Historian, translator and dastango Mahmood Farooqui talks about the revival of the lost form of storytelling and why, despite its marginalisation, Urdu enjoys immense prestige even today.

In the introduction to his translation of Habib Tanvir’s Memoirs (Penguin), which is also an intimate portrait of the playwright and a record of an unlikely friendship, Mahmood Farooqui reflects on the strange orientation of Tanvir’s play Agra Bazaar. “It is at once a play that belongs in the proscenium as it does in a bazaar, a modern narrative as well as a traditional one, a complete story as well as an allegory,” he writes.

Although considerably removed from the content and context of Tanvir’s plays, these words could apply seamlessly to dastangoi as we know it today. It situates itself with ease in the polished environs of India Habitat Centre as well as the crowded lanes of Nizamuddin Basti. A form of Urdu storytelling popular for long in Delhi and other parts of North India, dastangoi faded away gradually in the 20th Century. Mahmood Farooqui has been instrumental in its revival.

Born in Gorakhpur, U.P., in 1971, Farooqui studied in a government school before receiving a scholarship to go to Doon School. It was here that he got interested in drama, which he followed up as a student of History in St. Stephen’s College by directing a few productions of Shakespeare Society. Thereafter, he went to Oxford for a second B.A. Upon his return, he dabbled in theatre and films briefly in Bombay. An M.Phil from Cambridge followed, after which he decided against a career in academia and took up a job with NDTV, where he met Anusha Rizvi, his wife and co-director of Peepli Live.

“Those days television was just coming up, it seemed a good bright career…It was an alternative to the UPSC, and gave the illusion of public service while paying you a good salary as well. There was a strong allure at that time, it began to fade away after 2000s as television lost its iqbal,” he says.

In barely a year, Farooqui knew the media world wasn’t for him. From 2000 onwards, when he read his uncle Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s study on dastangoi, Farooqui had been interested in it. “It was while thinking and talking about it that I came across CSDS Sarai, and it provided the atmosphere, encouragement and platform from which dastangoi emerged…The first show happened around 2005, and it hasn’t looked back,” he recounts. He was joined a year later by Danish Husain, who Farooqui had seen in a walk-on part in a Tanvir play.

Farooqui concedes that they are far from attaining perfection as dastangos, as they lack the linguistic facility to improvise on the stories. In a sense, a dastangoi is only as good as the dastango’s knowledge of Urdu, for the drama is inscribed in the words. What is required therefore, Farooqui says, is more riyaz. “The training is of the art of recitation, and learning and mastering the language you are working in so that you can bring in new words, new images and new turns of phrases. And that’s an ongoing training. We are very lucky that there is no one working in our field…in the absence of anyone else we are the ustads, but one knows that one is working in a field where giants have strode before us,” he says.

Apart from tales from Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, Farooqui and co. have also devised their own stories (Dastan-e-sedition, for instance, on the incarceration of Dr. Binayak Sen) and adapted some others (Tagore’s Ghare Baire). But as a performer, the real fun lies in the traditional stories. “Nothing compares with that. The quality of drama is incredible, none of the stories we have created can have that kind of drama. It’s a different quality of writing,” he says.

Ever since the onset of the Progressives, these stories were relegated to the dustbin of literary history, frequently condemned for their ‘escapist’ nature. But Farooqui doesn’t have much patience for the word. “If there is art which can make people escape their world, I think it’s fantastic…I’ll have that any day.”

“The work that we are doing is political. We are bringing a marginalised language centrestage, a marginalised genre centrestage, and marginalised stories centrestage. If an audience can listen to a strange story in a strange language for an hour and a half and be regaled by it, then the art is serving its purpose.”

While the jury is still out on the economic viability of dastangoi as an art form, the response has been encouraging. Earlier this month, two dastangois on successive days at IHC were “exceedingly successful”. These were also the ones where they used the most chaste Urdu they ever have.

Indeed, far from a handicap, Urdu might be the reason for the popularity of dastangoi. Farooqui says, “We work in a language which has had poetry being performed for 300 years. People are used to it, it’s there in our cultural landscape, in our imagination. Had we been working in Braj or Bengali, we wouldn’t have this kind of receptivity. Even though Urdu has been marginalised, it still enjoys enormous cultural prestige. People speak of it with longing, affection, and it assists our work.”

Recalling in quick succession the names of Amitabh Bachchan hits — Namak Halaal, Namak Haraam, Deewaar, Zanjeer, Sholay — Farooqui says, “There is a currency for those words even in ears that don’t fully understand them.”

“This is a moment in Hindi where it has abandoned its hostility to Urdu and seems to be adopting it. In modern Hindi prose, Urdu words abound. Media uses it, radio jockeys use it. It’s a whole generational shift that has happened…Urdu will never have the density or legibility of the pre-Partition days but it is not dying.”

Farooqui and Danish have conducted workshops in Delhi and Bombay and new Dastangos have emerged from these. There are now about 20 Dastangos, not enough to popularise the form but certainly reflective of an admirable progress.

“I am waiting for the day when we will be able to capture the large TV serial audience. That will be a day of real triumph. When people, who are not into arts and not into performance, when they come to our show and end up going happy without saying ‘bada mushkil tha, samajh me nahin aaya’ that will be a good day,” Farooqui says.

Mahmood Farooqui has also authored “Besieged: Voices from Delhi 1857”, a translation and compilation of the famous Mutiny Papers, originally written in Shikastah Urdu. Through “petitions and applications from ordinary people as well as directives and commands of officials” it presents an image of what it meant to live through the Siege of Delhi.

Farooqui, who first moved to Delhi in 1990 to study History, has seen the city change immensely in these last two decades. The impact of Mandal, Mandir and Market was yet to be felt in those initial years. “When I was in college there were hardly bars in the city, hardly any chic restaurants. A bike was a big thing, very few people brought cars to college. The city has changed phenomenally since then. It has become a megapolis right in front of my eyes. Now the entire city looks the same. You could be in Punjabi Bagh, Azadpur, Narela or Okhla, but you will have the same flyovers, the same Metro and the same traffic jams.”