South Asia’s forgotten art: Dastangoi

Published: July 16, 2011

In Dastan-e-Sedition, the storytellers have brilliantly melded the contemporary on a relatively old (but not stale) art form.

The good thing about the internet is what it does to distance. It can bring the flavour of your des or watan (land) right to your apartment in London.

Whilst I was on one of my random internet strolls one day, I chanced upon a clip of a recent Dastangoi event organized in Delhi. For those of you who don’t know, Dastangoi was a form of storytelling practised in Delhi and the Urdu speaking areas of the Indo-Gangetic plains. The concept was pretty simple. In the olden days, when the idiot box was still not invented, a Dastango (storyteller) would recite the tales of Amir Hamza and Tilism-e-Hoshruba, whilst his audience would stand there enthralled, and try to imagine a world of djinns, paris (fairies) and jaadugars (wizards).

For a sneak preview into that lost world, the University of Chicago has a rare audio clip of a Dastango named Baqir Ali, dated 1920.

Storytelling and oral transmission (no smirks please) has had a vibrant history in the Indian subcontinent. As desis, chatting is our favourite pastime. Right from the Vedas, which were transmitted orally for thousands of years, from guru (teacher) to student, we mastered the art of storytelling. An advantage of storytelling was that there was no class divide; the unlettered could enjoy it as much as their Persian/Sanskrit educated snoots. My own grandmother was particularly good at the art of storytelling, and it was a good pastime in those days of single channel TVs and load shedding. Tragically, then came cable TV, Playstations and iPods and storytelling soon began to fade away. When I asked my own mother if she knew any stories for her grandkids, she dryly replied that she could buy a CD for them.

Anyway, this article was about Dastangoi and not my own Dastan. As I was browsing random crap on the internet, I found something that was truly remarkable. Mahmood Farooqui, a renowned Urdu scholar had recently launched an initiative to revive the lost art of Dastangoi in India. Started a few years back, they have brought the ancient Dastans in front of contemporary audience. Initially, they started off with traditional works like Amir Hamza and Tilism-e-Hoshruba. However, recently I came across a satirical rendition of (what I assume to be) Amir Hamza, but in a contemporary political context, called ‘Dastan-e-Sedition’.

In Dastan-e-Sedition, the storytellers weave a complex tale of the land of Kohistaan, whose natives have been displaced by the jaadugars (the state). Slowly, the Dastan weaves through the thick maze of Indian politics, covering themes like extra judicial killings, corruption, the unfair arrest of Binayak Sen, and the overt sanskritisation of Hindi. Along with traditional narratives, the Dastangos break into Faiz, which makes it all the more enjoyable.

Later on, I also found a link to what appears to be a Punjabi form of Dastangoi. I have no idea what it is called, but it appears to be more rustic and folksy. This particular performance was based on the tragic tale of Mirza and Sahiba.

In Dastan-e-Sedition, the storytellers have brilliantly melded the contemporary on a relatively old (but not stale) art form. In doing so, they have breathed life and relevance into a lost art. In doing so, they have ensured that Dastan-e-Dastangoi stays alive for the years to come.

amit.julka

Amit Julka

A student from India currently pursuing his Masters in South Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He blogs at thegoofysufi.blogspot.com

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Fahad Raza

    That is a refreshing blog.
    People in the South Asia apparently are more interested now in movies and cinema. They want stories to end in about three hours max. or those who dont want them to end have Saas-Bahu soaps to substitute.
    Dastangoi’s ideology is behind the current commercial dramas serials which does the same thing to those who are entertained by it. Mesmerized, as a blank face filled with awe and somewhere in the home running tap/burning gas.Recommend

  • Ilmana Fasih

    One of the few really meaningful and encouraging blogs. Kudos to the author, for bringing up this forgotten topic.Recommend

  • Rabbahs

    very good article, keep it up. like your writing style Recommend

  • Waqeel Hindvi

    For those biradars and chadars who want to enjoy this great tradition of story-telling.
    Let it revive. It is good to know that this ‘democratic’ form of entertainment, is available and alive for all people.

    DASTAN-E-SEDITION
    Don’t have the name of the performers.
    Part 1.
    Part 2.

    DASTANGOI AT MAGH MELA
    Performed by Sheikh Usman & Rana Pratap Senger.
    Part 1.
    Part 2. Recommend

  • http://punjabirefill.tumblr.com Ashveer

    I am not familiar enough with Dastangoi to agree with or critique your comparison, but the Punjabi form that you linked to is called “Dhadi”. One of the few academic works that takes Dhadi seriously, and then links it to contemporary political situations is Michael Nijhawan’s “Dhadi Darbar” available in South Asia by Oxford University Press. It is a fascinating and worthwhile read. Recommend