International Women's Day: If the core is strong, you won’t break that easily, says Fouzia Dastango

For creative people who also happen to be women, what role does gender, community, tradition have in shaping those hard-won rights and fiercely-cherished achievements?

International Women's Day: If the core is strong, you won’t break that easily, says Fouzia Dastango

Sampurna Chattarji

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‘Genderole’ by Rukmini Bhaya Nair

An observance that grew out of the American suffragette movement, International Women’s Day has, for little over a century now, been marked as a day that aims to celebrate women’s rights, and honour women’s achievements. For creative people who also happen to be women, what role does gender, community, tradition have in shaping those hard-won rights and fiercely-cherished achievements? As a young writer trying to elide/elude labels, I remember how struck I was by this poem by Rukmini Bhaya Nair, in which the run-on lines that mimicked the inscription of Sanskrit slokas insisted I find a new way of reading, inserting the spaces that my mind needed in order to make sense of what was written. This re-seeing of what feels simultaneously very old and very new provoked the questions I put to the practitioner featured here.

SAMPURNA CHATTARJI, poet, editor, author, most recently of Unmappable Moves

What is the ‘genderole’ you resist/redefine/reclaim through your work?

I am always resisting. There were no female dastangos. People find it very hard to accept a female dastango. I am redefining, resisting and reclaiming through the work I do, on Nirbhaya, on Bhavri [Bhanwari] Devi with Dr Arshiya Sethi. Some people say, we’ve seen female dastangos perform, and I ask, where? I never saw them; they were not in the public domain. There’s no mention of female dastangos in the records. All I’m doing is trying to make my place in a man’s world. When I worked with Danish [Husain], I learnt so much from his experience, his range, from the perspective of theatre. But being a woman, it’s up to me to decide what are my nuances, where are my pauses. Male and female voices are different, our aura is different. I understand the chemistry, of course, but I can’t be Danish, and he can’t be me. We have to maintain our gender-based roles. The best part is performing together—he is very energetic, I am also very energetic, and finally it’s about matching those energies.

What role does the community play in the making/unmaking of your work?

In my case, I’ve had both. The community made me because they accepted me as a female dastango. They gave me the opportunity to perform, before men. Some of the senior writers like Rakhshanda Jalil really believed in my work. Rakhshanda aapa always talked about my work, supported my work, she always encouraged me, “do this, do this, do this”. In the other sense of being ‘unmade’, there are people who think this is our turf, only our women will do it, ‘no dastango can perform without our permission’—that kind of sentence in emails sent to me, these are some of the ways the community unmakes you. It’s very destabilising. Rakhshanda aapa told me: “The only answer you can give them is to go on doing good work.” When I was crying and feeling disheartened, she said to me, “Yeh sirf ghutno ki chot hain—inko jhaar ke uth jao” (these are just grazes, get up and dust off your knees).

Ultimately, the jawab is in your work, what else is there, and what can anyone say to that. If the core is strong, you won’t break that easily. Suppose I was a famous scholar’s daughter, it might have been easier, I might have moved in different circles. Being self-made, I’ve had to work very hard. It’s been over 15 years since I started in 2006 with Danish Husain, so I’ve been keeping the faith for a long time.

What tradition do you align yourself to even as you break/remake it?

Dastangoi is an ancient tradition, a 16th century form of storytelling that was practised in Akbar’s court. (Akbar commissioned The Hamzanama.) In 1928, the last dastango, Mir Baqar Ali passed away. Coincidentally, I was born in the same house in which he once lived and died. Not just the same neighbourhood, the same house! So, I feel this is my destiny, and I feel that ancient connection, whenever I remember this. I always take Mir Baqar Ali’s name before I go on stage. I see him as my guiding force. Anyone can teach you all the techniques, but you have to do the riyaaz yourself. In that sense, these are my ancestors, to whom I have a huge responsibility.

Having broken all the stereotypes, when I do contemporary work like Dastaan-e-Mahabharat, or Dastaan-e-Ram in Urdu, or Jashn-e-Benazeer with the University of Sheffield, my main focus is—what else can I do through dastangoi? I want to spread my roots, and go deep and strong. Nowadays, when people do dastangoi, they feel it’s very simple—put on some white clothes, memorise some stuff, and get on stage, that’s it. But no, it’s not! It’s like classical music, you have to do the riyaaz. That’s what the tradition teaches you. And I still feel I have a lot left to learn. The process of becoming a dastango is an endless process. The female voice is inextricably linked with gender. It’s a source of power, not of weakness. This channels into the work. First when I did the dastangoi for Nirbhaya on Quint, then on Safe Motherhood with NGOs, now on Bhavri Devi, which Dr Arshiya Sethi and I are working on. Bhavri Devi is still alive, and this is the first dastaan ever, about her. This is how I link back with tradition. When I sit and tell her story, people cry, get goosebumps. I am not doing a dharna or naarebaazi or giving a lecture or a seminar to talk about the trauma of her life, I am doing it through my art. When people say, after the show, “We want to meet Bhavri Devi”, that’s it, our job is done. I raise my voice through my art for the causes I believe in. That’s how it becomes feministic—internally. My mother is a feminist. She was not educated, she studied only till class five. She allowed me to do what I wanted. She dared to support me. In my Muslim area, in old Delhi where I come from, the people are so orthodox, they don’t like to send their girls to the stage, and see them as performers, they feel ashamed, they don’t like it! But my mother, Ishrat Jahan, she stood by me, and said do what you have to do. She was also supportive of her sisters, her nieces, as was my naani.

These women have no power in their homes, they are not decision-makers, but they support their tribe. A lifeline is created through the generations, through a huge act of courage. And it’s my mother who gave me that courage, to fight against the wrong.

FOUZIA DASTANGO has been recognised as ‘India’s First Woman Dastangoi Artist’ by the ministry of women and child development, and has over 400 performances to her credit.

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