South Asia’s forgotten art: Dastangoi

Published: July 16, 2011
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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

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