Singapore set to experience a piece of revived Urdu culture with ‘Dastangoi’

Audiences in Singapore are set for a unique experience as a centuries-old Persian and Urdu traditional storytelling art form comes to the city. 

‘Dastangoi - The re-discovered Art of Urdu Storytelling’ will take place over two evenings on February 10 and 12, 2023 at the Mandarin Oriental Ballroom in Singapore. The upcoming show features performances from famed Indian writer and director Mahmood Farooqui who, along with his uncle, famous Urdu poet and critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, revived the lost art in the modern era, and TV anchor, journalist and one of Dastango (storyteller) Darain Shahidi.

Photo courtesy: Dastangoi Collective
Mahmood Farooqui, along with his uncle, famous Urdu poet and critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, revived the lost art in the modern era. Photo courtesy: Dastangoi Collective

Dastangoi, which literally means storytelling, is an art form performed by either one or two people that originated in pre-Islamic Arabia in the 13th century. Over the next few centuries, the art migrated eastwards and became a popular community activity during the Mughal Empire.

With Delhi and Lucknow as the primary centres of Dastangoi, the performance art reached its peak in the 19th century before shrinking audiences and Dastangos (storytellers) led to its dormancy in the early 20th century. 

Farooqui and his students put on the first modern performance in 2005. Since then, they have staged hundreds of performances in India and abroad and trained Dastangos, signalling a rebirth of the art form.

“When I read SR Faruqi’s magnificent book on Dastangoi, I was immediately hooked and began to plan its revival and popularisation. But we had no models, no previous performers, nothing that we had seen. We worked closely with SR Faruqi and I used my intuition as a theatre person to bring in two performers and roped in my old school friend and theatres associate Himanshu Tyagi for the first show. Our performance was a cross between the traditional ones and modern stage acting and from the very first show in May 2005, it worked and worked magnificently and we never looked back,” Mahmood Farooqui told Connected to India.

Photo courtesy: Dastangoi Collective
Dastangoi originated in pre-Islamic Arabia in the 13th century. Over the next few centuries, the art migrated eastwards and became a popular community activity during the Mughal Empire. Photo courtesy: Dastangoi Collective

The upcoming event has been organised by local event firms Action Replay, 7Stories and Limelight Arts. Their aim is to promote the revival of ancient art forms and simultaneously support a Singapore charity, It’s Raining Raincoats, an initiative to spread kindness to migrant workers in Singapore. 

Two different Dastans will be performed over the two evenings - Chauboli, one of the most popular Dastans, on February 10, and Karn-Az-Mahabharat on February 12. 

“Chauboli has been our greatest hit and has been performed over a hundred times by over 10 different pairs of performers. I chose it for its story-within-a-story format and it was the third modern story I devised for the stage after Dastan-e-Partition and Dastan-e-Sedition,” Farooqui said. “Dastan-e-Karn-Az-Mahabharat is the tale of an anti-hero, anti-establishment figure; the angst-ridden outsider, the marginalised. It’s a powerful narrative that resonates even in times today, and its ability to make the viewer seek and find contemporary motifs in an ancient story, is the absolute beauty of it.”

One of the unique aspects of Dastangoi is the lack of music, special effects and props. The only tools that a Dastango uses are his/her expressions and voice. Records of traditional Dastans highlighted the prevalence of fantasy themes and characteristics in the narratives, which resonate with modern audiences.

Photo courtesy: Dastangoi Collective
Sentences with punch, expressive language and an ability to sketch pictures with language are essential skills for a Dastango. Photo courtesy: Dastangoi Collective

“The kind of plots, twists and the fantasy world we create with our stories excite the audiences. Fantasy drama has been a hit globally, people love Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Stranger things etc. because they transport you to a different world. That’s what Dastangoi does to the audiences. Plus, the use of Urdu poetry really adds to the beauty of Dastans,” Farooqui said.

Farooqui, who is a journalist, published author, actor and director Farooqui, sees Dastangoi as the medium which allows him to express himself fully. His childhood love of literature and poetry has had a major role in the course of his life.

“I can put history, research, poetry, academia into a narrative while keeping it gripping for the audience because of Dastangoi. My education gave me not only wider knowledge about the art form and its background and context, but also the confidence to take it on,” he said.

Farooqui envisions a future where Dastangoi has become a widespread phenomenon,  and aims to create more Dastans and train more Dastangos. 

“In earlier days, audiences used to request that the Dastangos perform favoured Dastans. The audience knew their Dastans well back then; this is where I want Dastangoi to go in future,” Farooqui said, signing off.

Tushaar Kuthiala
Tushaar Kuthiala – Associate Editor

Tushaar has extensive experience as a journalist and in founding two start-up newspapers. He has developed editorial models for both copy and content, and has written several articles, news reports on a wide range of topics. He is a graduate of St. Stephen’s College and earned a post-graduate diploma in TV Journalism from the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai. He has worked as a special correspondent based in New Delhi with Daily World, an international media organisation.