Long before the age of information when there was no idiot box (television) and no other source of entertainment, people would sit around in batches and listen to tales that were dramatically told by story tellers. A storyteller was a director, writer and an actor in his own self. He used to go places and mesmerize the audience single handedly. Storytellers were not only entertainers but they used to educate people by telling them tales from history, sometimes of war, sometimes of love. With passing time, radio, television and print media snatched the business from the heroes. They started losing themselves in the pages of history and now there are thousands of stories around, but no one to tell. But voices never die, stories from past are still revolving around us, all we need is conviction to say.
With a passion of bringing dead history to life, with vision of introducing people of Punjab with their culture, with the commitment of telling the lost stories, Azad theatre is breaking all the conventions in achieving their hopes. They displayed an absorbing theatrical performance by the name of “Raja Porus” a story from Saeed Bhutta’s collection Nabar Kahani. The fearless and talented team wants to revive the art of storytelling through medium of theatre.
The tradition of Dasatngoi is almost 500 years old and it belongs purely to subcontinent. 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”. The art form reached its zenith in the Indian sub-continent in the 19th century and is said to have died with the demise of Mir Baqar Ali in 1928. Indian poet and Urdu critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and his nephew, writer and director Mahmood Farooqui, have played significant roles in its revival in the 21st century. 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. Notable 19th century dastangos included Amba Prasad Rasa, Mir Ahmad Ali Rampuri, Muhammad Amir Khan, Syed Husain Jah, and Ghulam Raza.
In 2014, Malik Aslam teams up with two of his main characters (dastango) and designed a totally fresh product for theatre. According to the director, “the theme behind this whole effort was not only to bring history and folk tales in front of audience but also the art of storytelling, the medium which was our own and now it’s almost forgotten”. He added, “The art of storytelling or dastangoi belongs to South Asia, this tradition was carried further by our grandmothers when they used to tell us stories, but it’s a shame that this tradition is diminishing from the theatres and our homes”. “We hope that through our little effort people realize the importance of this rich art”.
The story of “Raja Porus” mainly revolved around the famous encounter between Alexander the Great and King Porus. Porus fought Alexander the Great in the Battle of the Hydaspes River in 326 BC and was defeated. He then served Alexander as a client king. There was a character named Naushaba which serves a bridge between both the kings and saved lot of destruction. The heroes of the play were Usman Zia and Sarfraz Ansari, the storytellers.
The set of play was captivating and exotic. It was not extravagant but was rightfully serving the purpose of director. The black background was shimmering with stars, there was a tree and under that, story tellers were sitting with their audience fully attentive with their backs towards the audience, which is usually considered to be a faulty practice in regular theatre but not in this case. The story gets started with the melodious voice of Sarfraz Ansari with supporting musicians. The traditional notes of storyteller kept audience in trans throughout the whole play. The language was laidi (Jaangli) a local dialect of Punjabi. There was no change of set or scenes or characters. The art of storytelling may involve less logistics than a regular theatre play but at the same time it requires extraordinary effort from writer, directors and actors to keep audience alive.
Azad theatre group successfully managed the event and hit their target of making people aware about the art of storytelling. This effort will be and should be carried further by others related to profession of theatre as Sarfraz Ansari commented, “We starved, and sold our things for the sake of our passion to make this art of storytelling alive again”.