Dastan-E-Amir Hamza in Berkeley [California]

➧ vatsala shrivastava

Audience is the most ruthless critic. Performer’s stature or surprising gimmicks cannot draw undeserved praise from it. It strikes its palms together only for a special moment in which an artiste spells magic on the stage; and obviously it happens only after the show begins. But, I witnessed something rare last week. A performer made his way to the audience’s heart right at the beginning of his introduction session. Mahmood Farooqui identified with the audience as soon as he came on stage and won himself applauds even before he started. He soon slipped into his character for Dastangoi, a lost art of storytelling in Urdu. He showcased it for the Center for South Asia Studies at Berkeley in California. Farooqui’s equal proficiency in Urdu, Hindi and English and his sense of humor struck a perfect chord with every individual sitting in the auditorium.

The word Dastangoi refers to the art of storytelling. While practitioners of Dastangoi narrate a diverse bouquet of epics, Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, the adventures of Amir Hamza, supposedly an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, has been the most popular. The narrator, or the Dastango, plays around with words and voice modulation to recreate an illusionary world of tilism, adventure and warfare. This art form reached India in the 16th Century and was thriving in the northern part of the country. These epics were recited aloud on the streets of Lucknow or on the steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi, each story taking several days to unfold. The art form came to an abrupt end with the death of the last great practitioner, Mir Baqar Ali, in 1928. Today, Mahmood Farooqui is almost single-handedly reviving this traditional performing art of storytelling. He was introduced to Dastangoi by legendary Urdu scholar S.R. Faruqi and wanted to make a film on the subject. During his research, he got an invitation for a lecture demonstration and that is when he realized that the best way to describe Dastangoi is to perform it. He collaborated with his school-time friend Himanshu Tyagi and performed the first show in 2005. Farooqui has experimented with a vast range of subjects for Dastangoi such as the Binayak Sen case, the life of Manto, Tagore’s stories etc. During the show at Berkeley, Farooqui narrated the tale of Afrasiyab, the emperor of the sorcerers and the ruler of the enchanted realm. In an hour long show, the audience kept showering accolades on the actor, who weaved the world of magic. People who did not know the language were also captivated by the actor’s andaaz.

Farooqui, who is a storyteller at heart, quests to open the world of stories for people through multiple facets of communication which require him to switch roles between those of a historian, a theatre person, a filmmaker, a writer and a critic. “I want to tell stories. There are several possible languages and forms to do it. However, the aim is to make the people unleash their imagination. Let them dream of a world where they are free to experiment,” says Farooqui, the acclaimed co-director of a Bollywood movie Peepli Live.

Theatre happened to Farooqui during schooldays. The Kotwal’s character in Andher Nagri Chaupat Raja was his first stint on stage. As a student of St. Stepehens college, Farooqui marked his presence on Delhi University’s theatre panorama. Later, as a Rhodes Scholar going to Oxford, he founded theatre group Dastak in Delhi. He continued his theatrical voyage in Mumbai before ferociously coming forward to rescue the lost art of storytelling.

Farooqui uses techniques of theatre for training artistes in his films. He focuses on rehearsals and workshops. The versatile artiste has a thoughtful piece of advice for young theatre practitioners. “Theatre actors often get frustrated in the films. They should be aware of the fact that films cannot be as creatively satisfying as theatre. So when you are in the film industry, do not crib. Be aware that the cravings of art will conflict with the bottom-line of commerce,” says Farooqui insightfully. He waits only a moment before revealing that he finds the taste of theatre “lip smacking”.

In his book, Besieged Voices from Delhi 1857, Farooqui presents the first extensive English translation of the Mutiny Papers –documents dating from Delhi’s 1857 siege, originally written in Persian and Shikastah Urdu. Presently, he is working on English translation of Habib Tanveer’s autobiography.

Vatsala Shrivastava
वत्‍सला श्रीवास्तव। स्‍वतंत्र पत्रकार। लंबे समय तक एशियन एज, दिल्‍ली में सहायक समाचार संपादक रहीं। पिछले कुछ सालों से कैलिफोर्निया में। उनसे venusvatsala@gmail.com पर संपर्क करें।

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