Before I begin, I must ask you to cast your mind back through the mists of time, to Persian and Mughal courts, where a lone figure held audiences enthralled, with nothing but his voice. Story-telling is a time-honoured, much loved tradition, and dastangos through the ages have transformed that tradition into art.

The word dastangoi is, in fact, a compound of two Persian words – dastan and goi. Dastans were tales of adventure, magic and warfare, representing new worlds, unseen and unknown, with the hero’s quests for victory or triumph finding parallels in mythology. In dastangoi, it is the role of the dastango (the story-teller) that is vital. He and he alone holds the audience captive, with merely the intonations and modulations of his voice, his expressions and his gestures. There are no props and no audio-visual aids.

Dastangoi came to Old Delhi in the 16th century, where it thrived in Mughal courts, or on the stone steps of the Jama Masjid, where every Thursday or Friday, spectators would gather to watch and listen. When the art form first took shape, stories were told from Alif Laila (The Arabian Nights) or Tilism-e-Hoshruba (literally, magic that ensnares the senses).

Dastangoi reached its zenith in India during the period of the mutiny of 1857. Hundreds of dastangos migrated to Lucknow, where they held Oudh in thrall. Such was its popularity that in the 1880s, Munshi Naval Kishore (of Naval Kishore Press fame) published Tilism-e-Hoshruba for the first time in its written form: a sprawling 46 volumes. For centuries, these stories had been narrated extempore.

Dastangos would stop after a point and inform their audiences that the next instalment of the tale would be narrated next week. The printing of epics, along with the mutiny of 1857, changed the life and popularity of dastangoi in India forever. In 1928, the last great dastango of the twentieth century, Mir Baqar Ali, died, taking dastangoi with him.

Preparing to perform

It would remain buried until 2005, but it took me a year after this rebirth to chance upon it. Today, I am known as India’s first female dastango. In 2006, I was a lecturer with SCERT. I grew up in the lanes and by-lanes of Old Delhi. You might think I had ample opportunities to be immersed in dastangoi, but reality is inevitably different. My father was a scooter mechanic, and our financial conditions were always straitened.

I studied in a government school, and back then, there was no question of free books or stationery to support a child’s right to education. I needed to buy my own books and my own notebooks and pencils. So I was very young when I realised that life wasn’t going to be easy. It’s a perspective I have inherited from my mother: a kind of tough realism that has become part of my personality as an adult.

I began tutoring other children when I was in class seven. I would earn money enough to buy my books for school, and still have a little left over to spend as I liked. But unlike my friends, who spent pocket money on toffees and toys, I spent everything I could on story-books. I liked to read, but what I really loved was telling stories.

I have been telling stories for as long as I can remember: to my friends, to my family, and even – in college – to my sociology professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, Tulsi Patel, who listened to my reading of Ismat Chughtai’s Tedhi Lakeer after classes.

I graduated with degrees in sociology and planning administration, and a knowledge that I needed to find a job – for myself and my family. But I also knew that, practicalities aside, something was missing from my life. I could never put my finger on it, but it felt as though an essential part of me was missing.

I often went to plays in my free time, and I loved the stage. Frequently I wondered what it would be like to be up there and perform for an audience – but back then, the thought that I could actually have a shot at doing what I loved never occurred to me. Besides, I hadn’t even thought of a niche into which I might fit.

Then, in 2006, my friend Prabhat asked me if I knew about dastangoi. Certainly I did, since I had studied in an Urdu medium school until Class 12, but I had never witnessed a live performance. So he took me along the next time he went to attend one. This was a rare thing, because in 2006, nobody in Delhi knew what dastangoi was. Even today, people still wonder about it.

But that moment was a revelation. I sat there, watching this show, my first dastangoi, and somehow, I just knew that this was it. I had finally found what I had been searching for.

Becoming a dastango

The journey to becoming a female dastango has not been easy. Through the ages, dastangoi has been dominated by men. If you leaf through history’s pages, there is no mention of a female dastango. Those who still remembered Mir Baqar Ali, for instance, knew what he wore, and how he spoke. But I had absolutely no frame of reference.

This may be, of course, because in those days, the male and female spaces – the zanana and the mardana – were strictly demarcated. Look at where shows were held, for instance: on the steps of the Jama Masjid, where the audiences were strictly male, since women weren’t allowed to either mix with men or be present. In addition, if you performed as a woman, you ran the risk of scandalising society. It was such a pity.

I think back now to my own childhood, when female Islamic scholars often came to our house, and I think to myself that if those women had had the chance to perform dastangoi, they would have been so wonderful, because their voices and their way of speaking was all so perfect. So, you could say that there were obstacles – tangible and intangible – to my destiny, simply because of my gender. But I decided to take heart from the fact that the great Mir Baqar Ali had died in Pahari Bhojla (in Old Delhi, the part that’s popularly known as Delhi 6). This was the same place where I was born and for me, it was a kind of sign that this was indeed what I was meant to do.

Instinctively, I began looking at the practicalities: what should I wear, to start with? I looked back at history and decided that I would wear a gharara, a tribute to the women of the time. From my mother’s dower, I found copper utensils that I could use. My next challenge was my voice and my body language.

Now, there are inherent preconceptions at work here. One associates men with speaking in a certain manner, and women with being demure and soft. I had to find a fine balance between the two: my femininity and nazakat needed to remain intact, while the telling of the story also had to be larger than life. This took months of practice, but I like to think I’ve reached that balance now!

Over the years, I’ve performed more than 200 shows, for audiences who are genuinely receptive and interested in how I tell stories. I’ve worked extensively with Danish Iqbal, which was a turning point in my life, in fact, because of the way he wrote stories for me. He is still my writer and director, and all the stories I tell have been written by him.

A matter of language

This is an important way in which dastangoi has changed over the years. As I mentioned earlier, the stories of yore were recited from memory. They were changeable and fluid, since they were inherited by word of mouth across generations. In those days, you could request a dastango to narrate a tale of your choice, and it would be instantly done.

Today, the stories are scripted. Modern dastangos like me will not perform without a script. The script has, in fact, become a vital part of modern dastangoi, and when I say script, one must remember that this is not the script you might associate with ordinary plays or stories. In dastangoi, the script is a powerhouse of rhythm.

You see, our prose, just like our poetry, is in rhyme. So the script must be powerful, and must possess a quality of musicality and cadence. In every script that I have worked on, I have incorporated themes of gender. Gender and sexuality are vital to me, because of who I am and what I represent to the history and heritage of dastangoi.

I have performed Ismat Chughtai’s Nanhi ki Naani and dastan-e Radhakrishan, an Urdu adaptation, based on Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal’s Finding Radha. The role of Radha here is very important and, while telling the story, we reinterpreted it from Radha’s perspective.

I keep themes of homosexuality and queer identity in mind while putting scripts together too. One of the stories that I perform, Kallo by Samina Nazir, has aspects of lesbian relationships between two women. In all these scripts, the lynchpin is language. What is beautiful about language is its ability to adapt. It shapes itself according to the times.

Today, when audiences listen to me, they think I’m speaking in pure Urdu. Actually, I’m not doing any such thing, simply because I can’t, and even if I did, nobody would understand what I was saying. Take Tilism-e-Hoshruba, for example. Certainly, there are heroes and villains and magic within its pages, but in its pure form, a modern audience would flounder trying to connect with it.

In the 21st century, therefore, we have done what dastangos across the ages have done: taken tropes and themes from different genres and subjects and adapted them to the times we live in. A few examples, off the top of my head, are dastan-e-Gandhi, dastan-e-Mahabharat, dastan-e-Radhakrishnan, dastan-e-Ram and dastan-e-Khusrau.

In all of this, one mustn’t forget that language remains centrestage. For example, when I perform dastan-e Mahabharat, people often tell me that they have never heard the Mahabharata in the dastan form. So, to help them connect better with it, we have included the works of the poet Dinkar (Ramdhari Singh Dinkar).

When Dinkar says, “Maitrikiraahdikhaane ko, sab ko sumarg pe laane ko,” (To show the way of friendship, bring everyone on the right path), this is not Urdu. But I am both a product and a follower of the Hindustani Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb, so it is important that I also insert Dinkar and other Hindi poets in the telling and retelling of my stories. Dastan can never be separated from language; dastangoi is after all, a craft of language.

Performing during the pandemic

I like to think that I have contributed towards a revival of popular interest in an art form that deserves to be cherished. However, there are inevitably circumstances that none of us can prevent. A global pandemic, for example, can hit you in ways you didn’t expect.

Dastangoi is an intimate and personal art. We are live artistes, and until we hear our audience applaud, or see the sparkle of enjoyment in their eyes, we don’t feel like performing. During the pandemic, I have often been asked to perform online, and I have done so. But it is, quite frankly, surreal to perform on Zoom, where viewers are muted and all cameras are off.

I can understand that it’s done out of consideration to the artiste performing, but it has been one of the hardest things to do, and I have never become comfortable with it. So I have decided to learn from my own craft and adapt to the times I live in.

The pandemic has encouraged audio-visual formats to take off in a big way. During the lockdown, I decided to go ahead and put some of my stories on air in the form of podcasts. I have launched a podcast in association with Red FM, called dastan-e-Bollywood.

Over Diwali this year, we decided to do something different. The result is the dastan-e-Raam on the Red FM podcast. It is the first time that dastangoi has been based entirely on poetry across different generations: a lyrical rendition, if you will. This was particularly difficult to do, because when you are performing poetry, you have to extract every last drop of its meaning.

An audience is everything to a dastango, so to adapt to a purely audio medium, when one has spent years honing one’s skills as a visual artiste, has been very difficult. With every live show, you evolve as an artiste, simply because the audience is your best and worst critic. In a podcast, you only have one shot.

So, I have had to practice far more in order to record my podcasts, almost like a classical musician. There is much more effort involved in conveying every emotion with only your voice, since no one can see your face. But my philosophy here is that as a listener, you are free to let your imagination run riot. Otherwise, I have failed in my job as a storyteller.

Have I thought about dastangoi in a post-Covid world? Of course I have. I miss the stage and the audience, and the engagement that we share. But I take hope from the fact that I’ve quite possibly taken a rather revolutionary step into the unknown here. An auditorium can only house 300 people, who will listen to you once and then leave. Even in the old days, dastangoi was an exclusive, elite art form. The pandemic has changed that aspect.

Mediums like Zoom and podcast recordings have opened up our ability to reach newer and larger audiences. After all, you can listen to a podcast at any time, and as many times as you want. You can watch a Zoom recording and then its recorded version on YouTube. You can listen to it while having your cup of tea or doing the dishes!

So the reach has definitely increased, and that is something that I am very proud of. It has made me determined to continue with this medium even when live shows restart. It is an innovation that I hope others will take up as well, since life will certainly not be the same.

There are finally hopes of a vaccine that might work against the novel coronavirus. I’m sure that we will find ourselves back on the stage again one day, and a sense of order will finally be born out of all this chaos. But as story-tellers, as dastangos, as live artistes, we have to do what dastangoi has taught us through the years: to adapt to a world in flux as best as we can.

As told to Narayani Basu. With inputs from Amit Julka.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.