Rooted in theatre

Print edition : August 11, 2006

HABIB TANVIR, DURING a rehearsal of 'Zahareeli Hawa'. - SUDHAVANA DESHPANDE

'Gaon ke naon theatre, mor naon Habib' is an insightful and lively documentary on Habib Tanvir and his Naya Theatre.

INDIAN documentary film-making has by now a dense history since Independence. Yet it has seldom intersected with another rich tradition - Indian theatre. The past few years have seen an increasing interest in capturing live performances on celluloid, not just from an archival impulse of documenting productions, but in a genuine attempt to add to the historical processes that engender social-dramatic expression. Gaon ke naon theatre, mor naon Habib (`My village is theatre, my name is Habib', 75 minutes, Hindi, English, Chhattisgarhi with English sub-titles, Sanket Productions, 2005) is one such. It is an insightful and lively documentary by Sanjay Maharishi and Sudhanva Deshpande on Habib Tanvir, one of the greatest innovators on the Indian proscenium since Independence, and his troupe - Naya Theatre. The film chronicles Tanvir's involvement with the Indian stage for over five decades, playing concomitantly the roles of playwright, director, designer, singer, composer and occasional actor. It is as much a salute to the others of the group - the indefatigable resources of his wife Monika, the incomparable voice of Bhulwaram and the myriad talents of his daughter Nageen have made Naya Theatre so exceptional. In a year where we mourn the demise of a faithful partner in theatre and life, it is well worth revisiting, if only through film, the contribution Habib Tanvir has made to the cultural consciousness of our times.

Habib Tanvir's work has attracted the attention of many before these intrepid film-makers. Scholars of modern Indian drama will make the obligatory nod to his contribution. And while the modernity of the post-Independence Indian stage is demonstrable enough, it is often confounded by the frequent revivalist argument. `Theatre of roots' is one such logic of post-colonial scholarship. It can loosely be defined as the mixed dramatic idiom developed by certain post-Independence playwrights and directors, which modified aspects of `traditional' Indian genres to the modern proscenium stage. `Theatre of the roots' was not so much a cohesive aesthetic formulation, but rather, common features in the individual doctrines of theatre stalwarts like K.N. Panikkar, Ratan Thiyam and Habib Tanvir to name a few, whose contemporeneity made for a misapprehension of shared intent.

Indeed, `theatre of roots' was never a movement. Instead, it was a label used by some theatre scholars and administrators (none of them practitioners themselves) to describe the works of a few Indian playwrights and directors. The term itself was coined by Suresh Awasthi, a cultural policy administrator, in 1984 and over the years, it has found its way into the vocabulary of scholars like Kapila Vatsayana and Nemichandra Jain. Yet, in one of the many paradoxes of Indian theatre, it is not an appellation that the playwrights or directors, so readily identified under this genre, will ever adopt in self-description. It should also be noted that `theatre of roots' itself can be broken up into at least two trends - a conscious, intellectual Sanskritisation of the theatre that is perhaps best demonstrated in the works of K.N. Panikkar, and a more exigent use of local folk idioms. The debate on whether Indian folk forms are a corrupt dissemination of the principles of Natyashastra remains largely outside the roots rhetoric since few directors lay rigid claims to an antiquarian Classicism.

The above debate is at one level purely academic.

Gaon ke naon theatre, mor naon Habib excels in that it renders the above discussion irrelevant and takes a steadfast look at the theatre of Habib Tanvir and his relations with his actors. Even the most casual viewer of the film will realise that any essentialist dichotomy between urban and rural, modern and ancient, formal and folk is impossible to maintain. This cinematic exegesis then shows `theatre of the roots' to be simply untenable as an actual theatrical phenomenon of the post-colonial era. The film refuses the choice of identifiable roots that the cast and crew of Naya Theatre can stage a glorious return to. And indeed, even in the case of the director such an easy linear narrative is simply impossible. As the film-makers annotate in the DVD, Habib Tanvir's work is "a theatre born of a sensibility seeped in subaltern cultures". It is unshakably multiple.

Habib Tanvir started his career in the theatre in his student days as a member of the Mumbai IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association), an involvement which many claim was the crucible for all his later work. Tanvir then moved to Delhi and forever changed its theatrical landscape with his seminal production Agra Bazar (1954). Created with students of Jamia Milia Islamia and residents of the Okhla Industrial Area, it already foreshadowed the continual class mix that was to define Naya Theatre later. Tanvir then went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in Great Britain for three years. But more memorable in his stint abroad was his watching the Berliner Ensemble do their hallmark plays a few months after Bertolt Brecht's death, when his leading-lady wife Helen Weigel was still very much at the helm of Brechtian affairs. In 1958, Tanvir started working with six actors from his native Chhattisgarh trained in nacha, the folk narrative dance style of the region, a move that many hail as the authentic progenitor of the `theatre of roots' impulse. The allegation is simply not true. It took Tanvir many years, much experimentation and astute dramaturgy to arrive at the unique idiom that he operates from and continually refines even today.

Gaon ke naon theatre, mor naon Habib is precisely a paean to the inexhaustible curiosity and devotion Tanvir has towards his theatrical work. The title itself is a reworking of Tanvir's play Gaon ke naon Sasural, mor naon Damand, a production that blends three traditional nacha performances around marital themes, but then imprints them with an aesthetic that is uniquely Tanvir. The documentary is an attempt at capturing these directorial interventions that are impossible to codify.

Indeed, for much of the film, nothing is happening on stage, and even when there is it is usually observed on camera from the wings. The focus instead is on the endless minutiae that comprise a dramatic production. There is much hammering, humming and hemming throughout the film, and not one nail, tune or stitch escapes Tanvir's eye. His meticulous aesthetic is evidenced in scenes where he asks for minor realignment of a stage set piece or nuances Nageen's superb singing in a very particular way. Then there are his actors' accounts of his direction. His unerring director's eye is often applied to capturing and `fixing' an effective moment in improvisation. And perhaps, like never before the actors of Naya Theatre are brought into focus in this film. It is not on stage but from their homes in their villages that they tell us of their journey in the theatre. It is not just a literal listing of destinations visited that we get (1982 - London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg, 1983 - Belgrade, Dublin). But sitting there amidst fields that they come home for a fortnight a year to plough, we see the mud walls pasted with their photographs of their city theatre company.


It is also because of these rich testaments that one should not watch Gaon ke naon theatre, mor naon Habib for the plays but for the people who make them. Of Tanvir's expansive oeuvre we get the most glimpses of Charandas Chor.

The play is an exemplar of the satirisation of autocratic power. Habib Tanvir took a Rajasthani folk tale told to him, Vijaydan Detha, in 1972 and turned it into one of the most popular plays of his repertoire. The story is about a petty thief who makes four simple vows to his guru - never to eat in a gold plate, never to lead a procession that is in his honour, never to become a king and never to marry a princess. His guru makes him add a fifth - never to tell a lie. As events unfold, Charandas becomes famous, is offered the seat of political power, and has an enamoured princess intent on marrying. For his refusal he is put to death, a powerful parable of the fate of truthful existence under repressive power regimes. The play uses many elements of nacha - a chorus that provides commentary through song, stage is devoid of all sets, minimal props are used, and panthi tunes of the satnami religious sect are incorporated.

Lest one should think that Tanvir's work is artistic enterprise alone, a mere process of endless theatrical experimentation, the film shows the political effects of the fraught relation between life and art.

Alarming footage shows Tanvir, upon his entry into his eighth decade of life, as a target of the Sangh Parivar. Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) cadre disrupt his shows, empty out his auditoria with threats to his audiences and endanger his travel with blockades from which they shout rabid slogans - often without having watched a single play of his. For if one were to see, one would, however unwittingly, be entertained. The social commentary too never vitiates.

In 2002, Habib Tanvir, even by his own standards, ventured into unchartered territory with Zahareeli Hawa. It was the translation of a play by the Canadian-Indian playwright Rahul Varma on the Bhopal gas tragedy. The cast included an American, a Canadian, a Delhiite, several Bhopal residents who are not regular members of Naya Theatre and, of course, the regular Chhattisgarhi actors. But more remarkable was the creative envisioning of this project.

On an Indian stage where our contemporary tragedies are seldom portrayed, let alone sustained social engagement sought, Tanvir and Varma use the theatrical idiom to ask important and uncomfortable questions about culpability, redress and the brevity of social memory. The play will perhaps eventually be staged with only members of the Naya Theatre, but that is an artistic challenge that Tanvir keeps himself thoroughly open to.

Habib Tanvir modifies anything from Shakespeare to Brecht to Asghar Wajahat to focus on the exceptional in the mundane, the poetic potential of the prosaic. And Gaon ke naon theatre, mor naon Habib shows beautifully this gentle humour combined with a razor-sharp sensibility that permeates from Tanvir and infects everyone he lives and works with.

Shayoni Mitra is a PhD candidate at the Department of Performance Studies, New York University.

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