Dastangoi meets Gujarati literature in a new theatrical form that emphasises 'ras', challenges actors

Using the dastangoi format allows Gujarati thespians to explore those emotions — such as sorrow and anger — which cannot often be found in Gujarati theatre. Through it, they hope to raise awareness about lesser-known parts of the literary canon

Neerja Deodhar November 15, 2019 10:40:16 IST
Dastangoi meets Gujarati literature in a new theatrical form that emphasises 'ras', challenges actors
  • Using the dastangoi format allows Gujarati thespians to explore those emotions, such as sorrow and anger, which cannot often be found in Gujarati theatre.

  • Through it, they hope to raise awareness about lesser-known parts of the literary canon.

  • The Gujarati audience itself is a great motivation for thespians; they do not accept half-baked performances which lack conviction.

Pritesh Sodha and Alpana Buch regale me with stories of Mirza Ghalib and Akbar in a tranquil space, where they will later take to the stage. They will don simple white clothes and perform dastangoi at the 2019 Prithvi Festival – a centuries-old form of storytelling that has gained popularity in Indian metros in the last few years, because of proponents like the late Ankit Chadha, known for their ability to enrapture the audience with no more than their voice, style and stories.

Dastangoi is traditionally performed in Urdu, but Sodha, Buch and their team bring a new flavour to it. Their endeavour, titled Dastangoi Gujarati, combines the Urdu-Persian form with short stories from the Gujarati literary canon. This was an idea conceived by thespian Hiten Anandpara. “Anandpara told me we should do something which brings forth Gujarati stories – old and new – in an engaging manner. We saw how Ankit Chadha and Danish Husain were exploring the length and breadth of dastangoi’s format; even Alice in Wonderland was narrated through it. We had the material, but we were on the lookout for an aesthetic,” Sodha, the director, explains.

Sodha and Anandpara read rigorously; the latter went over more than 70 stories during the curation stage. Then began Sodha’s work to determine the sequence, lightly edit the script and fix the light and sound. Notably, no music will be used, only the sound of props like ghungroos will be employed.

Dastangoi meets Gujarati literature in a new theatrical form that emphasises ras challenges actors

Short stories were their material of choice because this aspect of the canon remains lesser-known. “The Gujarati audience is aware of poets because of the mushairas that take place, and the playwrights because of the number of plays that are staged, but not much is known about short story writers,” Sodha says. Another reason for picking short stories is that they contain ‘ras’ (emotions) which are seldom found in Gujarati theatre. “Hasya ras and veer ras can be found amply in Gujarati theatre, but karun, vibhatsa, roudra – these are often not found in plays. At the outset, dastangoi stories themselves were about wars and tragedies; we wanted to continue in this tradition, but in the spirit of Gujarati culture and the modern context,” Sodha says.

The names one can find in Dastangoi Gujarati are Zaverchand Meghani, Pannalal Patel, Ajay Oza, Ketan Munshi, and Dhumketu. The idea, the director says, is to display how writing changed over the years, through alternating themes. But he confesses that the performance is actor-led, that the director’s role is limited. “Usually, the stories are 10-15 minutes long, and for an actor to stay put for that long is a task! I have to carefully negotiate how I will emote each word, so that the audience is able to visualise the scene,” says Alpana Buch, adding that this is a challenge she enjoys.

Dastangoi Gujarati’s draw seems to be its inherent novelty. Hitherto, no one has ever presented stories in the language in this manner, Sodha informs us. Buch is of the opinion that this concept is evidence for Gujarati theatre’s ability to adapt and innovate. The latest development in this regard, Sodha says, is embracing intimate spaces to do things that are different from “mass” theatre – a phenomenon that has reached Ahmedabad too.

He says he has received no criticism for using the dastangoi form outside of the Urdu language, which says much about the openness and acceptance of those who practice it in its more traditional form. “Your creative career ends the moment you decide that there is nothing beyond your kind of storytelling and theatre,” Buch remarks on the subject of cultural rigidity and exchange. Sodha says Mumbai’s cultural scene is to credit for this. “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit (written by an Iranian playwright and performed by multiple Indian actors), Mohit Takalkar’s plays are all examples of exchange between theatre communities. Mumbai’s scene is more accepting in this regard… This is a good way to try to be more tolerant and assimilate aspects from other cultures,” he adds.

He hopes that performances of this kind can give a fillip to prose, because the number of readers for this regional language is dying out. While the Gujarati language itself is not in danger, its literature is. From the way Buch speaks about the story she chose for this performance, one gets a sense of what is at risk of being lost:

“I picked Zaverchand Meghani’s story ‘Jhato Halkaro’ because he is an encyclopedia of our lokasahitya – he is just that prolific. This story specifically shatters the notion that Gujaratis were only traders and businessmen, that they never wielded swords. It’s a testament to the everyday courage and sacrifices of those who live in villages... It’s a story from a small village in Saurashtra about a couple walking through a forest, who are attacked. A postman who happens to be passing by stops and helps them fend off the attackers, thereby saving them – but what prompts him to put his own life on the line for two strangers?”

The audience itself seems to be a great motivation for directors and actors to explore new territory. Some of those who attend are acquainted with the material too. Both Sodha and Buch explain that people do not accept half-baked performances which lack conviction or are under-rehearsed. “The audience is not easy to please… this is an audience that demands a higher standard,” the director says. They now look forward to taking Dastangoi Gujarati to the Kala Ghoda Art Festival, to Kolkata – and to Gujarat itself.

Listen to Alpana Buch recite a part of Zaverchand Meghani’s story ‘Jhato Halkaro’ in the dastangoi style:

Dastangoi Gujarati was performed by Pratap Sachdeo, Bhamini Oza Gandhi, Alpana Buch, Sejal Pondaa, Hemang Vyas and Mehul Buch at the 2019 Prithvi Festival on 4 November

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