“Look here, I am not Gobind (Gobind Ram Nirmalkar) or Chaitram (Yadav). If I’m to play Charandas, I will do it in my own way," the gaunt, bespectacled Ravilal Sangde bursts out, leaning back in his chair, interrupting a reading of the late Habib Tanvir’s famous play Charandas Chor. He’s seated next to Habib Tanvir’s daughter Nageen Tanvir, at her home in a quiet and hilly part of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The air is filled with the sharp smell of the beedis that Ram Shankar, playing the clarinet, repeatedly lights up.

Nageen, 50, is leading a rehearsal of the Naya Theatre troupe, consisting mainly of Chhattisgarhi folk artistes, that her poet-father had set up with his wife Moneeka Misra in 1959; Sangde and Ram Shankar are two of its earliest members. Nirmalkar and Chaitram, the two men Sangde referred to, used to be leading artistes of the troupe and are remembered for their dynamic enactment of the role of Charandas, a principled thief who had vowed never to lie. Nirmalkar died in July 2014, and Chaitram, this January.

Nageen’s first-floor apartment is filled with memories and mementos of her parents; a wooden letter box at the entrance to the building still has the names “Nageen Tanvir, Habib Tanvir, Naya Theatre" painted crudely in white. In the living room, chatais have been spread for a dwindling troupe that has lost many of its artistes since Habib Tanvir’s death in 2009 at the age of 86. Their umbrellas perch on the windowsill next to the front door, a reminder of the late July showers that make the night air in this lake city so pleasantly chilly.

Nageen urges another senior artiste, Ram Chandra Singh, and his teenage sister Parul Singh, who has been associated with the group since she was 4, to prompt the others if they forget their dialogue or miss their cues. But she herself has been part of the cast of Charandas Chor—she plays the rani (queen) who falls in love with the thief—for so many years that she immediately catches the slightly lowered tone in which Sangde utters a dialogue, very different from the more assertive manner her father preferred. She corrects him, and this upsets Sangde.

He defends his creative licence to interpret the role in his own way, and the rehearsal resumes. A couple of minutes later, Nageen interrupts again, re-emphasizing the logic of delivering the lines in the traditional way. Sangde accedes this time, and the chorus resumes singing “Satya hi ishwar hai, ishwar hi satya…," Habib Tanvir’s memorable composition for the play.

Minor disagreements such as this are par for the course in a creative field. In the case of Naya Theatre, however, they remind us of the layers of issues that the troupe needs to grapple with six years after Habib Tanvir’s death.

“Right now, honestly, it is in the doldrums," Nageen admits during our pre-lunch conversation. As my eyes move from her dramatically drawn eyes to the red hand-painted bindi that reaches high up on her forehead, and the three-stoned triangular nose pin and earrings, the startling red of the bindi contrasting vividly with the muted colour of her sari, the mind wanders back to a serene scene from Sanjay Maharishi and Sudhanva Deshpande’s documentary film on Naya Theatre, Gaon Ke Naon Theatre, Mor Naon Habib. In that scene, there’s a confident and contented air to the rehearsal space where Habib Tanvir sits working on a chair, while a younger Nageen sits close by on the stairs, carefully painting the side of her feet red with alta. Everyone has their role cut out for them, and they seem to be going about it quietly and efficiently.

But the members of the troupe were ageing even when Habib Tanvir was alive. Now, while some have died, others have retired. “Habib sahib ka chal raha hoga kahin, un logon ka. Hum logon ke intezaar mein honge (Habib sahib and the rest of them must be doing plays where they are, waiting for us to join them)," laughs Sangde.

Of the relatively younger lot, Omkar Das Manikpuri, who played Natha in the Anusha Rizvi-directed 2010 film Peepli Live, has since been busy with films, shunting between Mumbai and Bhilai, unavailable for Naya Theatre plays. “We are left with few actors… and we don’t have a director or a writer in our midst," says Nageen.

Nageen, who would rather be a singer than an actor or director, is now determined to renew Naya Theatre. Both she and Ram Chandra Singh are emotional about what they view as “national heritage, viraasat". “Everyone says, ‘Let it go’," says Singh, “But if this theatre dies, that’s when Habib Tanvir will truly die."

Singh joined the troupe in 1992, after watching it perform in Lucknow, where he had joined an acting school in the hope of making it to films. Habib was the “superstar" of the theatre world, he says, a man who believed that the point of art was to bring about social change. “Pehle sab ise Naya Theatre ke naam se nahin, Habib Tanvir ke naam se jaante the (Earlier, we used to be known not as Naya Theatre, but as Habib Tanvir’s group)." During a performance in Bareilly once, he recalls, Habib was ill and couldn’t come to the venue. But people were clamouring for him so much that they finally got him on the phone, put the receiver to the mic and had him speak a few words to the audience.

*****

In many ways, Naya Theatre was a one-man show, deriving its strength, creative and otherwise, from the all-rounder in their midst, Habib Tanvir: poet, actor, playwright, director, singer, set designer, and an able administrator to boot. “He had so many talents, he was born with everything. He had cerebral intellect, the heart and sensitivity of a poet, talent for acting singing, theatre and painting. And he was handsome too, a ladykiller," says Nageen with some pride.

A young Habib arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai) from Aligarh in 1945 to act in films, bagging his first role when a producer happened to spot him during the interval at Metro Cinema, where he had gone to watch The Picture Of Dorian Gray. In pre-independence India, Bombay, a city on the boil, provided a fertile environment, both culturally and politically, for actors, writers, artists, poets and activists to meet, exchange ideas, fulfil their creative urges. A sensitive man with deep intellect and a curious mind (one of his closest friends would be the scientist Yash Pal, with whom he had scintillating conversations related to both their fields), Habib naturally flourished here.

He cut his acting teeth with the Indian People’s Theatre Association, or Ipta, the cultural wing of the Communist Party then active throughout the country, and was influenced deeply by communist leader P.C. Joshi and film and stage actor Balraj Sahni, among others. For a man of such immense and various talents, Habib was as amusing as he was humble in tracing his theatrical roots. In his memoirs, translated from Urdu to English by Mahmood Farooqui in 2013 (Penguin Books), he described Balraj Sahni’s anger at Habib, while directing an Ipta play, for not getting a scene right. Finally, Sahni stormed up to him, slapped him with all his strength, and then commanded him to continue. Habib sobbed out his dialogues. “Now remember it," said Sahni, ecstatic at having got the scene just right.

In a telling passage in his memoirs, Habib writes: “Sadly, the Marathis are doing the same injustice to Konkani in Goa as our khari boli leaders in Hindi are doing to other dialects. This discrimination is not restricted to these two languages alone but is actually widespread in Bengali, Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati, everywhere. This is a struggle between the urbane bhadralok and the rustic, the standard and the substandard, city-dwellers and villagers, intellectuals and uneducated, the great and the little traditions. The silly thing is that the proponents of ‘high speech’ do not realize that they are committing linguistic suicide. Where does the fount of khari boli Hindi lie? It lies with Tulsidas, Kabir, Surdas, Mirabai and Vidyapati—their works have given life to khari boli. They are still replete with words, sayings, idioms that can seriously enrich Hindi. I have seen this struggle very closely because our Naya Theatre has suffered greatly owing to these hierarchies."

In 1958, when Habib finished his training in England—Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Bristol Old Vic—and returned to Delhi to rejoin Begum Qudsia Zaidi’s Hindustani Theatre as director, he introduced six Chhattisgarhi artistes into the troupe. As Nageen narrates it, Begum Zaidi objected, saying, “Dr Zakir Hussain will be part of the audience. What will he say when he sees these kala kaluta people?" Habib was convinced that the president would only appreciate their talent.

But the disagreement led to his leaving Begum Zaidi’s troupe to join Moneeka Misra, whom he would later marry. She had started her own theatre group at a garage in Connaught Place when she lost her directorial job in Hindustani Theatre after Habib’s return from London. This was the genesis of Naya Theatre, with those six Chhattisgarhi folk artistes who had no place in the city’s regular theatre scene.

And this is the principal work that occupied him over a lifetime and, arguably, still couldn’t be accomplished fully. In another passage in the memoirs, in the context of a marginalized group of actors he had met in Afghanistan, he laments: “When, even after a lifetime of work and in spite of their widespread national and international popularity, these illiterate adivasi actors from Chhattisgarh have not yet been given their due, when they are still discriminated against for being adivasi and illiterate, and it does not seem likely to change, then what respect could I hope to earn for the Kabuli actors?"

*****

Nacha, the Chhattisgarhi folk theatre form that Habib grew up watching, and which left a deep impact on his mind, was the platform from which he identified artistes for his troupe. He would attend nacha plays and “wahin se pakad ke late the hame (he used to get us from there)," says Ram Shankar. He had an eye for talent, for he would get people of varied occupations, such as carpenters and tailors, to work with the theatre and then, four-five years later, coax them on to stage. “He said they were good actors, highly emancipated, with no inhibitions," says Nageen. He first started training them in Hindi, but soon realized that it was cramping their style. “Gradually it dawned on him that it was because he was making them speak in Hindi. He made them speak in their own dialect, and they started acting with full abandon," says Nageen. So involved has Nageen been in her parents’ theatre troupe, so often has she probably heard these stories, and with such interest, that she now narrates them as if they happened in front of her own eyes.

For the first play with an all Chhattisgarhi cast and language, Gaon Ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damaad, Habib stitched together three Chhattisgarhi skits. “The Delhi audience wasn’t always easy on him," she recalls; they didn’t understand why he was working with these folk artistes. “But his inner convictions were so strong. I’ve never seen a man work with such dogged determination; he never gave up."

For Charandas Chor, adapted from a Rajasthani folk tale written by Vijaydan Detha, he initially considered folk artistes from Rajasthan. “But they couldn’t understand satire," says Nageen. “You see, Chhattisgarh is an interesting area culturally. They have an understanding of satire, irony; they can laugh at themselves. So he decided to work with them. Plus, they could sing, dance and act, all three
in one."

His plays were created with the same tenacity that he showed in his support to the Chhattisgarhi folk artistes. A lot of research, from books, folk songs and conversations, and ruthless editing would go into creating the first draft. For instance, for the play Bahadur Kalarin, on a son’s incestuous feelings for his mother, he chatted with people in Chhattisgarh on the topic (“in every case, every household, there was incest," says Nageen). The artistes would then be told the story and asked to improvise dialogue and movements. “Jo pasand aata tha, likh marte the (What he liked, he would jot down)," says Ram Shankar. He would include these in his script, doing away with what he considered redundant.

One can then understand Nageen’s reluctance to move away from something created after such deliberation. It has taken her these many years to take control of Naya Theatre’s revival, and it wasn’t an easy decision. “I was going to run away from it. Either quit it or wind it up. But now I am determined to carry on this legacy, and successfully. Otherwise it will die; people will forget about it," she says.

Her heart and soul have always been, first and foremost, with music. She has trained in classical and light classical music, and has a rare and valuable repertoire of Chhattisgarhi folk music that she performs at concerts. When her father once asked her if she would like to direct a play, she had refused. Since his death, the Naya Theatre group has had to face turmoil, confusion, disagreements and mismanagement. “But I have now taken the reins in my hands," says Nageen. She’s even identified 12 new nacha artistes in a bid to renew the troupe, a difficult task in itself since acting in the nacha form is now influenced by cinematic hamming and its songs and tunes too carry the influence of cinema.

Has she made a wise decision? That remains to be seen. A lot will depend on directors such as M.K. Raina, with whom she says she has been in talks with to direct plays, coming on board. At this stage, it’s difficult to shake off the feeling that she is burdened by the legacy of her parents. That a theatre troupe is clinging to a past that it would be better off setting free.

Habib Tanvir too wanted to free himself from Naya Theatre in the later years, to devote more time to writing and publishing his poetry. But he couldn’t. It was a personality-driven troupe—his. It still is.

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