The Buddha, as told by dastango Poonam Girdhani

Poonam Girdhani performing the Buddha dastan.   | Photo Credit: Monica Dawar photography

As she sits on the stage dressed in pristine white, Poonam Girdhani looks a picture of serenity and calm, as befits the writer of Dastan-e-Irfaan-e-Buddh, a script about the life and times of Gautama Buddha. But then, in the medieval Persian art form called Dastangoi, the storyteller, or dastango, is always dressed in white. With no distractions like sets, props, costumes or musical accompaniments, the performance relies entirely on the story and the dastango’s voice and hands to connect directly with the audience. “Dastangoi is especially relevant now when we are all talking less and less with one another. It opens the mind, allows us to have dialogues,” says Girdhani.

When I meet her at Bengaluru’s Christ University, Girdhani has just finished conducting a two-day workshop to familiarise students with this form of Urdu storytelling. She is performing Dastan-e-Chauboli with a young dastango (storyteller) she has mentored, the talented Nusrat Ansari. The students watch spellbound as the two narrate the story based on Vijay Dan Detha’s version of a Rajasthani folktale. The story is about Princess Chauboli and a marksman who loves to shoot arrows through his wife’s natth (nose ring). The wife, who dies an agonising death every time he shoots, pleads with him to stop. “Kya baath karti ho? Woh mard hi kya jo ek aurat ke kehne par chale!” thunders Poonam, acting the part of the male chauvinist husband. The students in the auditorium acknowledge the line with a round of wah-wahs.

Extinction and revival

A theatre and radio artist, Girdhani was initiated into the world of Dastangoi by Mahmood Farooqui, the Delhi-based dastango, writer, director, theatre historian and founder of Dastangoi Collective. He is credited with reviving the art form, which had ceased to be practised in 1928 with the demise of the famous dastango Mir Baqar Ali. The team’s productions include stories about the Mahabharata, the Partition, Rama and Rabindranath Tagore. During the 16th century, the life and times of Amir Hamza, supposedly an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, became popular themes for Dastangoi. Published in Calcutta in the 19th century, the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza runs to over 46,000 pages. A story within a story, a chapter within a chapter, a loop within a loop, a Dastangoi can be unending, and continuously entertaining when the dastango is talented.

Girdhani’s talent is on display in the variety of stories covered by Dastangoi Collective. She has performed Dastan Raja Vikram ke Ishq ki based on a story by A. K. Ramanujan, Dastan Little Prince ki based on the French classic The Little Prince, and Dastan-e-Alice, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. I first heard her narrate an impromptu snippet of Alice at a common friend’s house. The magic of that act in lyrical Urdu kept teasing me for the next few years when we met briefly to facilitate writing workshops in Hyderabad, New Delhi and Srinagar, but it was only recently that I saw her perform a Dastangoi on stage.

A Dastangoi show in New Delhi.

A Dastangoi show in New Delhi.   | Photo Credit: Jaideep Deo Bhanj

As a child, Girdhani was influenced greatly by her maternal grandfather, a freedom fighter who wrote poetry in Urdu. “The Urdu words just kept falling on my ears. So did the beautiful Hindi of Bikaner,” she says. Her Urdu-speaking skills improved tremendously when she joined playwright Shahid Anwar’s theatre group, Bahroop Arts Group. The two got married later, and she credits him with instilling in her the confidence to find her own career path and voice. His sudden death in 2015 pushed Poonam to the brink of desolation.

Coming to terms with living life as a single mother was not easy. But Dastangoi and conducting workshops in schools and colleges kept her busy. In 2018, Mahmood Farooqui asked her to write a dastan about Gautama Buddha. She was sceptical since she had never written one before. It was serendipitous that she happened to visit Aurangabad during that period. “The stories that I saw on the walls of the Buddhist caves in Ajanta were mesmerising. The painting of the young girl Sujata, who offers rice porridge to a starving man who she does not know is the Buddha-to-be, touched me greatly. I felt it was important to tell these stories.”

Enlightening research

Girdhani’s research began with the Jataka tales, and she realised she was reading abridged and translated versions with a forced moral at the end. She read the works of Buddhist polyglot and polymath Rahul Sankrityayan, Pakistani writer Intizar Hussain, political theorist Kancha Illaiah, and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. She also read translations of the Therigatha, a set of stories written in verse in Pali by elderly nuns, making it the earliest known collection of women’s literature composed in India.

“It made me bring in the issue of women’s protection that was so much a part of the Buddha’s teachings. Reading about him and his life made me think about my own loss in recent years, and helped me not just to cope with it but to look ahead. Other than Urdu and Hindi, I’ve included lines in Pali and Sanskrit in my script. Now I want to learn Pali!”

Dastangoi is not just a retelling of a tale. The writers bring in their own world view. And, while performing, the dastango adds his or her own views too, making it relevant for every audience and for the times. “He never wanted to be considered a god. I found another side of him in Maithili Sharan Gupt’s poem Yasodhara. It brings out the thoughts of the wife of Siddhartha and how she continues to love a husband who has decided to leave everything and everyone behind in his quest for truth.”

A labour of love, Girdhani’s Dastan-e-Irfaan-e-Buddh taught her many things, including the fact that Dastangoi is a wonderful way to keep spreading the stories of universal truth, love, adventure, magic and harmony. As she says, “We conduct workshops in colleges for several reasons; to popularise the art form, to inspire at least a few students to take up Dastangoi, to infuse an interest in oral traditions that help keep our history as true as possible, and to show the power and beauty of language.”

The freelance writer is a children’s author and editor.

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 1:54:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/the-buddha-as-told-by-dastango-poonam-girdhani/article29862720.ece

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