Delhi’s Dastangoi duo breathe life into art of storytelling

Performers enchanted the audience with their expressions last month.

Sher Khan December 19, 2012
Delhi’s Dastangoi duo breathe life into art of storytelling


Indian performers Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Hussain love to tell stories. They have gone back to basics with Dastangoi — a Persian word that means ‘art of storytelling’ — which they started in 2005.

In ancient times, storytelling was a treasured means of entertainment as there was no media to entertain us. But even today, while there are numerous television and radio channels that keep us occupied, story lovers from all age groups seem to be enchanted by Dastangoi’s tales. The Indian performers’ popularity is increasing; they know how to narrate stories about events or people and engage their listeners in their performances.

The duo was in Lahore last month to showcase Dastan-e-Mantoiyat at the Alhamra Arts Complex. The intimate gathering hosted by the Faiz Foundation Trust gave insight into the theatrical task undertaken by the team. This was followed by a free of charge performance at the Lahore Press Club a few days after the show.

“Broadway still exists and their shows still run full houses,” Hussain said. “But that’s a different sort of theatre whose whole purpose is to dazzle you.” He was a corporate banker, but shunned his profession several years ago to entertain people with his talent.

“Theatre is a different kind of medium,” said Hussain. “The audience is limited, unlike cinema or television. It’s always a struggle to attract sponsors or investors because they fear that the reach is limited.” He also feels that theatre is interpreted in many ways. “Two people speaking to each other is theatre,” he said.

Hussain’s partner, Farooqui is a writer, performer and a director. He wrote and co-directed the 2010 Indian film Peepli Live. “I enjoy doing this; and the audience also seems to like it,” he said.

“It’s cheap and self-reliant,” said Farooqui. “It’s a great form for an actor because you’re constantly speaking; you can’t ask for more as a performer.” Farooqui told The Express Tribune that the art of storytelling is more difficult than a solo performance. “We sit down on stage and stay there while only using our upper bodies, facial expressions and hands to captivate the audience,” said Farooqui with a smile. “It’s the most satisfying experience.”

The team of two made sure that this art blends into modern literature. They have narrated and adapted several stories, including Rabindaranith Tagore’s Home and the World, along with a dastan on Dr Binayak Sen’s incarceration and trial which was titled Dastan-e-Sedition.  More recently, the duo adapted Manto in dastan form and titled it Dastan-e-Mantoiyat.

Danish Hussain

“Generally, Indian’s do feel that Manto is the greatest fiction writer of the 20th century,” said Farooqi. “The process is to learn from both traditions and modernise it with new content such as Manto.” He explained how Manto’s books in Hindi have sold in large numbers. He also said that a dastan performance on Manto’s work is interesting because he was a writer who writes like he is speaking.

Farooqi is clear that Faiz, Manto and several others are esteemed icons in India because of the shared culture that still exists. The content in the dastan is meant to be political and progressive.

“It’s deeply political because you’re reviving a platform that has been suppressed for different political reasons,” said Farooqui. “You’re performing in a language that is beleaguered and you’re using a theatre form that is against the grain of the tendency,” he explained.

Farooqui splits his time between Dastangoi and film-making. He gives two years to theatre and then one year for filmmaking. When asked whether he thinks someone like Faiz or Manto could be brought to the screen in the current film environment, Farooqui was not averse to the idea.

“A bio-film is an expensive project because you’re trying to capture a time period,” said Farooqui. “Hopefully, in five to 10 years, we will have an audience that is mature enough to deal with these films and also have enough funds to support these films.”

Farooqi also revealed his plans on creating a dastan on the Ali-Laila series, along with a couple of film projects he has lined up for near future.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 20th, 2012.

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