To tell an outsider's tale

To tell an outsider's tale

To tell an outsider's tale

By Sukant Deepak 


New Delhi, November 16 (IANS) Papers and books find a place almost everywhere in the living room. He laptop on the table is switched on. Perhaps he wants to jump back to work immediately post our conversation. But for the two hours we spoke, he seemed to be no rush. None at all. After all, the enigmatic character of Karna from Mahabharata has been fascinating him since childhood. As he gets ready to stage eDustan-e-Karan Az Mahabharata in Delhi on November 16, MahmoodeFarooqui, who revived Dastangoi, the 16th-century Urdu oral storytelling art form along with his filmmaker wife Anusha Rizvi, says, "The fact that Karna is happens to be an outsider and marginalized makes him extremely fascinating. Life wasnt fair to him, and it is easy for people to relate to the angst inside him. Also, because we know that he doesnt lack capability and that was done in through unfair means."

It was in the year 2017, when he was serving time in Tihar jail (he was found guilty of rape by a lower court, but in September 2017 acquitted by the Delhi High Court)"that the idea of doing a Dastangoi on Karna stuck him. Accessing the prison library to read the Mahabharata in detail, Farooqui realised that the original text was much more freewheeling, complicated and layered than the sterilized version served to people. "I remember writing the first draft on a double copy. It was the month of Ramzan and the jail superintendent was the first person to hear it. By the way, he loved it."

Though debuted by two inmates during the Tihar Kala Abhiyan, it was after his release in 2017 that he worked on it more post accessing a wide pool of Urdu poetry. "First performed for the general audience in 2018, the response has been phenomenal across religious lines considering there are so many common things said in Gita and Koran. In fact, writer Intezar Hussain had commented:"Isn't the war between the Kauravas and Pandavas the fight between Hindus and Muslims? And isn't the fight in Mahabharata between brothers? And look where it takes them ultimately.' Now all that invites reflection."

Talk to him about looking at Karna as a Dalit hero and icon, and he asserts, "In fact, in Tamil Nadu, there is a tradition of that. Sadly, in this part of the country, nobody had presented him on those lines. Let us also remember that the heroic need not be warrior like, of course that is something that I still need to transcend. The message is also that violence comes back to get you."

It was with "Dastan-e-Karan Az Mahabharata" that Farooqui faced the audience again for the first time in three years after being released. He remembers, "In between I was out on bail for 8-9 months and there have been opportunities for me to perform, but many things held me back. I felt the audience had abandoned me and the people I had trained and worked with, had turned out to be turncoats. Frankly, I didn't want to come back, but it was Anusha who insisted. I also felt a moral responsibility towards people who didn't leave my side during those dark times. Yes, it was not easy going on the stage after such a long time."

While he has created a few more new Dastangois including one on Saraswati, Rag Darbari (in the Dastangoi format) and around last big Dastango, Mir Bakaar Ali, the artist who has trained more than 35 people in the art of Dastangoi without charging a fee, feels disappointed that many people have copied his style. "The format of Dastangoi which we do today has not been picked from anywhere. There are no photographs or video recordings of how this art form was performed. The modern format of Dastangoi -- of two people sitting is an innovation that I brought in. It has been designed by Anusha. The whole design by itself is a very political thing -- we wear "Dupalli topis", which used to be worn by Hindus and Muslims alike, and have been abandoned in the favour of the Arabic skullcap. It is an assertion of the Indian Muslim identity, not Arabicized Muslim one. We don't sit like Quawalls, we do shero sharayi, but we also do hard-core political stuff. Anusha could have easily done the nawabi setting -- the hukka, chandelier and carpets. We could have taken it in the "Shatranj Ke Khiladi" domain. Frankly, we didn't want to give in to frills but keep the focus on the narrator, words and stories. That's how it was designed. People have copied the design, but what about the soul."

As the conversation goes back to the relevance of Karna in contemporary times Farooqui laments that we don't use stories from our myths enough. "We have never had a very productive secularism. Let's not forget a lot of religious people can be very secular. If you read the Indonesian freedom struggle, was full of mythological struggles, it constantly talks about Arjun. Sadly, our liberal intelligentsia has divorced all this, knowing that it can be very dangerous to abandon such strong roots. We should be able to speak of traditions from within the tradition. Cultural resources for a transformative politics can be seen in all major Indian texts. By not employing them, we are looking for transformation through a language which speaks to very few."

Writing a webseries with Anusha besides memoirs of the time he spent in prison which will be on stands sometime next year, Farooqui still goes to Tihar jail twice a month to work with the inmates, "Whatever little I can do for them" Let us not forget, a prison is also a mental institute."

His students have arrived. He grabs his laptop.