Satyr has the last laugh

Delhi’s famed Dastaango, Danish Husain, emerges as a political trickster of our times

Picture Courtesy: Danish Husain
Picture Courtesy: Danish Husain

Charu Soni

Are you a political trickster, a Satyr? He laughs throatily with a self-conscious immediacy of being found out, “Yes, yes, an Ayyar”. He’s by no means gregarious. There is something solid, quiet and impenetrable about him. But occasionally, when he let’s some air in, you can glimpse a thousand mutinies.

When you watch him recite a poem, act on stage or screen you can be faulted for thinking you have discovered a key to the mutinies within – a tick, a quirk, a fleeting emotion, a universal truth – a being and non being, a life’s extract. In the end you are left with an overriding certitude. This is one hell of a political actor. A Satyr, if India had one.

“I play politics on my front foot,” he admits.

He’s the voice of the 18th century poet Nazir Akbarabadi of Habib Tannvir’s patangwala (kite seller) in Agra Bazar, trickster Ayyar of Dastaane Hamza (mystical 19th century tales from Awadh), madman Toba Tek Singh of Sadat Hasan Manto’s story, Premchand’s Pandit Moteram, modern day Dalit survivor of Jat violence Bant Singh in Punjab, companion to Akhtari in A Musical Story of Bengum Akhtar’s Life, a donkey in Krishan Chander’s satirical short story Gaddha (The Pit) adapted for stage by Nasiruddin Shah, the voice of exiled poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, witty and playful Ismat Chugtai, hounded Binayak Sen, professor and student in Vijay Tendulkar’s play, Jaat Na Poocho Sadhu Ki. Roles that he essayed in various plays, readings, recordings.

He’s all and none. But each character he chooses are him. That is the incredible gift of Danish Husain, poet, writer, actor and theatre director. The ability to become whatever he wills.

“Perhaps, for the generation that were born in the 1970-80s, I grew up identifying and aligning with the underdog. The MA in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics further drilled that in,” says Husain.

He’s also the amalgamation of his inheritance. “Growing as a Shia, the story of Karbala – how one can resist by standing together even if you are a minority had a huge impact on me. There is, of course, also Gandhi, who taught us how to stand our ground with non-violence,” he says. How does he reconcile the two approaches? “Personally, I find no grace in violence, in shouting, hitting people below the belt. Gandhi taught us to fight with grace and dignity. I try to live up to these ideas,” he explains.

There is also the inheritance as landed gentry of Ghazipur, in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Mother is professor of Persian literature. And granduncle, the late writer and poet, Rahi Masoom Raza.

In Raza’s Adha Gaon (The Divided Village) characters are perpetually on a journey to find their moral compass and unearth their self-identities as they walk through the mindfield of the times they are living in. Husain finds resonance of this in his own life, poetry and acting. “We are million manthan (churning) within,” he says philosophically, “People always lived in a flux.”

Raza’s Katra Bi Arzoo (The Place of Desire) a masterful critique of Emergency also finds it resonance in Danish’s actions in the present. In 2015, he returned his Sangeet Natak Akademi award in the wake of suppression of independent voices and killing of intellectuals. He said then, “You may say worse was seen during the Emergency. Good. So you are, after all, inadvertently drawing a parallel between today and then.” The fact that Raza was the scriptwriter for Doordarshan’s adaptation of Mahabharata, is also not lost on those who have followed Husain’s acting life.

Born of Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb (culture) he’s not one to be cowed down. After his stint as Dastaango (between 2006-2014) with Mahmood Farooqui ran into rough weather, with the latter caught in a sex scandal, Danish migrated to Mumbai in October of 2014. It’s his place of exile now. One in which he seeks solace and deliverance. He’s acting in films, Newton, being his latest release. And he’ll be seen next in Gaurav Chawla’s Bazaar, Nandita Das’s Manto, Navjot Gulati’s Blame it On Sanjog.

Under the banner of his theatre company, Hoshruba, he is directing and producing plays at least twice a year. Qissebazi, was staged in Delhi on October 20, 2017 and the upcoming, farcical play loosely based on Ibne Insha’s classic Urdu Ki Akhri Kitab (The Last Book in Urdu) is set to premiere on November 7 at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai.

Among all his roles, his voice as a poet is perhaps least known. He’s shy about his own poems, “I have perhaps eight decent poems. They will be published after I die.”

Last year, he started evenings called, ‘Poetrification’, with poet Denzil Smith and musician, Adil Manuel to bring classical Urdu, Hindi and Indian English poetry to new age listeners. “Not many people recite well,” he says adding that Mumbai has seen a spurt in open mic performances. “A lot of it is trash. But there are also gems.” Ranjit Hoskote has invited him for the next Kala Ghoda Festival in February 2018.

Who are the poets he’s reciting at ‘Poetrification’? “Vinod Kumar Shukla, Ageya, Uday Prakash…,” reeling off names like grains of sand falling off a palm. Then he stops. Let’s some air in and says quietly:

“Aadmi jab mar jata hai,
to kuch bolta nahin
Aadmi jab mar jata hai,
to kuch sochta nahin
Aadmi jab kuch bolta nahin,
kuch sochta nahin, to mar jata hai”

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Published: 29 Oct 2017, 10:25 AM