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.

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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.

Book Review by Namrata

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Title: The Crooked Line

Author: Ismat Chugtai (Translated from Urdu by Tahira Naqvi)

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2019

Narrating the tale of a lonely child called Shaman, the novel, The Crooked Line, by Ismat Chugtai is considered to be one of her finest works. Written is an extremely poignant and evocative manner, Shaman’s story takes us through her experiences of growing up as a woman in a conservative Muslim family.

Ismat Chugtai  is regarded as one of the most rebellious and provocative women writers in Urdu and continues to be a luminary till date. The Crooked Line was originally published in 1945 and was translated into English fifty years later, after it was compared to The Second Sex (1949) by de Beauvoir for its strong portrayal of gender and politics. However, the two books are starkly different in their approach with The Crooked Line being a novel while The Second Sex is a treatise;  though it has always been argued that the former could be semi-autobiographical.

To begin with, her birth was ill-timed.”

These powerful lines announce the arrival of Shaman, the youngest child in a large and affluent family. In a way, they also set the tone for what is yet to arrive in the novel. Everything about Shaman is encapsulated in these lines —  ill-timed, ill-mannered and ill-fated. Tracing her journey from her childhood to her old age, this story is beautifully layered with deepest desires, darkest secrets and emotions interwoven with the fragility of human relationships.

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There are twenty two ‘scheduled’ languages in India and dialects run into many more. The 2001 census put the count of all spoken languages and dialects at 780, second only to Papua and New Guinea which leads with 839 languages. 

With such a huge babel of words at it’s disposal, some languages languish from neglect. Some profess Urdu is one such victim. Recently, much is being written about how Urdu is dying in the bylanes of Old Delhi .

Urdu, a language of the court and poetry, graceful and elegant in its usage, came to be recognised fully around the eighteenth century in India. Before that, Persian was used in the Mughal courts. Urdu evolved as a language that was used by both Hindus and Muslims, perhaps a language of harmony. It used the elegant Nastaliq script. 

About the book:

The Bride’s Mirror (Mirat ul-‘Arus) was the first bestseller in Urdu. First published in 1869, within twenty years it had gone into several editions and sold over 100,000 copies. An English translation was published in England in 1903 by G. E. Ward, and the book has been almost continuously in print ever since. The novel tells the story of two sisters, Asghari and Akbari, who are married to two brothers in Delhi. Akbari, the spoilt, mean-tempered and impetuous sister, fritters away all the advantages she is offered and makes a mess of her life. Asghari, who has to contend with all sorts of disappointments and setbacks, prevails in the end and makes a success of everything she turns her hand to.

All through its existence, The Bride’s Mirror had been hailed as one of the most important works of Urdu literature ever published. The portrait it provides of the lives of those who lived in Delhi over a hundred years ago is an indelible one.

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When the news of Batúl’s death reached him, Dúrandesh Khán sáhib was very greatly distressed, and it was with a troubled heart that he wrote to his daughter the following letter:

By Rahman Abbas

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‘To write is to fight…’

Dr Gopi Chand Narang (born 11 February 1931) is one of the finest literary critics in the history of modern Urdu criticism. His works deal with the cultural study of classics, stylistics, oriental poetics, post-modernism, structuralism and post-structuralism. He has taught at Delhi University, University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota, University of Oslo and Jamia Millia Islamia University, and in 2005, the University of Delhi named him Professor Emeritus. He is also Professor Emeritus at the Jamia Millia Islamia. The Aligarh Muslim University, Central University of Hyderabad and the Maulana Azad National Urdu University have conferred D.Litt. Honorus Causa on him. He is the only writer who has been decorated by the President of Pakistan as Sitara-e Imtiyaaz and by the President of India with the Padma Bhushan and Padma Sri. He was vice-chairman of the Delhi Urdu Academy (1996-1999) and the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language-HRD (1998-2004), and Vice-president (1998-2002) and President (2003-2007) of the Sahitya Akademi, National Academy of Letters. His important books includes Urdu Zabaan aur Lisaniyaat (2006), Taraqqi Pasandi, Jadidiat, Maba’d-e-Jadidiat (2004), Urdu Ghazal aur Hindustani Zehn-o-Tehzeeb (2002), Sakhtiyat, Pas-Sakhtiyataur Mashriqui Sheriyat (1993), Adabi Tanqeed Aur Usloobiyat (1989), Amir Khusrow ka Hindavi Kalaam (1987), Saniha-e-Karbala bataur Sheri Isti’ara (1986), Usloobiyat-e-Mir (1985), Hindustani Qisson se Makhooz Urdu Masnaviyan (1961) and others.

His seminal work on Mirza Ghalib – Ghalib: Ma’ni-Afrini, Jadliyaati Waza, Shunyata aur Sheriyaat (Ghalib: Innovative Meaning, Mind, Dialectical Thought & Poetics (2013) has been considered a milestone in understanding Ghalib. Besides the Padma Bhushan (2004) and Padma Shri (1990), Narang has received hundreds of awards across the globe – Bharatiya Jnanpith Moorti Devi Award (2012), Madhya Pradesh Iqbal Samman (2011), the European Urdu Writers’ Society Award (London, 2005), Mazzini Gold Medal (Italy, 2005), Alami Faroghe-e-Urdu Adab Award (Doha, 1998), Sahitya Akademi Award (1995), Amir Khusrow Award (Chicago, 1987), Canadian Academy of Urdu Language and Literature Award (Toronto, 1987), Ghalib Institute Ghalib Award (1985), and the Association of Asian Studies (Mid-Atlantic Region) Award (US, 1982). Besides India and Pakistan, he has made presentations almost all over Europe, USA, Canada as well as Russia, Uzbekistan, China and Japan.

 

 

Rahman Abbas: You are the most discussed literary critic in the world of Urdu literature. How do you assess this unparalleled journey of your life which started from Balochistan when the subcontinent was undivided? Could you also put some light upon your early connections with Urdu?

Gopi Chand Narang:   I am simply a lover of Urdu. I was born in Balochistan. My mother tongue is Saraiki, but my father spoke Baluchi and Pushto. He was a scholar of Persian and Sanskrit as well. I was brought up in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural environ. The common speech of bazaar and school was Hindustani and Urdu. Language is nobody’s monopoly. It belongs to whosoever loves it. The newly independent India gave hope to many young people like me that there would be ample opportunities for fulfilling our ideals and aspirations. The Urdu Department at the Delhi University had come into being at the personal intervention of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was Minister of Education, also played a role in this. As I later pursued my doctoral degree, I was extremely fortunate to have had guidance and patronage of some of the brightest minds of that time, including Dr. Zakir Husain (who later became President of India), Dr. Tara Chand, Dr. Syed Abid Husain, Prof. Mohd. Mujeeb, Khwaja Ghulamus Syeddain, Dr. Khwaja Ahmad Faruqi, Sajjad Zaheer, Prof. Ale Ahmad Suroor, Syed Ehtisham Husain, Maulana Imtiaz Ali Arshi, Qazi Abdul Wudood, Malik Ram, Masood Hasan Rizvi Adeeb, Najeeb Ashraf Nadvi, and Dr. Syed Mohiuddin Qadri Zore. These people symbolized values of our composite Indian heritage and they were true role models of our highest ideals. When I look back and remember these unique personalities, I cannot but feel very fortunate for having had them as my patrons and role models.

Rahman Abbas: Some years ago, due to your stark criticism of the fake modernism in Urdu, you were personally targeted. It was unfortunate that instead of countering your opinions, your minority identity was targeted. Did that affect you? What was your reaction then and now?

Gopi Chand Narang: It is a sad story. As a young writer you must have witnessed all that happened. As long as Ale Ahmed Suroor, Khalil ur Rahman Azmi, Waheed Akhtar, Sulema Arib, Mahmood Ayaz and some seniors were alive and active, they wanted to develop a dynamic model which was alive to India’s  new social and pluralistic needs. But soon after, when Shams ur Rahman Faruqi and his journal Shab-Khoon took over, a period of misconceived notions and a hidden agenda of sectarian fake modernism set in. This is a period of great turmoil and overlapping. Faruqi with his arrogant self-esteem, one-upmanship and know all bravado started polemics which had more sound than sense. He and his cronies, through over heated debates, set flawed standards for fiction, poetry and ghazal.  This confused and misguided a whole lot of promising young writers. Waris Alvi, Baqar Mehdi and some others resisted but they had no theoretical base. At this stage, avoiding labeling and indulging in the misguiding polemics, I switched from my earlier cultural studies and stylistics base and started writing on Theory (both Western and Oriental) and postmodernism. Across the border, Wazir Agha, Qamar Jameel, Intezar Husain, Jameeluddin Azmi, Zamir Ali Badayuni, Faheem Azmi and many other genuine writers joined hands. We wanted to respond to the new social and epistemological shift absorbing the new light of the times, stressing the freedom of the creative voice of the writer, while constructing a genuine model which should be alive to our own pluralistic cultural, realistic and truly subversive, ingenious and in tune with our practical complex social concerns.

‘The novel unravels the complexity of human relations’- Martin Gieselmann

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Rahman Abbas, Musician Jan Köhler and Dr Almuth Degener

Twice Academy award winning Urdu novelist Rahman Abbas has astonished the world of Urdu literature with his fourth novel Rohzin, which has been in discussions in the mainstream media since its publication on the occasion of Jashn-e-Rekhta, 2016. The novel has been praised by stalwarts of Urdu literature in both India and Pakistan, like, Gopi Chand Narang, Sayyed Muhammad Ashraf, Shafey Kidwai, Nizam Siddiqui, Mustansar Hussain Tarar, Baland Iqbal, Salahuddin Darwesh, Neelam Bashir and Muhammad Hameed Shahid.

Rohzin is one of those rare Indian novels that have been translated into a European language soon after publication and received praise from academics, professors, artists and students abroad. German linguist and translator Almuth Degener translated Rohzin in German and Draupadi Verlag published it in February 2018. The German title Die Stadt, Das Meer, Die Liebe (The City, They Sea, The Love) was first launched and discussed in Switzerland in a three day literary event, ‘The Day of Indian Literature’ organized by Literaturehaus, Zurich.

Recently, Rahman Abbas was invited to undertake a literary tour from 23 March to 15 June to attend the readings of his novel at South Asian Institute (Heidelberg University), Bonn University, Ev. Akademie (Villigst), Indian Consulate (Frankfurt), Café Mouseclick, Tisch Hochst, Pakban (Frankfurt), Lokalezeitung, Gonsenheim (Mainz), Pfalzer Hof Schonau (Bei, Heidelberg), Bickelmann Family (Heidelberg). Most of the events were organized with the cooperation of Draupadi Verlag and Literature Forum Indian, and South Asian Institution (Heidelberg).

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Reading at Indian Consulate General (Frankfurt)