Tales of tradition almost lost to time: the Urdu art of Dastangoi

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Tales weaved out on the pure magical premises of a land that feels far off but is indeed a spin on our own, stories and the associated art of storytelling has since long captured the human fancy. Touching upon the lofty reaches of what the imagination constantly transports one to, through a flight of fancy that satiates our desire for the whims of the surreal, this exquisite magic woven out along the continuation of what is a basic, simple narration in profound expression however has been a continuing mode of the human tradition not limited by the geographies or boundaries of the world. An universal relation in the cultural aspect of its stemming, the narration of tales and epics and stories and accounts has forever held spellbound the mere mortal, drifting off to a world not quite one’s own but still resonant very much with the awareness of the personal harking him therefore to a world of an unreal realness, where everything is part fiction, part teaching and opening up therefore a wonder of endless possibilities where the mystic of magic and delight rules supreme.

As a much delighted upon medium that appeases every of the human senses and holds the soul in the splendor of its telling, the art of narrating stories is one that has come to be deeply imbued within the realms of the very human existence itself. The traditional form of storytelling persists most particularly with the oral mode of its deliverance, which is not just an exercise in reading out tales dug out from the deep reaches of memory but spans rather an elaborate means of its rendition, replete with actions and expressions and evoking associated responses that sum up the wholly unreal premises of the charm that it works out. One such intensely delightful extension that the really ancient art of storytelling has seen expression as since times of a not very recent past is a particular Urdu retelling of tales in splendid grace that originated sometime in the 13th century but came to attain prime position in the Indian context only in the 19th century, having travelled all the way from Pre Islamic Arabia to Iran and therefrom to Delhi in India. In its Persian origin, the art form takes its name from the word dastan that means a tale and encompasses therefore as dastangoi the act of telling a tale.

Source: Scroll.in

Despite however its prevalence as yet another form of traditional storytelling, the more nuanced subtleties through which this art form expresses itself renders it indeed no lesser than a visual delight as well. At the center of the dastangoi is the dastango or the storyteller who relies upon the effect created by the many modulations and qualities of voice to render a narrating of tales so impactful that sways the fancies of the many listeners who sit about lending a ear to these tales with rapt attention, all catered to by the mere play of words and the skilful tinkering with the tones of voice and notes of speech, creating in the process a menagerie of sorts that indeed is one of the most captivating mediums of storytelling there can ever be. But even in all such really masterful craftings of its essence, the basic premise upon which a dastangoi takes shape from is one invariably rooted in the most simplistic of leanings. Everything that dots the alleys of reference in history, literature and mythology come to be the context of consideration for dastangos, who go about their own enchanting way with the craft of their lives with a certain penchant that is what perhaps makes these tales of fables and magic and spirituality alike such a prized aspect of the continuing heritage for those who profess it and also for those who are drawn into the enticing realms of its enigmatic telling.

As a cohesively heady mix of all the three elements of what sums up the life lore in its most basic, every telling of a dastangoi is therefore inherently rooted in the many explorations of life itself. But the Indian approach to this tale seeking to engage its many a listeners by the sheer intensity of the intrigue it manages to rake up is even more intriguing a take on its relatability. Skillfully weaving the charming element of aiyyari and/ or magic into the strands of this lore of what make up the classics is the ‘evolution’ that this appealingly folk prominence of the storytelling art has gone through in our country, meandering as it does along the uniquely affording assurance guaranteed by something as inexplicable as the forever surreal realism of magic. Elsewhere as well, the storied perceptions of the dastangoi have over time invoked the mentions of war and adventure and exploits, as also love, even while freely borrowing from the differently engaging escapades that a saunter into a certain tale of the Arabian Nights or one derived from the fabled collections of the Panchatantra affords, or even allowing the luxury of exploring the kind of earthy mysticism that the heartfelt words of Rumi puts one in anticipation of. And it is within such explorations of the myriad that you discover indeed the true charm of the folk form of art that a dastangoi stands for, so entrenched in fantasy even when they are largely rooted in the reckonings of reality. Interestingly, it also is in the unbiased essence of the dastangoi that which delivers equally well renditions pertaining to both the Hindu and the Islamic way of life that makes it also a culturally even more relevant and dignified form of artistic expression.

With such a volley of expressions that find their own way of reinstating themselves within the greater consciousness of the masses, it is quite tempting to believe that the dastangos sure would rely also on the equally evocative elements of music and the sounds to deliver in even more intensity the sweeping effect that their tales of diversity yield upon the ears of whoever they fall upon. But the true beauty of the dastangoi form of storytelling rests upon the very unfussy ways of its working. The only sound that counts in the narration is the depths to which the dastango’s voice enables them to plunge into, in the process setting in motion a curious stirring of the audience’s interest that earns them the wah wahs for which they largely continue all along, given the fact that dastans indeed are never ending tales of continuity, going on and on and on and which in fact is testimony to the dastangoi’s success in capturing the fancy of the ears across a whole range of different dimensions. Loose storylines that are open to any number of interpretations across a wide spectrum of what they can come to dwell in, as well as verbosity therefore are two of the most essential characteristics of the dastangois rendered to perfection by the dastangos who themselves come armed with a wide sphere of knowledge relating to everything and anything from science and religion to history and geography, and so on and so forth, apart from of course their impeccable command over the realm of narration and action. Notable it is indeed that much like the power yielded by stories and storytelling in any form, dastangois as well afford this fulcrum of calling to attention many a diverse minds by conjuring up a visual imagery of what is delivered well within the means of the dynamics of what languages are capable of.

In its prevalence in India, the dastangoi might have first made its landing upon the city of Delhi but it has been Lucknow where the art form flourished particularly in reference to the city’s magnificent love for all things Urdu- the linguistic medium through which dastangois continue to find narration today. Fittingly therefore it is Amir Khusrau, often referred to as the father of Urdu literature whose compilation of dastans of Amir Hamza became the basis of the narration on which all other future tales came to be based. Finding popular expression particularly in the Lucknow of the 19th century, the art of the dastangoi however slipped into near oblivion in India after the death of Mir Baqar Ali in 1928 and endured a long period of neglect before being revived by historian, director and author Mahmood Farooqui in 2005. As a living tradition today that is seeing revival across the Indian subcontinent, this peculiar form of art that relies still on the immense power of stories and storytelling continue in its lineage as a cultural expression that has prevailed since the reign of the Mughals, then as an art form catering to the fancies of the royal elite to slowly crossover into more inclusive realms to hold also an entire nation of common folks in awe. Among the three distinct styles of the dastangoi namely Persian, Arabic and Hindustani, the latter, also called the Darbari style of dastangoi is perhaps more feasible and convenient as well to ease into the midst of the masses as it relies on the truly dramatic norms of the vocal fluctuations and the bodily expressions, asserting therefore itself as a more fluid version of the wider realms of the storytelling art to which it specifically conforms. In expecting deftness in deliverance from the dastango of a cause to which they need to be fully committed as well, this form of the art is truly an exertion of the greater human pursuit for perfection. But it also is this wide ambit of interpretation to which it is open that makes the Indian version of the dastangoi all the more challenging and parallely so all the more intriguing a proposition of the really phenomenal flair that any mode of the storytelling account embodies in all its stimulation of the human desire for fancy, frills and fantasy.