Timeless storytelling: Celebrating Urdu storytelling with Sunil Mehra's Dastan Goi

Dastan Goi with renowned storyteller Sunil Mehra, brought to life the timeless works of legendary novelist and filmmaker Ismat Chughtai
The Quorum Hyderabad recently conducted a Dastan Goi storytelling performance by Sunil Mehra.
The Quorum Hyderabad recently conducted a Dastan Goi storytelling performance by Sunil Mehra.(Photo | Vinay Madapu, EPS)

HYDERABAD : Urdu storytelling in Hyderabad has always been an exciting tradition. People love to listen to new narratives by expert storytellers who enhance their evenings. To keep this tradition alive, The Quorum Hyderabad recently conducted a Dastan Goi storytelling performance by Sunil Mehra, featuring two stories by the legendary novelist and filmmaker Ismat Chughtai. The stories, ‘Gharwali’ and ‘Mughal Baccha’, captivated the audience, immersing them in the rich narrative art form. After his classic performance, CE spoke to Sunil Mehra about the whole idea of Urdu storytelling.

Tell us about the show and the whole concept of Urdu storytelling.

It began in Mughal courts, inspired by Persian courts, and around 2005, a gentleman named Mahmood Farooqui revived it in Delhi. He was also a historian from Oxford. His uncle, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, a noted writer who passed away during COVID, encouraged him to revive this tradition. Since then, about 15 of us have been carrying it forward. It’s very Shakespearian in execution — no stage or props, just a person or two narrating a story. The text itself becomes the actor, stage, prop, and costume, emphasising every moment and emotion as if it’s actually happening.

What was the story about?

My first story was ‘Gharwali’, about a woman who was a radical feminist writer before the term existed. Ismat Chughtai, who wrote the first lesbian story, crafted this tale. The character, Lacho, is a free-spirited woman in a patriarchal society. She lives freely and believes she should, contrasting sharply with societal norms. Mirza, a shopkeeper, falls in love with her and wants to make her a respectable woman by marrying her. However, for Lacho, love, commitment, and sex are separate concepts. Dastan Goi, for me, is a form of political protest, especially in the current patriarchal environment. Instead of ranting on social media, I use these subversive texts to express the human spirit.

How do you think these performances have evolved from the time they started?

Originally, these stories were fantasy spins, narrated all night, featuring good kings, evil spirits, magicians, and sorcerers. Over time, they became more realistic. In this revival, Dastan Goi has become a form of political protest, addressing contemporary issues. While the old texts are still narrated, they are complex Urdu narratives. For me, though relevant, they don’t resonate as much.

In the era of social media, how can we attract the younger generation to this narrative?

I am amazed at how the younger generation relates to it. They have never seen or heard it before, yet they love it. Despite the internet and television, there is no substitute for the tradition of storytelling, like a grandma telling stories at bedtime. That tradition never dies; there is always room for storytelling.

What are your next performances in Hyderabad?

I will be coming in October this year and January 2025 for a festival organised by Jayesh Ranjan. I will bring new stories, including ‘Kalsabha Ki Interview’, ‘Amar Bhel’, and ‘Badi Umar Ki Biwi Ke Faide’ which is about an older man married to a younger woman. I draw from various Pakistani and Indian writers for my narratives.

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