Saudamini Deo: Hello! Let’s start from the beginning and talk a little bit about your background. You transitioned from a banking job to theatre. So, how did that happen? What made you choose theatre?
Danish Husain: Actually, when I was in the bank, and I started thinking about how to spend my time more creatively and not just be a couch potato. The interesting thing was that I wasn’t good at anything. But I wanted to be a superman, wear my underwear on my pants, ‘look I am not just a boring banker. At night I transform into this great, world saving kind of a person.’ But there was nothing like that, and I started thinking about the time I was studying at the Delhi School of Economics. I kind of enjoyed imitating my professors. I was quite a hit and I remember imitating Prof. Kaushik Basu very well. He was always such a good sport, I used to take his permission, and he would always allow. It was great fun, actually. I recalled I enjoyed doing it, and I thought maybe I should try theatre. But I had no background in it, and I didn’t even follow theatre all that much, so I had no idea who to go to. In those days, Barry John had become very big in terms of being the acting guru to both Shah Rukh Khan and Manoj Bajpai. This is 1998 we’re talking about. So I called him and said that I want to do theatre. He suggested that I do a three-month long acting workshop. And that’s how the whole theatre thing began.
SD: And then there was this long phase where you devoted yourself to Dastangoi.
DH: Yes. My first play was a Vijay Tendulkar play (Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe), after that it was a play based on Manto’s life, which Barry directed. See, I am not a literature student, so a lot of my knowledge in the subject was self-acquired. I had a good reading habit but theatre obviously acquainted me to many theatrical writings in Indian languages, because most of the plays I was doing were Marathi, Bangla, Hindustani, etc. So it took me back to the languages I had essentially left behind in 10th standard. I had stopped reading them, in school everything is mostly in English. At the beginning, I even had problems with reading Hindi. But over a period of time, the more I performed, the more I read, the better I became at it. And it kind of steered me towards a lot of different forms of writing, which included poetry. I grew up in a family of Urdu and Persian scholars, so though I hadn’t read much Urdu poetry, I kind of had an ear for it. And eventually I ended up working with Habib Tanvir. I had the patangwala’s role in Agra Bazaar, which I thought was a high point of my theatre career. And that’s when I encountered Dastangoi. It had just started again, it had only been three or four months, and Habib Saab insisted that every actor should go watch it. So, I went and watched it, and it instantly blew me away.
SD: And you spent almost a decade being intimately associated with the form and its revival.
DH: When I was growing up, I was exposed to a lot of a religious theatre. Especially Marsiagoi, which is the reading of epic poetry about the assassination of Imam Hussain at Karbala. I had seen great orators, and great marsiagos in my village and around it, during those 10 days of Muharram, performing the poetry of Mir Anis. In the pantheon of Urdu literature, Mir Anis is right up there with Mirza Ghalib and Mir Taqi Mir. Marsiagoi, I think, is a very high art, where you’re essentially performing very refined poetry in an absolutely theatrical way to an audience, but the only thing is that it is religious theatre. It isn’t in a secular space. There’s no restriction, anyone can go watch Marsiagoi, but the nature of it restricts its audience.
SD: Do you think there’s a fundamental difference between performing in a religious and secular space?
DH: Yes, I think, there is. Take Kathavachan, for example. Essentially, the whole thing is invested with a more spiritual, and emotional element, and there’s very little recreation. It is about devotion, submission, and remembrance. The experience is exalted in people’s minds. And sometimes, these other aspects overpower the text’s literary and dramatic merits. When you perform these texts in a secular space, you suddenly shift the focus back to its literariness.
And I think that’s the most exciting part for me. I love taking a very literary, obscure text and making it accessible to the audience through my performance of it. That’s the most important part. To make the pleasure of the text come alive. So, when I watched Dastangoi, I felt that here’s a text, which is secular in some way. It was a text comparable to the to the epic poetry of Marsiagoi, but it had a more secular story that can be performed anywhere, and anyone can relate to it. That’s what attracted me to Dastangoi.
SD: The text you’re talking about is Tilism-e-Hoshruba? It employs some techniques of what would much later be termed as magical realism, but what exactly is it about?
DH: It’s a fantastical, allegorical tale about fantasy lands, sorcerers who create realms after realms with their magical powers. There are tricksters, and their king who enters the magical realm to save the grandson of Amir Hamza, who is incarcerated somewhere inside the enchanted world, and he has to make sure that the grandson somehow breaks the tilism, the spell, because Amir Hamza is fighting against kings and false gods. For Amir Hamza, it’s important that the truthful God prevails over every other god.
My first encounter with magical realism was when Midnight’s Children came out. We were in our teens at the time, but later, as adult we understood what exactly was happening in these texts. Something similar happens in Nayyer Masood’s Urdu texts. Reality takes on a dreamlike quality, where logic takes its own course, and if you’re someone who could understand dreams, then you could understand these texts. It’s the hidden subtext that you’re reading. So, when I reached Hoshruba, it seemed like the pinnacle of this style. See, if you look at the text, it’s about the subversion of non-Islamic regions by Islam, but it’s the way the story unfolds, and sometimes it’s even irreverent towards Islam. And writers could get away with writing like this in the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, there was religious fanaticism at the time, but there was also a space for these kinds of texts, which had their own politics. I felt that performing these would revoke that kind of politics back in this deteriorating age. The stories were subverting what was happening at that time, and sometimes these stories subvert what is happening today.
SD: Do you think that reading, performing these kinds of texts has altered your idea of reality? Do you still subscribe to the binary opposition between dreams and reality?
DH: More than that, I think it has made me go back to poetry and the poetic idiom. It strengthened my knowledge of what’s happening around me, and my understanding language. It also helped me as an actor, it helps me perform better. It roots me somewhere.
SD: Let’s talk a little about your plays. Proscenium theatre. When you perform, say, Beckett’s texts, how do you think it relates to the Indian reality? Do you think its existential, absurd qualities transgress boundaries and unites the so called opposite Orient and Occident?
DH: If you look at the Theatre of the Absurd, it’s a self-reflective view on society. They essentially show a mirror to reality, and reveal how much we have obfuscated it with needless jargon, and how much construction goes behind what we think is the real. It was subversive. And I think this time is even more absurd, it’s a post-fact world, facts don’t matter anymore, it’s about the yarn that you can spin. So, we’re moving towards a storyteller’s era. And if we are, then I think I have a great future. (laughs)
SD: We’ve, indeed, seen a revival of storytelling and you’ve been instrumental in its revival, at least in India. So, why do you think there’s been a gradual need to go back to storytelling? Do you think there’s a need to return to the symbolic life?
DH: I think it was always there, this need. The use of language sets us apart from other species, so there’s always a need to communicate. You are veered towards eloquence, you fall for a good speaker, a good speech is appreciated in every culture. This is innate to our species. But what I think happened was a great proliferation in technology, we were overpowered by cinema, radio, music, rocket-science in the last 150 years. So much was happening. It was, in a sense, like a tilism. We were being blinded by what we were creating. We still don’t know where we are headed, in terms of technology, we don’t know what might happen to us, our bodies. But even now, as we’re talking, we’re both fascinated with what is being said. We are immersed into this, and no matter what happens, I don’t think this will change. Unless probably if they invent something that could transmit my thoughts to you. And I don’t know how acceptable, or how cruel, or how fascinating that kind of technology would be.
But, storytelling will remain important until we dispense with language.
SD: You’ve now transitioned from Dastangoi to something that you’ve named Qissebazi. Tell us a little more about that.
DH: I withdrew from Dastangoi for a while. But then a lot of people told me that they wanted me to continue storytelling. And it’s something I truly enjoy doing. I wanted to expand the form, and wanted to include more languages. One of the reasons that came to my mind is the homogenization that is taking place in India right now, a certain kind of uniformity that is being imposed. Sometimes, this imposition is ideologically driven, sometimes it’s class driven. The urban-rural divide. When I shifted to Mumbai two years ago, I felt like there was a template that one had to stick to. You must have a kind of an urban chic mannerism, speaking in a certain way to be perceived in a certain way. It bothered me because there are many people from smaller cities and towns who are very good at what they do and they’re made to feel inadequate. And the main issue is something that’s been bothering people for generations, from Tagore to Gandhi, and that is the question of bridge-language in India. There’s no answer to that. For me, it became a central question, because if I keep performing in a particular language, my audience cannot expand. So, I thought that one way could be performing a story in two languages : the original, and the bridge-language. And the audience could engage with the sound of the language they don’t understand. One of my colleagues performed in Sanskrit, another in Malyalam, and I don’t understand these languages but it really didn’t matter because it was beautiful to hear it.
I got a good response, and now I have to build my repertoire of tales, and get more performers.
SD: In the memory of a Sufi patient, one last question: how would you define life in two words?
DH: I can only answer this once I am not in the business of living.