It is the fluidity of dastangoi, its ability to finds its place in informal and intimate spaces and the remarkable effect the ancient art of storytelling in Urdu has on an audience, that has theatre actor, writer and director Sanjeev Johri completely absorbed. After 30 years on stage as an actor, working with various theatre groups, and theatre people such as Joy Michael, Barry John, and Rajinder Nath, Johri is now performing his first composed dastangoi Kissa Guru Nanak Ki Namaz Ka. Nath has also been writing and directing plays, primarily in Hindi.
The dastan is based on a true story from the Janam Saakhi, which is a collection of incidents from the life of Guru Nanak, and it’s a story that has been in Johri’s mind for years. Johri says it was a brief story and he had to create a complete scenario, imagining the dialogues, the setting, etc, even as he had to retain the essence. “Only when I had written it I realised that this is the 550th birth anniversary of Nanak, and that’s why I want to travel with the dastangoi. The form, which has gained immense popularity in the last one decade, doesn’t need an auditorium, it can be performed in small studios, living rooms, under a tree, there is no huge cast or logistics involved, and unlike a full-fledged theatre production, it is easier to travel with. All you need is a live audience,” says Johri, who has performed Kissa Guru Nanak Ki Namaz Ka in Delhi and Gurgaon.
The story is of the Nawab of Sultanpur who comes to know that Nanak has proclaimed that ‘There is no Hindu, no Muslim’. Instigated by a courtier, the Nawab takes offence, and decides to trick Nanak into converting to Islam. He invites Nanak to the mosque and join him for namaz. Nanak goes, but the tables are turned when he points out a basic mistake in the Nawab’s worship, which the Nawab couldn’t deny. This brings about a sea change in the Nawab, and results in him taking a greater initiative towards pure worship.
A physiotherapist by profession, 54-year-old Delhi-based Johri says he has had a passion for theatre since childhood, and he takes the art form as seriously as his profession, giving it the time and work it requires. Despite any formal training, it’s the experience over the years that gives him a chance to explore and experiment. “My first play as a director was Andhi Gali and the new play that I have written is Aadhe Sukh Ka Niyam. There are so many stories that I want to share, but many cannot be translated for stage. Dastangoi is a fantastic art to narrate medium-length stories and is as powerful as a play. I am very overwhelmed with the response of the audience, and I hope to take this work places,” says Johri.