Though I am not a theatre buff, I had heard a lot about Habib Tanvir. A chance to profile his life, when it came my way, was thus very welcome.
I found him exactly as he was fabled to be; traditionally dressed, puffing away at his cigar, and talking about the importance of being rooted in one’s own culture. His had been a remarkable journey.
Born Habib Ahmed Khan in 1923 in Raipur, he was immensely drawn to art in all its forms. Tanvir was his pen name, by which he came to be popularly known. His father was not amused by his cultural affinity, and expected him to chart out a conventional career. Short of funds and pining to work in movies and theatre the young Tanvir accepted to take an entry test for the Navy, just to get a free ticket to Mumbai!
In the City of Dreams, he joined the Indian Progressive Writers Association and the Indian People’s Theatre Association or IIPTA, where he worked with a galaxy of talents like Dina Pathak, Balraj Sahni, Mohan Sahgal, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Prem Dhawan, Sailendra, Mulkraj Anand, Shahid Latif, Ali Sardar Jafri and Krishen Chand.
He reminisced fondly to us about how he earned only 6 annas a day, and how passion was a sufficient driving force: “There was a strong Marathi unit, a strong Gujarati unit and a lovely Konkani unit. The Hindi scene was also quite vibrant. So, I got affected by all the energy, and saw for the first time the fire folk actors have.”
In Bombay he multi-tasked, trying his hand at journalism, radio as well as writing and acting in theatre and films. Among the big banners he worked in were Rahi, Aakash, Footpath, Diya Jaley Sari Raat, Beetay Din, Aag, and Lok Manya Tilak.
“My biggest chunk of earning came from films, but I couldn’t do full-fledged theatre alongside; it wasn’t easy in those days, but my choice was made.”
Habib Tanvir moved to Delhi and worked with both Hindustani and Children’s theatre. It was here that he met his future wife Moneeka Mishra. It was also during this time that he came up with one of his most significant works in the form of Agra Bazaar. He experimented for the first time using an unconventional setting of a market to stage the play with amateurs and folk artistes as actors. The rupture with tradition was seen as ground-breaking and set off a new trend. But his restless soul wanted to explore what the world offered. He managed a grant through Dr Zakir Hussain and left for England to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in 1954.
This was to be a phase of life that left indelible impressions on his mind. He not just witnessed the best of theatre in Europe, but also, incredibly, learnt to appreciate better folk forms of which India was a rich repository.
After finishing his course at RADA, he went to France and then travelled across Europe.
“Oh those were glorious days, there was Jean Vilar. It was a beautiful place, not so crowded as it has become today. After France, I went to Germany, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Poland,” he would say. In Berlin, he met Bertolt Brecht, who left a lasting influence.
saab laughed as he told us about how he discovered he was penniless in France and took to singing in nightclubs just to stay afloat. His rendition of tribal songs in typical Chhatisgarhi style won several hearts, especially of young ladies, all over Europe. The unending demands for encore convinced him that real dignity could come only from originality.
He returned to India with these thoughts and formed the ‘Naya Theatre’ with his wife in 1959. He loved Sanskrit classics as well as Western literature, and these he presented in folk forms. When accosted about the purpose of such unconventionality, he answered that even Tagore was translated into English. Conversely, classics could be presented in vernacular languages. He won the argument.
The idea, he told us, was to gift folk a diverse repertoire and rural actors and even farmers a taste of refinement. Back home, among the first plays he produced was Mitti ki Gadi, a translation of Shudraka’s ‘Mrichchakatikam’, originally written in Sanskrit. The canvass he offered was wide and ranged from ancient Indian works and Premchand to Westerns opuses including those of Shakespeare and Molière. A string of innovative plays like Charandas Chor, Bagh, Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya...thus established him as the architect of modern Indian theatre.
I remember how Habib Tanvir looked such a humanist sitting amidst a myriad of actors, quietly urging them into a direction at one time and giving a complete free hand at another, so as to eventually produce an outré piece.
Habib Tanvir’s plays also reflected the transforming political and social landscape. His political leanings were undoubtedly Leftist. He was an active supporter of the CPI; IPTA being its cultural arm. Later, he was impressed with Indira Gandh’s socialist policies and even staged a play called ‘Indira Lok Sabha’ in her praise.
This doyen of theatre genuinely liked to use art as medium of social commentary. His production Jamadaran, for example, was a take on casteism. Just like Zahareli Hawa was based on the Bhopal Gas tragedy
“Art should move us to become a society free of fundamentalists, with less caste differences, more at peace, with good neighbourly relations, more independence economically and even culturally. Today we are still enslaved to the West in many ways – a large section is holding on to their apron strings.”
Habib Tanvir was not just a progressive thinker but also an ideal mix of simplicity and sophistication. His education, especially at prestigious British universities and intimate encounter with western culture, gave him an authority to give a clarion call to Indians to remain rooted and seek motivation from within.
“We ought to be moving towards our own goals originally oriented, more towards our own purpose, our own needs and own ways of fulfilling our needs,” he exhorted.
saab was both secular and an extremely fearless man. He staged ‘Ponga Pandit’ after the Babri demolition and immediately ran into trouble with the RSS. This in turn strained his relations with the NDA government, which choked his funds. But he couldn’t care less.
Of my impressions, I have seen few men as open and optimistic as him, considering the challenges faced. In a world full of cynicism, his sanguinity was very refreshing.
What held great appeal was the fact that Habib Tanvir acknowledged that the youth were not well acquainted with their traditions, and yet was full of hope.
“Right now the scene may not seem so bright but the very fact that young people are taking to theatre and not just doing good plays but also legends and folk tales and short stories, shows an attempt to innovate. Not only that, the response that one is getting is also heartening,” he would say.
His confidence came from the circle of life. “In the countryside – you see people in doldrums when there is no harvest and then there is fertile crop and then again there is nothing. Similarly we have this circle in theatre, like we saw in 50s, 70 etc.”
With great satisfaction he would express his association with Spic Macay. “With established people one has to make then undo or unlearn some things, while raw talent is more pliable, can be molded.”
Asked about some of his pertinent influences, he pointed to the current circumstances in the country. Even then he chose to see both sides of the coin.
“Not more than the present conditions in the country – there are enough things to work for and against, and that’s what any activist can hope for.”
Before he took a final bow, he left behind a treasured legacy that inspires courage, encourages experimentation, makes us proud of our own culture and above all tells us never to be bitter or disappointed. When asked about the turbulent times that he had faced, he just quipped, “Well I opted for it, so there are no complaints.”
In his own words, his pursuit was never ending.
“The process of using indigenous things to create new art forms is a continuous process. It is continues in a very hopeful way as there is no exhaustion point to it. Right now we are concentrating on Gandhi and there is a lot to learn from Gandhi – he was rooted to the soil, but his thought of keeping the windows open to let the winds of the world come in…that I feel is more and more relevant.”
saab’s thoughts, much like Gandhi’s, hold a timeless appeal and will continue to enthuse the young to explore newer forms of expressing ageless wisdom.
For now though, it’s curtains down on a life well lived.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)