(Published in The Financial World and Tehelka.com on 15 April 2012, retrieved from http://www.tehelka.com/story_main52.asp?filename=Fw140412Pied.asp)
On a charmed evening, in an amphitheatre set at the heart of the Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurgaon, two harassed-looking men in trousers are testing microphones, calling to each other, and gesturing to sound technicians, even as event managers try to introduce them to journalists and socialites. Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain are the much-interviewed men who’ve revived the art of Dastangoi, a form of storytelling that originated in Persia, flourished in Akbar’s court, found an Urdu equivalent, and died during British rule.
And here I am, a Madrasi who had to text friends to ask what the Hindi word for ‘scissors’ or ‘mirror’ or ‘broom’ was, when I was setting up house in Delhi four years ago. When Mahmood Farooqui pronounces with an impish smile and the mocking hauteur of an Urdu speaker, “Aap abh samajh gaye ho ki yeh dastan aap ko urdu mein sunayi jayegi...sun toh aap lenge...aur kitna samajh payenge, yeh hum dekhenge”, I gulp. A minute later, the harried actors of a while ago walk on to stage with the self-assurance of seasoned dastangos.
This time round, the dastangos have taken a break from the exploits of mediaeval hero Amir Hamza, to tell the Dastan-e-Chauboli, the story of a Rajput princess who would only marry a man who can make her break her silence four times in one night. Yes, that’s where the innuendo begins. I read the pamphlet hopefully, but all I gather from it is that “seventeen times twenty-four” princes have tried to win her hand in marriage – “four eight zero minus seventy two, that’s 408”, I think to myself – and ended up grinding fodder for horses in the dungeons; now, a Thakur who shoots 108 arrows through his wife’s nose-ring everyday aspires to marry Chauboli.
To my surprise, I understood every word, or so I think. The beauty of the language sparkles in the compelling narrative of the actors. They shout, whisper, rage, gawk, sneer, fantasise, snub, dream, snap, trip over words and drag out phrases, exaggerate and argue, spoutshayaris and throw challenges, and suddenly, you realise you’re leaning forward with widened eyes, grasping the meanings of words you’ve never heard before. They take off on tangents that never frustrate, distracting the audience but never losing track of the tale. They quarrel over the practicality of Ram building a road to Lanka, and bemoan a world that cannot appreciate ajoobain, right after marvelling at each other’s ability to spot stars that twinkle from lightyears away.
The men in white, sitting on a mattress and leaning against bolsters, disappear. We see a hilly landscape where a woman seethes as her husband fires arrows through her nose-ring from out of earshot of her cuss words. We see a sethani and thakur staring transfixed at each other. We see the jewels glimmering on the elegant neck of Chauboli. We see the blood gushing out of the decapitated body of an angry – and suicidal – man. We see the sententious face of a lecherous neighbour who now oozes paternal love for a libido-driven young woman.
And then there’s the banter. With a bombastic gesture, they invite the audience to participate, not with claps, but with “wah”s. “Jaise raat bin din nahin, jaise baadal bin sooraj nahin, waise hi hunkara bin kahaani nahin!” they declare, and leave us wondering whether they were being snide or imploring. The bawdiness of the telling ties in with the secularity of the tales, and when you’re not listening with bated breath, you’re falling back with laughter. ‘Funny’, ‘bitter’, ‘sarcastic’ and ‘lyrical’ don’t appear to be incongruous adjectives. Neither does an old recording in Raag Gaur Malhar that plays when the dastangos take a break.
The only element I wished we’d seen more of was the improvisation. Both Farooqui and Husain are fine actors whose fluency in the language is complemented by their knack for comic timing, and their blank expressions as they searched the hazy Gurgaon sky for the millions of stars they were supposed to find had the audience in hysterics. A snarky remark about the spoilt children with squeaky shoes, the asinine parents who let them wander almost on to stage, and the superannuated fogeys who carry mobile phones they can’t figure out, may have kept the evening entirely magical.