An Actor’s Journey from Text to Performance

The revival of Dastangoi completed six years this month

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.

9 thoughts on “An Actor’s Journey from Text to Performance”

  1. ऐसे समय में जब रंगमंच पे शब्द सबसे ज्यादा उपेक्षित है उसकी अहमियत को लक्ष्य करता हुआ ये लेख अभिनेताओं के बहुत काम आ सकता है. लफ़्ज, तलफ़्फ़ुज़ और उनके मानी को हबीब साहब इतना अहमियत देते थे कि राडा के दिनों में ही समझ गये थे कि वे अंग्रेजी को अपना माध्यम नहीं बना सकेंगे. आगरा बाजार लफ़्जों की कारीगरी का भी नाटक है जहां ककडी बेचने वाले की जबान, तज़्कीरानवीस की ज़बान, फ़कीर की ज़बान, दरोगा की ज़बान बिलकुल अलग अलग तरिकों में उच्चरित होते हैं.
    ये सही है कि दाश्तानगोई की कोई जीवित परंपरा या प्रशिक्षण दास्तानगो को नहीं मिला. लेकिन मुझे लगता है कि शब्द ही इसका मुख्य औजार है और इम्प्रोवाईजेशन. महमुद फ़ारुकी और दानिश हुसैन के प्रदर्शनों में आप इन दोनों की बाज़ीगरी से चौंकते हैं और रस ग्रहण करते हैं. दास्ताने सेडीशन वाली दास्तान में आप देखिये की कैसे लहजा मिक्स होता रहता है. अनुभव और अध्ययन अगर महमुद उड़ेलते हैं तो अय्यारी तो दानिश ही करते हैं.
    वैसे जरूरी है कि अब दास्तानों को फ़ैलाया जाया. इसके लिये इन दोनों के प्रयास में सहयोगी होना होगा.

  2. Been a fan and admirer of the work of you guys for sometime. The performance at Free Binayak Sen event was phenomenal. Hope to see you guys live when I’m back in India.

  3. Thank you for bringing this beautiful art back to life and helping keep this beautiful language alive! Saw your performance at the Alliance Francaise and it was definitely among the best artistic performances I have ever seen….keep it up!!!

  4. Danish saab,

    Hum to aapke mureed hain, even though I have seen you perform only twice. The first time was in 2005 (or maybe 2006) when I went to see Agra Bazaar at Ramjas College. This couplet still rings in my ears:

    Sehra mein mere haal pe koi bhi na roya
    Jo phoot ke roya to mere paon ka chhaala

    The second time was in 2006, in one of your early Dastangois. I don’t remember the venue’s name but it was part of an evening the Left had organised on Iraq, and I remember Arundhati Roy gave a speech. It was a chaotic place, I could not hear clearly, and the dastangoi with its aiyyaars reminded me of the Doordarshan serial Chadndrakanta and its unforgettable villain Kroor Singh.

    And last year I saw you in Peepli Live, even though I could not recognize you at first and it was only after wondering for hours, “is actor ko kahan dekha hai”, that the memory came back to me. Ah, how wonderful it is to see someone after a long time! I instantly recognized you in Dhobi Ghat.

    I have not been able to see any more dastangois, except a couple of excerpts on Youtube, but I am familiar with the texts. On your post I would like to make a couple of remarks:

    1. Yes, it helps if the actor has a wide range of knowledge, and he has to be a keen observer of people, but the actor’s own personality and experience is his distinguishing quality. How do you convey great sorrow if you have never felt great sorrow? Yes, every man knows the basic human emotions, but the man who knows them more deeply is the man who conveys them better.

    2. I also feel that sorrow is a more lasting, and eventual, emotion than happiness. Humour is a great art, but one laughs it away. Tragedy is more soul-stirring, revelatory, cathartic. I miss this majestic emotion in Dastangoi, though I have seen only one. I wish I can see you perform a tragedy, and tragedy does not have to be relentlessly grave; it actually makes humour more humourous by the contrast.

    But these are minor quibbles. Arre bhai, aap log kabhi Lucknow aaiye. Hamein dastan-goshi ka mauka dijiye aur mehman-nawazi ka bhi. Many years ago Ramgopal Bajaj’s play Qaid-e-Hayat was performed in Lucknow’s Rabindralaya auditorium and Srivallabh Vyas, who played Ghalib, was quite pleased with the audience. I am sure you will feel the same.

    Many regards,

  5. Danish Miya, jeetey rahiye ! Kissa Goi ki riwayat ko zinda rakh kar aapney bahut bada ehsaan kiya hai hum hindustaniyon per…………

  6. Hi, I saw these wonderful people perform at Gandhi Smriti Kendra, for Public Union for Civil Liberties’ cause. The script, acting – everything was mesmerizing, you remain bound to it every moment

    1. Thank you this beautiful introduction to DastanGoi – now I will look out to experience it Live.

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