Dastangoi: Art of ancient storytelling finds a new audience and performers

At a small eatery in the city, a niche group has gathered to hear stories. A dastango is spinning yarn with subjects as diverse as love, philosophy, wars, deceit or just fantasy. This is the world of Dastangoi — the art of storytelling which was popular in the 16th century.
“Dastan means story and goi means telling it and the one who does this is called dastango,” explains Hussain Rashid, who is the only one in the city taking this form forward.

An engineer by profession and founder of Dark Room Poets, Rashid got attracted to this format in 2015 when he first saw it being performed at the first edition of Jashn-e-Rekhta in Delhi. “On my return I began researching and came across the names of Darain Shahidi and Mohammad Farooqui who had revived this form which was last performed in Delhi by Mir Baqar Ali in 1928,” he says.

Eager to try it out himself, Rashid got in touch with Farooqui who asked him to read the book Dastangoi which he had co-authored with his uncle Shamsur Rehman Farooqui. Farooqui was groomed by his uncle and began performing in 2012.

He picked his content from stories set in the fantasy land or Tilism-e-Hoshruba, where Hamir Ramza, believed to be the uncle of Prophet Mohammad is said to have resided. The stories that Hamza narrated along with his companion Amar Aiyyar revolved around heroic deeds performed to save the worlds from evil spirits.

“But these stories are for a very niche audience and today content is being written to reach a wider section,” says Rashid who is writing his own stories based on the lives of Kabir and Amir Khusro.

Dastangoi requires a simple set up. The storyteller sits in the prayer or Namaazi position wearing a white angrakha kurta and a Wajid Ali Shah-style topi and has a silver bowl filled with water kept on the side. “There are the new trappings too and now one or two musicians have also been introduced to liven up the act,” says Rashid.

The more popular subjects today are lives of famous personalities from history, mythology or contemporary issues. The language is mostly Hindustani says Rashid whose first performance was in Hyderabad in February this year. “Voice modulation, theatrics and facial expressions are the cornerstones of any performance. It also requires memorizing the entire story. A good dastango should be able to interact with the audience and hold their attention for the entire duration which can go up to two hours,” he says.

For Smita Atre, an HR manager who had organized a dastangoi event during a family get together, the experience was one of its kind. “I have never seen such a vivid narration of a story. Each one of us listened with rapt attention but though we were looking for a subject that revolved around family relationships, the one narrated at our event gave a social message,” she says.

Agreeing that the subjects should not be very contemporary, content writer and poet Humaira Ali says, “This is a very ancient concept and gives a glimpse of how people expressed themselves and what was their thought process. Any effort to align it with our digital era will dilute the innocence and beauty of this format,” she says.

But Rashid feels that an informed audience with interest in literature is essential for Dastangoi. “The stories have to be concise and to the point we can’t dip into the realms of fantasy like those in Tilism-e-Hoshruba as the audience will not connect with it,” he says.

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