“There are no props, no entries or exits, we can’t even move around on stage. It’s only words and gestures that keep the audience engaged for an hour,” points out Rajesh Kumar, as he explains the thrill of being a dastango, a storyteller. Dastangoi is the art of Urdu storytelling in which a dastan, or story, is recited or read aloud. The tradition originated in India’s first brush with Dastangoi was in the 16th century. More recently, Mahmood Farooqui has been working on reviving Dastangoi since 2004 and has built a team of 20 dastangos over the years. Rajesh Kumar and Rana Pratap Senger are two young dastangos from Farooqui’s team, who began their tryst with the art form in 2009.
Both Rajesh and Rana had many years of theatre experience before they turned into dastangos. Rajesh had been an active part of the Delhi theatre circuit where as Rana had learned the ropes as part of the late Habib Tanvir’s theatre group. In fact Rana and Farooqui first met during the filming of Peepli Live, where Rana helped the cast members with their diction. Rajesh and Rana were among the many enthusiastic participants who had signed up for a Dastangoi workshop by Farooqui in 2009. Both realised quickly that this was unlike any other theatrical experience they had had. They immersed themselves into learning the text, however difficult it might be. “We stayed quite far away from each other so we would meet in a garden midway to learn our lines and rehearse. Ped-patton ko dastan sunaya karte the,” Rana recalls the initial days. As for Rajesh, he did not even make it to the entire workshop, reaching the venue only on the last day. Himanshu Tyagi, who used to partner with Farooqui earlier, insisted Rajesh take up Dastangoi seriously, “I took up Dastangoi as a challenge.” From the group that attended the workshop, only a handful have remained faithful to Dastangoi. Rajesh usual pairs up with Rasika Duggal, while Rana’s partner is Sheikh Usman but lately they’ve grown confident enough to perform with anyone they are paired with.
The biggest challenge of Dastangoi are the stories. On Mahmood’s blog (http://dastangoi.blogspot.in), he quotes a note by Abdul Halim Sharar, the first historian of Lucknow. In the mid-nineteenth century, Sharar wrote that Dastangoi ’rested on descriptions of four phenomena, war, romance, trickery and magical artifices.’ “I was most scared about remembering the text and more so the sequence of the events that we have to narrate. This is not like a regular play. If you forget anything you can’t improvise. Dastangoi has nothing contemporary. There are jadugars (magicians) and ayyars (tricksters) – aap kahan se improvise karoge?” Rajesh asks earnestly.
Although, over the past two years, their Urdu has improved considerably, language continues to be another big challenge Rajesh and Rana face. Moreover, with rising interest in technological forms of entertainment, the art of storytelling has diminished. “Na yeh zabaan chal rahi hai aur na sunnewale hain. Aajkal log dekhte zyada hain aur sunte kam hain na,” Rana points out.
Even so, the two have managed to garner compliments on their command over the language from audiences in Lucknow and Hyderabad, where the audience has a keen ear for Urdu. Even in Karnataka, the audience was positive despite the language constraint. “Meeta Vashisht asked us if Urdu is our first language,” says Rana, rather proud of the celebrity attention. Rajesh reveals a trick, “If we find even one man in the audience who understands what we’re saying, we catch hold of him. Looking at him, the rest of the audience also puts in the effort to understand. They think that if one guy can laugh along why can’t they?” With Mahmood’s contemporary dastans – one on Binayak Sen and the other on the India-Pakistan Partition – the audience find it easier to connect to the performance.
Over two years and 25 shows, Rana and Rajesh have developed a certain sense of confidence in the art form. Yet there are some personal goals that they wish to achieve, sooner rather than later. “Mahmood and Danish (Husain) have been performing for so many years that they play around with the text, move from one story to another and back without losing the tempo. For us to reach that level will take a while but we’re working towards it,” says Rajesh, terming Mahmood and Danish as his idols. Rana adds, “Traditionally, dastans are make believe so Dastangoi tests your ability to come up with stories spontaneously and for that you need to know the language really well. For instance, if the characters are in a jungle, then the jungle can be described for more than half an hour or if they’re in a bazaar then it can be described down to every minute detail.” “We’re not confident enough to play with the text on that level,” Rajesh admits, modestly. The slight edginess that the language barrier causes also gives the group some in-jokes. “Sometimes when I take a pause, you know, for effect, my partner thinks that I’ve forgotten my line and rushes to my rescue to ‘save the performance’,” Rana says, flashing a grin.
Such faux pas aside, Rajesh and Rana have come a long way as theatrewalas over the last few years. “At the thought level, we have improved. Zabaan bhi saaf hui hai. Now we’re part of something that’s not done anywhere else in the world. I’m proud of the fact that I am part of the revival and development of a tradition,” Rana says. With utmost sincerity, Rajesh ups the melodramatic quotient even more: “I struggled for almost seven years to get some work but I wasn’t getting any acting assignments. I took up Dastangoi as a challenge that had to be completed and I knew I’d get a good result. Dastangoi has given me a purpose to believe in.”
If I was as rich as the Ambanis, I would only perform dastans all my life. I would perform everyday. May be I would perform every word that has been written on those 46,000 pages.
– Rana Pratap Senger
Firstly, I want to perform the piece featuring Aazar Jaadugar. I had rehearsed it thoroughly for my audition but I’ve never got to perform it on stage! Then, as a dastango I should be able to hold the audience for 2-4 hours and people should come up with requests on the stories they’d like me to narrate.
– Rajesh Kumar
Catch a Dastangoi performance on May 4, 6.30 pm onwards at Jnanapravaha, Fort.
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