story time

What happened when a medieval Urdu text was performed in a craft beer pub in Mumbai

Actor-director Danish Husain wants to re-popularise India’s traditional storytelling. Will his Qissebaazi become the city’s post-work ritual?

On the evening of February 19, there was more than just the usual servings of craft beer at the Barking Deer Brewpub, at Lower Parel in Mumbai. Actor-director Danish Husain had promised to do something substantial with a host of indigenous languages, through his new theatrical invention, named Qissebaazi. Both the content and the venue of the show were curiosity-inducing – one does not often hear of a folk performance at a bar.

The crowd at the pub comprised of office-goers, soaking up the last dregs of the weekend. Upstairs, in a roomy loft, the scene was different: on the 30-odd chairs sat some of Mumbai’s theatre lovers, including Bollywood actor Jackie Shroff. All eyes were on the makeshift stage, where the first of the two acts for the day began. Qissebaazi has a line-up of four stories, but each is not performed every time. The mix is wonderfully eclectic.

Usually, the first qissa is a Sanskrit katha named Natyotpatte. It is the mythological origin story of sage Bharata’s Natyashastra – one of the world’s oldest treatises on dramaturgy. This Sanskrit piece is performed by Saattvic, who facilitates the audience’s understanding by rendering the difficult parts in Hindi. The second story of the set is called The Story of Unnaiarchha – the Female Warrior, a popular Malayalam folk tale about a 16th century heroine known for her legendary beauty and fighting skills. The performer, Mini Nair, uses English in parts to assist her storytelling. The third qissa of the set comes from a section of the epic Hamzanama, called Tilism-e-Hoshruba. It is an enchanting story with kings, magicians, princesses and tricksters. The fourth, Qissa Shauq Sahab Ka/ Duniya ke Sabse Bade Aadmi ki Kahani is an adaptation of Kashinath Singh’s Hindi short story Sadi Ka Sabse Bada Aadmi or The Century’s Greatest Man. Set in post-Independence Benaras, it takes a dig on feudalism through satire and humour.

The show on Sunday was opened by Udit Parashar, performing Qissa Shauq Sahab Ka. Parashar switched between the two prime characters in the story, leaving the audience breathless with laughter. Later, Parashar offered a little insight on Husain, calling him a “flexible director”Husain encourages each performer to find a story that he or she best relates to, because only a story told with conviction will convince. Personally, Husain favours satirical pieces, which in his words, “are the easiest forms of protest”.

At the pub, Husain performed a tale from the Tilism-e-Hoshruba called The Episode of Ijlal Jadoo & Amar Aiyyar. His was the second and last act for the day and he performed the Urdu tale using the narrative tool of a “bridge language” to translate tough terms for the audience. After that, things flowed easily. Husain transported his audience to magical worlds inhabited by tricksters and shehzaadis, or princesses. The mature audience appeared to have transformed into a bunch of little children, listening to a fairy tale with rapt attention.

Udit Parashar.
Udit Parashar.

Not just a folk performance

For years now, platforms like the National Centre for Performing Arts, the India International Centre, the Ministry of Culture and many others have been trying to give folk arts and artists visibility and recognition – but these seem to be largely restricted to music, dance or theatre.

In comparison to these forms, little importance is given to storytelling, one of India’s oldest performing arts. Among the epics, there are mythological characters like Luv and Kush narrating the Ramayana to Rama himself, or Sage Vaishampayana telling Janamejaya the story of the Mahabharata. At the level of our little microcosms, there are local temple pandits giving pravachans or narrating Ramkathas. India is famous for its oral tradition, whether in the classical or folk contexts with indeed entire castes dedicated to practising and perpetuating it.

However, the idea of entertainment has vastly changed, and the traditional forms of storytelling, such as Pandavani from Chhattisgarh, Bhopa and Kaavad Banchana from Rajasthan, Dayro from Gujarat, or Baul from Bengal have mostly been relegated to the rural areas. The preferred way of consuming information and entertainment, especially in the urban areas, has become increasingly visual. We seldom look up from the multiple screens of our gadgets and the spoken word has somehow taken a back seat.

From dastans to qissas

The creator of Qissebaazi, Husain believes that the appeal of the spoken word is eternal. “Human beings have cognitively evolved so as to speak in and learn languages,” he said. “There is a primal appeal to the spoken word and so it will remain, until such time that we have have figured out a way of communicating entirely without it. A good speech and a powerful speaker will never fail to draw attention and in a predominantly visual culture like ours, a sound-based performance is something of a relief.”

Husain’s passion for the spoken word has always been palpable: his love affair with theatre began 13 years ago. Since then, he has worked on several engaging projects as both actor and director. His most intimate association as a performer was with Dastangoi, a traditional Persian form of storytelling. Husain, along with Mahmood Farooqui, was instrumental in reviving this art form which had died out during the 1920s. Dastangoi gained almost instant fame and travelled the world – it is not hard to see why.

For those unfamiliar with this art form, dastans, like the Purana kathas, are usually long tales based in mythology, legend, and folk stories which originated in the Middle Ages in Persia. The art of telling these Urdu stories, derived from Farsi, is called Dastangoiliterally, story to tell. This art form remained popular from the 16th through the 19th centuries and travelled from Persia to India to Indonesia as Islam spread. Magic-loving Indians used to lap up these stories at chowks, havelis, and afeem khanas and have recently started doing so again in experimental theatre spaces.

After his fallout with Farooqi, the tainted director of Peepli Live, Husain moved away from Dastangoi. In fact, he even moved away from Delhi and made Mumbai his home. But he brought along his love of storytelling, ensconced safely in his heart.

“I didn’t want to start where I had left off,” said Husain, referring to Dastangoi. His company The Hoshruba Repertory, started Qissebaazi – a more diverse platform through which stories could be told not just in Urdu, but in all the other languages. Qissebaazi was launched in November 2016 at NCPA’s Centrestage Theatre Festival in Mumbai.

A new addiction

After the shows, Husain makes time to answer questions about his new concept. One wonders how many in the audience will connect with the stories, which are often in languages completely unknown to them.

“The connection will happen,” Husain said. “The colonial hangover has led to too much linguistic homogenisation. We seem to think that all things worthy of praise can only be in English. There are so many young people out there from the rural areas, whose talent is not recognised simply because they do not know English. I want them to come here on this platform and perform. Here we are sitting on an indigenous literary treasure trove, but we are losing our grip on these languages. While most of us in urban India are comfortable with English, we can barely manage to read or write our own mother tongues. I am trying to reverse that.”

All Qissebaazi performances in indigenous languages, barring Hindi, use a bridge language to get past the linguistic barrier. It allows the performer to not just keep the story comprehensible, but also throw in some commentary, some humour, and even some poetry. Far from interrupting the flow of the story, these elements serve to enhance the listening experience. One has to see Husain effortlessly throwing in Twitter or Harry Potter references in the middle of a medieval Persian romance to believe this.

“It’s a lot more than the story,” Husain said. “I am not interested in performing personal stories. I am interested in language, in literature, to create a metatext around these literary tales. ”

It is hard not to be affected by Husain’s passion for the medium. It is still harder to walk away from the brewpub, without having acquired a little bit of an addiction for qissas.

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is an Indologist and a journalist who loves to research and write about all things Indian culture, history and mythology. Read more about her work here.

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