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A mercurial man with a smoke-laced baritone, Habib Tanvir was a genius mediator between intellect and soul. It’s a rare feat for an artist.

Equally at ease with Bertolt Brecht, William Shakespeare and the rural traditions of spontaneous, folk performance, his intellectual views leaned to the Left. The Left, he believed, did not mellow with the passing years.

Until his death in June 2009, Tanvir worked for the illiterate man’s language and forms of expression. He embraced and disseminated them—some of Tanvir’s plays played to packed houses across the country—gave them dignity and economic sustenance.

As Anjum Katyal says in her book, Habib Tanvir: Towards an Inclusive Theatre, Tanvir struggled to adapt to the caprices of the tribal folk of his state, Chhattisgarh. They were his actors, some of them trained by him from when they were absolute novices. They loved and feared him, and like a father he put up with their whimsies. The book has some delightful anecdotes about the actors.

When I mentioned this book to a younger colleague, she asked: “What does Habib Tanvir look like?" Many people know the name, and know that he created that famous title in Indian theatre: Charandas Chor. He looked handsome in a Balraj Sahni kind of way, and his face had a fiercely uncompromising strain.

Habib Tanvir - Towards an Inclusive Theatre:By Anjum Katyal, Sage Publications, 176 pages, 650
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Habib Tanvir - Towards an Inclusive Theatre:By Anjum Katyal, Sage Publications, 176 pages, 650

Katyal, who has translated Charandas Chor into English, approaches her subject almost with a disciple’s awe.

A few years ago, Charandas Chor was staged as part of the Prithvi Theatre Festival in Mumbai, at the Horniman Circle Gardens. By then the play had seeped somewhat into mass consciousness because one of Naya Theatre’s actors, the strikingly moustached Omkar Das Manikpuri, had played a prominent role in the Aamir Khan produced film Peepli [Live]. The motley audience was enraptured by the story of an honest thief who, to keep his vow of not lying, goes through situations which open up the profound as well as the farcical. The cold, unexpected end intensifies the questions Tanvir asks.

“Why did Habib insist on the chor sacrificing himself for Truth? He wanted to show how a common man can take the heroic stance of holding unswervingly to his word... This, then, was a political statement: the common man is inevitably crushed for daring to challenge, to confront, to reuse, the powers that be. It was also good theatre," Katyal writes.

Tanvir’s journey unfolds chronologically. As a young boy, he did not have to look far from home to learn the arts, but the characters of rural Chhattisgarh (where he was born in 1923), and their language, attracted him. His love for rural life deepened as he grew, listening to Urdu poetry on the Lucknow and Delhi stations of All India Radio.

He came to Bombay in 1945 and his close involvement in the Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta), whose mandate was to make theatre a form of social engagement, sharpened his language. In the 1950s, he travelled through Europe, assimilating the spirit of the free narrative prevalent in theatre in Europe at the time.

The travels brought him closer to classical Sanskrit and folk theatre forms, and upon his return, he was ready to form Naya Theatre and produce plays such as Mitti ki Gadi, Saat Paise, and Jalidar Parde. His adaptations of Molière, Federico García Lorca, Brecht, Shakespeare, Carlo Goldoni and Oscar Wilde were unremarkable.

Tanvir’s idiom was not dogmatic, but his commitment to the common man’s dilemmas was dogged. While inventively using song and dance, he did away with the rigidity of the proscenium, making the entry and exit of actors free and fluid, and yet coalescing varied elements in these unconventional structures. As Prasanna, director and theatre activist, tells Katyal, the people-friendly theatre of Tanvir “retains the narrative and yet breaks it".

Naya Theatre was formed with his long-time partner and wife Moneeka Mishra, who was like Naya Theatre’s mother. Katyal briefly describes how the couple met: After an artistic disagreement, they battled each other’s ideas for days, before realizing they were in love.

Tanvir does not have a protégé in the intellectual sense, although Naya Theatre’s work continues under his daughter Nageen. Artistes and directors still find inspiration in him. Director Sudhir Mishra recalled his meeting with Tanvir in his obituary for Mint: “His sense of humour was wicked and scathing, and he had the fire in his belly to do new things. I cast him in my first film, Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahin, and I remember him saying at the shoot, ‘In the lap of luxury, actors become idiots’."

Katyal’s book is a pleasure, because Habib Tanvir is such a rarity—an old-world man of erudition, style and social consciousness.

• • • • •

A life less ordinary

Facts about Habib Tanvir’s life in Katyal’s biography.

In 1945, Habib Tanvir played his first role. It was the lead role for a movie called ‘Aap Ke Liye’, directed by Suryam, who discovered him. The film was shot, but it was never released.

In the late 1940s in Bombay (now Mumbai), he wrote book reviews for ‘The Illustrated Weekly of India’ and edited a magazine called Box Office, which was owned by a man named Badri Kanchwala. “He would treat me to Scotch whisky, to dinners, never paying my salary," Tanvir says.

His first major theatre production was ‘Agra Bazaar’, produced in 1954 with students and teachers of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia and villagers from neighbouring Okhla.

Tanvir joined a two-year course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, but dropped out after a year. Katyal quotes him: “I discovered that language is connected with speech, which is connected with movement and therefore, quite simply, a change of language makes a change of movement and character and cultural ethos."

In Naya Theatre, he adopted a workshop approach. Chalk powder was used for improvised make-up and improvised lighting ensured the use of a bulb inside a Dalda tin. There were debates with, and inputs from, folk artistes as well as urban intellectuals.

Tanvir led protests against the murder of Safdar Hashmi and wrote against the religious right. From around 1985 onwards, almost every play of his was political—statements against communalism, the battle between development and tribals, and other issues.

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