Redefining the storytelling status quo
The Persian art of storytelling called dastangoi - it is derived from the Persian words dastan meaning 'story' and goi meaning 'to tell' - dates back to the 13th Century
The first few memories of storytelling for many of us would have most likely been a collection of folk tales narrated by our grandparents. On tracing its roots, you will find that the oral tradition of storytelling was common to ancient civilisations, with Greek poets such as Homer pioneering the art form.
Similarly, the Persian art of storytelling called dastangoi - it is derived from the Persian words dastan meaning 'story' and goi meaning 'to tell' - dates back to the 13th Century, and was brought to Delhi in the 16th Century.
Performed by a dastango or storyteller, this traditional style of narrating stories - devoid of props and theatrics - was once considered a male-dominated space. But that did not stop South Delhi resident Fouzia Dastango, who challenged the gender stereotype in this realm to become a female dastango.
Embracing new ideas
Fouzia's fascination with the art of storytelling started at a young age, when she would listen to folk tales narrated by her mother and grandmother. In fact, she attributes her success to the aforesaid women.
Even though she was aware of the tradition of dastangoi, it was only in 2006 - when she experienced a performance - that her love for the art turned to an obsession. This urged her to foray into the world of storytelling.
Given her Urdu medium schooling, Fouzia was always passionate about the language. It was this love for her mother tongue that pushed Fouzia to pursue a career as a dastango. Expressing how mesmerised she had been by dastangoi performances, which focus on a rhythmic pattern and is "larger-than-life" in appeal, she shares, "It is not a simple narration. The script is as important as the performer and it cannot be flat. The script must have a certain colour, a certain chatkara [zest] to it."
While working as a lecturer, Fouzia would research stories to incorporate into her scripts. She also performed dastangoi in her free time. "It was getting difficult for me. Whenever I had a performance, I was unable to get a day off from work. However, I was adamant about not giving up," she says.
With that in mind, she decided to dedicate her entire time to pursue the art form. In 2014, she became a full-time dastango.
Smashing the patriarchy
In a space that is considered male-dominated, Fouzia succeeded in carving out a niche for herself. Unfortunately, she often faced artistic hindrances due to her gender. "Most of the male dastangos were very territorial about the art," she mentions.
Fouzia, however, decided to redefine the tradition in her own way. Be it deciding which clothes to wear for a performance, the kind of stories she planned to recite, or even how she would narrate them, Fouzia developed a contemporary take on this age-old art form. "I always say, just because something has not been done before, does it mean it cannot be done ever again?" she opines.
Adopting a contemporary and innovative approach to dastangoi, Fouzia - she works along with writer-director Danish Iqbal - uses this platform to provide her outlook on the world around her. "Through my performances I try to iterate the things that I want to tell society or the things that I want to see in society," shares Fouzia.
Making it a point to address social issues through her performances, she performed a dastangoi titled Dastaan-e-Rape, which was centred on the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case. "I use the art to transfer my feelings out into the world," she adds.
A recipient of the 'Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb' of Old Delhi, she also tries to bridge the gap between Hinduism and Islam - Fouzia has performed Dastaan-e-Mahabharata, Dastaan-e-Rama, and even Dastaan-e-Radha Krishna in Urdu.
"Many people point out how I should not be performing Mahabharata and Ramayana being a Muslim woman. I find that very strange. This is the India I was born and brought up in," she adds.
Like other artists, Fouzia also tried her hand at virtual performances amid the pandemic. Calling it a failed attempt, she concludes, "A dastango needs a live audience as much as the audience needs to see the performance live. It is impossible to capture the audience’s reaction virtually. Most of the time, it felt like I was performing for a blank screen and wall."