Danish Husain on becoming a storyteller and using Qissebaazi to turn Indian lore into performance
Danish Husain went from being in publishing and banking to learning theatre and the art of Dastangoi, as well as setting up the The Hoshruba Repertory
When Danish Husain told me he was never really interested in anything while growing up, I was surprised. So much of the world’s narrative about success and being good at something is tied to having overwhelming childhood passions that it is hard to imagine a stellar storyteller who went through life doing only what must be done. “My family is full of academics, writers and scholars,” he says, “My mother was a professor of Persian literature and my father an economist, but I was forever a median student. My report cards always said, 'satisfactory, but can do better'.”
“Looking back, when I started acting, I realise that I received positive affirmation for the first time,” he says.
Late bloomers may not go through frenzied phases of creativity, but they have maturity, perspective and a stillness that fuels their work like quiet streams filling up a river. Husain’s tryst with theatre, acting and Qissebaazi is a bit like that. His performances aren’t jaunty; there’s an anchor of gravitas that keeps his stories rooted. They may be about an ancient character whose tales of valour are the stuff of legend, but Husain makes them entertaining and oddly applicable to real life too.
Armed with a master’s in Economics from Delhi School of Economics, and an MBA from the Faculty of Management Studies, Husain started his career in publishing at Macmillan, before moving to banking in 1997. “A corporate job seemed like the most natural thing in the world,” he says. With a curious bent of mind, endless love for reading and love for knowledge, he approached work with dedication, but soon grew frustrated. “I would have preferred to work at a policy level, I wanted to be Superman, solving problems for the common man,” says Husain. And so, his search for fulfillment began.
“I wasn’t good enough at anything to pursue a career with – singing, playing an instrument, sport, nothing,” he says. “Then I remembered how good I was at mimicking my professors, and I thought, why not act?” Husain joined Barry John’s acting program, and was later cast in his play, Khamosh! Adalat Jaari Hai. “I would do a play or two a year, but it took me another three years to quit the bank and take up acting full-time.”
With no scope for lengthy formal training in theatre or direction, Husain learned hands-on from some of India’s greatest creative and literary stalwarts like Habib Tanvir, MS Sathyu, Rajinder Nath and Sabina Mehta Jaitly. Tanvir, in particular, has had a profound impact on Husain, and they didn’t even meet in a theatre! “Habib sahab was a customer when I was in banking, and having recognised him one day, I would always invite him into my cabin for snacks and tea,” he says. “He remembered me later when I joined theatre and offered unparalleled tutelage.”
From theatre, Husain graduated to Dastangoi – the ancient Urdu storytelling tradition – which experienced a wave of revival a few years ago, and for which he received a joint Sangeet Natak Akademi award with Mahmood Farooqui. Then, in 2012, he set up The Hoshruba Repertory, a performance company that, among other things, has introduced the world to Qissebaazi.
Derived from Dastangoi, Qissebaazi – or the playful telling of stories – is different in that it doesn’t remain limited to Urdu but has opened up the possibility of integrating storytelling in various Indian languages. The seeds were perhaps sown in Husain’s mind earlier on, when he was still in publishing and reading regional books translated into English. And that is his life’s work – bringing India’s massive repertoire of stories and lore to the mainstream through performance.
“The idea is to have stories in every language,” says Husain. “In Qissebaazi, the bilingual performances feature a core language [for the descriptions] and a bridge language [for the plot points] and I was certain that we wouldn’t have apologetic translations of a regional tongue.”
This determination has worked. The linguistic shifts are seamless and simple enough for audiences to understand the performance, even though they may not understand all that is being narrated. The recitals are much more open to movement and interpretation as well, with the actors free to sing, dance or play an instrument, as opposed to Dastangoi, where the dastango is always seated.
“My journey into theatre began as a self-seeking exercise, but now it is all about the work,” says Husain. “Essentially I bring stories alive, whether it’s on stage or in films.” The task is a lot more challenging though, when he's the director, but he thrives here too, because it’s in “negotiating with less-than-ideal circumstances that the real creativity emerges”.
From Saul Bellow and Aldous Huxley, Guy de Maupassant to Milan Kundera, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz to Rahi Masoom Raza, Vinod Kumar Shukla, Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto, the literary influences on Husain’s works are wide and varied. “I’m invested in stories of the underdog,” he says. “Those are the narratives that have stayed with me.”
For now, a host of productions awaits audiences from Hoshruba. Qissebaazi performances feature artists like Padma Damodaran (Malayalam) who weaves Mohiniattam into storytelling, while Kailash Waghmare (Marathi) sings. By August, the company wants to add Swaroopa Ghosh (Bengali) and Priyanka Sethia (Punjabi and Urdu) to their performers list.
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