That Curtain Call…

This Naya Theatre was folk magic and high art, as rooted and relevant as Habib Saab and his amazing band of committed Chhattisgarhi actors
Salim Arif Mumbai

These RSS-walas only remember the rise and might of Hitler, they don't remember the way he went...

This was Habib Tanvir commenting in reaction to the attack he continuously faced during the staging of the plays - Jamadaarin and Ponga Pandit. The attacks would follow him almost like a ritual - to be performed by VHP/Bajrang Dal forces or their proto-types - even in remote places like Lohardaga in Jharkhand or a cosmopolitan city like London.

Performing under constant physical threat and the threat of violence, he and his team comprising largely of Hindu tribals from the interiors of Chhattisgarh braved all this relentlessly to continue in their creative journey. A highly protracted and productive journey of aesthetic commitment which began in 1945, and will perhaps take a pause now, on  his passing away in Bhopal on June 8, 2009. He was born on September 1, 1923 in Raipur.

Tum apni aawaaz ki jhankaar mein kho rahe ho... This was the comment given to a young aspiring poet Habib Ahmad Khan with the pen name of 'Tanvir' by Niyaaz Haider in the 1940s in a Bombay commune of the legendary Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). Gifted with a deep voice and charming personality, the aspiring actor and a popular poet acknowledged for his tarranum (reciting poetry in ad lib singing), was made to introspect the importance of content over form, and the danger of embellishments diluting the intensity of expression. Two elements, which became the core of Habib Saab's oeuvre over the years.

From Morris College in Nagpur in 1940 to landing in Bombay via a sojourn at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Habib Saab went through a variety of vocations from 1945 till 1953, including writing for film magazines, editing a textile magazine, besides being part of the IPTA and Progressive Writers' Association (PWA) as an active member in plays and literature. The thrust of these progressive organisations of that time made him re-look at his native Chhattisgarhi performing traditions with new vigour and insight. His interest in music and poetry and his concern for the underdog manifested in full bloom in Agra Bazaar, the incredible play which became his first major landmark in Indian theatre.

By now, his foremost passion, a desire to train professionally in theatre, took Habib Saab to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London and Old Vic Theatre in 1954 post his celebrated Agra Bazaar. A little later, he traveled extensively in Europe till 1958, watching, absorbing theatre presentations including some of the famed Berlin Ensemble ones. They had a greater influence on him than his British RADA training which he left midway as he found the emphasis on speaking correct Ws and Vs quite futile for someone wanting to work in a language other than English.

The period he spent in Europe convinced him about the necessity to work within the cultural and social context of one's milieu and gave him a certain disdain for the prevalent urban theatre in India which he found imitative, carrying a heavy baggage of colonial mindset. Unlike a few of his contemporaries, to be Brechtian in intent for him meant to be more Indian. Various indigenous Indian folk storytelling forms of theatre became the means of putting a new idiom in place.

So when he did his first production of Mrichhkatikam as Nayi Tarz Ki Nautanki for Hindustani Theatre, a company formed by Begum Qudsia Zaidi for Tanvir, there was a partial presence of actors from his rural Chhattisgarh. The form had a fluidity derived from the traditional folk forms much to the dislike of critics for whom classical Sanskrit theatre presented in Lokdharmi style was akin to sacrilege. But Tanvir had other ideas; his quest was to find answers in living traditions rather than revive an archaic, museum piece theatre.

For Habib Saab, folk practices were the precursors to classicism and the Sanskrit plays written for a bare stage implied a dramaturgy which evolved within the ambit of our traditional performing arts. He would call it the 'Unity of Rasa' (unity of nine emotions as defined in ancient Indian aesthetics) as opposed to the unity of time, place and action of the classical western drama - the basis of Greek drama. This unity of Rasa would be there in Parsi theatre; Shakespeare and Brecht as elements manipulated to suit visions and requirements from time to time.

Habib Saab would put all this to good use and create a theatre which survived as autonomous to the limits of stages and audiences throughout the world. He did his first 'Nacha Theatre' workshop in 1973 in Chhattisgarh in Bhilai and not in Delhi, like some of the earlier official agency exercises. This workshop laid the foundation for Habib Saab to form a full time company with extremely talented actors from his region.

Getting increasingly restive with the stifled urban actors coming to him in Delhi, most of whom he described as "hands in the pocket actors", he found the rural performers much more free and relaxed, even when speaking in urban Hindi or Urdu languages. In a multilingual plural society like India, forcing Hindi as the language of performance on actors from other language regions can have a counterproductive impact, much like the Ws and Vs had on Habib Saab at RADA.

He was quick to appreciate this and his Naya Theatre became a unique company of actors from Chhattisgarh speaking in their folk dialect. This autonomy of language for performances liberated his actors and they provided his plays with abundant infectious energy hitherto unseen in Indian theatre. Charandas Chor followed and very quickly became a rage, but it still had greater things in store.

"I would deprive my actors of a large chunk of expressive faculties if I do not make them sing and dance," was his answer whenever anyone commented on the formal monotony of his plays. When English theatre legend Peter Brook saw scenes from Shakespeare, Brecht, Moliere and Sudrak performed by the Naya Theatre team, he was fascinated to see the ease with which the same set of actors interpreted characters from alien sources on their terms and spoke in superlatives about this "Company of Habib Saab".

Charandas Chor went to the Edinborough Fringe Festival where it was given the highest international honour immediately after the performance, creating a history of sorts. It was 1982 and the 'Festival of India' in England was taking place. The National School of Drama (NSD) Repertory had gone with Shanta Gandhi's Jasma Odan and Ebrahim Alkazi's production of Girish Karnad's Tughlaq as the official theatre component, but the one to create a sensation was Charan the Thief at Riverside Studio in London.

Naya Theatre became an unofficial theatre ambassador of India and remained so for a long time. Like Satyajit Ray, Habib Saab also got flak from disgruntled cynics for this international acclaim, very often being accused of peddling rural India as the cultural face of India. But a greater opposition to him and his work was to come because of his politics.

By the mid-1990s, Rightwing forces had got political legitimacy and saw a serious threat in the questioning of status quo in social-religious order in Indian pluralistic society. Using lies and false propaganda, they tried to stifle the secular spirit of Habib Saab's theatre. But to no avail; it came to a point where entire tours of his shows were done under police protection, but the show did go on.

Growing years and hectic travel schedule were taking their toll. Habib Saab's major source of strength, Monicaji (Monika Misra, his wife), passed away on May 28, 2005, leaving a void difficult to fill in his theatre company. The punishing travel schedules took a toll on Habib Saab's health. The passing away of some, and ageing of others in the team, brought in a phase when to just sustain the shows became an issue.

But Habib Saab pushed on, grooming another set of actors, succumbing to temptations of performing one more time, stealing moments which gave him joy on stage till the curtain fell - not giving him a chance to take a proper 'curtain call'. That curtain call will now be taken by our rural folk performers every time they perform on a national or international stage, away from their regions, as an acknowledgement of the endeavour which created a celebratory space for them to showcase their art.

In this social engineering by culture, besides creating a theatre which was at once traditional and modern, rooted and relevant, Habib Saab also empowered the folk artist and his art as worthy of being showcased at the highest places, on a par with elitist classical dance and music. That would, for me, remain Habib Tanvir's unique contribution towards the perception of performing arts in India.

Salim Arif is a theatre person and filmmaker based in Mumbai. He worked with Habib Tanveer and his theatre company, researching for dance troupes and doing lights for his shows and performed across India

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2009