Krishna Sobti’s epic novel Dil-o-Danish is set in the Delhi of the 1920s. It weaves a web of relationships that maps the Ganga-Jamni tehzib of the city. Languages, tastes and loves interlace in complex ways, so that we experience a life history – not only of two families in Delhi, but also of the city itself.
The decision to do a durational reading of the novel for three hours or more came about for two reasons. We wanted to keep the registers of language in the novel – Hindustani, Urdu Hindi – intact. We also wanted to enunciate the subtly inflected speech patterns used by Krishna Sobti so that they brought to mind the various “vocalities” of North India. And we hoped to retain these cadences without any editorial intervention, and without any “characterisation” by the actors. We did not want this world to bustle with “actorly physicalisation” because we thought that would come in the way of aural pleasure. The actors sat on a takht with their books in their hands. They read evenly rather than acted. We wanted the audience to immerse itself in a world created principally by listening.
The reading took place in the lawns of a private house in Jamia Nagar where a green shamiana was constructed. The shamiana created a sense of being in a gazebo or a pavilion, as well as a baithak. A green carpet was laid out on the lawn, again emphasising the inside/outside experience of the structure. Angeethis were placed to counter the December cold. There was an old chandelier hired from a shop of odd light fixtures, an assortment of chairs, shawls, cutlery and crockery borrowed from friends and actors, and also copies of Dil-o-Danish should the audience want to hear and read together.
Listening, not acting, created a world; and listening channelled the atmospheres in the novel towards the eyes, like the images in a dream. We felt that immersion in these worlds was possible by stretching the protocols of performance time.
Durational readings elongate time out of the “habitual mode” or the current default mode, that standard unit of experience dictated not just by clocks, but by the now of the city – work, leisure, commuting, breakfast, lunch, dinner, bus, metro, auto rickshaw, Ola – into another rhythm. They prepare us to hear a polyphonous moment when Delhi lived slow, quite different from the Delhi NCR we now know. By stretching time, durational readings also test the stamina of both reader and listener; together, we shed the hectic pace of today. Then we enter the rooms, the havelis, the streets and the shops of old Delhi. The atmospheres that form them seep into us. The interconnections of environmental qualities and human emotional states that make up these atmospheres seep into us. They propel us into an act of remembering. What we remember is an experience of our own felt memory of the city that has passed.