Fouzia Dastango – 1st Female Dastangoi Storyteller

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Pic Courtesy – Fouzia Dantango

Dastangoi is a 13th century Urdu oral storytelling art form.This form of the art was revived in 2005 and thousands of shows have been performed in India and abroad since then. One of the earliest references in print to dastangoi is a 19th-century text containing 46 volumes of the adventures of Amir Hamza titled Dastan E Amir Hamza. (Wikipedia)

At the centre of dastangoi is the dastango, or storyteller, whose voice is his main artistic tool in orally recreating the dastan or the story. Fouzia is credited as being the 1st female dastango and this is her story in her own words.

What is the meaning of your name? 
My name Fouzia means success. I was named by my mother. When I was born we were going through a lot of difficulties. My mother knew that the future was uncertain and she felt that the vibe of my name should be such that a brighter future may unfold. My brother’s name is Shahdab which means happiness.

How was your childhood? 
I started giving tuitions when I was in class 7. We needed the money to put food on our plates. My focus was not on arts or becoming famous. I was just trying to deal with the situation at hand. I did my Sociology (Hons) from Jamia and then my Masters in Education Planning & Administration.

But all along I would keep buying 2nd hand books from the old markets of Dariyaganj. I would buy books by the kilo and devour them. My friends would entertain themselves by getting me to tell them all the stories I was reading at that time. It was a fun and entertainment thing for them. I was a good narrator. It was the one thing that I could do instinctively.

So how did the journey to becoming a Dastango happen? 
In 2006 my friend told me about Dastangoi and I went to a show of Mahmood Farooqui & Danish Hussain. It was a revelation for me. I was transfixed and felt I had come home. It was love at first sight. I did not know anything about it but I went and asked them for training to become a dastango and that is how it started. I knew urdu and enjoyed storytelling, so things fell into place. Of course there was a lot of hard work involved and I started with small performances and things just grew from there.

At that time I was doing a job. I was a lecturer with SCERT. So getting leaves for performances was always an issue. But finally in 2014 I decided to take the plunge into dastangoi performances full time. I quit my job and became a professional dastango. It was the turning point in my life. You can say it was my second birth. At that time I also met Danish Iqbal and the rest is history. Danish writes and directs my performances. In 2015 we worked on ‘Dastan- E-Gandhi’ which was the story of Gandhi’s life, from his youth in Gujarat, to his college days in England, to his crucial time in South Africa and finally his return to his homeland.

In 2016 – there was a conference happening at Delhi University and they commissioned a piece on Mahabharata. So we created Dastan-e-Mahabharat and it is one of our very popular pieces and we get a lot of request to perform the same.

Pic Courtesy – Fouzia Dantango

How has the dastangoi artform impacted you personally? 
I always wanted to do something for Old Delhi or Delhi 6 as it is known but I did not know exactly what to do. I am an ‘asli Delhiwalli’ and my ‘dehlviyaat’ is very alive and breathing. Dantangoi has been instrumental in me celebrating where I come from through my performances. I speak a certain language and I am very invested in protecting the ‘Karkhandaari zubaan’ which was a dialect of Urdu spoken by people who worked in the factories of old Delhi but also got embraced by other working communities & traders.

The Karkhandi zubaan is also very lyrical and rhythmic in nature and that is now a core part of my performance tonality. Rhythm is not just about sa- re-ga-ma but about finding your center almost in a state of trance and union with the divine. In that state your hands will naturally and instinctively move to the rhythm of your speech and that is what happens to me during my performances. But most importantly dastangoi has given me a sense of ‘I belong everywhere now’ and that is my biggest achievement.

What role does gender play in your work? 
Dastangoi need to be slightly larger than life specially when performing on stage to hold the audience’s attention. The challenge as the first female dastango was to find that right balance of retaining the feminine core and still being larger than life on stage. I specially worked on my attire and came up with the gharara, kurti and dupatta as my choice of work wear. The idea was to find a new syntax of presentation in line with being a female performer.

Over time the stories that I tell also reflect a lot of topics that are related to women as that connects with me personally.Dastan Nanni ki Naani is a story about a woman who survives her destitution using a combination of courtesy, cunning and grit. She wears a namesake burqa; artfully takes multiple shares when food is distributed to the poor; wages war on the neighborhood monkeys and quietly sings praises to her dearest companion: her favorite pillow. A tragi-comic sketch full of dark humour, Nanni ki Naani is one of Ismat Chughtai’s most moving pieces of writing.

I have also been working to revive Begamaati Zabaan of Old Delhi. It is perhaps the only language to have sprung to life from the zenana culture and life behind the purdah

How has the audience evolved with time? 
There is so much more awareness now. There is a loyal audience and they are discerning. For certain performances now there is a felt need for female performers. People request for the same. I am happy that I had some role in bringing this art form to a wider audience.

What are the skills required to become a dastango? For started you should know Urdu, your diction & pronunciations has to be correct. You should train with the right people. Just telling stories wearing white clothes does not make a dastango. You should have that innate sense of rhyme and rhythm and of course your voice matters since this is a performance art.

What is your unique skill? 
I feel I have a natural sense of rhyme and meter since that is a part of Karkhandani zubaan which I grew up speaking. Also my writer Danish Iqbal is very good with write prose as poetry so that is something unique to our work. So all our narrations will have a rhyming element and that has a drawing in capacity on the listener.

What does the future look like? 
In classical music you find gharanas that represent different styles within a similar art form in dastangoi also we evolve into different schools and forms of storytelling. That is my dream.

If you have ever attended Fouzia’s performance tell us about your experience. Share via comment box.

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