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Posted at: May 20, 2018, 2:09 AM; last updated: May 20, 2018, 3:25 AM (IST)

Standing ovation before curtain falls

Standing ovation before curtain falls
Photo courtesy: Kabir Festival, Mumbai

Shruthi Vishwanath

The curator of Kabir Festival, Falguni Desai, loves telling the story of when she first met Ankit Chadha. It was in 2013, just before a performance at YB Chavan, one of Mumbai’s biggest auditoriums. “I almost had a fit,” she says. “Here was this skinny boy who looked barely over 20. The stage and hall were humongous. How was he going to get people to listen?” But he did that and more, mesmerising the audience with his stories on Kabir, getting a standing ovation.

Ankit Chadha, dastango and author, passed away in an accident some days ago. He was just 30. He had been performing dastangoi, the ancient art of Urdu storytelling, for eight years. But the scope and depth of his work, the heart in his research and practice, and the genius of his adaptations for 21st century audiences defied all notions of his young age. He learnt the craft from Mahmood Farooqi, and then flew with it, making it his own.

His friend, dastango Himanshu Bajpai says that the respect he carved out for himself is unbelievable. “I don’t say it in tribute, but because I knew him and his process. I knew what dastangoi meant to him. He was my ustad, dost, partner.” Ankit and Himanshu first bonded over MK Gandhi and his philosophy. Ankit studied Gandhi for years, winning a fellowship at Sabarmati Ashram last year.

It was at Sabarmati that Praarthanaa started taking shape. It explored Gandhi’s ideas around death. It was minimalistic, with musician Vedanth Bharadwaj singing bhajans in different languages from the ashram’s prayer book, and Ankit weaving his stories. Both artists wore simple khadi. But it was electrifying. This January, the biggest hall of Indore got full. People wept profusely. “Kya hai yaar? Kaise karta hai?” Ajay Tipaniya, a fellow musician and collaborator of Ankit’s said after the event. “Who is he? How does he do this?” Little did we know that this piece on death and Gandhi would ironically be his last.

At the same venue, I had witnessed Khusro-ke-Rang a couple of years earlier. The musical dastaan was an innovation of Ankit’s, created with musicians Bindhumalini, Vedanth Bharadwaj and Ajay Tipaniya. I have never seen a piece quite like it. Men 70 years of age and children 7 laughed and wept at that performance. Ankit was the soul of it, alternating between funny riddles that made the audience chortle, and making them weep at the love between Khusro and his pir.

The four artistes became fast friends, taking Khusro across the country. Ankit became even more sureela, thanks to Khusro, bursting into song in his non-music dastaans too, with increasing frequency and improved pitch.

To me, he was a co-artiste and dear friend. At the festivals where we shared stage, he was the life of the group. His wit had people laughing, but his crystal-clear understanding of poetry and text meant he had the most brilliant insights with it. He performed globally — doing a Manto dastan in chaste Urdu in New York and performing regularly at the Ivy Leagues. And he told Delhi kids stories of Alice with as much ease as he held audiences at the ghats of Benaras. Even when you didn’t understand the words, you understood the spirit that he shared and celebrated it with him.

His ability to weave stories was unparalleled. The Ramayana, Majaaz, Kabir, Khusro, Gandhi, Manto... Each story was painstakingly researched. Dastan-e-Khanabadosh, on the lives of the nomadic people, spoke about treading lightly. That was his style, gently pointing people to another way of being, never with any rancour, but with wit, humour and humaneness.

Through this ancient Urdu form, Ankit Chadha brought people together. In the outpouring of grief at his passing, I realise what impact he really had. People from across spectra of class, geographies, politics, spiritual beliefs and ages have been moved by his stories. Many have said that even though they only saw him on stage, they feel they have lost a friend.

We need artistes like him who take broken fragments of our strange universe and weave tapestries of tales that make us whole again. You are missed, my friend.

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