Dastangoi: Bringing stories alive

38-year old artiste from Delhi, Syed Sahil Agha is working for the revival of long lost art of dastangoi (storytelling in Urdu) which was introduced by Amir Khusrow in the 13th century

Writer Brandon Sanderson once said, 'The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon'. One such storyteller whose stories are influencing society at large and helping them find a way of life is Syed Sahil Agha. The 38-year-old storyteller working to revive the art of Dastangoi, Sahil prefers to tell historical stories over the real ones as he believes 'Those who do not learn and remember history are doomed to repeat it.'

Dastangoi, the age-old art of Urdu storytelling, is in its revival phase at present. Introduced by Amir Khusrow in the early 13th century, Dastangoi was performed in all kinds of societies – from royal courts to Sufi dargahs. By the end of 16th century, the art form started getting overshadowed since Indian courts adopted Persian as their official language. Later, Nawabs, Sultans, Zamindars, Rajwadas patronised Dastangos. With shrinking audience and even fewer artistes, the art died down only to revive in the year 2005.

Urdu poet and critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and his nephew, writer and director Mahmood Farooqui took on the challenge of reviving the long lost art. Owing to their efforts, today we have a good number of artistes who are narrating mystical and fascinating stories of the glorious past and popularising the art among commoners, one of them being Sahil himself.

For him, dastangoi is not just the art of entertainment, there is much more to it. Throwing more light on the thought, Sahil narrates a story. "Once when Amir Khusrow's peer Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia fell ill, Khusrow narrated 'Kissa Chaar Darvesh' to him. After recovering, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia gave him a dua that 'whoever is sick, if listens to your dastan will achieve health, if distressed will find peace. The listener will find a way of life in these stories.' From then on, dastans became a source of inspiration, peace, and tranquility for people."

Also, dastans have been used as a tool of revolution, mentions the dastango. To explain how stories were a medium to mobilize masses in the pre-independence era, Sahil narrates another story. "If you know history, you surely must have read about the Qissa Khwani Bazaar, which witnessed a massacre on April 23, 1930. The place in Peshawar was known for dastangos who would narrate people stories of their kings and their celebrated history, thereby encouraging masses to fight against the Britishers. Hundreds would gather around them to listen and get inspired. Looking at this bunch of dastangos mobilizing people, the ruling government instructed them to stick to fiction and only tell stories of birds, lovers and fairies. That was the power of storytelling."

Millennium Post in a conversation with Syed Sahil Agha tried to understand the technicalities of Dastangoi and more. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

What does it take to master the voice modulation. How difficult does it become to convey your emotions solely through words (as there is no music in the background)?

There are two things that a dastango needs to understand. The first is technicalities. Every word holds an emotion and has its own speed, tone, volume, rhythm and pitch. The utterance is different for different characters. If he would not pay attention to the technicalities, he would surely fail to convey emotions.

But the understanding of technicalities is not enough. What's more important is to have superb observational skills. In fact, the first lesson of the stage art is observation. If you observe your surroundings, people and things, you will find diverse characters (people). An artiste needs to observe and learn how a specific person behaves, talks and expresses so as to bring alive that character on the stage.

Perfecting these basics helps in conveying stories to people across the world, irrespective of what language they speak. The audience understands the emotions, voice modulations, hand gestures, postures, which further helps in conveying the story.

What is the genre you haven't explored yet but look forward to?

I have not really explored the Arabic style of Dastangoi yet but will surely perform it in near future.

Was it a struggle to create a niche for yourself in this industry. What was the audience's as well as your family's response to this art form (and your performances) initially?

I did not think about this as I love my art form and fortunately, I have always received an immensely positive response from my audience around the globe. Indeed, it is difficult to survive as a folk artist in our society but when you love something, you happily face and overcome every hurdle that comes your way.

What's the future of dastangoi?

It is very bright. Everybody is trying to experiment and take this art form to another level. I have also come up with a new idea of 'Musical Dastangoi' for which I have amalgamated Dastangoi with Indian Opera and Indian classical music. With such experiments and creative thoughts, dastangoi is taking a different shape and people are admiring it more.

What is the biggest challenge one needs to overcome to perfect the art of dastangoi?

If you are not a good entertainer, you cannot be a good artiste. To be successful in your work, you need to learn the art of keeping audience glued to their seats and make them listen to you.

(Syed Sahil Agha will be performing at the 3-day international storytelling festival 'Udaipur Tales'. Bringing together a variety of traditions – from folk ensemble to dastangoi – the festival will be held from February 21 to 23. Agha will narrate the story of a foreign spy who falls in love with an Indian king)

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