Tuesday, December 12, 2006

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Dastangoi: Revival and Resistance

Periodically in the realm of literary theory the novel is proclaimed dead. The globe is whirling too fast, patience is wearing thin. Contemporary world is seen to have no place for a long narrative that demands silence, cunning, exile for its creation and time, effort, and imagination for its reception. In performing arts the rumour is about the tyranny of the mechanised image; the visual has swallowed the aural. Music unaccompanied by video might soon be relegated to the status of a curiosity. Everywhere there is the demeaning diagnosis of the dumbing down of our sensibilities. We are told that we are living in an age of instant gratification: complexity and slow time are being edged out in favour of mechanization and slickness.

In such a world to revive Dastangoi – traditional Urdu story telling - is clearly an act of courage for which S.R. Faruqi described as ‘the foremost living authority on Dastans and the only person to possess a full set of all the 46 volumes of Dastan-e Amir Humza’ in the IIC brochure and the performers Mahmood Farooqui and Himanshu Tyagi deserve our gratitude and fulsome praise. For one the sheer bulk of the material is intimidating. Farhatullah Baig the writer of ‘The Last Mushairah of Delhi’ is said to have quipped that the combined weight of the volumes would be enough to wreak death upon an unsuspecting reader who dozes off mid-Dastan. Secondly, Dastangoi is a ‘popular’ art form that had the commoners at chauks and nukkads as its aficionados. The Dastangos used to perform at the steps of Jama Masjid. The traditional audiences have melted away into the cinema halls of the cities. At the IIC on 23rd October 2005, as elsewhere, Mahmood Faruqi and Himanshu Tyagi would necessarily perform for a fairly sophisticated audience of bureaucrats and professionals that may be more discerning but suffers the handicap of not possessing the necessary competence in Urdu.

It is to the credit of the conceiver of the show and performers that they neither made allowances for present day audience nor put in any effort to be trendy. The stage was conceived (with input from Habib Tanvir) austerely with a divan in the centre, incense wafting on both sides and the two Dastngos in pure white, seated most of the time, sought to engulf the audience in the pure ‘sea of eloquence’. A glossary of names and recurring words had been circulated but the audience was also advised ‘not to be anxious to understand each and every sentence’. The sense would flow equally from the ambience and the mood. If the performers were not giving leeway they cannot be accused of taking any themselves. In the brochure was an unexpected apology, “The Dastangos of old performed in an oral culture where memory, sound and directness were much prized. As modern actors we neither have the skills to memorise whole daftars, nor the inventiveness to do spontaneous and extempore improvisations which are the hallmark of oral performances.”

With hindsight the apology seems to be a part of the tradition of their performance. The modesty has an old-world feel to it as in their virtuoso performance they did the age they talk about very proud indeed. At least the present reviewer admits to being completely awe-struck by their prodigious memory and wide range of acting. We can safely say that as twenty-first century Dastangos Mahmood Farooqui and Himanshu Tyagi’s act cannot be improved upon.

The selection for the performance was from ‘Tilism-e Hoshruba’, the enchantment cast over the conflict between the righteous Amir Humza, an Uncle of the Prophet and Laqa who falsely claims divinity. It consisted of three whimsical tales of sorcerers, fairies, and tricksters. The tales sought to entertain and please; if there was a moral it certainly wasn’t obtrusive. Amar Aiyar the chief trickster of Laqa foils several attempts made by sorcerers – all of who bear the name ‘Jadu’ – to bring him to book. Magical puppets assume the role of policemen; beautiful women seduce swains with wine; Banias revile the authorities for stealing from them. The world of the Dastan is rich, vivid and staunchly secular.

The audience at the IIC experience seemed to get slightly restless at the end. Perhaps the culprit was the Mughal-Awadhi cuisine that waited. However, the Dastangos – trained over centuries to hold a fickle audience – concluded their amazing performance with aplomb. It was also gratifying to note that a band of admirers hung on every word refusing to be seduced away by coarser pleasures. All in all ‘The Sea of Eloquence – An Evening of Dastan e Amir Hamza’ proved to be a significant effort at revival of a form that had disappeared from the canon of performing arts for almost a century. Its success in present time is heartening not only for its own sake but also for ours. Perhaps some of us along with Farooqui and Tyagi are making an attempt to resist the fast flowing currents of our time.

Anuradha Marwah

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