The art of storytelling - an interview with dastango Danish Husain

“When storytelling is reduced to a series of plot movements, you are not dwelling on the difficult emotions from which there is no escape... Art has been reduced to entertainment.”

Dansih Husain (Photo: Zahra Husaini)
Dansih Husain (Photo: Zahra Husaini)

Purva Naresh

Actor, poet, storyteller, theatre director Danish Husain took an unusual road to the world of arts. He is probably best known as an exponent and revivalist of the dastangoi, that old form of Urdu storytelling, but friend and theatre maker Purva Naresh caught up with him to tell the story of his own life, with some of the signature twists and turns and pauses of the art form he practises. “Main baat karte karte chai bana lun?” asks Danish, to which Purva replies: “Bilkul, mujhe bhi pila do, buss batein mut banana, sirf chai banana!” Edited excerpts.   


You are a dastango, and the core of dastangoi is Amir Hamza’s stories, right? What is their context today?

It is our heritage. The original myth comes to us from Arabia. Amir Hamza was Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, and as Islam spread, the stories spread too. During the Mughal period, these stories came to India as Persian stories and became so popular with the court that Akbar commissioned the Hamzanama.

Thanks to this patronage, storytellers picked it up, and it became popular in the oral culture as well. It came to us as a one-volume story. The Indian storytellers added and expanded on the fantasy elements. If you look at the puraan katha, the Kathasaritsagara, magic and fantasy were very strong elements of these ancient Indian storytelling traditions. So, they started adding their own magic, and one volume grew to forty-six volumes, 1,000 pages became 42,000 pages!

Then Devaki Nandan Khatri wrote Chandrakanta (an epic fantasy novel published in 1888, considered the first modern Hindi novel) in 11 volumes. With Mir Baqar Ali dying in 1928 and Partition in 1947, dastangoi traditions were lost. However, a lot of early Parsi theatre makers were very familiar with Amir Hamza’s stories, especially Tilism-e- Hoshruba (the first seven of the 46-volume Dastan-e-Amir Hamza published by Nawal Kishore Press, Lucknow, between 1883 and 1890, which are the most popular of the Amir Hamza tales).

They were very influential in creating early cinema in this country. The structure and tropes of masala Hindi screenplays were derived from these stories. When I started performing, I started seeing these parallels, and the more I got into theatre and cinema, the more I realised these stories never left us.

This confirmed my belief that these stories are ours, these traditions are ours, and they influence what we do in this country in terms of cinema and storytelling.

Danish Husain (Photo: Idris Ahmed)
Danish Husain (Photo: Idris Ahmed)

Especially in terms of fantasy-building. ‘Ek yaar ho jo aiyyaar bhi ho (A friend who is a trickster too)’.

Yes. Tilism-e-Hoshruba is replete with battles between tricksters (aiyyaars) and sorcerers (sahirs). Tilism is a magical realm that a sorcerer conjures up with his spells and whims. Hoshruba means something that can steal your senses.

Therefore, Tilism-e-Hoshruba is a magical realm that steals or enchants your senses. In Hoshruba, the tricksters are the good guys and the sorcerers are the villains. If you look at the conception of a yaar—he is the ideal actor. He becomes the character he is imitating so completely, through voice and gesture, that no vestige of the original self is left. A yaar is an actor’s fantasy.

I was fascinated by the concept. How swiftly they change! Would you ever want to dramatise an Amir Hamza story?

Here comes the tricky part. The greatest thing about the tradition is that it’s not about storytelling, but anti-storytelling. The greatest dastango was the one who wouldn’t actually tell the story but bring it to a halt. The whole idea was that of dastan-rokna. You bring the story to a particular point where the plot stands still—and the description begins. How long can you keep an audience hooked on description alone?

That’s the storyteller’s skill with gestures, expressions, circular, sideways, tangential movements, segues... The emphasis is not on the story per se. That kind of virtuoso, impromptu performance in a modern context, I doubt an actor would know what to do in a workshop. If I were to make it into a play or a screenplay, I’d have to find episodes that work.

Right now, there is a conference happening in Japan on Amir Hamza in Indonesian, South Asian, Japanese traditions. Most of this is lost from popular culture. Why do you think Marvel films work so well? Over so many years of cultural imperialism, they’ve made sure you know about the Batmans, the Supermans and the Spidermans of the world, so you flock to the theatre.

The culture that made Amir Hamza popular has gradually vanished. That’s why we are not aware of the Amir Hamzas of the world. It would need a very different kind of revival. The dominant culture is dependant on who is in power. Who makes the decisions? Who holds the reins? I do not see these stories becoming dominant culture in a way that people will fall for it.

This thing about bringing the plot to a standstill so that the exploration can begin has disappeared from mainstream storytelling, and we’ll come back to this… Before you became known as a dastango, a poet, a director, an actor, you were a banker. What’s the story of this shift from the most-paying to the least-paying industry?

One of the reasons I was a banker was the mediocrity of my life. I’m not blaming anyone but in our kind of middle-class family that had seen a lot of financial hardship post-Independence, there was an insistence on getting a white-collar job that would give you legitimacy, respect and enough money. Be a bureaucrat, lawyer, doctor—that insistence crushes whatever aspiration you might have as a child.

You want to learn dance, music, painting, you want to explore an alternative career—it’s hammered out of you. This happened to me. I lost interest in everything, I became a very mediocre student. I loved history and geography, but my father didn’t approve, and I ended up studying economics. I didn’t have the imagination to break away from it. I kept pursuing it, did my Masters at Delhi School of Economics, was even headed to the US to do a PhD when the penny dropped.

It was peer pressure, I wanted to be seen as someone pursuing that degree. I told my father, who said, “Then stay here and find a good job.” That was 1991, liberalisation had happened, the economy had opened up, banks were coming in, and suddenly it became a very cool thing to work in a foreign bank, your social chips went up!

It was in this phase that my disillusionment began. Working in a fancy corporate office, wearing a pinstriped suit, driving a fancy car—it all fizzled out. Banking was a very tedious job, there was nothing glamorous about it, except the building you were sitting in. Initially, I didn’t think of leaving it altogether, I thought I’d do something on the side to make my life interesting. I started exploring. There was nothing I was really good at except the theatre I’d done in school and college.

Both Shah Rukh Khan and Manoj Bajpayee, who had become popular, were Barry John students. So, everybody said, “that’s the man you should talk to in Delhi.” I called him, he said come over, and that’s how it began. I would finish my job by 6–6.30 p.m. and rush to rehearsals, and do one or two plays every year. After three years, I realised it was now or never.

I didn’t want to spend 20 years doing something I hate and then look back and regret that I hadn’t done what I love. So, I resigned. I had no idea ‘how, what, where, which way’ I’d go; I just wanted ‘out’. And I did that.

So, vanity lured you into the field, but sanity prevailed…

You can say that!

…and it’s been 11 years, right?

Yes, I set up the theatre company in 2012. And our latest play on Sahir [Ludhianvi], Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shayar Hoon is our 11th production. It worked out well this year when Prithvi gave me a week for my festival.

What is the nucleus of your work, the texts you keep returning to?

I keep returning to that person in the room who doesn’t get to speak. The underdog. I’ve experienced it: when you’re not the smartest person in the room, and the dynamics of the room is such that someone is hijacking the conversation. I know that feeling of being marginalised.

So, I like underdog stories. The tropes of being on the brink of collapse, of being wiped out and then finding dignity, an assertion of identity—these themes appeal to me. That’s what drew me to Sahir—a person who would stand up to those more powerful than him, who was compassionate and had empathy for those weaker than him. That unique combination of arrogance, literary genius and softheartedness attracted me.

Share your favourite sher of Sahir’s?

When Nasreen Munni Kabir was doing the diary for Sahir’s centenary and she asked me to contribute, I wrote on this sher: Kaun rota hai kisi aur ki khatir, aye dost Sabko apni hi kisi baat pe rona aaya (Who weeps at the plight of another, O friend? We only weep at our own plight) – Sahir Ludhianvi

This was Sahir’s genius. He could encapsulate profound thoughts in simple words. That’s how we learn and connect—by mirroring each other.

Dansih in the green room (Photo: Abbas M Rizvi)
Dansih in the green room (Photo: Abbas M Rizvi)

This gives me a glimpse of your take on the relationship between the maker and the audience—you are trying to build this bridge...

I notice you’ve been doing a lot of adaptations of works by foreign authors. What about looking at new writers in India? Yes, I did Annie Zaidi’s play Untitled1 for which she won the Hindu Playwright Award. One of the reasons was to work with material created by a contemporary playwright, writing about us, in our present time.

As directors, we are drawn to older texts by dead or famous writers! Our new Sahir play is written by Mir Ali Husain— who wrote the film Mee Raqsam (‘I Dance’), which I did with Baba Azmi—with a contribution by Himanshu Bajpai, from his Sahir Dastan.

I took both scripts and fused them. I want to do a play on the Sufi and Bhakti poets in the Maharashtra–Karnataka belt. We are working on a short story that my mother has written—it would be fantastic if you adapted it for a screenplay.

Yes, it’s a beautiful story. Your mother was a teacher of Persian, and I remember when I told you my dad (Naresh Saxena, veteran Hindi poet) got the Rahi Masoom Raza award this year, you said, “Woh toh mere mamu thhey”. Tell me about your cultural heritage— what’s gone into the making of Danish Husain, the poet, the cultural activist.

Most people in my family were scholars and poets, in Hindi, Urdu, Persian or Arabic. They were all schooled in UP, so the Hindi was very kadak. In my house, people spoke in shers at the drop of a hat. Even to admonish us, my mother would quote Iqbal, Ghalib, Mir, Hafez, Khayyam.

Give me an example?

If I was caught reading comic books or playing cricket while exams were on, Mummy would fix me with a stare and say: Waye nakami! Mataa-e-karwan jata raha Karwan ke dil se ehsas-e-ziyan jata raha (What failure! The caravan’s wealth kept getting pilfered. But worse, in its heart, the caravan, too, kept losing its sense of loss) – Allama Iqbal

My father was more down to earth, with a more plebian sense of humour. When we declared our grand plans, he would say, in Bhojpuri, “Abbar bhai na deo tou har koi kahe aao ladd liyo! (When Abbar, the old wrestler, wasn’t strong anymore, every Tom, Dick and Harry challenged him to a fight!)”

He was very good at parody. My mother was more refined. And that was a great combination. This was my asli daulat, my real wealth. Growing up, I thought that was normal—even when you get berated you hear poetry! From the age of 16 to 29, I only read English literature.

I finally freed myself and started reading Hindi literature when I started doing theatre. When dastan happened, I had to go back and read Urdu in the original script. Each language comes with its own universe, and so now I had three universes. I must say that this oral literary culture that was around me in my childhood was one of the reasons why I was able to find my way as an actor.

Things were not alien. I had the awareness of texts, and contexts. Majaz (Majaz Lucknowi, the great Urdu poet, also Javed Akhtar’s maternal uncle), Banne Bhai (Sajjad Zaheer, Urdu writer, member of the Communist Party of India, who was instrumental in setting up the Progressive Writers Movement in India. His daughter is Nadira Zaheer Babbar, the theatre personality married to Raj Babbar).

I was aware of their history, the progressive writers, the various movements. Reading widely and voraciously helped me. And when I am uninformed, I find out. For your play, Bandish 20–20,000Hz—I was not very aware of that world (of female Baithak singers). I researched it. Munnu Mama started unfurling in my head and I was able to adapt that character within my own physicality on stage.

Do you think the small actions we make on the small stages we occupy can bring about change?

I don’t know about change, Purva. When we tell stories we know that they should touch the listener. But as artists we want more—the experience should become transformative. Something should shift inside you by a few degrees. When you leave the theatre, you are not the same person who entered the theatre. You find yourself displaced. Our job is not to proselytise but provoke the audience to open their minds and ask questions.

Today’s storytelling on mainstream platforms is all about forward action. Everything is ‘what’s going to happen next’? No one is interested in what happens in between or on the side, it feels like an aversion to dastan-roko...

Many filmmakers are in a rush to finish the scene. There is no thehrao (pause). When storytelling is reduced to a series of plot movements, you are not dwelling on the difficult emotions from which there is no escape, where the discomfort has to be confronted.

Art has been reduced to entertainment. Art is not about conviviality—it’s about making you face those difficult things, ask those difficult questions. We should bring in that thehrao, the stability of those moments. What’s this constant anxiety? We’re always saying: this will make someone uncomfortable, let’s cut it out. It’s the social media state of mind.

It creates an audience that is not interested in anything but the next big event, even if that is a big lie. And when you become fond of those lies, it creates the kind of society we are in today. This is the context of the Amir Hamza stories. The whole structure is so essential.

You can hold and expand the moment, and then circle back. Instead of being in this constant anxiety that depends on the next big thing, the next big news, the next dopamine hit. 

(The Hoshruba Repertory, Danish Husain’s theatre company, turned 11 this year, and a week-long festival of their works was held at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre from 10–17 September)

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