Ultimately there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why certain things happen. The freak accident that took the life of Ankit Chadha, a young brilliant dastangoi performer, left all of us in a state of shock and agitation. I recall my early days with Ankit in Dastangoi with a lot of fondness and affection. In the first workshop for Dastangoi aspirants I noticed two things about him. One – his eyes were very expressive; and two – he was a bundle of energy. For once, I was right because within a few years he proved his mettle as a powerful performer evoking emotions of joy and inquisitiveness with his tireless narrations and casting spells with his big emotive eyes.
We performed for many events together, although we performed with different partners, but I very heartily recollect some precious moments from the experiences during rehearsals and pre-performance green room anxieties. During the rehearsals he would ask
‘Nadeem Bhai, dikkat mein kaf ayega ya qaf?’
(Nadeem Bhai, how do we pronounce the word ‘dikkat’(trouble)? With Q or K?)
‘Bhai Ankit qaf ayega kaaf nahin’
(Bhai Ankit it sounds with Q and not K. It’s pronounced as ‘diqqat’)
‘Yeh t’o badi dikqat wali baat hai (This is a matter of great trouble),’ he would then say.
And then this witty answer would be followed by a spontaneous chain of laughter and revelry. But underneath it was a resolve in his heart and mind that he had to remove this problem.
That day he faltered and could not pronounce it correctly. But believe me, within a few months he did not have any ‘diqqat’ on that count ever. For the next couple of years he kept himself constantly engaged with lived Urdu traditions both in the ‘text’ and the ‘performance’. He read profusely on Khusrau and crafted a powerful tale around him. And as a performer he grew confident and learned to use his eyes and torso more rhythmically to match up to his magnetic narration. One of his more popular dastans: Dastan Kabir ki symbolically declared his coming of age in the world of Dastangoi. And quite deservedly he took it to different parts of the world and received accolades for his efforts and talent.
The initial days of Dastangoi shows were full of action for us. Narrating a dastan for 45 minutes without a teleprompter or a theatrical prop was no mean a feat and no wonder only two of us emerged as functional dastangoi performers from the first workshop. I think I survived the workshop because of my familiarity with the language, Urdu, and Ankit because he had a marvellous theatre background from his college days and once he set his focus on something he worked hard for it and achieved it more often than anyone could do. I often got inspiration from the amount of confidence he could exude during a performance.
As contemporary performers in an art form that was undergoing revival, I remember we used to have a lot of performance anxiety before a show. And it seemed like a moral as well as a professional duty to reassure each other, fetching water and helping each other with costumes. I remember how he would struggle with an unwieldy ‘angrakha’ and a rather archaic ‘izarband’ to fix his pyjama while his name had already been called out for starting the show. We would do the customary hug and I would wish him luck. He would move around his eye-balls as if trying to get the focus and straighten his performance cap and would dash on to the masnad like a sorcerer; all set to take the audience to a different experiential plane.
Ankit was energetic yet focused and perseverant. He would do systematic research on the subject matter before shaping it to a dastangoi format. His dastan on Gandhi spoke volumes of his research acumen and an innate understanding of the ‘dastan’ format. He could mould his skills to adept to the task at hand with remarkable ease. His performance in Dastan e-Alice showed his courage to take up tough challenges. It was all for his sharp skills and experience that a story of this genre could be pulled off so well. He had matured into a seasoned Dastango. Now when he is on the stage, you could be assured of an enthralling evening.
With him gone, I feel restless and agitated. There are countless memories of him that keep coming back to me. In a nutshell, when I think of the sparkle of his eyes, his flamboyance both on and off stage, and his indomitable quest for learning, it makes me wonder how could Dastangoi afford his sudden demise.
As Ankit would often say after a show got over, as we tried to figure out how it was received by the audience:
Kabhi arsh pe t’o kabhi farsh pe
(Falling flat or reaching the seventh sky
Destiny takes you but none knows why!)
My heart goes out to his brother who fetched his dead body from Pune and his parents who lost their beloved younger son to the rude face of bitter reality.
Farewell my friend. Your work will continue to inspire. If only you could come for once and take the ‘masnad’ yet again. I wish you did not have to stop the Dastan here.
Nadeem Shah is a senior Dastangoi artist and teaches History to undergraduates at Delhi University.