A New Kind of Storytelling Challenges India’s Self-Image
Danish Husain is lifting long-forgotten languages and making a political statement.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Danish Husain's brand of storytelling makes a statement in Modi's India.
As a young boy, whenever he visited his ancestral village at Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh during the month of Muharram and listened to the marsiyas — elegies to Imam Hussain and his martyrdom in Karbala, performed by his uncles — it would leave a profound mark on Danish Husain. Growing up as a Shia Muslim, he learned from these marsiyas to always side with the underdog, to never be gung ho about your victory. Even today, at age 48, he carries that feeling inside him. When he hears thunderous applause from his audience, which happens almost all the time, “It surprises me,” he says, “because I thought I was supposed to be on the losing side.”
Inspired by those marsiyas, Husain brought to life a unique form of multilingual storytelling in 2016: Qissebaazi, an Urdu term coined by Husain that roughly translates to “playing with the stories.” So far, Qissebaazi, an offering from Husain’s theater group Hoshruba Repertory, has performed stories in Urdu, Sanskrit, Marathi, Haryanvi, Punjabi and Bengali, supplemented with a bridge language like Hindi or English so the audience can follow along.
While not overtly political, Husain’s work makes a statement in the age of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism — that India’s cultural, racial and linguistic diversity is worth celebrating. Urdu is “a language which creates contradictions and conflicts and all sorts of feelings in people,” he says. “But what one needs to understand is that it is the language of this land and it was the lingua franca for almost 200 years.”
The project’s origin story is a dark one. Husain left its predecessor, called Dastangoi, after a woman accused his partner, Mahmood Farooqui, of rape. (Farooqui was convicted at trial, but an appeals court tossed out the conviction because the alleged victim’s “no” was not strong enough.) The victim confided in Husain and he testified against Farooqui in court, leading to “a violent breakup” between the two collaborators on the Urdu storytelling initiative — who had built a reputation even among the non-theatergoing masses. Sitting in the auditorium inside Prithvi Theatre in Juhu in Mumbai, Husain recalls “you are suddenly robbed of everything that you’ve done. It was a very uncertain period where from that point, the possibility of sliding down in that black hole was very, very high.”
Good art should go beyond just the sensory experience.
At the time, Husain had moved from Delhi to Mumbai to do more cinema. He has had some screen time in movies like Peepli Live, Newton, Dhobi Ghat, Soorma and a few others. He was in his mid-40s. Dastangoi was gone. And that was when it hit Husain: “I thought maybe the best is behind me.” He slows down here, then pauses. “It’s an expensive proposition to do theater. … Whatever I earn, I put it back. And most of the time I end up taking a loss.”
As he had before in times of crisis, he turned to poetry, memorizing “reams and reams” of it. And the idea of a bilingual storytelling venture came to him. “I thought that if I can pull out stories from our literature and if I perform them in a very creative manner onstage, people would listen to it.” It helps that, as award-winning playwright and dancer Purva Naresh puts it, “his voice is amazing,” a soft and pleasant tone.
“The fact that he’s able to make the classical contemporary without losing the classic is what I genuinely love most about him,” says Roshan Abbas, an actor who runs Commune, a collective of storytellers, poets and singers.
The success of Qissebaazi — it has earned several awards, and Husain has been invited to give lectures and performances at Harvard, Columbia and elsewhere around the world — doesn’t excite him though. He’s never thought he was more than mediocre.
Husain’s father was an economist and his mother was a professor of Persian literature at Delhi University. Growing up, he always heard the same refrain from schoolteachers: “Satisfactory. Can do better.”
He earned degrees from Delhi University in economics and management and went into banking. But he didn’t feel like he belonged anywhere until he quit his corporate job, just shy of turning 30, and worked with directors like M.S. Sathyu, M.K. Raina, Sabina Mehta Jaitly and Naseeruddin Shah before making it to Habib Tanvir’s ultraprestigious theater group.
In 2012, Husain struck out with his own theater company, Hoshruba Repertory. His latest play, Untitled 1, a dystopian work about the surveillance state written by Annie Zaidi and directed by Husain, had premiered a day before we meet, and the reviews are trickling in. He reads a three-star one out loud to me. He apologizes for typing something earlier on his phone: a tweet about the play. “You have to do this when you don’t have a PR [person].”
Husain is keenly aware of the politics portrayed by his groundbreaking work, and he embraces it. “Art should shift something in you. Otherwise, it is just like food. Good art should go beyond just the sensory experience,” Husain says.
Later that evening, I watch Untitled 1 at Prithvi Theatre. At the closing curtain, the audience gives a standing ovation to Husain, who stands there, smiling in a blasé kind of way, along with other actors. He appears to be treating the moment like a noncelebration, even though no one in the theater believes he’s on the losing side.
OZY’s Five Questions with Danish Husain
- What’s the last book you read? Parvati Sharma’s Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal.
- What do you worry about? Chronic illness.
- What’s one thing you can’t live without? Music. It helps me slip into the world I am trying to create in my head.
- What or who inspires you? A certain amount of sincerity and integrity.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Certainly to make a film. Certainly to act in a great film.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Husain and Farooqui co-founded the Urdu storytelling initiative Dastangoi in 2005. Farooqui founded it, and Husain joined a few months later.