about Buddha was how he practised meditation. Nowadays, we want an empty and silent room, but for him, meditation was about being present in the moment; even when you’re eating, you should experience each morsel, or when you’re walking, you should be aware of your movement,” she says.
What she loved about the Jataka tales was how women, men, trees, lizards or plants, each had their own individuality and undertook the journey together. “But the most interesting thing that I explored was the Therigatha — a collection of poems and songs written by women nuns that reveal a parallel universe. They are talking to their eyes, to their mindsets,” she says, adding that Illiah is one of the few who talks about it in his work. “He brings to the fore the narratives of Dalits and women in relation to Buddhism,” she says, adding, “while Ambedkar writes about the rationality of Buddhism, and how it is the religion of science for him”.
Girdhani, who has previously performed Dastan Raja Vikram ke Ishq ki, Dastan-E-Chauboli and Dastan Alice ki, had to unlearn bits from her theatre training to write dastan. “My training is in theatre, so I think in terms of sequences and pauses. When I started writing, I didn’t know where to start. Later, I realised that one has to tell the story, and not enact on stage,” says Girdhani, one of the few women dastangos in the country.