Dastangoi and the Persian Princess

It was Ismat Chugtai’s birthday yesterday. She was one of the foremost voices of reform in the Urdu literature. She has written prolifically on women’s liberation, free speech, and many other progressive themes much before the West discovered feminism through Simone de Beauvoir.

I shared a short story by Ismat Aapa with my friend. And one thing led to the other, and shortly we realized that we have spent over an hour discussing Manto, Qurratulain Hyder, Shivani (Guara Pant) and Amrita Pritam.

I got familiar with their writings during my college days. Well, my college is one of the three institutions that I will always be indebted to as the seeds of confidence, knowledge, free and liberal thinking within me were sown here. I think life is one big story that constitutes many small accounts, and the time I spent at Lady Shri Ram College, forms the foundation of many of these beautiful short stories. There is always a story within a story.  And there is a story about every story. More about it in a separate post or rather a book!

Anyways, coming back to the conversation with my friend, she remarked that we hardly see good writers today who can weave exciting stories nor we have people who can tell us the magical tales from our rich heritage.

The art of writing stories and the art of telling stories creatively and dramatically is both dying and almost extinct. India had a rich culture and tradition of telling stories from epics such as Puranas and in the form of folklores since generations.

The art of storytelling is called kathavachan, kissagoi or dastangoi in India. Dastan or Kissa or katha means story. Goi means to tell a tale. Dastango, kissago or Katha vachak is a storyteller or teller of tales.

Props such as music, puppets, masks, and costumes may be used to tell the story. But primarily, the voice and tone of the storyteller is the key tool and the instrument through which he brings the story alive.

This reminds me of a Persian story that I read many years ago.

Once in a city of Samarkand lived a beautiful and intelligent woman named Scheherazade. Samarkand is a lovely city in the present day Uzbekistan. In the ancient times, it was ruled by a Sultan (king) who was hard-hearted and brutal.

The women of this city lived in the constant shadow of fear as the Sultan often demanded that all the young and beautiful women of the city be brought to him as brides one after the other. The sultan suspected that his wife was unfaithful. Hence he killed her and now took revenge from the other women of his kingdom. These women or new brides were thrown into dark prison; once Sultan got bored of them.

Scheherazade who was well versed in arts, literature, and history was deeply troubled and wanted to end this cruel practice of the Sultan. She devised a plan with the help of her younger sister to end this barbaric practice.

She requested her father who was a Minister to the Sultan, to let her marry the Sultan. With deep anguish and grief, his father agrees to marry her to the old and eccentric King.

Scheherazade who was determined and confident, dressed up as bride accompanied by her younger sister, went to the chambers of the Sultan. Her younger sister before lifting the veil of her elder sister who was the bride requested her to tell a delightful story as a parting gift.

Scheherazade turned her face towards the Sultan and requested his permission to narrate a story to her younger sister before she left. Sultan readily permits her.

Scheherazade was a skillful master storyteller who quickly aroused the interest of Sultan. When she saw Sultan was deeply engrossed listening to the story, she said she was feeling sleepy and will continue with the rest of the story tomorrow.

Next evening, she completed her previous story and started a new story. At the most crucial juncture in the story, she again said that she was feeling sleepy and will continue with the remaining part of the story tomorrow. As Sultan was very eager to know, the last part of the story, he asked her to take rest and continue with the story the next day.

In this way, one thousand and one nights of storytelling passed.

I don’t know what happened to Scheherazade after one thousand and one nights.

But what I know is, these one thousand and one stories are called Arabian Nights which are the middle eastern collection of folktales. Aladdin and the Lamp, Alibaba and forty thieves and Sindbad the Sailor are some of the famous stories from this collection.

So tell your stories ..…you never know what magic you can weave with words!

9 thoughts on “Dastangoi and the Persian Princess

  1. Haha … story within a story — clearly reverberates in your post 😀 Yea, Arabian Nights was one of the engaging books that I was given during my childhood days.

    Story telling to public was one of the widely known arts, at least as I know of, in the regions of telugu– named “Burra Katha” or “Hari Katha”. They used to clap, tap, dance, sing and narrate many folk stories of Puranic Lore, but in a more folk-fashioned. Also, I remember my grandparents narrating me every night some stories. Your statement about how the art is dying and how its an art, reminded me of this. IN our generation, specially where, we lost our imaginative capacity (creative SIGHT) due to the excessive use of “Physical SIGHT” – by movies or graphics, etc. I feel that these are pleasing to eyes, but kills our imagination and creative intuition. Even kids lost connection to grandparents, who have lot of time to spend, because of these indoor gaming consoles and excess home works of present day education (and also unfortunately, old people being kicked out of their own homes into old-age homes).

    Good to share this article, in these times and reminding us of the beauty of the “story inside a story” (like my article’s “Cycles inside Cycle” 😀 )

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  2. With the gradual advancement/progress in technology and science, we lost our cultural heritage. Like this art of storytelling…. whether it is Hari Katha as you mentioned or Dastangoi, an Indo Persian form of storytelling, or short stories that Gurunanak Ji used to tell his disciples or regional folktales ….they were all intangible assets of our land. But with the arrival of print, cinema, etc., our priorities changed, and the concept of knowledge /wisdom changed. Everything that was essential Indian was ridiculed upon and became a symbol of backwardness. We lost our innate ability to tell stories, and appreciate stories. Similarly, we are losing our languages very fast…we lost the art and science of making temples. See any temple in North India…and compare it with temples in the southern part of India.

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  3. I think if some custom, ritual, tradition dies naturally or organically, it is fair and accepted. But in Indian case, many practices died because we were conditioned in a particular manner to think that our practices are evil superstition, irrelevant etc. But I feel good that at least on social media people have started talking about ethos of Bharat. Not all is lost yet☺️

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  4. But You know what! I feel that not only technology is improved in this era, even the evolution of human mind is in a good stage. If you observe: the re was a golden era of Veda and puranas, then the different schools of philosophies came, then Krishna had to unite them through his song, yet again the schools divided and each school interpreted the scriptures in their own way and made a new set of life styles….

    But now, it’s the time for a new comprehension. We see intermix of races, cultures, wisdom…. Avalon’s works, Blavatsky’s works, etc… Suggest an era of stir in the human comprehension. So, though it’s way long, the seeds of golden era are being sown now. I hope we water them with our earnest dedication to sprout the fruits of the TRUTH 🙂

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