A hand above the water
An angel reaching for the sky
Is it raining in heaven?
Do you want us to cry?
And everywhere the broken-hearted
On every lonely avenue
No one could reach them
No one but you
One by one
Only the good die young
They’re only flyin’ too close to the sun
And life goes on
Sometimes the unthinkable does happen. As a dull numbing pain replaces the initial disbelief and gives way to a painful acceptance, one can only rage hopelessly.
Why, you think, should death snatch a young, irrepressibly wonderful storyteller with boundless energy when he had the world at his feet? Unconventional and innovative, Ankit Chadha blazed a path for himself in the world of Dastangoi. Whether it was performing for audiences in Boston or Bangalore or underprivileged children of construction workers or a private school in a tony neighbourhood, Ankit swept his audience off their feet every single time.
In the fellowship of today’s storytelling greats, Ankit’s meteoric rise to eminence, gained him the respect of his peers. That spoke volumes of his ability to connect spontaneously with people – whether it was his audience or his competitors. Sadly, the story was rudely interrupted by death on a slippery evening on May 9 in Uksan Lake near Pune just two days before he was to have performed in that city. The waters of the lake didn’t just close over Ankit that night, they closed over the entire storytelling world which went into shock.
Dastangoi (translated it means ‘tell a story’) was a forgotten art for nearly 77 years before noted Urdu litterateur Shamshur Rahman Faruqi, his nephew Mahmood Farooqui (the writer and director) Himanshu Tyagi and Danish Husain (who later invented Qissebaazi) revived it. The Ankit Chadha story began when he trained under Mahmood Farooqui. A graduate of Hindu College, Ankit took up a regular job, but quit after he joined Farooqui’s Dastango workshops. “It was in 2010 that I did my first open workshop in Delhi and Ankit was one of the first guys in that workshop,” remembers Farooqui. Coming from a middle-class family, Ankit’s parents were anxious about his taking up storytelling as a profession. Farooqui met his parents and persuaded them to let Ankit do what he wanted “Isko karne dijiye. Talent hai aur woh apna raasta chunna chahta hai,” was Farooqui’s advice to the Chadhas. Thus began the young man’s initiation.
What impressed Farooqui was the young boy’s clarity and his determination to focus on Dastangoi. Two years into Dastangoi and Ankit quit his day job. “By then I had worked with 20 people in my workshops training them. But nobody had this conviction. Moreover, he had lost his sister a few years before that so both the family and Ankit had gone through a lot of emotional turmoil. His philosophy was to get the most work out of life,” says Farooqui. His grandfather was an Urdu journalist. So, in a way, his father was happy that the son was doing something Urdu-related.
Farooqui narrates how Ankit’s first solo show came about. “In 2011, when I was all set to launch my book, on Dastangoi book he was just one year into Dastan but he wrote a short five-minute piece which was a kind of spoof on myself, Dastangois and rehearsals. He made me his Afrasia. I used to smoke during rehearsals and he wrote lines like ‘Dhuen ke jaal se Afrasia ki awaaz aayi, haan theek hai par koi khaas nahi hai’. It was a nice piece and I got him to perform it at the book launch. That was his first solo performance. And then 2012 he started working on Kabir.” The 15th century mystic poet and sufi poet Amir Khusrau fascinated Ankit no end. He would end up thinking of contemporary ways of showcasing both.
Says Danish Hussain, who was with them in the early years: “He was the most promising of all the students we had and he kept that promise. His keen mind set about marrying the art form with contemporary and modern subjects. It is indeed a great loss because had he not left us, he would have come up with more contemporary narratives.”
One of the dozen Dastangos in India, Ankit innovated his way into the hearts of audiences. For children, he would adapt classics such as Alice in Wonderland, the Phantom Tollbooth and The Little Prince (he has even performed from one of the Wimpy Kid series in a Bookaroo session) and then change gears and style for adult audiences. Performing for children is probably the most challenging thing. Adapting Alice (Dastaan Alice Ki) was Farooqui’s attempt to draw children to Dastangoi. “You can’t tell children that you are a Rhodes scholar and that you have written five books, so listen to me. Ankit’s performances for children came to the fore when he performed Alice. It was after Alice that he flowered as a performer for children – much more than he had with Bachpan Dastaan,” says Farooqui.
Ankit was the only student who went independent and succeeded spectacularly. “I was happy to give him that platform,” says Farooqui, who cannot hide his admiration for his young protégé, especially when it comes to performing for children. According to him, only an open heart can engage children like that. And to have a combination of someone who can perform well, write well and who has an open heart is very rare. You can have one or two not all three. Plus, the drive to carry on tirelessly.
Ankit wouldn’t stop at storytelling. One November day, four years ago, returning from an outreach programme for Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival, he told me how he was looking forward to a serious career as a writer too. He had one title under his belt then – My Gandhi Story co-authored with Nina Sabnani. He would go on to do a second book titled Amir Khusrau: the Man in Riddles, a solo effort that was published in 2016. Both the books are for children and have done well. The thought does cross one’s mind that his writing career could have been as spectacular had fate not taken a cruel hand on the proceedings.
“Ankit,” remembers Hemali Sodhi, publisher – (children’s), Penguin Random House, which published Amir Khusrau, “was not only an author at Puffin, but a powerhouse of talent and creativity who was involved with our books and our stories in so many different ways. He was a personal friend of many people in the organisation. We have lost one of our most talented and most loved storytellers.”
Sabnani, who worked with him on many projects, is devastated. “He was on to something new and spectacular, developing a style of storytelling. He did take off from Dastangoi but he did a bit of his own innovation. I wish he could have gone on. He was a very special person who made everyone he met, feel special. Everybody felt he was their close friend. We need to preserve his work in some way so that it continues to inspire others in times to come,” says Sabnani.
At Bookaroo, we have always marvelled at Ankit’s ability to hold children, however unruly or inattentive they may seem to have been at the beginning. I remember driving with him to Burn Hall School in Srinagar for an outreach session. I had been warned to warn Ankit that the children were a little ‘more than’ naughty. When I mentioned this, he flashed that unforgettable smile just as we drove into the gates. What followed was one of the most riveting performances that I had ever seen. The children hardly moved until the time came to applaud.
Ankit did not mind where he performed. Ask Ramit Mitra, who organises Delhi on Foot, the heritage and community walks in Delhi. “We would have Baithaks (which are private and intimate with not more than 25 people joining in) but he would not look at what was in it for him or whether the platform was paying enough for him. He would be open to ideas and seriously consider every idea. Despite doing big shows around the world, he would not shoot down an idea. There was never a question of ‘What is in it for me’ or ‘What is the platform you are giving me?’” reminisces Mitra, who says that he could just pick up the phone and talk to him.
His recent visit to the US went off with a bang. Says Rabani Garg, who was involved in organising one of the events. “We met for the last time in Philadelphia. He joked about the life of a Dastango in US. ‘The travails,’ he said, while ironing his clothes, ‘would start with ensuring a crisp white kurta Pyjama!’ I am grateful for the stories he told, and heartbroken for the ones he took with him. He will live on through the stories he shared and the stories he asked everyone to tell”
Ankit had a way with children. Tanushree Singh, who runs the online discussion forum for children’s literature, Reading Raccoons, says that he would turn up at events because he believed in the cause and because there were children involved and the children needed stories. “His smile held secrets. I do not remember him without that mysterious smile. If you wanted something all you had to is ask. He would help.” Stories were the focus area for Ankit. “He would step in and light the room up despite slinking in quietly. Ankit had that energy about him. He spoke of life, death and everything in between in his stories with the ease of an old, wise scholar. He listened like one too,” remembers Singh.
A voice that had just the right modulation, an expressive face, sparkling eyes and that smile – Ankit’s natural charm combined beautifully with his talent. He could hold any kind of audience and, in between his pauses, you could hear a pin if it dropped. That was the kind of magnetism he exuded. “It was a short life but he did what he wanted to do. He became the flag bearer of Dastangoi taking it to various places. It is an immense loss to Dastangoi and to me. If someone asked what I have achieved, I can say I have done Dastangoi and I have produced Ankit Chadha. That has been taken away from me by this tragedy. In a sense it was my biggest achievement. He was that worthy disciple who was taking the tradition forward. As someone wrote on twitter Aise Shagird Roz Nahin Milte,” says a distraught Farooqui.
No tribute can be higher than that.
[Photographs: With permission from the author, from Ankit Chada’s Facebook page]