Dastangoi

By Udit Yadav and Pratap Sen

Robert Mackee, professor at the University of Southern California, once stated that “storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world”. The revival of Dastangoi is an important step in recognising the importance of storytelling in disseminating progressive ideas amongst the public.

Dantangoi was revived by Mahmood Farooqui in 2005. Since then, he has performed thousands of shows across the world.

The Dastangoi Collective is an organisation for the revival of Dastangoi started by S.R. Faruqui, Mahmood Farooqui and Anusha Rizvi. They are also responsible for compiling the history of Dastangoi. 

Dastangoi refers to the Urdu art of oral storytelling. The word is derived from two words, “dastan” and “goi” meaning “to tell a story”. Originating in 16th century Persia, epics were recited or read aloud to an audience by performers known as Dastangos. These Dastans or stories would have themes of love (razm) and war (bazm). Perhaps the most famous and one of the oldest documented Dastans is that of Amir Hamza, the uncle of Prophet Muhammad. “Dastan-e-Amir Hamza” follows the adventures of Amir Hamza as he, alongside his companion, Amar Ayyar, fights his way past djinns, treacherous tricksters and despotic rulers. William Dalrymple has hailed the story of Amir Hamza as being the Iliad and Odyssey of medieval Persia and no doubt it owes its popularity to the discipline of Dastangoi. Dastans were narrated in Arabic and Persian and with the passage of time spread to other parts of the world. As its influence expanded, Dastangoi began to borrow themes and elements from other works such as Rumi’s Masnavi and Arabian Nights

A Vyasa (the title of oral storytellers) recites epics to villagers, 1913

In the early days, the Dastangos would narrate their stories without the aid of elaborate set-ups or stages, such as for full-fledged plays. Instead, they would rely completely on the power of their voices, their memory and their ability to improvise to tell rivetting tales and capture the audience’s attention. There is evidence to suggest that performances of Dastangoi were supplemented with large illustrations. The Dastangos would refer to these illustrations while narrating their tales. The Ain-i-Akbari mentions how Mughal Emperor Akbar commissioned the Hamzanama, an illustrated rendition of the tales of Amir Hamza. The miniature paintings of the Hamzanama would be passed around the court as the tale was narrated. But such instances were exceptions and not the rule. 

Dastangoi would reach its zenith when it reached India. As the art form began to adopt new themes it became Indianised. Here it would develop two more elements which distinguished Dastangoi from other performing arts. The first element is ‘tilism’, which refers to a magical world created by the sorcerers which appears similar to our own world, but defies the laws of the physical world and God. The characteristics exhibited by this world are often rooted in the imagination of the Dastango. 

Amir Khusrow teaching his disciples

The second element is ‘ayyari’, meaning trickery, in reference to Amir Hamza’s companion, Amar Ayyar. Here the protagonist uses his wits to deceive and defeat a more powerful foe. These two elements gave an immense advantage to the storyteller to improvise and create new scenarios. More importantly, Dastangoi began to be narrated in Urdu. 

By the 20th century, the popularity of Dastangoi was beginning to wane, as tastes in entertainment became westernised and also the Indian film industry began to emerge. Mir Baqar Ali was the last famous Dastango of India and with his death in 1928, Dastangoi lapsed into a hiatus. It was only in 2005 that Dastangoi would be revived by Mahmood Farooqui with the help of S.R. Faruqui who collected all 46 volumes of Dastangoi.

With this revival came a new form of Dastangoi known as modern Dastans. These Dastans, rather than narrating stories of magic and mysticism from folk tales or epics, focus on narrating the stories of historical figures and events in India. If the purpose of classical Dastans is to suspend belief of the audience and enthral it, the purpose of modern Dastans is to inform and help the audience engage with ideas on art, literature, politics and other social issues. Modern Dastans have been made on figures such as Bhagat Singh, Gandhi, Sayed Haider Raza, Manto and on events such as Partition and the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy; and the central themes of modern Dastans range from liberty, fraternity and independence to democracy and, of course, citizenship. Rather than giving a bird’s eye view, modern Dastans seek to present a story that is personal and emotionally charged. The intent is to not only help the audience rediscover the ideas and thought processes prevalent among such figures and events, but to nurture the same emotions and sense of ideals which motivated the actions and lives of those figures. 

“Taqseem-e-Hind” is a tale of Partition, a medley of personal accounts, literature, archival records, news reports and poetry around that ground-shaking event. Immense research has gone into this Dastan and material was taken from the works of Manto, Intizar Hussain, Vazira Zamindar, Begum Anis Kidwai and Urvashi Butalia. This Dastan on Partition covers almost every aspect of the event– such as the division of government property, the kidnapping of women, conditions in refugee camps, migration of refugees and communal riots– all in a manner that is understandable for the audience. The Dastan starts off on a light note and builds a crescendo as it delves into more serious subjects. But the entire Dastan has one central theme, that of communalism and identity politics. The characters through whom the stories of Partition are narrated have their sense of belonging to India questioned, while others attempt to uproot and sift through India’s cultures and peoples. The result is a lamentation of India’s own loss of identity and a warning of the consequences of imposing cultural strictures on people’s sense of belonging to their country. These themes closely relate to the debates on citizenship in contemporary India. 

It’s quite interesting how our mentor, Mahmood Farooqui, describes the difference between Dastangoi and a play. In the latter, the actors have to ignore the audience and immerse themselves in the world and characters they are portraying; in Dastangoi, the opposite is true. The audience is encouraged to show appreciation by shouting “Wah! Wah!” or applauding. While performing, we have to pay attention to the reactions of the audience. If we found that the audience was not reacting to some of our subtle sarcasm, we would alter our tone to make it more expressive and the sarcasm more apparent. Thus, Dastangoi is interactive. It would not be far-fetched to say that each Dastangoi performance is unique. This interactive nature of Dastangoi makes it accessible for both laypersons and people familiar with the art of Dastangoi. 

Since Dastangoi is such an effective medium for the dissemination of complex discussions and ideas, it is eminently suitable for discussing the idea of citizenship.

In India, citizenship is defined by the Constitution in purely legal terms. This means that a person who was born in the territory of India, or whose parent was born in the territory of India or someone who has been ordinarily a resident in the territory of India for at least a period of seven years is or can become a citizen of India. However, if we read these laws in the context of the philosophy of the Constitution, it leads to a different view of citizenship in India. Supplementing the legal understanding of citizenship with the Fundamental Rights of the Constitution reveals a more inclusive understanding of citizenship. Articles such as 14 and 15 profess equality before the law. Furthermore, Articles 25-30 allow people to express and follow their religious beliefs and practices. For a country as culturally rich and diverse as India, these Articles allow for the conception of an idea of citizenship that is inclusive and encourages diversity, specifically cultural citizenship. Cultural citizenship refers to the right to be different with respect to the norms of the dominant national community, without sacrificing one’s right to belong in a participatory democracy. 

This understanding of citizenship is not well acknowledged or well accepted in Indian society. It is no surprise that in a country as massive as India with rampant illiteracy, there has always been a divide between fact and the popular perception of that fact – fuelled by misconceptions and ignorance. As far back as the Constituent Assembly debates, we find members of the assembly debating various forms of citizenship. To this day the nature and conditions of Indian citizenship have been a cause for debate. These arguments and the popular perception of what citizenship entails, run in contradiction to the constitutional citizenship which is by nature more inclusive. 

The recent amendments to the Citizenship Act and the subsequent protests and controversies brought to light this gap in people’s understanding of what citizenship entails. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) provides a pathway for illegal immigrants from the three countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, who belong to one of the six religions mentioned in the Act (Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians, Jains and Buddhists), to acquire Indian citizenship. While many criticised this Act’s overt use of religion as a criterion for citizenship, arguing that it violated the Constitution’s secular credentials, there were many others who thought differently. Many believed that the CAA rightly gave preferential treatment to communities who have a bigger stake in India. Their idea of citizenship and its criteria revolved around the dominant culture and religion of India. This gap between different people’s understanding of citizenship was a cause for much debate and conflict. 

The question then arises, how can this gap between constitutional citizenship and the popular understanding of citizenship be bridged? This is where the role of Dastangoi becomes integral. Not only does it engage with ideas and concepts such as citizenship through a narrative that is relatable for people, it is also capable of disseminating these ideas to the masses. “Taqseem-e-Hind” is a Dastan which closely relates to Partition. Rather than directly speaking about citizenship, it laments the damage and loss India suffered as a result of identity politics. It tells the tragic tale of people who were alienated in their own land because they did not meet the conditions set by the majority community in that country. Thereby, this Dastan on Partition becomes a cautionary tale that indirectly promotes an inclusive idea of citizenship in line with the Constitution. 

Dastangoi is an art form that transcends social divides. Anyone, from a worker to a student to a literatteur, can understand and appreciate a Dastangoi performance. Oral traditions have long been an integral part of Indian history. Ancient texts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were preserved in memory and orally transferred from generation to generation. The same is true for classical poems and epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Anthropologist Susan Wadley argues that the “Spoken Language” is always of a more personal quality, which places emphasis on people and their actions. Dastangoi, as part of this oral tradition of storytelling, has the advantage of reaching out to the public in a manner no traditional model of education can hope to achieve. It is an art form that reaches out to both the literate and illiterate, communicating ideas in a lucid and entertaining manner. While Dastangoi shows today make use of a stage with lighting, in essence they can be performed anywhere with a minimal set-up. This only increases its reach. 

It’s amazing how effortlessly Dastan “Taqseem-e-Hind” handles the topic of Partition and covers so many aspects of it. Most Partition-related media covers only one aspect of it. Movies like Earth or Pinjar cover the violence faced by women, movies like Train to Pakistan or Tamas deal with communal tensions and movies like Garm Hawa deal with the impact of Partition on a family. “Taqseem-e-Hind” covers all these themes and does so in a manner that does not break its narrative. By covering these themes, this Dastan offers insight on ideas of fraternity, equality and citizenship in an effortless manner. 

Language is another aspect of Dastangoi which contributes to its popularity. Although Urdu does not have the same level of dominance among the public as in the past, it still remains an integral part of Indian culture. There is not a single Indian who has never heard an Urdu word or an Urdu shayari in passing. Most Bollywood songs and movies still make use of Urdu. The language itself is multi-ethnic in origin, a Persianised register of the Hindustani language. It is an indicator of the transnational character of India’s culture, and a symbol of India’s diversity. Although Urdu is the primary language for Dastans, Dastangoi performances employ the use of a wide range of languages – from Sanskrit slokas and verses in Arabic from the Quran to Punjabi banter and discussions in Bhojpuri. 

The potential for Dastangoi as a medium for social change is limitless. Stories have begun to assume a new sense of relevance with the works of people such as Iravati Karve, Amit Majumdar and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who seek to retell ancient epics in a manner that is relevant and relatable for modern audiences. The coming years are sure to see Dastangoi emerging as a dominant art for telling and retelling stories that not only capture the imagination of the audience but leave a lasting impact by trying to reintroduce the values, principles and ideals which inspired the nation’s Constitution makers. 


About the author: Udit Yadav is a voice-over artiste and a theatre actor and has been associated with the Dastangoi Collective for some years. Udit’s undying love for culture, heritage, and literature keeps his creative juices flowing.

About the author: Pratap Chandra Sen graduated in History (Hons) from Ambedkar University Delhi where he was president of the History Society. He schooled at Sanskriti School, Delhi. He interned at The Wire. Is currently working as an intern for the 1947 Partition Archive and for Pramod Kapoor, the founder of Roli Books.


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