At a time when social media is the main mode of communication, the true art of storytelling is being slowly forgotten. India’s rich history with the fabled art of Dastangoi was on the decline but in recent years there’s been a nationwide effort to preserve the practice. Dastangoi is a compound of two Persian words “Dastan” (story) and “Goi” (telling) and the subjects which are covered in a performance can range from ancient myths to modern adaptations. Though there are many practising Dastangois, it’s a largely male-dominated arena, but there are a few women trying to break into this sacred space.
One such pioneer is Fouzia, a Delhi native who holds the prestigious title of being India’s first female Dastangoi. From a young age she was interested in the art of storytelling, her mother used to read to her from old Urdu classics which always captured her interest. ‘Storytelling has always been an integral part of my life-listening, reading and narrating them through my youth. I just didn’t know how to give it a definite creative expression,’ she admits. But one day she happened to stumble upon the many Dastangoi performances that happen in Delhi, she just knew she had found her calling.
She comes from a very humble background, her father is a mechanic and her mother, a housewife. In their family, education was encouraged but only to a certain point and then perhaps they could take up a job as a teacher, that was as far as most of them were expected to go. Her decision to make performance her career was met with mixed emotions. ‘No one in my family has ever been on stage and for women, it is considered completely unsuitable. So naturally my parents we not happy about me taking up dastangoi, but when they saw that it was respectable and involved only dramatic narration as means of a performance they settled down.’
She had always struggled with stage fright and of course, for someone who wanted to perform full-time, this was a serious issue. She also had to carve out her own identity as a dastangoi, one that matched her unique position and stood up among those who came from more privileged artistic backgrounds. ‘I had to single-handedly cultivate the mannerisms required for my art without any mentor. Today my talent is my sole identity.’
This talent has carried her far and, today, she is also independent with her own troupe of dastangoi, which she considers her greatest achievement. She is also grateful for the support of her writer Danish Iqbal, who today is the writer of all her performances. Though every time she takes the stage is a magical experience, one of her favourite pieces is Gum-e-kababi, a tale of life in Old Delhi that reminds her of simpler times in the city she loves.
Though she was the first woman in the field, there are others following in her footsteps and she wholeheartedly believes that there in a future for them in this sphere if they are ready to see it as a real passion instead of a mere hobby. ‘While it’s financially not a viable option for all it still needs to be seen by women as an art form that needs commitment and not a way to pass time,’ she says. Fouzia also believes in her art as a catalyst for real social change. She performed at rallies for #NotInMyName and noticed people were incredibly receptive to her message.
Even though she came from a modest background her words and her stories are changing the world. ‘I am from a ordinary public school from but now with my talent people know me, people listen. You don’t need privilege and mannerisms and all the paraphernalia that comes with culture to make a difference.’ Fouzia marks a new era for an ancient art. Dastangois act as sentinels of the age and the fact that even in our modern age of fast-paced, short-lived beliefs they continue to thrive is a truly remarkable statement. One that we hope will continue for many decades to come.
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