Stories from the Persian crypt

An art of Persian storytelling that saw stories of magic, warfare and adventures. An art that was immensely popular in India in the 16th century, but witnesses a slow death. But thanks to people like Mahmood Farooqui, the art form still seems to be living in little pockets in the country. He shares with Expresso the stories behind dastangoi, before his performance in the city   

By Ponnu Elizabeth Mathew / Express Buzz

While dastans had many stories, why did the story of Amir Hamza stand out?

Dastangoi was already popular by the mid 16th century in India. When Akbar commissioned Hamzanama, an illustrated version of the Hamza story, it got a stamp of royal patronage. Dastangois came to be associated with Hamza. Also people appreciate the story if it revolves around a historical figure. (Amir Hamza was prophet Mohammed’s uncle.)

Dastangoi died a slow death. Do you think it was the reformist zeal unleashed by colonisation that caused it?

Yes. The reformist impulse did play a part in its deterioration. Even the dastans began to look down upon it. They thought it was fit for children and not an adult audience. There was also a shift from oral tradition to literary culture. And dastangois were mainly oral. But when the 46 volumes of dastangois were printed, it still didn’t have an impact. We’re yet to investigate that. Another reason for its decline was because Parsi theatre took front stage.

But Parsi theatre too saw a slow decline

Yes. The people in Parsi theatre          ventured out into films.

So, what will you be performing in Bangalore?

Danish Husain and I will be performing excerpts from a chapter of Tilism-e-Hoshuba, the 18th century Indian version of the adventures of ancient Middle Eastern warlord Hamza that runs into eight volumes. It comprises over 8,000 pages originally.

Can you recall the first modern dastangoi performance that you staged in 2005?

When I was rehearsing, I knew that there would be a certain set of people that would be interested in it. It was held at the IIT stadium. Before the show William Dalrymple came and gave a small narration about the storytellers from Bhopal. That also drew the attention of the people. During the show, people were very attentive.

How tough is it to perform without props on a bare stage?

That’s how we perform. And people do respond to it well. We tell them a story and they imagine the props. They have the freedom to imagine they way they like, and that is good.

Do you see any room for revival?

I don’t know whether we can talk about revival at all. In olden times, when it was performed, people knew the culture and the language. All we can do now is give good performances.

But you can experiment with the content and create stories that      reflect present day situations

Yes. We have done that. It’s a parallel and an anti-thesis of a stand-up comedian. Like a stand-up comedian, we sit down and tell stories. Though we can change the content, I’m not very keen on doing it, because the stories and the language are 250 years old. If people can enjoy it as such, it will be good. Look at classical music — you enjoy it without making it contemporary.

Finally, how was it working as the co-director in your wife’s directorial debut, Peepli Live? And how do you respond to the success of the movie?

When you are real-life partners, you can take your bedroom fights to the sets. But filmmaking is demanding and it was a challenge. We were lucky to have each other at the sets. I’m happy to see the success of the movie. It was meant to be a hard-hitting, niche movie. But looking at it one way, it became palatable to everyone. I guess, it’s the luxury of success that can make you pine for deprivation.

India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) will present Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain’s dastangoi at Chowdiah Memorial hall today at 7.30pm.