Habib Tanvir: Citizen of the world

Habib Tanvir shaped the contours of modern Indian theatre.

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

Habib Tanvir in his Bhopal home in 2007. By the mid-1970s he had evolved his distinctive idiom of modern theatre.-SUDHANVA DESHPANDE

Habib Tanvir in his Bhopal home in 2007. By the mid-1970s he had evolved his distinctive idiom of modern theatre.-SUDHANVA DESHPANDE

HABIB TANVIR (1923-2009) was, without doubt, India’s pre-eminent theatre personality. Playwright, director, actor, singer, poet, manager, designer, visionary and teacher, his career spanning some 60 years was one of astonishing output and creativity.

Along with Ibrahim Alkazi (born 1923), B.V. Karanth (1928-2002), Utpal Dutt (1929-1993), and Satyadev Dubey (born 1936), Habib Tanvir shaped the contours of modern Indian theatre. Their contrasting careers make a fascinating study. Like Alkazi, he went to England to get theatre training but, unlike him, shed his learning like snakeskin. Like Karanth, he experimented extensively with Indian theatrical forms, especially the Nacha of Chhattisgarh but, unlike him, he always stayed close to modern European theatre as well. Like Utpal Dutt, he was an actor-director-playwright-manager but, unlike him, did not subsidise his theatre work with earnings from cinema. Like Dubey, he too was from central India but, unlike him, he sought his theatrical identity in the region.

And unlike the other four, Habib Tanvir’s identity is inextricably tied up with that of his theatre company, Naya Theatre. Many of its best-known members are dead but, until recently, the Habib circus was quite a sight.

There was his wife, Moneeka, who, starting out as a director in her own right, merged her theatrical identity completely into that of Habib Tanvir and Naya Theatre, taking on a managerial role. There is Nageen, their daughter, deceptively fragile looking, with a clear, resonant singing voice that never slips a note.

Then there are the actors: Bhulwaram, now dead, who joined Habib Tanvir in 1958, a year before Naya Theatre itself was formed, probably Chhattisgarh’s last great singer; Govindram, now retired, an actor of immense skill, dignity and simplicity, who had the Padma Shri conferred on him this year; Devilal Nag, composer of countless songs; the gentlemanly Udayram, actor and organiser; Ramcharan, past 80 and retired, probably Habib Tanvir’s funniest actor; Ramchandar and Dhannu, the organisational backbones of Naya Theatre; Chaitram, Bhulwaram’s son, mulish and impulsive in equal measure, the exterior only partly concealing a childs heart; Agesh, Nag’s daughter, who is learning the actors craft; Shankar, the clarinet player; Amardas the tabla player, who occupies his mouth with tobacco rather than talk; Shyama, who has spent many years playing those unheralded bit parts without which the play would be incomplete.

Shivdayal, one of the original 1958 group, who spent years in jail on a false criminal charge, died in August 2003. And Brijlal, another of the senior actors, died a little earlier. Some of Naya Theatre’s finest performers died even earlier: Madanlal, Thakurram and Laluram, the great Nacha performers; Fidabai, an actor of incomparable power, grace and subtlety; Malabai, a singer with an astonishing range.

And then there was the Pied Piper himself. Habib Tanvir’s father was a Pathan from Peshawar, and Habib Tanvir inherited the quiet determination of those sturdy tribesmen. Urbane and sophisticated, pipe in hand, he was a man of sartorial panache, charming and wickedly funny, delighted with the ordinariness of the world. Sage-like and forever immersed in work, he sized up people instantly. Grand patriarch, benevolent dictator, he could surprise you with a completely open and accommodating mind. With his own writing, he could be brutal, deleting fabulous passages because, in performance, they hindered the flow. To actors of intelligence, he could give unlimited space well, almost. For the rest, he was a tyrant. As someone once said of Marx, freedom of man does not include for him the freedom to be stupid.

Christened Habib Ahmed Khan, he took the pen-name Tanvir when he started writing poetry (which he continued until the end of his life). He matriculated from Raipur in 1942, graduated from Morris College, Nagpur, in 1945 and went to Bombay (now Mumbai) to pursue an acting career in cinema.

It was an exciting time to be in Bombay. The film industry was expanding, new talent was emerging, and he soon had a circle of friends among film personalities, writers, actors and poets. The Second World War was winding down, the Quit India movement had already poured volatile young people on to the streets, and he witnessed the heady days of the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny.

The Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) had been formed in Bombay in 1942, and he soon found himself a part of it, drawn to the personality of Balraj Sahni. He did a variety of things to support himself, including working for the radio. But this was the time when he made, partly consciously, partly fortuitously, the decision to devote his energies not to cinema, nor to poetry, but to theatre. Habib Tanvir shifted to Delhi in 1954 and worked for Qudsia Zaidi’s Hindustani Theatre. He also worked in children’s theatre, and some of his playscripts from that time are still delightful. He met the young actor/director Moneeka Misra here, and although they did not take to each other initially, in time they were married. His first significant play, ‘Agra Bazaar’, dates from this time. It is a celebration of the life and work of the plebeian poet Nazir Akbarabadi, an older contemporary of Mirza Ghalib. Hardly any biographical information is available about Nazir, so Habib Tanvir was forced to do a play in which the protagonist never appeared. The play, as the title suggests, is set in the bazaar, the locale that has kept Nazir’s poetry alive. With virtually no plot, the play was a stylistic novelty in its time. Habib Tanvir drew into the play the residents of Okhla village in Delhi, in an experiment that was to be repeated on a more sustained basis with Chhattisgarhi rural actors some years later.

Qudsia Zaidi died prematurely, and Habib Tanvir set off to England to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He was already in his early 30s then, not a novice learning the rudiments of his trade, but an experienced craftsman of some standing. In England, he learnt many things, including British discipline, the principles of blocking and some tricks of a directors craft, but mostly he learnt what he did not want to do. It seemed to him that Western theatre, particularly English theatre, was too rigid to allow the free movement that Indian theatre demanded. Western theatre, following Aristotle, demanded the unities of time, space and action, whereas Indian theatre, both the ancient Sanskrit and the rural, broke these unities constantly, admitting only one unity, that of rasa.

He roamed around in Europe for a while after that, watching plays, learning gypsy songs, sometimes earning money for passage by singing in bars songs from his native Chhattisgarh. Eventually, he arrived in Berlin, determined to meet Bertolt Brecht, whose Berliner Ensemble was giving practical shape to the masters plays and dramatic theory. The year was 1956, and by the time he made his way to the Berliner Ensemble, he discovered that Brecht had died a couple of months earlier. But Brechts productions were alive, and Habib Tanvir got to see those. He also got to see the legendary actor Helene Weigel, whom Brecht had married, and was struck by the simplicity of her expression.

Indeed, simplicity and directness were the hallmarks of Berliner Ensemble productions under Brecht, and Habib Tanvir was reminded of Sanskrit drama, with its absolute simplicity of technique and presentation. Simplicity, he felt, was intrinsic to Sanskrit drama: it had to be so in order that its complicated plot is put across in a comprehensible manner. By the time he got back to India, he was determined to unlearn much of what he had learnt at RADA. It was not easy.

The majority of serious theatre-goers today encountered Habib Tanvir fully-formed. ‘Gaon ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damaad’, his first significant Chhattisgarhi production, was done in 1972. ‘Charandas Chor’ was created during 1973-74, and won the Edinburgh Fringe First Prize some years later, catapulting its creator and his band of rural actors to stardom. It even did a run on the London stage, playing to packed houses. ‘Mitti ki Gaadi’, his Chhattisgarhi adaptation of Sudraks Sanskrit classic, was done in 1977; ‘Bahadur Kalarin’, an oral rural Oedipal tale, followed soon after. ‘Shajapur ki Shantibai’ (Brecht’s ‘Good Person of Schetzuan’), with the incomparable Fidabai in the lead, was done in 1978; and ‘Lala Shohratrai’ (Moliere’s ‘Bourgeois Gentleman’) in 1981.

In other words, by about the mid-1970s, Habib Tanvir had already evolved his distinctive idiom of modern theatre, and subsequent years basically saw him elaborating this idiom, refining it, polishing it, rather than evolving a new form. Those who came to watch and love his theatre after this time tended to take this idiom, his style, for granted. It can, therefore, be quite easily forgotten that it took him 14 long years, from 1958 to 1972, to come to it.

On Habib Tanvir’s theatre, it is quite common to hear two views. One sees a development of the IPTA legacy in him, the other sees him as a practitioner of folk theatre. Both are incorrect. IPTA sought to build an all-India network of revolutionary cultural groups in close association with the communist movement. Habib Tanvir, after his early years with IPTA, never again did that kind of work. Certainly in his theatre practice there was not a whiff of IPTA: while IPTA used folk forms essentially as carriers of revolutionary ideology to the masses, Habib Tanvir fashioned a popular modern theatre, borrowing elements from rural dramatic traditions that have been more often than not utopic rather than revolutionary.

Habib Tanvir got his first set of six rural actors in 1958. He did several plays between then and 1972, but most were, as he put it, failures. These failures led him to wonder why the rural actors are fabulous when they do Nacha in their own setting? What makes them stilted and trite when they act in his plays?

He identified two main faults: mother tongue and freedom of movement. [I realised], after many years, that I was trying to apply my English training on the village actors move diagonally, stand, speak, take this position, take that position. I had to unlearn it all. I saw that they couldnt even tell right from left on the stage and had no line sense. And Id go on shouting: Dont you know the difference between the hand you eat with and the one you wash with?

. . . I realised that those who were for years responding to an audience like this [without bothering about whether the audience was on one side, or three, or four, or whether some of them were sitting on the stage] could never try to unlearn all this and rigidly follow the rules of movement and that was one reason why Thakur Ram, a great actor [one of the 1958 six] wasnt able to be natural. Another reason was the matrubhasha he wasnt speaking in his mother tongue, so it jarred on my ears, because he was speaking bad Hindi and not Chhattisgarhi, in which he was fluent, which was so sweet. This realisation took me years naive of me, but still it took me years. Once I realised it I used Chhattisgarhi and I improvised, allowed them the freedom and then came pouncing down upon them to crystallise the movement there you stay. And they began to learn. That quite simply was the method I learnt.

That was the method all right, but it was to be used to channelise the rural actors energy to tell modern stories. His dramaturgy and stagecraft are also modern. His ‘Kamdev ka Apna, Basant Ritu ka Sapna’ (Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’) is played on a bare stage, the only element of set being a hand-held, beautifully embroidered half-curtain which sometimes reveals, sometimes hides, and sometimes becomes a backdrop to, the action. With its simplicity, its directness and minimalism, Habib Tanvir’s theatre would have been considered avant-garde had it not been so popular, and so funny.

If you talk to his actors, they all, without exception, make the distinction between Nacha, where they originally trained, and theatre, that is, Habib Tanvirs theatre. His is a theatre of modern sensibilities, of modern concerns. Besides his own plays, look at the range of dramatists he has tackled. The ancient Sanskrit writers Sudrak, Bhasa, Visakhadatta and Bhavabhuti; European classics by Shakespeare, Moliere and Goldoni; modern masters Brecht, Garcia Lorca, Gogol and Gorky, and even Wilde; and Indian writers Rabindranath Tagore, Sisir Das, Asghar Wajahat, Shankar Shesh, Safdar Hashmi and Rahul Varma. He has adapted stories by Premchand, Stefan Zweig and Vijaydan Detha for the stage, besides adapting oral tales from Chhattisgarh. The stories he tells are the stories of our times, told with the simplicity and directness and energy of the rural performing traditions.

Habib Tanvir, then, was a citizen of the world, borrowing, reading, soaking up influences indiscriminately, but he became, through a long, hard, creative struggle, a resident of Chhattisgarh. Chhattisgarh is the prism that refracted his creative expression. He was writing his autobiography, ‘Ek Matmaili Chadariya’ - a life woven with multiple threads, a life the dusty colour of earth. He was a Midas turned upside-down: whatever he touched lost its sheen, it became rough and turned to Chhattisgarhi. As Brecht once put it: True art becomes poor with the masses and grows rich with the masses.

This is the man the Hindu Right has hounded since the early 1990s. To argue, as the Hindu Right did, that Habib Tanvir is anti-Hindu and, by extension, anti-Indian, is of course a reflection not on the man and his work, but on the depraved, pea-sized world view of his attackers.

Yet Habib Tanvir was no revolutionary. He, along with a large number of intellectuals and artists close to the Communist Party of India (CPI), flirted for a while with the Congress (I) in the 1970s. He campaigned for the party in the 1971 elections with a play called ‘Indira Loksabha’. In what some saw as a return of the favour, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha the following year, and, to the dismay of those to the left of the CPI, he did not resign his seat when the Emergency was declared in 1975. It is only later, in the 1980s, that he became, in private conversations at least, more critical of the Congress.

He directed a play for Jana Natya Manch in 1988, and was at the forefront of the protests that followed Safdar Hashmi’s murder at the hands of Congress goons in 1989. Over the years, he and the Left both moved closer to each other, and in the context of the attacks on him by the Sangh Parivar and his refusal to bow to their dictates, he became something of a hero for Left cultural activists.

The politics of his plays are somewhat hard to categorise. If there is one theme that runs consistently through all his creative output, from ‘Agra Bazaar’ and even earlier to the present, it is the celebration of the plebeian. The culture, beliefs, practices, rituals of the Chhattisgarhi peasants and tribal people, their humour, their songs and their stories, all this is what has given his theatre its incredible vitality. His characters do not lack religiosity but have a down-to-earth commonsensical relationship with god. Charandas prostates himself in front of god in all sincerity before purloining the idol. A peasant or a tribal person can turn a rock, a tree, an animal, anything, into god. Habib Tanvir was fascinated by this openness and eclecticism. He opposed Hindutva because, among other things, it seeks to destroy this freedom and regiment the belief structures and practices of peasants and tribal people.

Habib Tanvir was an enemy of parochialism, of bigotry, of fundamentalism, and of the kind of development that crushes the poor. If ‘Ponga Pandit’ critiques the caste system, superstition and priestcraft in the lively, robust manner that Habib Tanvir has perfected, the other play that he has been extensively performing attacks Muslim fundamentalism: Asghar Wajahat’s ‘Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya Voh Janmya hi Nai’, the story of a Hindu woman left behind in Lahore after Partition. His last production, ‘Raj Rakt’, based on Tagore’s ‘Visarjan’, is also a critique of superstition. An earlier play, Moteram ka Satyagraha, based on a Premchand story and written in collaboration with Safdar Hashmi, is a humorous look at what happens when religion starts meddling with politics.

In the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, he produced for a Delhi group Sisir Kumar Das’s ‘Baagh’, an allegory on the communal tiger on the prowl. In 1999, he wrote and directed for Jana Natya Manch ‘Ek Aurat Hypatia Bhi Thee’, on the fourth century A.D. woman mathematician from Alexandria, who was lynched on the streets by Christian bigots. ‘Sadak’, a short play, is a comic critique of development that ravages villagers, tribal people, their land and their culture. ‘Hirma ki Amar Kahani’ is a more profound look at what development has meant for tribal people.

An early short children’s play, ‘Gadhe’, is a rip-roaring take-off on the education system that produces asses. His production of Rahul Verma’s ‘Zahareeli Hawa’ is a fictional recreation of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Then there is ‘Dekh Rahe Hain Nain’, perhaps his most refined play philosophically, the story of a king’s futile quest for a calling that will harm no other being.

This, then, was Habib Tanvir, a man who represents two great traditions of Indian theatre the tradition of the actor-director-playwright-manager and the tradition of an active involvement, from the Left, in larger social and political causes. The first tradition is now extinct with Habib Tanvir’s death. The second tradition happily survives, and some of the credit for this must go to Habib Tanvir himself, for showing the way.

Sudhanva Deshpande has co-directed, along with Sanjay Maharishi, ‘Gaon ke naon Theatre, mor naon Habib’, a documentary film on Habib Tanvir and Naya Theatre.
Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment