The Arts

Ankit Chadha, the Storyteller Who Left the Stage Too Soon

The dastango fought hate and bigotry with love and humour.

It is difficult to write in the past tense about Ankit Chadha, a person who was so full of life that he packed into his 30 years what many might aspire to accomplish in 300. I speak here as a friend struggling to accept that the man renowned for telling the most wondrous tales has left us in grief, and also as a fellow peace educator who wants the world to know that Ankit’s work is of great political significance, in addition to the emotional catharsis at its core. He died in an accident on May 9, 2018, but his work is going to live on for a long time to come.

As mentioned in a statement released by the Kabir Festival Mumbai, “Ankit was out for a walk near Kamshet lake, outside Pune, when he and his friend slipped and fell into the water. His friend managed to get to safety and scream for help, bringing local villagers to the spot. Since it was past sunset, it was difficult to locate him in the dark water. When they did manage to retrieve him two hours later, it was too late.”

Friends and family gathered at the Lodhi Road Crematorium in Delhi to say their final goodbyes on May 11, and a prayer meeting will be held at Arya Samaj Mandir, Jangpura Extension, on May 12. I wish this were a story, and Ankit would emerge out of somewhere. I guess such miracles can happen only in stories.

Through the subjects he researched, the scripts he wrote and the performances he devised, Ankit made lasting contributions to Indian society. He was upset by the polarisation among people based on religious identities, but he also disliked making hasty judgements about anyone’s politics without knowing what their story was. What made him stand out as a storyteller was the approach he took. He fought hate and bigotry with love and humour. He choose subtlety over noise. Once he gave up his job as a digital marketing manager, his life changed completely.

Under the mentorship of Mahmood Farooqui, Ankit learnt the art of Urdu storytelling known as dastangoi, an oral form that revolves around the dastango or storyteller, using their voice to conjure up an elaborate cast of characters, transporting audiences to distant worlds and making them think about their own immediate reality.

After he perfected what his ustaad had taught him, Ankit began to boldly experiment with the form to create new stories from his wide reading and fierce curiosity. He went wherever his heart led him, and collaborations rapidly shaped up with singers, scholars and storytellers.

Go through his vast repertoire, and you will be struck by the kind of stories he wrote and performed. In this time of fake news, when historical personalities are invoked only to influence vote banks, Ankit immersed himself in the work of people like Kabir, Amir Khusrau Dehlavi, Dara Shikoh, Mohandas Gandhi, Majaaz Lakhnavi and Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan to bring forth the message of peace and harmony. He narrated the experiences of farmers, nomadic pastoralists and rural populations who have not benefited from the much publicised gains of development and technology. He retold classics of children’s fiction, and also wrote two books for children.

Ankit was prolific, and how. I used to sometimes wonder where he summoned all his energy from. It was stunning to hear and watch him talk animatedly about every piece of work he was developing. I know that he used to recite the Hanuman Chalisa regularly, and felt deeply nourished by the love of his mother. What also contributed in a major way was his own sense of discipline. To the unobservant eye, he might have come across as a playful drifter. To close friends, he was all about depth, passion and rigour.

I met Ankit for the first time in April 2012. It was friendship at first sight. There was something about his sincerity that just bowled me over. I was a speaker at the Pul-e-Jawan conference in Delhi meant to build bridges between Indian, Pakistani and Afghan youth, where Ankit was invited to perform Dastan-e-Taqseem-e-Hind, a story about the Partition of British India into two new nation states. We met several times after that, and each conversation left me feeling grateful for his presence in my life. We would talk vaguely about going to Pakistan together someday, without realising that the wish would actually come true.

In November 2013, we walked across the Wagah border to arrive in Lahore for the Children’s Literature Festival organised by Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi and Oxford University Press Pakistan. There was a lot of excitement, and some nervousness. We paid a visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar just before crossing over. The audience at the festival loved Ankit. They were shocked that a Hindu man from India was telling them stories about Muslim characters in impeccable Urdu. They were moved by the sheer brilliance of his talent.

We were roommates at the Lahore Gymkhana, and I cherish those memories of us talking late into the night. I also remember this funny incident when it was mandatory to wear formal shoes to the evening reception at the literature festival. Ankit and I only had floaters, so we both found creative ways to deal with the situation. I pretended to have a shoe bite, and asked for a band-aid. They gave me one, and I insisted that I needed to wear floaters. Ankit found them too fancy, so he skipped the reception and went out with his friends.

Shortly before we left for Pakistan, Ankit emailed me a news report saying that a Border Security Force jawan from India had been killed and three others injured in Kashmir. The death and the injuries were attributed to Pakistani Rangers firing mortar shells along the border. He asked me, “After reading this, what do you think about the timing of our visit?” I replied, “Gives us all the more reason to go.” He said, “Exactly what I am trying to tell people who are warning me!” I feel like I have lost not only a beloved friend but also a fellow enthusiast for peace in the most difficult of circumstances.

While Ankit received tremendous media attention for his capacity to hold audiences spellbound, his work as a peace educator merits more visibility. In 2013, he was selected by Seeds of Peace, a peace building and leadership development organisation in the US, to participate in a two-week programme for educators called ‘Making History’. His association with the organisation deepened further, and he was part of a follow-up programme in Jordan. On that trip, he also visited Jerusalem, and came back with stories that had seeped under his skin. He was later awarded the New Visions for Peace Fellowship, which took him to Cyprus. Ankit was in the process of developing Project Agora, which would explore how history can be taught through creative means that encourage critical thinking.

On April 30, in an email exchange with Daniel Noah Moses, director of educator programmes at Seeds of Peace, Ankit wrote, “Like I told the story of a 14th century poet from the  (Indian) subcontinent, Kabir, I wish to tell the story of the 20th century Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. There is love at the centre of the poetry of both. There is conflict, though of a different kind. My art is in weaving what already exists of their stories with the magic that I personally see in them, and through the trickery of words bring together a world that is otherwise inaccessible.” Moses had met him earlier that month, when Ankit performed in suburban New Jersey, and subsequently wrote to Ankit expressing an interest in learning about his process as a creator.

Ankit replied, “At the level of content, the traditional form of the dastan narrative had love (bazm) and conflict (razm) as its two essential elements, later joined by magic (tilism) and trickery (ayyaari). I try to retain this essence to as much an extent as is natural to the theme of the story I choose to tell. Also, the traditional stories had no definite ending and were oral in their text and flow. There was prose interspersed with poetry, with a myriad characters and settings, which triggered the ‘story within a story’ format.”

This is all that we are left with – friends of his grieving together by sharing snippets of conversations, photographs and anecdotes. These are friends in urban and rural India, and across the world. Ankit landed up wherever he could tell a story, and made a place for himself in the hearts of people. He knew how to make them laugh and cry, and be thirsty for more. He nurtured friendships with people from various social spaces, and found a way to be himself whether at a music festival in the villages of Madhya Pradesh or at an Ivy League university in the US.

The last time I met Ankit was in Mumbai on March 25. It was a long walk on Juhu beach the evening after I watched him perform Praarthanaa, based on his research exploring the theme of death in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. He had put all of himself into that piece, having spent three months at the Sabarmati Ashram on a fellowship that had taken him closer to the life and ideas of a man he profoundly admired. I can still remember the stillness in his voice, the sombre expression on his face, just before the show ended and people in the audience rushed over to meet him. I waited for a long time for the crowd to disappear, tiptoed to a spot away from his gaze, and suddenly surprised him with a big warm hug.

He invited me to work with him on his next dastan. “It would focus on gender and sexuality,” he said. He was still looking for some direction. We talked for a long time about possible ideas, and I was excited about the prospect of collaborating with and learning from him. As we walked on the shimmering sand, I held on to every word of his, and he to mine. With Ankit, conversations were always about the gift of attention. There was laughter and listening, and the awareness that just knowing him was good fortune. He has gone away but he still inspires me to speak my truth, to carry on the work that was and is ours to do.

In January 2014, Ankit sent me this piece of verse, which gives me goosebumps today when I read it over and over again. I thought the lines had been written by him, but he said they belonged to the pen of a famous poet. He said he would get back with the name but he never did, and I never asked. It turns out that this is an excerpt from Ahmad Faraz’s nazm ‘Hindustani Doston Ke Naam’, with a few minor changes. Faraz was a Pakistani poet who passed away in 2008. He was committed to building peace between Indians and Pakistanis. The following lines (translated to English by Manav Kapur) represent to me all that Ankit stood for. I cannot find a better way to remember him, and the beauty he brought into this world during the short time he was here.

Bahut dinon se hain veeraan mohabbaton ke dayaar,
Bahut udaas hain dair-o-haram ki duniyaaaein,
Chalo ke phir se karein mohabbaton ka safar ijaad
Chalo ke phir se ek doosre ke ho jaayein,
Tumhaare shehr mein aaya hoon doston, ab ke
Na sher-o-naghme ki mehfil, na shayari ke liye
Jo tumhari anaa ka hi hai sawaal,
Toh chalo main haath badhaata hoon dosti ke liye

For an age, these lands of love have been desolate,
The worlds of religion, of temples and mosques, sorrowful
Let us, once again, start another journey of love,
Let us, once again, belong to each other, let us
I have come to your city, my friends, this time
Not for a congregation of music, not for poetry.
If your pride forbids you to make the first move –
So be it, Look! I stretch my hand out in friendship

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, researcher and peace educator. He tweets @chintan_connect