By Aminah Sheikh
Deh na dekhi, naram kahaaye
Buraa lagay aur hansi bhi aaye
(Invisible, but they call it tender
Feel bad, but it evokes laughter)
It’s the second time I’m reading this riddle. Attempting to get close to solving it, I’ve narrowed it down to two possible answers. But, I’m confused. So, I turn the page to see the illustration for a clue, trying hard not to glance at the answer which is on the page next to the illustration. The illustration consists of artistically drawn fish and feathers. It intrigues me further, as I rattle my brain, thinking what feathers can do – make you fly, make you smile. My thoughts take me to a time I got a fish pedicure. I remember giggling a lot! Giggling by tickles…? I go back to reading the verse to confirm if my guess fits the riddle. Having read the riddle, now for the third time, I decide on “tickle” as the answer. I turn the page – “tickle” it is! The answer leads the reader to an anecdote of Amir Khusrau. There is a child-like excitement as you go about solving twenty riddles that make for a wonderful discovery on Amir Khusrau, in a book Amir Khusrau: The Man in Riddles.
The Sufi poet has been brought to life in an innovative narrative by Ankit Chadha, a popular dastango (someone who practices the oral form of storytelling in Urdu). Each riddle unveils a facet of Amir Khusrau. Ankit explains that the idea was to bring the poet and his poetry together in the most accessible form for readers of all ages. “Through some riddles, which were fun and representative of the culture Khusrau stands for, I wished to tell a story that would open up the man that was and is. So, each riddle in the book is, in a way, a petal that you open and slowly appreciate this flower of a personality.”
The book Amir Khusrau: The Man in Riddles came into this form of word play literally, during a conversation between Ankit and Nimmy Chacko, Associate Commissioning Editor at Penguin Random House India, during which they discussed a book for young readers. “We did not want to do just another collection of poetry with translations. We wanted to tell a story. That’s how the idea came up,” says Ankit. The illustrations have been designed by Urmimala Nag.
Khusrau’s duality in his personality and poetry fascinates Ankit, who began his journey as a storyteller about six years ago after participating in a workshop conducted by Mahmood Farooqui on dastangoi, an ancient form of oral storytelling in Urdu. Today, Ankit is among the handful of dastangos in India. “Being the youngest dastango is not a milestone for me. It was in fact my beginning. I was the youngest participant at the 2010 workshop, and within four months, became the youngest dastango with my debut,” shares Ankit.
His first performance “Dastan Amar Ayyaar aur Amir Hamza ke Bachpan Ki” at Alliance Francaise, Delhi was a beacon of new dreams. “Dastangoi is like naked truth. No frills. This honesty that is so innate to the art form aroused my interest in it,” Ankit says. Overwhelmed by the response his storytelling received on Dastan-e-Mobile, Dastagoi on mobile phones, he took a leap of faith and quit his well-paying job. Fondly recalling his initial days as a Dastangoi, he says, “Dastan-e-Mobile was my ladakpan ka kalaam. From leaving a well-paying job to constant concerns showed by parents to moments of self-doubt, all of that happened. What worked was my tortoise approach I think – not to hurry, being firm and moving steadily.”
Three years later, Ankit trained a 14-year old, who then became the youngest dastango after performing in 2014. Ankit believes that his journey is in the learning. It is in the sharing of the knowledge he has gained. And, in shaping the art form as it shapes him.
Amir Khusrau: The Man in Riddles is the second time that Ankit is touching upon the life of Khusrau through his writing, the first being Jashn-e-Khusrau published in 2013. “Jashn-e-Khusrau was a huge volume that consisted of a few translations by me, among some scholarly papers by prestigious academics. I reconnected with my older work and research on Khusrau for this book (Amir Khusrau: The Man in Riddles). It’s the same man. Only my audience has slightly changed,” he says.
Ankit’s first book My Gandhi Story, a children’s book published in 2014 won him a National award. The book brought together a writer, an artist and a filmmaker. “Rajesh Chaitya Vangad, a folk artist from the warli tradition had painted the life of Gandhi on cloth. Nina Sabnani, a designer and filmmaker, saw a book coming out of it. I was the ‘words’ person,” Ankit shares, “We met and felt that the key to telling this story well was keeping multiple voices alive. Hence, the way Rajesh narrated his idea of Gandhi comes into the book. There is a curious child who asks Rajesh questions. Gandhi himself comes and goes to answer some of these questions about his life.”
From writing on unemployment, consumer-driven issues to poets now, Ankit’s writing evidently has distinctive flavours of his storytelling as a dastango. “I think the evolving process of my writing has informed the content I choose, and the content has contribution to the evolution of the process. The dynamics of Dastangoi as an art form – strictly oral, elaborate in text, minimal in delivery, prominence of Urdu, from a certain narrative tradition, poetic, of the past, etc – have substantially become a part of how I write.”
When asked which medium of storytelling appeals to him more – writing or dastangoi, this weaver of stories says, “For me, it’s not writing or dastangoi. It’s writing FOR dastangoi.”
Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab