The art of Dastangoi, literally ‘The telling of an epic’, is a form of storytelling that originated in Persia, travelled to India and fostered an Urdu equivalent, before dying out in the 1920s. Mahmood Farooqui’s acquaintance with Dastangoi began in 2002, when he read the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, to help out a friend of his uncle and Urdu scholar Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, who intended to make a documentary on the form. He would go back to it a couple of years later, on a Sarai fellowship. He fell in love with the stories, and in his words, “the lines were literally crying out to be read aloud”. He was as struck by the flexibility of the narrative, and the amalgamation of themes and stories from other traditions. A theatre actor himself, Mahmood Farooqui decided to focus on Dastangoi, and got together a team of actors. Seven years after their first performance at the India International Centre in Delhi, they draw eager audiences across the globe. In this interview, Mahmood Farooqui speaks about his interest in Dastangoi, its evolution over the centuries, and its popularity today.

You mention before your shows that your uncle and Urdu scholar S R Faruqi Saheb was the one who encouraged you to revive Dastangoi. Since you had no priors to go back to, no record of how Dastangos would act or speak, did you think of it as a huge challenge?

I did. But in reading the stories—I encountered the stories as text first—I felt the story needed to be narrated. And that’s where my uncle helped me. I brought in the innovation of having two people narrate it. Earlier, it used to have a single narrator. So I roped in another actor, Danish Husain. And then my uncle guided us, and told us how to sit down, and how we shouldn’t move our arms around too much, and you know, we’ll do this, and we’ll do that. So that sort of input he gave us, and the rest we brought out from our own experience, and our own interaction with the people. The key was to narrate the story. It wasn’t really there in the story form, and we had to break it down to a story, a half-an-hour capsule.

I’ve heard that traditionally, the hallmark of a good Dastango is to break off into tangents at critical points in the story, and keep the audience hanging and frustrate their curiosity for as long as he can. Is that the case?

That is the case. But those people who were doing it were more consummate than us, and they also had a more sympathetic audience. Our audiences are more difficult. Maybe, with time, as it builds up, we can take a ten-minute detour into the skyline or the garden or something, you know, or even a half-an-hour thing. That’s going to take some time, though.

How did you work out the structure of the performance? Did it come to you from the manner in which the text was written, or conjecture, or instinct?

It followed more or less from the text, and then it evolved as we went along. So we divided these stories into smaller modules, so that a performance would have, let’s say, three modules within a story.

What, according to you, is the most difficult aspect of performing Dastangoi?

It’s the issue of language, I think, which is a very wide problem in north India, a kind of language-less terrain, you know. In Tamil Nadu, you could assume the audience would have some Tamil. And in Karnataka, you can assume the audience will have some Kannada. But in Delhi, it’s difficult to assume anything of an audience. They may not have much Urdu, they may not have much Hindi. So, in that sense, the dominance of Hindi means that the regional languages suffer, and Urdu suffers. And the dominance of English over Hindi means that a lot of times Hindi itself suffers. But that could also be the draw of the performance in itself, because people may have heard stories in English, but they haven’t heard stories in Urdu like that, so they come to hear us.

There’s a certain magical quality about Dastangoi—even when the words are unfamiliar, one seems to understand them. What would you attribute it to?

That’s wonderful. I think that’s where, as you experiment as a teller, you know, you imbue the world with meaning. So even when you don’t literally understand a word, you get a sense of the word. So that’s what we try and do as performers, because we’re working this out from a text where they didn’t have the burden of explanation. And since there’s very little burden of explanation, we have to make the words understandable.

You’ve spoken often about how you stick to the original text. But isn’t improvisation, interacting with the audience, a part of any folk art? Will you bring that in at some point?

It is there already, and definitely, it has to be kept a part of the tradition. And it’s not just folk, but even classical music, which depends a lot on interaction with the audience. You engage with the audience, you talk to the audience, because that’s the classic tradition of narrating a tale—we’re not putting anything new into the audience, we’re just bringing out what is latent in the rasik. Therefore, it’s a two-way process.

You’re performing stories from texts that were written more than a century, maybe two, ago, and the language must have changed since then. And given that Dastangoi is targeted at the masses, you can’t use words that are too complicated. How do you reconcile this?

Well, we just go ahead and use complicated words if they’ve occurred in a flow, hoping and trusting that our gestures, our expressions will make you understand the sense or the context. Because, especially when we’re performing with regional audiences, if we only use words that we’re sure the audience will understand, we can’t really work it out, you know. A lot of times, we use words that are not comprehended, but the pleasure of a language is not dependent on understanding the meaning of the words alone. It’s also in the sound of the words, you know.

Of all the Dastans you’ve performed so far, which has been the toughest for you?

I think Tagore’s Ghare Baire was the toughest, because our verse is characterised by a lot of humour, and there’s not enough humour in Tagore. Well, I can’t say there’s not enough humour, but there’s not much humour in Tagore. (Laughs) So we’ve had to work quite hard at bringing that element in.

How long does it take you to prepare a performance?

If it’s a brand new story, it takes two to three months. If we’ve previously performed them, Danish and I just need a few days and then we’re good to go.

How do you train your actors? Do all of them know and read Urdu, or do you have to explain some of the text to them?

No, very few of them. So they work with the story as a text, as a normal actor does. And a lot of them are not even actors, they haven’t acted before; they’re interested in storytelling, which is wider in a sense and bigger than acting.

At the performance I saw, you told the audience repeatedly not to clap, and to say “wah” instead. Do you find, as you go back for repeat performances, that audiences are adapting to the traditions too?

Yes, I do think the audiences are getting trained over time. Hopefully, they will get more civilised in future.

What goes on in your mind when you perform Dastangoi? Do you get lost in that world too, or are you aware of where you’re sitting, and the fact that these people are watching you?

Both things happen... sometimes you are transported, at others you remember you are performing, at others you also wish for the performance to be over soon so that you can get your drink.

You’ve been staging Dastans on contemporary issues, such as Binayak Sen. And there was one on the Partition recently. Has there been a lot of demand for Dastans on socio-political issues?

Well, yes, there is. We had done a Dastan around Lord Ram, and yes, then, there was one around Partition. And of course, the one on Binayak Sen. We’ve seen that the contemporary audience really enjoys Dastans like these, and there is a lot of demand for more.

Are you worried that the political tint may affect the conventions of the art you’re reviving now?

No, not at all. We’re following the same structure, we try to use more or less similar language. And sometimes we use tropes from the traditional stories, you know—we make references to sorcery, spells, as in the case of the Binayak Sen Dastan—so it’s very much bottled up in a tradition of fantasy. And this was often used as a tool to mount near-sedition.

When you look at the older Dastans, do you think there was a subversive element, because they have these opulent settings, and characters from the ruling classes, whereas they were performed mainly for the masses?

Fantasies are subversive and political by definition, because they are commenting on this world by creating a world that is much, much more elaborate, and much, much more magnificent. So, if you’re describing to a king the magnificence of a king in a story, who is so rich, and so rich, and so rich, you are obviously commenting on the richness of the king in the present. But, you know, performance art, entertainment, their ultimate aim is to transport you from the world you’re in. Otherwise, Mozart is useless, you know, because where is he subversive? But he is transporting you to another world, and that itself is a comment on this world, that itself is a comment on the uselessness of this world.

When you first began to read these stories, did the bawdiness, the secularity, and the innuendo surprise you?

Yes, it did. I didn’t expect them to be so mature and so bold, you know. And it just shows you that they lived in a different time, when people were different, when people were much, much more open about things.

Do you think it was the Victorian prudery of the nineteenth century that changed that attitude?

Yes, I think so, definitely. Definitely, the nineteenth century recasting of our letters is behind the change in attitude today—in our attitudes to religion, to everything.

You speak in your blog of the irony in Jama Masjid being the site of Dastangoi performances, given that the Quran asks believers to be wary of storytellers and poets.

Absolutely. So, this is a profane form of entertainment, you know, and people are listening to it from the steps of the Jama Masjid, the hallowed mosque. So, yeah, it must have been a much, much more interesting and liberal time than the one we’re living in.

On the one hand, Dastangoi is targeted at a mass audience. On the other, the bawdiness requires a certain broadmindedness associated mostly with the elite today. How do you reconcile that?

Yes, the proscenium audience is largely upper-class but there is a wide variety of spaces we have performed at, including the steps of Jama Masjid, Basti Nizamuddin, a street corner and at the Magh Mela in Allahabad. Remember, we do shows on invitation, so we’ve performed to workers in Pune, passersby at Jama Masjid, people in a mohalla in Dakshinpuri in Delhi, activists at a convention, locals in Nizamuddin and also to invited ticketed audiences. We have a wider audience range than anybody else performing currently in India I think, well, except Kailash Kher—but then he doesn’t have Marathi workers of Pune! Hopefully in time we will return to the bazaars, too.

To go back a little bit to the history of the form, Dastangoi flourished in Persian in Akbar’s court. How did it come to find an Urdu equivalent that practically replaced it?

Well, because generally, in the eighteenth century, north India shifted to Urdu as the language of literature and discourse and entertainment. And in Urdu, it flourished in a different way, because when transported into Urdu, it became more Indic in a way, and in India and in Indic storytelling, anything less than ten thousand pages is not considered long enough! I mean, look at The Ramayan, The Mahabharat, there is no end to our huge epics, you know. So then, it had to also create a place for itself, so that led to lengthy storytelling.

But given that most people were educated in Persian, since it was the language of high literature until the beginnings of the twentieth century, isn’t it strange that we have a 46-volume Urdu edition of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, but no Persian original?

Well, there is only one Persian text, but that’s not really that surprising, you know, because it’s an oral culture after all, and people are creating stuff on their own. People are creating Kabir 200 years after Kabir died! So, they become authorities on which you mount and mount and mount.

Scholars have said it began with the so-called ‘reformation’—actually, recasting—of Urdu letters. So the works of the time came to be seen as artificial and conceited, and there was this emphasis on simplicity and truth and morality. There was the perception of Dastans as corrupting, and the colonials of the time found it to be obscene.

Getting back again to the history of Dastangoi, how and when did it travel to India? Which story first made it here?

Well, Dastangoi began with an unknown Arabic version, but what stood out in the early days was the story of the life and adventures of the mediaeval hero Amir Hamza. And this came to India in the sixteenth century, first in the Deccan courts, and then in the court of Akbar. In fact, Akbar commissioned an illustrated version of the story of Hamza, with coloured plates, which came to be known as the Hamzanama. Some scholars believe the Dastangos of the time could have used these panels as an audio-visual aid, turning the pages over as they narrated the story. In India, another element, ‘aiyyari’ (the art of trickery) also began to gain prominence in the stories, along with the magic and fantasy. For the next two centuries or so, the Hamza Dastan was narrated mainly in Persian, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the first Urdu version of the story had been published by the Fort William College. But for decades after that, the tradition continued mainly as an oral one.

And where in India was it performed? Delhi and Lucknow?

It was actually at Rampur that the narrative began to be committed to paper. Most of these Dastangos had migrated from Lucknow. There were constant innovations, and the practice of Dastangoi was growing in most parts of North India by the nineteenth century. Mirza Ghalib used to organise performances very regularly in his house, in Delhi. After the revolt of 1857, a lot of the Dastangos moved from Delhi to Lucknow, so there used to be performances in almost every chowk in Lucknow.

How did it start dying?

Scholars have said it began with the so-called ‘reformation’—actually, recasting—of Urdu letters. So the works of the time came to be seen as artificial and conceited, and there was this emphasis on simplicity and truth and morality. There was the perception of Dastans as corrupting, and the colonials of the time found it to be obscene. Also, the last famous Dastango of India, Mir Baqar Ali, died in 1928. So, with all these factors coming in, Dastangoi pretty much died.

Did you expect that the revival would take off so well?

Well, it is a little bit more than I’d hoped for, and I’m a little surprised. But, you know, we’re telling magnificent stories, because those tellers really created outstanding tales. And the other stories we tell are also good stories. And in a highly, highly visual age, we’re allowing you to build your own visual. We’re not imposing any visual on you. So, for the moment, it’s good. Let’s see how far it goes!

What is your big dream with Dastangoi? Where would you like to see it go, and when will you feel you’ve done your bit?

My dream with Dastangoi is to have in future a few Dastangos in every major city, small town and hopefully after 25 years, one in every village in north India, that is Hindustan... then I will feel I have done my work.