The word “serendipity” keeps propping up in the conversation with dastango and author Himanshu Bajpai — be it with reference to his recent cameo as a dastango in Sacred Games season two or the third reprint of his book Qissa Qissa Lucknowaa. “Varun Grover, the writer of the show, has been a friend of mine since long. He knows what I do and is familiar with my work,” says Bajpai, 32, who is seen entertaining the underworld don Ustad Isa and terror linchpin Shahid Khan in the series.
“Jo aam main hai wo lab e sheerin main nahin ras, Reshon main hain jo shaekh ki dhadi se muqaddas. Aate hain nazar aam to jate hain badan kas, langde bhi chale jate hain khane ko Banaras,” recites Bajpai, sporting the traditional white angrakha and topi that is de rigueur for dastangoi. “The dastan that I am narrating is from the poem Aamo ka Sehra, penned by famous Lucknawi poet Saghar Khayyami. I have performed it several times,” he adds.
While he feels the cameo will help create awareness about the art form, Lucknow-based Bajpai recalls how he started training in dastangoi under Mahmood Farooqui in 2013, on the behest of his friend and late dastango Ankit Chadda. “I don’t have the requisite inborn talent to be a dastango, which Ankit did. I have acquired the skill, which I learnt, and am still learning,” says he.
The artiste is excited about the third reprint of Qissa Qissa Lucknowaa, which is a compilation of famous anecdotes, stories and fables that pertain to his native Lucknow. “The book was first published in late January this year. These are the stories that I have grown up with. I belong to the Chowk area and have always been fascinated by these qissas and kahaanis,” says the writer. Comprising qissas on paan, bhaands and kathak dancers, among others, the book is distinct from the other numerous writings on the city. The focus, says Bajpai, is on the awaam and not the nawab — even the tagline of the book is ‘Lucknow ke Awami kisse’. “There has been a tradition of the ‘nawabi’ aspect dominating the narrative around the city. I have included stories on the people. For instance, today bhaand is often seen as a contemptuous word, bordering on abuse, but they were the people who questioned authority. They were important practitioners of social satire,” says Bajpai, who also holds a PhD on the Awadh Akhbaar, a Urdu newspaper published by the Naval Kishore of Press in Lucknow.
Published in Hindi, the book leans towards classical Urdu and uses some English words as well. “There has been criticism that the book has ‘bhaari-bharkam’ words from Urdu and Hindi. It is written as if someone is reciting the tale. We have included a dictionary of sorts in the coming edition, but I also feel, that if someone makes an effort to look up a difficult word, he/she will remember it forever,” he adds.
It was the current socio-political and cultural scenario that nudged Bajpai to write the book, combined with fear of losing this rich oral history to posterity. “We are letting go of the composite culture that once thrived in this city. I have seen the communalising of Lucknow and the country. I wanted to highlight the culture we come from. I have included the tale of Hindus honouring the sacrifice of Hussain during Moharram, which is a tradition of Lucknow” asserts Bajpai, who has also worked as a journalist. “The experts, oral historians of the city, are ageing and we need a younger custodian,” says Bajpai.