Wah – A Dastangoi Evening with Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Published in The Friday Times on November 25th- December 1st 2011

JK Rowling began her 2008 commencement address at Harvard by saying that she will close her eyes and imagine she is at a Griffindor reunion. And there was something like that at the dastangoi performance held recently in Lahore to celebrate that rich, almost-lost art of storytelling. The event was held at the Ali Institute and organized by the Faiz Foundation.

The second dialogue between Farooqui and Hussain provided a rare glimpse into the man that Faiz was
It was performed by Oxford scholar and filmmaker Mahmood Farooqui, he of Peepli Live fame; and by his actor colleague Danish Hussain. They had come from India especially to celebrate the 100th birthday of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Both Farooqui and Hussain were clad in classic white kurtas and long caps, and were stretched out in a royal pose on cylindrical white pillows in flickering candlelight.

Dastangoi was at its peak from the late 16th to 19th centuries, spinning tales around the adventures of Amir Hamza. The story was popularly known as Dastan-e-Amir Hamza and was based on the personality of the man who was said to be an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The story has some 50,000 characters and unlike Scheherazade of The Arabian Nights – her stories lasted a thousand and one nights – Amir Hamza’s were never-ending.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Both Farooqui and Hussain were clad in classic white kurtas and long caps, and were stretched out in a royal pose on cylindrical white pillows in flickering candlelight
This dastangoi series is an enactment of a brief portion of the saga with a South Asian cultural essence. Women are the central characters in this story; the action revolves around a fight between mighty sorcerer Afrasiyab and his tribes. A warrior disguises himself as a woman to get into the enemy’s camp, and this eventually leads to a comical romance between the disguised warrior and a warring faction head. Bordering on Bollywood (with a twist of Lucknow), the language sparkles with novelty and grandeur.

The performance in Lahore was a delight for many reasons. There was the dastan’s fascinating highfalutin Urdu, which is one good way of traveling to late Mughal India; there was the performers’ tone of voice, which swung the audience between high drama and low humour; and there was the completeness of the actors’ expressions, which ranged with emotive ease from the joys of love to the wastes of war.

Farooqui and Hussain insisted that the audience applaud their performance only by saying ‘wah’, and soon the auditorium was roaring with shouts of praise at every turn of events.

After the first dastan came a second, equally brilliant story, though it was closer to home: Farooqui and Hussain in their conversational style chronologically outlined Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s life and recited his classic poems.

The relevance of Faiz’s poetry is even more pronounced today as Pakistan grapples with one crisis after another. Faiz’s message, one of love and peace and justice, speaks to everyone from the ‘jatt, railbano and tangewala’ all the way to the most privileged people in Pakistani society.

The second dialogue between Farooqui and Hussain provided a rare glimpse into the man that Faiz was by delineating his humble nature and accommodating attitude. There were references also to Faiz’s jail term in the early 50s for his alleged involvement in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy, a period that was possibly the most trying of his life.
“I worry about you and the children traveling to and from school in the drudging Lahore heat,” he wrote in his letter to Alys Faiz while he was in Hyderabad Jail.

The most interesting part of the Faiz performance was the reenactment of an interview the poet gave in which he compared his life to the game of cricket. Danish Hussain, who played Faiz here, was asked, “Why did you drop so many catches?”

“Well because I don’t bend,” said Hussain.

Dovetailing the dastangoi performance with these vignettes from Faiz’s life and poetry gave the event a rich and varied flavor, one that merged the old with the new in an artful, seamless way and left everyone yearning for more.

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