Page last updated at 10:53 GMT, Saturday, 2 April 2011 11:53 UK

Lost art of Urdu storytelling returns to Delhi

By Anu Anand
Delhi, India

From ancient Sanskrit fables to Bollywood screenplays, India is known as one of the world's greatest storytelling nations and now an ancient tradition is experiencing a revival, and cleansing old wounds.

Indian Hindu devotees dressed as the God Hanuman participate in a religious procession
From gods to snake demons - the stories are rich in imagery

When I was four, my parents brought me to India for a family wedding. For one happy month I became part of a pack of first and second cousins, neighbours, servants, aunts, uncles, grandparents and even local stray dogs running riot from dawn till dusk.

It was such a contrast to my only-child life in New York City that I refused to go home. My parents reluctantly agreed to leave me behind, so for the next six months I was completely absorbed into my boisterous extended family.

Once a week, my grandmother would oil my hair as we sat on a string cot in the sun in front of her modest two-room government flat. I hated the ritual, because afterwards she would braid my hair so tightly my scalp burned.

But I was compensated by her stories.

The storytellers were speaking a beautiful language, lost to most Indians today

Some of them delightfully recounted monkeys stealing bread and even babies from people's courtyards, others spoke of battles between underwater snake demons and blue-skinned gods.

And occasionally, there was history.

She would tell me about her escape, in 1947, from the newly created nation of Pakistan. Of course, she never mentioned that up to a million people were slaughtered in a frenzy of communal violence. Her version sounded like a cross-country holiday - albeit by bullock cart.

Fantastic tales

A few weeks ago, I was transported back to that string cot when I chanced upon a night-time storytelling session here in Delhi.

I wandered down a twisting lane in one of Delhi's oldest Muslim neighbourhoods.

Beggars lined the well-trodden path, pleading for coins from the hundreds who pressed by.

The aroma of kebabs from coal-fired tandoors mixed with the perfume of crimson roses and jasmine for sale.

There were tiny shops selling incense, altar cloths and calligraphy. And food vendors implored us to buy vouchers to distribute to the poor.

I turned to escape the din and suddenly found myself in a quiet, open courtyard. People huddled around coal braziers, the red glow illuminating faces young, old, wealthy and poor.

I saw Hindu women with bindis on their foreheads as well as reedy Muslim scholars in prayer caps.

Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain telling stories in Delhi
Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain are reviving the role of the storyteller

Up front, by a floodlit marble tomb with elegant, onion-shaped arches, sat two men on a stage, dressed entirely in white.

They were storytellers, like the raconteurs of the old bazaars. And they were relating a fantastic tale about an army trying to conquer an enchanted land called Hoshruba.

The army was assisted by a trickster armed with a cloak of invisibility as well as a magic pouch whose tiny space enclosed parallel worlds.

I found myself transfixed. It was not just the story, the storytellers were speaking a beautiful language, lost to most Indians today.

Urdu once flowered in Delhi.

When Central Asian conquerors swept into India 500 years ago, Persian, Arabic and Turkic idiom tangled with the native tongue. The result was a language so ornate, so feisty and full of pathos, it inspired north Indian poetry, music and theatre for centuries to come.

Part of its beauty lies in the ability to create long phrases which, like linked carriages, create a train of thought fraught with multiple meanings.

In English, you would say "the moon rose", In Urdu, it becomes, "the sorcerer of this world changed his robes".

But in 1947, Urdu - associated with Muslims - became an enemy language and was slowly purged from public life.

And with it, one of South Asia's great canons was lost.

The stories of Hoshruba hail from the "Dastan e Amir Hamza", an 8th Century epic that occupies an astounding 46 volumes.

Teeming with planets, sorcerers, ogres and disarmingly clever women, the tales travelled orally via professional storytellers across the subcontinent for more than 400 years.

In that courtyard, I had stumbled upon a revival of Dastangoi - or the telling of epic tales.

Even though Urdu has been virtually erased from Indian life today, it remains part of the country's linguistic DNA

The men I was watching - Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain - have re-interpreted the stories for today's listeners.

They seek to draw people away from flat-screen TVs and gaming devices, back to the intimate cocoon of their own imaginations.

"We live in such a visual culture, that oral storytelling is actually a novelty again," Mahmood Farooqui told me later.

"We liberate the audiences. We allow them to form their own imagery. And by not changing the language to make it totally accessible, we actually create a sense of longing for it."

And that is precisely Dastangoi's draw. People listen harder because they want to understand the language, they are spellbound by its beauty and richness.

Indeed, even though Urdu has been virtually erased from Indian life today, it remains part of the country's linguistic DNA.

Little wonder then, that many of those listening around me had tears in their eyes. It was like hearing the voice of a long-lost loved one. Urdu reminds Indians - both Hindus and Muslims - bitterly divided by history - of their shared identity.

Partition memories

Even more extraordinary, Mahmood Farooqui is reviving the storytellers' role as oral historians.

As the tale of Hoshruba drew to a close, he began to recount some of the most painful stories from India's recent past - from partition.

(File photo 1947) In New Delhi Muslim women prepare to board a train which is heading for Pakistan.

We heard of children who witnessed unspeakable brutality. Of families who left vast estates behind for the squalor of a refugee camp, of women who had no choice but to marry their rapists.

Unspoken stories of violence and humiliation were being shared in public, with the kind of graphic detail missing from my grandmother's accounts.

One tale recounts the story of six-year-old Jeet, a Sikh girl living in a village near Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

When riots broke out after partition, Jeet's father suffocated her three older sisters to prevent them from being raped or forcibly converted to Islam by local mobs.

Jeet escaped.

She climbed on to the Peshawar Express, heading towards the Indian city of Amritsar. There were no other passengers aboard.

The carriage was full of corpses - Hindus and Sikhs slaughtered on the wrong side of the new border.

When the train arrived at its final destination, a local man, Kuljit Singh, pulled Jeet from the bodies. He wiped her tears and told her:

"Don't cry, my child. This is a call of faith. We have also sent a trainload of bodies in the opposite direction."

Jeet watched the dead being wrapped in shrouds and laid out on the platform.

Nationality 'unknown'

An American reporter, covering the violence, noted a sign above the girl's head. It read: "If you have experienced any inconvenience on your journey, please complain to the station master."

Mahmood Farooqui believes his performance allows people on both sides of the border the unique opportunity to share their collective trauma

I have never seen a gathering of normally boisterous Indians so still - the well-heeled Hindu women as well as the reedy Muslim scholars.

No wonder my grandmother's hair had turned prematurely white during her journey from Pakistan. No wonder she never spoke of it in any detail.

But now, more than 60 years on, these disturbing stories seemed to have the effect of cleansing rather than re-opening old wounds.

Mahmood Farooqui believes his performance of partition history allows people on both sides of the border the unique opportunity to empathise, to share their collective trauma.

The final story is still etched in my mind.

Ghulam Ali Limbfitter was a subaltern officer in the British Indian Army.

He had been trained, as his name suggests, to fit artificial limbs on wounded soldiers. In 1947, all military personnel were asked to choose which country they would serve - India or Pakistan?

Ghulam Ali chose India and paid dearly for it.

Pakistan branded him a traitor. But India denied the Muslim soldier citizenship too.

In letters to officials across the globe, Ghulam Ali pleaded his case. He was a limb fitter - the best, surely he was needed, regardless of his religion?

Finally, in 1957, he was dumped in a Hindu camp in Lahore, the last refuge for a man whose own identity had become as dismembered as the ghost limbs he was trained to replace.

His file - found decades later - states his name, date of birth and occupation. Under nationality, it says simply, "unknown".

As I left the courtyard, back among the noise and the bright lights, I was reminded of how little I knew or understood of my own family's past.

In a society rushing headlong towards the future, the storytellers' quest is to remind us to make time to listen and remember. As well as to pass on our heritage - our stories - with or without the head full of oil.

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Country profile: India
31 Mar 11 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Pakistan
14 May 11 |  Country profiles

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