Review of Dastan-e-Sedition : Designed by Mahmood Farooqui

Rating: 3 stars/5

Essentially an oral tradition of narrative storytelling dating back to at least 16th Century, Dastangoi (Dastan: Story. Goi: to tell a dastan) had once been hugely popular in the Indian subcontinent, with records hinting that it had been a personal favourite of someone as medieval as Emperor Akbar and someone as modern as Mirza Ghalib. Although they were performed in the royal courts of Lucknow and the Deccan, dastangoi was most popular with the common people in city squares, households and afeem-khanas (opium-houses). Gradually with the advent of novels, afsana or short story and motion pictures, audiences lost interest in the magical dastans which used to keep audiences riveted for months at stretch. The art allegedly died with the death of Mir Baqar Aliin 1928, the last prominent dastango (the person narrating the story). The art form has been revived in its modern form by Shamsur Rahman Farooqui and Mahmood Farooqui with the first prominent Dastangoi performance being performed in 2005. One of the prominent changes in the format that has been done by Mr.Farooqui is the additional narrator in a single performance, making it some sort of a jugalbandi.

Dastan-e-Sedition is a performance piece in the medieval, romantic style of Dastangoi originally devised and performed by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Hussain in 2007 as part of the support movement against the incarceration of public health specialist and activist, Binayak Sen, accused and later convicted on the draconian charge of Sedition. Now when the issue was at hand again in the light of protests for the release of Kanhaiya Kumar, JNUSU President arrested by Delhi Police without any substantial evidence, the dastan was performed again on 19th of February, 2016 to a jam-packed arena in the Admin Block stairs of JNU by Himanshu Bajpai and Ankit Chadha, the brave new proponents of the old art form.

Himanshu Bajpai and Ankit Chadda performing in JNU

Modeled on Tilism-e-hoshruba, the most famous episode of the oldest known dastan, Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, Dastan-e-Sedition is a farcical take on the political situation in India. The performance begins with a couplet from a poem written by the first Hindi Ghazal writer of India, Dushyant Kumar echoing the frustration of people during the Emergency imposed in 1975,

Kahaan toh tayy tha chiragaan har ek ghar ke liye,
 kahaan charaag mayassar nahin shahar ke liye.

(They had promised a lamp each for every household,
 While we can’t find even one for the entire city.)

Stamp issued by Govt. of India to honour Dushyant Kumar (1933–75)

Tilism, or magic is an integral part of a dastangoi, with the narrators using the well-crafted verses to depict the dramatic magical situations (seher) created by magicians (sahir) which is combated by Aiyyari, with Ayyars being the masters of tricks and disuises that could fool even a sahir. Dastan-e-sedition can also be called Dastan-e-Kohistaan, being an intriguing tale of Kohistan. The native people of this land, called Kohis have been ousted from their homes into a life of bondage and torture by a group of magicians under the leadership of the evil king, Afrasiyab. Amar Ayyar, the king of Ayyars (skilled tricksters) visits the land after this conquest by Afrasiyab with some of his followers. On a careful survey of the lands in the guise of a sahir, he sees that nothing is like he last saw it in Kohistaan. All kohis have been taken as slaves. The Dastan presents a gloomy picture of the present state of affairs in Indian politics, touching upon the topics of corruption in the judiciary, extra-judicial killings and ridicules the procedural force of the law based on appearances without any regard to the humanist emotions. A major part of the play, almost the entire second half follows the trial of an accused prisoner, which can be seen as a caricatured version of the proceedings of Binayak Sen as witnessed by Amar Ayyar and one of his followers, Bart.

The play efficiently brings out the redundancy of Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, known as the law of sedition, introduced by the British Government in 1870 to suppress voices against their inhuman regime. Several of our national heroes were slapped with this draconian law; some of whom are Gandhi, Lajpat Rai, Bhagat Singh Tilak and Aurobindo Ghosh. The vague phraseology of the law which says:

( From Section 124-A, IPC )
 “ whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India shall be punishable with life imprisonment”

was fittingly ridiculed. The performance also derives some humour from the usage of Sanskritic Hindi used to translate the law, making it even harder for the characters in the narrative to understand the words, alien to them, their background being Urdu/Persian mythology. The narration by Himanshu and Ankit was heartfelt and the emotions reverberated heavily in the open-air area of the Admin stairs filled up to its maximum capacity by a mostly young audience, cheering the dastangos with every other dialogue.

The performance of Dastan-e-Sedition is a striking example of the ways in which art can influence society by exposing the fallacies in the system with its sympathy for someone who is lost in the Kafka-esque maze of the systems of the state and the state of our system.