Whenever I begin preparing for a new performance words sit heavy in front of me as boulders. Alien, unknown boulders. I look up and I see them littered till wherever my eyes can see. I do not know these words. I did not create them. I do not know their context. I do not know what all they hide within. But I have to deal with them.
This is one of the fundamental struggles of an actor. To grapple with the text he intends to perform. Every time I encounter a new text for performance this line from Noon Meem Rashed’s iconic poem “Zindagi Se Darte Ho” comes to haunt me:
“Harf aur māni ke rishta-hāi-āhan se ādmi hai wābasta”
“Man is connected to the iron bond between word and meaning”
I intuitively understood this line when I first heard it but the full import came when once I was hearing Zia Mohyeddin’s rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous nazm:
आज इक हर्फ़ को फिर ढूंढता फिरता है ख़याल,
मध् भरा हर्फ़ कोई , ज़हर भरा हर्फ़ कोई।
दिलनशीं हर्फ़ कोई , क़हर भरा हर्फ़ कोई,
हर्फ़-ए-उल्फ़त कोई दिलदार नज़र हो जैसे,
जिससे मिलती है नज़र बोसा-ए-लब की सूरत,
इतना रोशन के सर-ए-मौज-ए-ज़र हो जैसे।
सोहबत-ए-यार में आगाज़-ए-तरब की सूरत,
हर्फ़-ए-नफ़रत कोई शमशीर-ए-गज़ब हो जैसे
ता अबद शहर-ए-सितम जिससे तबाह हो जाएँ ,
इतना तारीक के शमशान की शब् हो जैसे,
लब पे लाऊँ तो मेरे होंठ स्याह हो जाएँ।
And when Zia Mohyeddin came to the last line and read it in his inimitable style I almost felt my lips turning blue. As if his voice has dissolved Faiz’s words like some blue ink in my blood which is surfacing on my lips now. It was a heady experience and I still feel the same whenever I hear him read this poem.
And then it set me thinking. These are not Zia’s words. He is merely reading a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz but it almost has the same effect as if the poet himself is reading them. What made Faiz Ahmed Faiz come alive in Zia Mohyeddin’s voice?
Some of my best acting lessons were unexpected and impromptu. Once we were performing Agra Bazaar, where, I don’t remember. All I remember is that we were having a final run through before the performance. But we were rusty, out of sync, unprepared. Habib Saheb (Habib Tanvir) kept watching till his patience ran out and with disgust he picked up his stick and walked on to the stage to show an actor his move but before he did that he turned towards the rest of the actors and said “Actor ke moonh se dialogue paani ki tarah behna chahiye!” Fluid, unobstructed, smooth, so much that it should seem the most natural thing to happen. If water wouldn’t flow what else would it do? That’s the comfort an actor must have with the dialogue; there should be such ease when the actor delivers it that it should seem as the most natural thing in that moment. Like a word placed in a poem by a poet – its choice inevitable, its placement fait accompli.
But to comprehend Habib Saheb’s statement completely I need to digress before we return to it. On another occasion Mahmood (Mahmood Farooqui) and I were chatting up with Naseer Bhai (Naseeruddin Shah) when he breaks the anecdote and says the problem with most actors is that they’re anticipating their next dialogue while still delivering the present one. Bingo. And one can only get rid of this habit by ensuring that the text is known as the back of one’s hand. This would give the actor the luxury to live each word while it’s being delivered. And when an actor lives the word, in uttering it the actor unfurls the word and its meaning together at the audience. That’s when the word, its meaning, its performance, and its impact on the listener fuse into a singularity, a rarity. And after that it’s only an experience that exists. That’s when the iron bond between the word and its meaning is affirmed.
But when Tazkiranawees tells the Book Seller in Agra Bazaar, “Main aise-waison se baat kar ke apni zabaan kharaab karna nahin chahta,” or when Salieri says to Mozart in Amadeus, “We were yet again in the library of the Baroness Waldstädten: that room fated to be the scene of ghastly encounters between us,” an actor needs to do more than know the lines well. These are not just lines. These lines hide within them years of social prejudices, cultural chauvinism, elitism, linguistic and artistic rivalries, idiosyncrasies, historical contexts. And performance demands that one be acquainted with all this.
Louis MacNeice, the Irish poet, once said he would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspaper, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions. Well, this is a tall order but I think an actor interested in his craft would approximate MacNeice’s able-bodied poet.
However, with Dastangoi the actor’s struggle transcends to another level. Where conventional text is a barren field with few mines here or there, a Dastan-e-Amir Hamza text transforms into a minefield. The Dastangos’ of the 19th century, Mohammad Husain Jah, Ahmed Husain Qamar, Sheikh Tasadduq Husain to name a few, whom Munshi Nawal Kishore commissioned to write Tilism-e-Hoshruba and portions of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza were littérateurs, poets, social and cultural commentators, performers par excellence. I won’t get into the detail of the history of Dastangoi. Those interested can read the works of Shamshur Rahman Faruqi and Musharraf Ali Farooqi. The links can be found on our blog.
However, to bring the point home about performing the text, Frances W Pritchett, a professor at Columbia University and a definitive authority on the tradition of Dastangoi besides Shamshur Rahman Faruqi, quotes a description of Mir Baqir Ali, the last known Dastango, in her book The Romance Tradition in Urdu as following:
He never told dastans–he presented lively, moving pictures; or rather, you could say that he himself became a picture. If he described a battlefield, you felt that you had seen the combat of Rustam and Isfandyār. If he evoked a romantic gathering, an air of intoxication began to pervade the atmosphere.
His memory was so extraordinary that everything was at the tip of his tongue. If food was the topic, he described every sort of delicacy; if the subject of clothing came up, then how could any sort of dress escape mention? He not only knew the name of every kind of jewelry, but was thoroughly acquainted with its form and style. If anyone interrupted to challenge him, then what rivers of knowledge began to flow! His style was so fluent that once he had begun the dastan, he never paused for breath till it was finished.
He was a thin, slightly built man, but while he was reciting the dastan, if a king appeared in the story, the listeners felt themselves standing before an imperious monarch. Sometimes, if he spoke the words of some old woman, he adopted the very style of speech of respectable elderly ladies, and even (despite his teeth) became quite toothless!
Thus Dastango becomes an epitome of a litterateur, a poet, a performer put together in one. An actor usurps the text, masters it, and owns it up for a skilled performance. A Dastango goes a step further. He creates the text extemporaneously as he performs it. Just to think of it is heady. So a Dastango is not just mastering history, culture, socio-geographical-political contexts, languages, linguistic tropes, idioms, accents, poetry, mime, acting, etc. but he is also creating the context as he is performing it. I cannot think of a performance spectacle bigger than this where art, literature, and performance marry each other like this. Dizzying.
We’re modern actors. Neither trained nor versed with these traditions as the Dastangos of yesteryears were. Though Mahmood with his grounding in history, and his research and interest in Dastan traditions is definitely way ahead of the rest of us but it’s still a long road before we could create impromptu text like Mohammad Husain Jah or come up with a performance like Mir Baqir Ali. We’re trying. We’re just six years old. But the ascent from the text to the performance is a fascinating one once you start getting your nails into the text, once you start finding your grooves, once you start managing your footholds. The only thing that can make you fall now is vertigo.
PS: The first modern Dastangoi performance took place on May 04, 2005 at IIC, New Delhi. It was performed by Mahmood Farooqui and Himanshu Tyagi.