Reviving an Urdu Storytelling Tradition

The New York Times, Global Edition (New York, NY), July 24, 2012


In the 1800s, crowds regularly gathered on the steps of the Jama Masjid mosque in New Delhi to enthusiastically watch a “dastango,” or storyteller, narrate tales of fantasy without props, music or theatrical action. The magic that held the audience was created with his voice and the stories themselves, which were mainly told in Urdu.

The art form almost died out in the 1900s, the victim of radio, film and television.

But on the evening of July 20, about a hundred people gathered at The Attic, a performance space in New Delhi, sitting practically on top of one another to listen to two dastangos. Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Hussain, dressed in sparkling white kurtas, entered the room and perched themselves on a small bed. With no prelude they began the story of the great Urdu writer Sa’adat Hasan Manto, who was born 100 years before.

The first revived dastangoi was performed in May 2005, and the art form has been gaining steady support since then. A growing group of fans enjoy the art form, but the challenge faced by the dastangos is connecting to a mass audience. “People believe they don’t understand Urdu well,” Mr. Hussain said. “In my experience, they understand more than they think they do.”

While people have become familiar with more impersonal forms of storytelling, like that on television and film, he said he believes people will embrace dastangoi in years to come because of India’s long tradition of oral storytelling. “This is little more than children listening to their grandparents narrate stories to them,” he said. “The only difference is that we are more formal in our dress and we perform to a larger audience,” he said.


Subjects Covered: education, storytelling festivals

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