A Kenyan folktale tells the story of a Sultan's wife who wasted away in the palace and a peasant's wife who was plump and strong. The Sultan interrogated the peasant - what was he feeding his wife? The peasant replied, “Meat of the tongue”. But no fancy-shmancy meat of the tongue that the Sultan ordered by the ton made the Sultana robust.

So, he sent his wife to live in the peasant’s house. When the switcheroo happened, as it does in folktales and reality shows, the Sultana grew strong in the peasant's hut and the peasant's wife became hollow-cheeked in the palace. Marina Werner writes in From the Beast to the Blonde: “The tongue meats that the poor man feeds the woman are not material, of course. They are fairytales, stories, jokes, songs; he nourishes them on talk, he wraps them in language; he banishes melancholy by refusing silence.”

The newest Dastangoi performance (on 4 September at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi) from astonishing duo of Mahmood Farooqui and Dan Husain was a tribute to storytelling and a refusal of silence. First, the silence of Chouboli, the inscrutable princess who refuses to marry any man who can't make her speak four times in a night.

Chouboli is the heroine of a long Rajasthani folktale, one among many brought from the tongue to the page by the late Vijaydan Detha. Next, the silence around Vijayadan Detha himself, arguably Rajasthan's greatest writer (who told TEHELKA in 2006 that he had managed to avoid the press until his short story was made into the SRK film Paheli.) Two volumes of Detha's work were translated into English in 2010 by Christi A Merrill and Kailash Kabir.

It is unusual for Farooqui and Husain to perform stories outside the Dastangoi tradition. The few precedents are their popular Partition Dastan, and more recently, a superb story about the imprisonment of Binayak Sen. Word has it that a Dastan about Rabindranath Tagore is in the making.

As marriages go, the Detha-Dastangoi one looks fruitful. The witty register of Detha's Hindi was what dominated this production instead of the fabulous (fabulous of fables, as opposed to the absolute variety) Urdu of the regular Dastangoi evenings. The combination was satisfying even to some of us who understand only one in five words (as opposed to one in ten on a regular Dastangoi evening). Detha and the Tilism-o-Hoshruba are alike in the tallness of the tale-telling. The thieves are outrageously larcenous, the friendships are set like cement, the swords flash, arrows fly sky-high, the limbs scatter, the women are golden.

Detha's interpretation of moustache-twirling manly valour as slightly dim only gave the actors another layer of human folly to enjoy. So a minute after the performance begins, you are left marvelling at the fine thakur whose chief hobby is to shoot 108 arrows through the nose-ring of his terrified wife every morning, and then one night, by moonlight. And an hour into the performance you don’t think about the stamina required by two men sitting in white achkans to hold our fragmented attention. You don’t think too much because in the craning of Farooqui’s long, sardonic neck and in the dimpling of Husain’s roguish cheek is the next joke and you are damned if you miss it.

Farooqui and Husain are training a younger lot of dastangos, and blessed be their venture. However, right now the performances are rare and their performances blindingly brilliant enough to leave you with only two meta-thoughts—I am so lucky to be watching. Someday I will tell my grandchildren that I was lucky enough to watch.

The dastangos insist that applause is a dissolute habit and that civilised people should only utter waah-waahs of appreciation. But in the performance, even the darkness that falls when Chouboli's lamp is snuffed insists on speaking, insists on responding to the Portia-like cross-dressing thakurain storyteller. So who could blame the two ladies in the audience who yelped, “Arrey, arrey!” when it seemed as if a female protagonist was about to confess her intended adultery? They yelped “arrey-arrey!” The rest of us were silenced.

The dastangos paused. Then they said, “Waah-waah!”, kyunki hunkare ke bina kahani kya?


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