Dastan of the spoken word
Ankit Chadha, one of 12 dastangoi artists in the country, speaks about his love for the Persian art form
Thin-framed Ankit Chadha is just your average boy if you meet him off stage. But that’s just till the curtains rise. Then, the eyes sparkle, hands gesticulate and the voice takes on added timbre as he recites stories of historic characters through the ancient art form of dastangoi.
“Dastangoi is a combination of two Persian words, ‘dastan’ and ‘goi’, which means to tell a dastan (story),” says the 27-year-old Delhi-based narrator who puts together verbal performances that discuss everything from literature and history to mobile phones and internet in a dramatic, elocutionary way. He is also the author of a National Award-winning children’s book called My Gandhi Story.
Discussing how he became associated with the ancient Persian art form and became one of only 12 dastangoi artists in the country, Chadha says, “Writing is something that excited me from the beginning. From naughty parodies to meaningful poetry — it was something that came from within.”
When he joined college, he actively took part in street plays and that fueled his talent and helped him experiment with the written word as a means to entertain.
“As a writer, sometimes I’d end up writing such long dialogues that I was the only one who could memorise them. Thus began my career as a performer as well,” says the former marketing professional.
In June 2010, Chadha stumbled upon a dastangoi workshop via Facebook. Four months later, he made his debut in professional narration with Dastan Amar Aiyaar aur Amir Hamza Ke Bachpan Ki.
Chadha was born in a Punjabi family — conversing in Hindi and English — but his command over Urdu is sharp and seamless, almost as if he has been speaking it for years. “I owe all my knowledge to my ustaad. While I am still learning to be fluent in Urdu and Persian, it is only because of the informal training under my mentor that I have picked up the many nuances of the language,” he says. Chadha’s teacher Ustaad Mahmood Farooqui is one of the ace dastangois in the country, with works such as Mantoiyat and Dastan-e-Sedition that have set benchmarks in dastan writing.
Apart from breaking linguistic barriers, Chadha savours the minimalistic nature of the art form as well. “Dastangoi performances don’t require people scurrying to set up lights, sounds and props. You only need a narrator and a story.”
His recitations mainly revolve around Urdu poets such as Amir Khusrau and Majaaz Lakhnavi. Sometimes he also indulges his audience with experimental content that includes spoofing the dastangoi fraternity in dastangoi style, corporate culture and other contemporary subjects.
His best work, however, is his act titled Dastan Dhaai Aakhar Ki, a story of Sant Kabir which he has narrated over 21 times in nine cities.
In 2011, his team was approached by the organisers of The Kabir Festival to create a narration around the mystic poet. “Ustaad put me on the job and I wrote a 20 minute script around him.”
Due to some logistical glitch, the performance never happened. But a year later, he was approached again and by then, his mentor had written and performed an immaculate biographical dastan on Saadat Hasan Manto. “The narration became a benchmark for any writing thereon and keeping that in mind, I re-wrote the entire script from scratch,” informs Chadha.
His relationship with Kabir goes far beyond the script. “When I was trying to write his story, all he (Kabir) told me was ‘suno bhai sadho’. When I started listening intently, he started speaking to me. The whole script came to me seamlessly in the form of dastangoi,” he reminisces.
Those familiar with Kabir’s works know that he largely talks about minimalism, true love and formlessness. But to explain that to a generation that thrives on maximisation? “I think what Kabir said was not easy to apply for any generation. One has to seek these things in the ‘now’. Also, they have to be sought within, not outside of us,” Chadha says.
Future of the art form
According to Chadha, the art form of dastangoi celebrates 10 years of re-invention this year. He credits the success to his director Mahmood Farooqui, who stirred its revival. “From the number of shows (over 1,000), number of performers (from zero to 12), number of cities, number of stories performed (over 25) and the growth in the size of audience — everything has seen a rise,” says an overwhelmed Chadha.
Their next goal is to rope in children by performing special acts that kids can relate to. “Ustaad has envisioned that catching the audience young will not only expose them to our form, but also develop them into mature audiences of traditional dastans. Some may even become dastangois themselves!” he says.”