‘Everything in India, including religion, is a story’: Reviving the old tradition of Dastaangoi with Mahmood Farooqui

Mahmood Farooqui in conversation with Gargi Vachaknavi

 Dastangoi is the art of Urdu storytelling that was popular all across India and could regale commoners and elites alike. That was in times of Mughal splendour. The performers were artists and writers rolled into one who left behind over 46,000 pages of published fantasies. The Dastans were the stories told by these storytellers, the gois. Unfortunately this art form completely vanished, leaving behind few memories.

Inspired by the scholarship of one of Urdu’s greatest living writer S. R. Faruqi, Mahmood Farooqui began its revival in 2005 and has since then trained dozens of other storytellers or Dastangos, staged over a thousand shows all around the world and has composed over a dozen modern Dastans for the genre. With all the innovations that he and his team have spearheaded, a virtually new genre of performance and a new kind of writing for the stage has emerged in our times.


Mahmood Farooqui performing

Farooqui is an award winning writer and performer. He was awarded the Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar by the Sangeet Natak Akademi of the Union Government for his efforts in reviving Dastangoi. His book on the 1857 uprising Besieged: Voices from Delhi, 1857, was awarded the Ram Nath Goenka Award for the best non-fiction book of the year by the Indian Express Group. He has been a visiting fellow at the Universities of Michigan, US and Berkeley, California and was a Rhodes scholar at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. His latest book is A Requiem for Pakistan: The World of Intizar Husain. He has written over 15 modern Dastans for the stage and has trained nearly 50 people besides performing close to 500 shows himself. His wife, film maker Anusha Rizvi, is not only the producer of the Dastangois but also the award winning writer-Director of Peepli Live, a 2010 satirical comedy with the involvement of greats like Aamir Khan and Raghuvir Yadav.

Mahmood Farooqui and his troupe will be performing in Singapore on the 14thof September. In this exclusive, he talks to Gargi Vachaknavi of his work, of how a Dastangoi performance varies from normal theatre and what he is going to perform in Singapore.


Gargi: Why did you think of reviving Dastangoi, an art of 13 th century storytelling in Urdu? What is the potential you see that makes you feel it is necessary to contextualise it for the present day?

Farooqui: I was a student of history and had been active in theatre for many years when I came across the great S. R. Faruqi’s study of the world of Dastans. I had been reading Urdu literature all my life but had never really heard of this incredibly enchanting world. When I dug deeper, I was totally bowled over by the genius of the writers and the of the performers. Here was theatre in its purest form, one or two narrators, sitting still and holding an audience captive, just like our ancient rishis (sages) narrated epics and Shastras to rapt listeners. I felt that this was the most essential art form of the Indian subcontinent. From the word go, it was an instant success perhaps because in India everything, including religion is a story.

The innovation I made was to have not one but two narrators and our designer, Anusha Rizvi, kept the basics very simple so we brought it into the ambit of modern theatre by using techniques of lighting, stage decorum and presentation.

Since I revived it in 2005, I have conducted innumerable workshops, trained over 40 other people in the form and have published two books on the subject. Some of the people trained by me have gone on to make a name for themselves and are even earning a living from it now.

Gargi: Is the storytelling done only in Urdu by your troupe? Or do you resort to using other languages?

Farooqui: It is an Urdu art form but Urdu and Hindi are more or less the same language except for some distinctive words, for instance it is impossible to tell whether the Hindi film blockbuster Sholay is in Hindi or Urdu. Besides Hindi cinema lyrics have been and still are mostly in Urdu so we stick to Urdu mostly but depending on the work, say the story of Karna from the Mahabharata, that requires a lot of Sanskrit, and Persian so I draw on that.

Gargi: There had been no Dastangoi for the last seven decades. Then, suddenly, you took it up in 2005. What was it that moved you?

Farooqui: I was moved by the enormous simplicity of the form, which required an equal amount of skill and craftsmanship. Also the essence of theatre is an actor communicating with an audience, and here the actor is bound further by lack of movement, by lack of properties, music nothing. It’s just him, his voice, his speechwork and his gestures and facial expressions. As one of India’s greatest actors Naseeruddin Shah, who performed Dastangoi briefly under my direction also realized, there is nothing more challenging for an actor to do, and also nothing more satisfying either.

Gargi: I have read till the eighteenth century this form was not recorded in writing. One of the earliest references in print to Dastangoi is a 19th-century text containing 46 volumes of the adventures of Amir Hamza titled Dastan e Amir Haamza. Is this what was commissioned during emperor Akbar’s times? Do you perform Amir Haamza’s original Dastans in Urdu?

Farooqui: Yes indeed. The original Hamza Dastans are one of India’s and the world’s most outstanding dramatic creations. It is a universe teeming with sorcerers, rulers, tricksters, seduction, treachery, spies and counter spies. There is no Rasa that you cannot find there, it is the greatest magic-realist story ever told or written.

Gargi: How is writing a Dastan different from writing a play?

Farooqui: It is very different, because there are no actors, there is only a narrator, it is something meant only to be heard, not read off the page so it has a different aesthetics altogether. You have to tell a story, but using words that work well from the stage.

Gargi: You have adopted Tagore’s Ghore Bayire (The Home and The World)The Mahabharata and a number of stories from other cultures in the Dastangoi tradition. How have you modified them to suit the Dastangoi style?

Farooqui: We have made them more amenable to narration and also have made it relevant to suit my current audiences in India.

Gargi: How is the Dastangoi style of storytelling different from other forms of storytelling?

Farooqui: It does not use any movement, any props, any music. It is the purest style of narration possible.

Gargi: What are the modern Dastans you have written and in what language?

Farooqui: I have written several modern Dastans that range from adaptations of Children’s classic such as Alice in Wonderland and The Little Prince, to adaptations of folk tales such as Vijay Dan Detha and A. K. Ramanujan, as well as mythological stories such as 300 Ramayanas and the story of Karna from the Mahabharata or an ode to Goddess Saraswati; very contemporary ones such as a Dastan on Partition, another on sedition laws in India; then we did one on the life and times of the great Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto — all these have been brought together in a recently published collection called Dastangoi 2, following up on from my first collection of Dastangoi stories.

Potentially any subject can be treated as a modern Dastangoi presentation provided the writing is of a certain quality, the narrative flows like a fable or a satire or a tale, and there is the right admixture of poetry. Texts must speak as performance and then the sky is the limit. But whatever we do, we take care to make it contemporary, to be tongue in cheek, to be reflexive and to make sure we present something that appeals to all as well as has something for the select few, the commoners and the initiated alike because it is a popular art form. If we experiment too much with our narrative then we can’t perform to large audiences. The masses must be entertained only then will they be edified.

Gargi: Are Dastangoi stories written differently? I believe your former colleague, the late Ankit Chadha, brought out a book called Toh Hazireen Hua Yun… Dastan-e-Ankit Chadha. Were they different from a normal play?

Farooqui: Indeed Dastans are written very differently. Ankit Chadha trained under me for 6 years and I directed most of the stories he performed. When you write for Dastangoi, you have to create a continuous narrative which holds the audience’s interest at all times and it should be littered with gems of poetry. Prose and poetry merge into each other seamlessly.

Gargi: Can Dastangoi be adapted for street theatre? Do you perform it for the everyday man in India? Or, does it continue to be like it’s Persian court counterpart, an artform to be cherished by the monied connoisseurs?

Farooqui: Dastangoi is a form of street theatre in itself. It is a popular art form, one that can be enjoyed by the masses and the classes alike. We have performed on streets, in fairs, in villages and in small bastis (slums) in cities across India. Unlike theatre where only the bourgeois come, Dastangoi contains stories from our folk heritage and our mythology, thus they speak to and appeal to our masses in a way that few other forms do.

Gargi: Is Dastangoi an interactive art form? Or does the audience only listen to the gois? Or can they participate or ask questions?


A Dastangoi Performance

Farooqui: Dastangoi is totally interactive. You cannot narrate a story if there is no listener, it is the listeners who complete the story and their vocal appreciation is absolutely necessary for Dastangoi. Especially in the story we perform at Singapore, the audience has to vocally guess the answers and be totally involved.

Gargi: What will you be performing in Singapore? I hear from the organisers that they will be creating a durbar-like ambiance for you to perform in. Would you be performing traditional pieces in Urdu?

Farooqui: We are performing Dastan-e Chauboli, a folk tale first compiled by the great Rajasthani writer Vijay Dan Detha, then translated into English by the American scholar Christie Merrill of the University of Michigan, from which I created this Urdu version. Imagine this, a Rajasthani story, travelling thousands of miles across the seas in an English avatar, which I then bring back to Delhi in an Urdu avatar. That’s how stories travel. I was a visiting fellow at Michigan University in the US in 2012 and there I performed my version while Christie simultaneously read her version. It was exciting.


Click here to find out the ticketing details for the performance on 14th September in Singapore. 

Click here for the facebook link


Gargi Vachaknavi wafts on a sunbeam through various realms and questions the essence of all existence with a dollop of humour.


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