Group: Dastangoi Collective (Delhi)

Script and performance: Mahmood Farooqui


Mahmood Farooqui from Delhi made a welcome return to Kolkata after over a decade, at the invitation of Kolkata Centre for Creativity, to present his Dastangoi Collective’s Dastan-e-Karn az Mahabharata. It offered a contrast to Johnny Got His Gun just a couple of weeks ago at the same venue, both solo shows underlining the pointlessness of war. Mahmood in his prologue even compared the Pandava–Kaurava conflict over territorial rights to the Partition of India and Pakistan, people living like brothers for centuries, quoting Pakistani author Intizar Husain.

He had to abbreviate his two-hour-long monologue by nearly half because of a very bad cough, but whatever we heard reinstated our earlier admiration of his storytelling in the extinct Urdu Dastango tradition that his uncle Shamsur Rahman Faruqi restored and Mahmood revived almost twenty years ago. For this production, he took up Karna’s life in the Mahabharata, primarily as per the Persian Razmnama commissioned by Akbar in translation from the Sanskrit, supplemented by Tota Ram Shayan’s Urdu verse condensation (from the 19th century, not 300 years old as stated in the KCC handout) and interspersed with passages from the Qur’an (in Arabic, of course), the Gita (Sanskrit), Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s Hindi poem Rashmi-rathi, Shivaji Sawant’s Marathi novel Mrityunjaya and Irawati Karve’s study Yuganta.

Mahmood’s script itself does not include any particularly new incidents or side stories—in fact, the Razmnama too stuck quite faithfully to the Sanskrit original—except for the inexplicable interpolation that Karna, dying on Krishna’s lap (Mahmood tells me he heard this from an acharya), asked if he would attain fame equal to Arjuna’s, and Krishna responded that Karna’s name would last longer. This unbelievable sentimentalism must have come from a recent source, because Vyasa recounts the killing in the most brutal manner, Krishna leaving the battle without a second glance at Karna decapitated. Nevertheless, Mahmood’s polyglot abilities are awesome (in the lingo the young use nowadays), and even though confined to one seated position, he makes the tale memorable by his singular focus on vocal expressivity and modulation, ultimately rushing like a torrent and climbing to a crescendo in the final clash with Arjuna.

I might hazard that, contrary to Mahmood’s humanist, inclusive intention, Dastan-e-Karn az Mahabharata runs the risk of parochial majoritarian appropriation, as in: “See how he respects our epic? So should everyone.” After the show, a starry-eyed spectator came up to him, declared him “a devotee of Krishna”, and requested a selfie with him. More trivial, but also problematic given the gravity of the subject, is how KCC permitted listeners to carry and slurp coffee in cups—perhaps reminiscent of times when audiences sipped sherbet or shiraz. Maybe we should prepare for popcorn as well, to suit 21st-century multiplex tastes.


7 March 2024