(Published in the Business Standard, February 2012)

If you were telling a story in the Cameroons, you might start with: “A fable! A fable! Bring it! Bring it!” Most Bengalis know the folktale riff on “Once upon a time”: “Once there was a king, once there was a queen…” Many tales begin with: “Once there was, once there wasn’t”. The older storytelling traditions may invoke a truly ancient past: “In the time when men and animals talked to one another…”

For the last seven years, Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain have begun their dastans with an ode to the cup-bearer, setting aside the minor impediment that their silver cups are often filled with nothing more innocuous than water. The traditional invocation is as much part of their act as are the spotless white kurtas or the ancient story-cycles that they’ve recited from the steps of the Jama Masjid, the monuments of Old Delhi and more prosaically, the IIC auditorium stage.

The dastangos began their performances at an interesting point of time in Delhi’s history: the mushairas and sawal-jawab oral poetry baithaks had died out, replaced by the often grimly ritualistic evening of book readings. Few of the readings that were attended by growing numbers of aspiring writers and curious readers in the 2000s ever migrated out of the comfortably narrow confines of South Delhi. A handful of events were in Hindi or Urdu and the Sahitya Akademi did its best to bring in writers from across India.

But by the end of the decade, the Delhi book reading was like a burra khana for Indian English writers; an evening of chiefly ceremonial significance, as the writer Mukul Kesavan has remarked. Through dastangoi, the two performers brought back a much older tradition of storytelling.

Mahmood Farooqui is a historian with a background in theatre; Danish Husain is an actor and poet. It was in 2005 that Farooqui began to study the cultural history of the dastans, the storytellers who carried a library around in their heads. The first performances he did that year along with Himanshu Tyagi—Danish would join in later—were from the Tilism-e-Hoshruba, a magnificently fraudulent epic.

“Know then that from 1883-1893 in Lucknow, two rival storytellers, Syed Muhammad Hussein Jah and Ahmed Husain Qamar wrote a fantasy in the Urdu language whose equal has not been heard before or since,” writes Musharraf Ali Farooqi, writer and translator of the Hoshruba. The epic was 8,000 pages long, and was “a monstrously elaborate literary hoax”: it passed itself off as one of the great ancient story cycles, perhaps even part of the legendary Adventures of Amir Hamza, but was actually the creation of a small group of storytellers in Lucknow.

They wove an indelible tale, one that was made to be told to a circle of awed listeners, and that was labyrinthine in its twists and turns. “These stories were here before Tolkien, and—if we dare say so—are much better than Tolkien’s work,” boasts an online Urdu bookseller’s Hoshruba page.

Over their seven years of dastangoi, Danish Husain and Mahmood Farooqui have departed from the old classics—the Hoshruba or the tales of Amir Hamza—in order to experiment with newer works. Recently, they did a Dastaan-e-Sedition to protest the imprisonment of Dr Binayak Sen in Chattisgarh.

To mark Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, the two performers took up his revolutionary novel, Ghare Baire, exploring the separation between the home and the world, and, as they put it: “Vande kya hai, Mataram kya hai”. The two switch easily between the three roles—Sandip, the fiery revolutionary driven by greed, desire and patriotism, Nikhil, the temperate zamindar offering reasoned arguments against the excesses of nationalism, Bimala, Nikhil’s wife, stepping across many boundaries as she is seduced by the outside world and by Sandip’s many persuasions.

The performance, and their translation of Ghare Baire from Bengali into Urdu-studded Hindustani, is successful—as most of their performances have been. Danish Husain said once that the virtue of dastangoi also lay in its portability—the performance/ readings could take place in auditoriums or at a bus stop.

After the show, Mahmood says: “The old stories are the stuff that we live for.” The “modern” stories, based on novels that so closely mirror contemporary concerns, are easier for the performer to feel; but the old story-cycles promise a more ancient connection. It’s what the translator of the Hoshruba, Musharraf Farooqi, means when he says his role is to “beat the kettledrums”.

“What dastangoi is about,” says Mahmood Farooqui, “is a combination of four things—Urdu, theatre, performance, literature. People who do theatre in India often feel the burden of having to do something worthy, relevant, serious. But eventually, it’s about telling a good story. It’s meant to entertain.”

The storytellers of Delhi are done, until the next performance. As the traditional Russian closing has it: “The story is over, I can’t lie any more.”

(Image from the Dastangoi site.)