VISUALISE the setting from The Great Indian Laughter Challenge-a bare stage, an audience enraptured by a group of individual storytellers. Then replace the wannabe comedians, Suman and Sidhu, with a couple of orators in white kurta pyjamas and qawwal topis, who transport you to the medieval times with their eloquent speech, antique mannerisms and magical tales about the battles of Amir Hamza, the Prophet Muhammad's uncle, against infidels, and sorcerers.
The performers, Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain are the champions of the forgotten technique of Urdu oral recitation known as dastangoi. ''It was a popular occupation at masjids, chowks and muhallas till the start of the 20th century where dastangos recited chapters from the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza. This piece we are doing is from the Tilism Hoshruba, the most popular and famous chapter and we're performing about 25 pages from it,'' says Farooqui (34), who first embarked on a crusade a year back to rediscover the art of storytelling. Armed with an MPhil in Urdu literature, he conceptualised the performance a year ago, as a tool to revive the art form and entertain.
''We're trying to make it more interactive instead of just reciting, with more actions, expressions and some movement,'' adds Farooqui.
Not much is known about the authentic dastangoi form. In collaboration with scholar SR Faruqui, an authority on the topic and thespian Habib Tanvir, the stories have been brought to life, while maintaining its distinction from theatre.
''The texts have been so marginalised that not much is even available to read, but it's challenging because it removes the other elements of theatre and leaves only the words,'' says Husain (35), also a member of Tanvir's cast of Agra Bazar.
Like in the original form, the duo try their best to memorise the lines and then improvise. Though sittings have been known to stretch across days, they've never gone beyond two hours. Apart from the opening night at the NCPA, they've also been invited by Naseeruddin Shah's Motley production to stage dastangoi under their banner.
With revived interest in dastans, Penguin books is publishing a translation of the Tilism-e-Hoshruba, while Sagar Arts is working on televising the same. Farooqui's also researching a documentary on the subject, one of his many ways of rescuing the tales from annihilation.