Danish Husain is an actor, poet, storyteller as well as a theatre director. He runs his own theatre company called the Hoshruba Repertory. He is known for his revival of Urdu storytelling through the Dastangoi form and later inventing the multilingual storytelling project Qissebaazi. He has appeared in a number of films, including Peepli Live (2010), Ankhon Dekhi (2013), Newton (2017) and Manto (2018). Danish is also our author. He wrote a brilliant fable on Indian PM Narendra Modi in our book Strongmen: Trump-Modi-Erdogan-Duterte. We met Danish for an interview after his Dastan performance at India Habitat Centre in Delhi. The interview was done in the first half of October 2018.
Danish, you started off with a degree in Economics from Delhi School of Economics, and then followed it with a MBA degree. When and how did this transition to theatre happen?
It happened when I was working at a bank. It was purely out from a desire to have another dimension to my life. I was not very enthused by the prospect of just being a banker. You get up in the morning, you go to the bank, and you come back. Just to put in a funny way, I wanted to wear my underwear up my pants, I wanted to be Superman, and I used to imagine that at the night time, I would save the world. But, I didn’t have any talents. I was a very mediocre and average student all my life.
It’s interesting that you say this, and I have read you saying something similar in some other interviews as well but, after seeing you perform, it’s quite hard to believe this.
That’s the truth. That is what it is. When I was working, I started thinking what is it that I can do to keep myself occupied beyond the work hours. That’s when I thought that I was good at imitation. I enjoyed imitating my professors when I was young. So, I thought that maybe, acting was something that I can try. Unfortunately, I had no experience in acting. At that time, Barry John had become very famous because both Shah Rukh Khan and Manoj Vajpayee (Barry John’s Ex-students) had become very famous. So, I found his number and called him. And that’s it. That’s how my theatre career began. But, I never began theatre with the intention of leaving my job. It was more like having something interesting to do on the side. For over a period of three years when I did both theatre and banking, I realized that I wanted to do theatre and performing arts. Thus, in 2002, I resigned from the bank.
So, for the last 16 years, you have been permanently doing what you love?
Yes. Since 2002, I’ve been completely an artist.
Dastangoi is a form of storytelling, but in general, we see storytelling as something really basic, like one person is saying something, and there is an audience listening to it, but I’m sure this is a simplistic outlook. How do you see Dastangoi?
Essentially, the template for everything is storytelling, whether you’re making cinema, theatre, or you’re writing or telling or painting something. Eventually, everything is a story, you’re just finding various ways to express it. Storytelling is in some sense, the most primitive among all other forms of expression. Probably, when human being came to a level where they were evolved enough to communicate with each other, they’d have either used words or sign languages or paintings. So, storytelling is a part of the template everywhere. At the end of the day, it’s a narrative. Different cultures and societies have developed different forms of storytelling. Languages have different kinds of tendencies. So, in certain cultures and languages, you’d feel that it’s spoken in a different manner. Certain languages are spoken in a different tempo. So, it’s all culture, how languages are spoken, how languages have different tones. Storytelling varies according to the languages.
So, a narrative plays a crucial role in differentiating between a good story and a bad story?
This binary between a good story and bad story is a different thing. I am talking about the texture. What’s the texture of storytelling? The texture of a language also defines how a language is spoken and how a story is performed. That varies in every language. There’s no fixed tempo. There’s a listener, there’s a performer, and if it’s effective, that’s it. It’s only in the last 150 years that we have witnessed the advent of modern technology.
Before that, a lot of storytelling was oral. It used to be a continuously evolving form of oral storytelling. For instance, some people starting using instruments, some people utilized pictorials like Patkatha where you have a narrator and a painting; some people shifted towards theatre where they narrated the story as a character. But, Dastangoi went towards virtuoso performance where the skills of the narrator became really crucial. The narrator’s ability to hold audiences’ interests became vital. That’s how Dastangoi became the zenith of the performing culture because in Dastangoi, the storyteller became really important.
The stories were not so much about the plot. They had 2-3 templates and they kept using the same templates over 46,000 thousand pages. But, it was the manner in which they would tell the story, the descriptions that they would give, the language tools and troupes that they would use like alliteration, rhyming, poetry, magical description. How long a storyteller could hold the attention of the audiences was central to the storytelling. The storyteller was the key person. It was not so much about the story as it was about the storyteller. For example. Stopping the Dastan was an art; there you would stop the plot of the story but the descriptions would go on, the longer you stopped the plot and continued the description, the better storyteller you became.
But, how would that happen? That’ll happen only when you have a vast vocabulary, you have a treasured form of language, expressions, poetry, cultural references, encyclopedic knowledge about cuisine, culinary, warfare, wrestling, culture, cloth, music, singing, architecture, languages, religion, societal norms etc. It is only then that you can hold the interest of the audience as long as you want to. In the virtuoso performances, the storyteller became really important.
In the last decade or so, we have seen this revival of Dastangoi. What do you as the reasons behind this revival?
It is coincidental that the Dastangoi revival happened around 2005. That was also the time when a lot of the other writers became interested in the romance and began translating it. Musharraf Farooqi translated Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism, Shahnaz Aijazuddin translated the enriched version of Tilism-e-Hoshruba into English, Francis Pritchett had written a long essay on the romance epic tradition and storytelling. It so happened that academics and writers became interested in romance epic at the same time when Dastangoi was revived. They, at times, helped each other. They reinforced each other.
It came into existence at the same time. Oral became a novelty for the sage because sage became visual. Everything became visual. You would get in the morning and till you go back to sleep, from phone to your television, to the billboards you see as go out, the way architecture is, the advertising is, the way newspapers were transformed, your marketplaces, malls, everything is visual. We live in a visual culture. We are dazzled by the visual culture. In that, orality became a novelty. To hear something, to go back to something which is very primal, and just to hear and to enjoy the language, that played a huge role in the revival of Dastangoi.
So, you’ve been doing Dastangoi performances. At the same time, you have also acted in movies, plays etc. In all these diverse art forms, what do you enjoy doing the most?
I enjoy all of them. If you have a wide variety of foods in front of you like Cheese, Kabab, different potato dishes etc., you would definitely want to get a taste of everything. We like to have variety. I enjoy telling Dastan. Similarly, I also enjoy acting in front of a camera. I like to be a character on the stage. I also enjoy my writing and sharing my Shayaris. In a way, I enjoy all facets.
You recently acted in Nandita Das’s Manto. How were you introduced to Manto in your own life? Tell us something about that experience.
I was very young. I read Toba Tek Singh when I was very young and I remember, I was greatly influenced by that story. But, for the longest time, I didn’t know of Manto much. When I grew up, first, I started reading translations of his writings but then, although the translations were good but, I realized that if the translations are so good then the original must be very good. So, I went back to the originals. At the time, my Urdu was not very proficient. So, I read a lot of it in Devanagari script and I really enjoyed it. Of course, now I can read Urdu so I read it in Urdu. It was in my 20s and 30s that I truly discovered Manto.
But, the great introduction came when in 2012 for Manto’s centenary we created the Mantoiyat Dastan and at that time, we had to extensively read Manto to create that Dastan. So, that was the time when I actually got introduced more to the man because I had read more of his writings earlier but I was not aware much about the man. So, it was in the creation of Mantoiyat Dastan that I got introduced to the Manto as the man. The thing that really struck me about Manto was how fearless the man was, how brutally honest he was in putting across what he watching. It was a great lesson for me as he was one of the artist from whom I have learned. The value of being brutally honest, that the truth must prevail and the truth must sail, that even when it’s difficult to say it, it must be said, I like that about Manto. I somehow try imbibing that in my life and I would say that Manto was a great influence to me.
In India, we don’t really celebrate our writers, singers etc. For instance, in mainstream movies, there are movies on sportspersons, politicians but, hardly have we seen any movie on the life of a writer or an artist. Why do you think our mainstream cultural space is so fearful of getting into the minds of our artists and projecting it to the audiences?
Our popular culture is dumbing down through pop-entertainment. It doesn’t want to engage with serious issues, with literature, history. We have such a rich history and literature. In most countries, they are making cinema in their literature and history, we don’t. For instance, Partition has a huge role in our history and in shaping our present but, how many films are there on the Partition?
Yes, and then when you see that an event like the Holocaust, it has been explored by making movies in almost every genre.
It is also because we are a country of low literacy rate. We don’t believe in a serious cerebral and literary culture where we push and explore literature. It’s not reflected in theatre because theatre as an art form has been closer to literary culture. It has created a literary culture, and a lot of literature has been created in the vernacular theatre like Marathi, Hindi but that aspect has been missing in the popular culture. Our cinema doesn’t deal with reality, it shows a make-believe reality which doesn’t exist. It’s almost impossible to relate to that world. Very few cinemas are realistic in the sense that they focus on what’s happening in our country. We do not have a serious engagement with both our past and the present.
While researching for this interview, I read a blog about your experiences in the time when you were moving from Delhi to Mumbai. You described it as a dark time. We keep on hearing about this writer’s block, and things like that. But, the audience only gets to see the greener and glossier side. In that sense, it is always fascinating to think about inspirations and things that keep one going. How have you managed to stay interested and active?
I think, one reason is that I started late. I was 32 when I resigned from my job. I had a constant sense that I was losing time, that I don’t have enough time. I needed to cover longer, farther distance than others to reach somewhere. I think that is a great sense that is always there with me. So, I am always kind of overcrowding my work, I am always doing something or the other. I always feel that there is so much that I can do and I don’t have time. That’s one thought which is behind this. Secondly, I just love doing what I do. I keep filling my days with more of what I love doing.
I certainly don’t have choices in terms of what films I do. I only do the ones that get offered to me. I have been lucky that I got offered some really good films in this short career. It’s great that in a career spanning over just 8 years, I have done some films that will have a shelf life, which will be there in the memories of people. I’m hoping that the work that I have lined up in future would turn out to be as good as the work I have done in past, and would give me more mileage so that I can do more work that I would enjoy.
I was reading your fable in our book Strongmen. You talk about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s grammar of deception, production of fear and division. How do we tackle that continuous propaganda?
We really don’t know how to tackle that. The truth is that for the first time, you’re facing a situation where you are being made irrelevant. You can deal with being oppressed, you can organize to resist it. But, how do you deal with irrelevance? That’s a question we don’t have an answer to. That’s what Narendra Modi has done. He has made anyone who is not essential to his narrative, irrelevant. The only way to fight Modi’s grammar of deception is that you continue to be relevant.
You continue making sure that what you say is relevant and try to find forums for that. I can do it through my art. Others must find their own tools and means. One has to ensure that when something we’re saying is being trivialized or is being dubbed as a joke, you stand up for its seriousness. The onus is on everyone to make things relevant which should be relevant and not be swept away by this marginalization and trivialization that is happening around us.