Remembering Habib Tanvir, the master of modern Indian theatre

Tanvir’s unwavering commitment to his craft and his refusal to bow down to censorship continue to serve as an inspiration. 

Published : Sep 01, 2023 11:28 IST - 8 MINS READ

Habib Tanvir at Jhandapur, the site of Safdar Hashmi’s killing, at the 10th anniversary of the attack in 1999.  Tanvir (September 1, 1923–June 8, 2009) would have been a hundred this year.

Habib Tanvir at Jhandapur, the site of Safdar Hashmi’s killing, at the 10th anniversary of the attack in 1999. Tanvir (September 1, 1923–June 8, 2009) would have been a hundred this year. | Photo Credit: Sudhanva Deshpande

“We have come here to perform, and that’s what we will do. I do not accept that every person in the audience has walked out voluntarily. They’ve been coerced, and I know by whom. But there are some cops here, and some officials. Come, let us perform for them.”

This was Habib Tanvir, a few days after he had turned 80, in September 2003. We were in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, and the play was Ponga Pandit (The Duplicitous Brahmin). A handful of BJP-VHP-Bajrang Dal vigilantes had shown up at the venue and claimed that the play hurt their sentiments. The district administration and the police were trying from the morning to persuade Tanvir to cancel the show, citing law and order. “You are such a capable officer,” Tanvir said to the District Magistrate, “I am sure you will handle any disturbance without it going out of hand.”

That evening the play was performed to an empty auditorium—the only spectators were Habib Tanvir and his wife, Moneeka, a friend, and me, who were recording the events on video. This was because, in a jam-packed auditorium, one man got up and said he was offended by the play even before it began, and the police moved with unusual swiftness to empty out the entire auditorium.

Tanvir was undeterred. He asked the actors to start performing regardless because there were still some people left—the District Magistrate and police chief, several policemen, and drivers. The play began, and promptly the magistrate also left, followed by the police chief, other cops, and assorted hangers-on.

So there we were, my friend and I, watching a play being performed to an empty auditorium, while the protesters, who had come to stop the play, walked back cockily, convinced that they had succeeded. Well, they had, in preventing the audience from enjoying a rollicking farce, but in his quietly defiant gesture of performing to an empty auditorium, the triumph was all Habib Tanvir’s.

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Habib Tanvir (September 1, 1923–June 8, 2009) would have been a hundred this year. By the time he was fifty or so, he was recognised as a modern master. He was the last of the great actor-managers of Indian theatre—in the tradition of Sisirkumar Bhaduri, Prithviraj Kapoor, Geoffrey Kendal, and Utpal Dutt.

He was truly an all-rounder. There was nothing in the theatre he could not, or did not, do, and with distinction. He wrote, adapted, and translated plays; he directed and acted in them; he wrote songs in three languages (Hindi, Urdu, Chhattisgarhi); he set them to music; he sang; he was an excellent manager of people and resources; and he was a formidable poet in his own right.

Moneeka and Habib Tanvir during a Naya Theatre rehearsal, Bhopal, 2003.

Moneeka and Habib Tanvir during a Naya Theatre rehearsal, Bhopal, 2003. | Photo Credit: Sudhanva Deshpande

His company, Naya Theatre, was one of the longest-running professional theatre companies in India. It was established in 1959 and performed without a break until his death in 2009. (The company continues to exist today but as a pale shadow of its former self.) Among its numerous accolades was the Fringe First prize at the Edinburgh Festival in 1983, the first for an Indian play. Tanvir himself was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1969) and Fellowship (1996), Padma Shri (1983), Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship (1979), Kalidas Samman (1990), Padma Bhushan (2002), besides being a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha from 1972 to 1978.

Born in Raipur (in the then Central Provinces) in a traditional, religious family, Tanvir went to Nagpur and then Aligarh for higher studies. Abandoning an MA at the Aligarh Muslim University, he went to Bombay to pursue a career in theatre and films in the mid-1940s. He acted in a few films, including Footpath (1953, starring Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari), and worked as a journalist and radio broadcaster.

But the decisive influence on him at the time was his entry into the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), where he met and befriended artists such as Balraj Sahni, Dina Gandhi (later Pathak), Zohra Sehgal, and M.S. Sathyu. The left-wing perspective of IPTA stayed with him throughout his life, even though he forged his own unique path in theatre.

The film industry, though, disillusioned him. It worshipped money, not art. He came to Delhi, where he joined Hindustani Theatre, a professional theatre company founded by Qudsia Zaidi. Here he met Moneeka Misra, a theatre director trained in the US. They fell in love and got married. In 1954, Tanvir wrote and directed his first masterpiece, Agra Bazaar, on the life and art of the plebeian nineteenth-century poet Nazir Akbarabadi.

It was an astonishing production for its time, for two reasons. One, the protagonist Nazir never appears in the play—this was because no biographical information about him is available, even as a large corpus of his poetry has survived, passed on orally from generation to generation, before being published in the twentieth century. Two, Tanvir asked residents of Okhla village on the outskirts of Delhi to act in the play—his first attempt to make theatre with rural folk.

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Soon after, he left for Britain to get formally trained as a director at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and the Old Vic. He was already in his thirties, with over a decade of theatre work under his belt. What he learned in Britain, most of all, was what he needed to reject—the overly regimented theatre of the time, realistic in a photographic sort of way, about middle-class life. He longed for the free-flowing, delightful, irreverent theatre that he had enjoyed as a child in Chhattisgarh. He returned to India and set out to find rural actors.

Habib Tanvir in Charandas Chor, 2002.

Habib Tanvir in Charandas Chor, 2002. | Photo Credit: Sudhanva Deshpande

The first group of six rural actors he picked came with him to Delhi in 1958. They were all more or less unlettered but masters of the Nacha, the rural theatre of Chhattisgarh. They acted and danced with abandon, sang mellifluously in their open, strong voices, were masters of farce, and could also move you to tears. With them, and with Moneeka as his companion, he founded his own company, Naya Theatre, in 1959. They produced play after play, touring the country extensively, but while his plays of the time had spark, real success eluded him.

There was something deeply befuddling about it. Why were these great actors, who were so delightful when they performed in the villages, so stiff and rigid on the urban stage, he wondered. It took him 15 years, from 1958 to 1973, to figure it out. He was forcing them to speak in Hindustani, a language that was alien to them, and he was “directing” them, telling them where and how to stand, where and when to move, what gestures to use. When he melded together three rural farces into a single play in Gaon Ke Naon Sasural Mor Naon Damad (I’m the Son-in-Law and My In-laws’ House is My Village), he asked his actors to speak in Chhattisgarhi and improvise their moves.

Pink and Green Colorful Shapes Chronology Timeline Infographic by Frontline

It was magic. With their bodies and tongues unshackled, the actors were magnificent. Remarkably, urban audiences, most of whom had no familiarity with Chhattisgarhi, embraced the play. A string of hits followed, many of them recognised as masterpieces of modern Indian theatre—Charandas Chor (Charan the Thief), Mitti Ki Gaadi (Sudraka’s The Little Clay Cart), Bahadur Kalarin, Shajapur Ki Shantibai (Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan), Hirma Ki Amar Kahani (The Immortal Tale of Hirma), and Kamdev Ka Apna, Basant Ritu Ka Sapna (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

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In 1988, the communist playwright Safdar Hashmi requested Tanvir to direct a play based on a Munshi Premchand story for his group, Jana Natya Manch. They co-wrote Moteram Ka Satyagraha (Moteram’s Fast Unto Death), a rollicking farce that exposed the dangers of politics and religion combining in a cocktail. (I was an actor in that production and have written about the Safdar-Tanvir collaboration in my book Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi.)

Habib Tanvir in Europe, mid-1950s.

Habib Tanvir in Europe, mid-1950s. | Photo Credit: Courtesy Sudhanva Deshpande

Even though Tanvir’s theatre was deeply rooted in the rural culture of Chhattisgarh—decades before, I should add, it was recognised as a State and Chhattisgarhi recognised as a language, not a “dialect” of Hindi—his was not an exotic, nativist, or Orientalist turn. His theatre was decidedly modern in its content, form, and politics. It was an unbridled celebration of the plebeian and the syncretic. And because it was so authentic to its own milieu, it found adoring audiences wherever it was performed, in India and abroad, beyond the boundaries of language and region.

A formidable intellectual

Himself a non-practising Muslim married to a Hindu, Tanvir was a formidable intellectual with deep insights about the Natyashastra and Indian performing traditions, a sophisticated aesthete who soaked up influences from all over the world, and a citizen-activist committed to values of secularism and social justice.

“In India, the economically poorest are the culturally richest, and the economically richest are the culturally poorest,” he would often say. He devoted his life and his art to uplift the culture and the voice of India’s poorest. And he did it with unparalleled verve, beauty, and joy.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor, director, and organiser with Jana Natya Manch and an editor with LeftWord Books. He has co-directed two documentary films on Habib Tanvir, and is the author of Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi.

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