Habib Tanvir: More than a legend

Book: Habib Tanvir: Towards an Inclusive Theatre

AUTHOR: Anjum Katyal

PUBLISHER: SAGE Publications Pvt. Ltd

PAGES: 248

PRICE: 650 (Hardcover)

YEAR: 2012

The story of Habib Tanvir is parallel to the story of the emergence of modern Indian theatre in independent India. His initiation coincides with the quest to redefine Indian theatre and other art forms around the 1940s with the formation of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA)

Salim Arif Mumbai 

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” This quote from Gandhi would be the story of Habib Tanvir in Indian theatre. For someone who has been an avid Habib Tanvir follower from 1977 and had the good fortune of being with him for two years in his ‘theatre company’, watching him closely when he was working on Hirma Ki Amar Kahani in 1984-1986, Anjum Katyal’s Habib Tanvir — Towards an Inclusive Theatre, sadly, excludes a lot.

The story of Habib Tanvir is parallel to the story of the emergence of modern Indian theatre in independent India. His initiation coincides with the quest to redefine Indian theatre and other art forms around the 1940s with the formation of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). The Uday Shankar initiative in Almora, which had, apart from Ravi Shankar, Zohra Sehgal, Guru Dutt, Shanti and Gul Bardhan and others, Shambhu Mitra’s and Utpal Dutt’s plays, apart from Marathi theatre of the 1950s, the formation of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and its efforts to put across folk forms from various regions of the country on a common platform in Delhi, created the space for traditional elements in modern theatre in India.

The crucial phase was from 1958 when Habibsaab left Hindustani Theatre and formed Naya Theatre, until he became a Rajya Sabha member in 1972. A lot around him was happening that had far greater impact on Indian theatre than any of his plays of that time. It also impacted Habibsaab. The book misses this entirely.

It was a phase when Ebrahim Alkazi laid the foundation of the National School of Drama (NSD) after his stint in Bombay with Theatre Unit. Important new writings appeared with Dharmveer Bharti, Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sarkar and Girish Karnad in Hindi and other languages to lay the foundation of modern Indian theatre. It was the time when Ghashiram Kotwal came in Marathi, Hayvadan in Kannada and Ala Afsar in the nautanki form of Uttar Pradesh, using folk form elements by urban performers, but none with original folk performers.

It was also the time when groups like Dishantar and Abhiyan in Delhi, Darpan in Kanpur/Lucknow, Theatre Unit under Satyadev Dubey, Rangayan and Avishkar in Marathi in Mumbai and Benaka with Samudaya in Bangalore made significant contributions to create the most vital phase of theatre from the late 1960s till the ’70s. The book ignores the work of Kota Shivram Karanth with Yakshgana in Karnataka which was a living example of revitilisation of a folk form by an individual before Habibsaab started his complete shift to Chhattisgarhi language and performers with Charandas Chor and Mitti Ki Gaari.

It was the time when Ghashiram Kotwal came in Marathi, Hayvadan in Kannada and Ala Afsar in the nautanki form of UP

I am mentioning this not to belittle what others did, but to emphasise that Habibsaab’s was a far more profound and organic effort in an area which had his contemporaries groping to find a meaningful relationship with tradition and modernity to redefine what could be our national theatre. The period he spent in Delhi in the 1960s, doing plays like Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Taming of the Shrew convinced him of 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 which he found imitative, carrying heavy baggage of the colonial mindset.

Getting restive with the stifled urban actors in Delhi, most of whom he described as hands-in-the-pocket actors, Habib Saab found rural performers much more free and relaxed, even when speaking in urban Hindi or Urdu. The thrust of work by others made him take a relook at his native Chhattisgarhi performing traditions with a new perspective. He put all this to good use and created a theatre which transcended the limits of stages and audiences throughout the world. This liberated his actors and they provided his plays with abundant infectious energy hitherto unseen in Indian theatre.

Laut ke buddhu ghar ko aaye, as some would say. It took tremendous amount of resilience and grit on the part of Habibsaab to find a comfortable zone and work space. Unlike Alkazi and other contemporaries, he found official patronage only after the Rajya Sabha seat. That got him a settled house and his own space and some resources to organise the 1973 Naacha Workshop in Raipur where his serious interaction with folk forms and actors started. Even then, there was great cynicism over his experimental work with the folk idiom.

His endeavour acquires far more significance if you trace the hostility and initial reactions of people who mattered then in Indian theatre and the cultural scenario. Agra Bazaar, his first major landmark, was called “No Plot No Theme” by TheHindustan Times, or, the “immaturity of acting” by others in 1955; even till 1970, his revival production of the same play was called “a display of contradictions in a peculiarly Tanvirian sense” by Rajinder Paul, the editor of Enact.

When Peter Brook saw scenes from Shakespeare, Brecht, Moliere and Sudrak in February 1982, he was fascinated and spoke in superlatives about the Naya Theatre team. This led to Charandas Chor going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it was given the highest international honour, immediately after the performance, creating history of sorts.

Then, the 1982 Festival of India in England was taking place. The NSD Repertory had gone with Shanta Gandhi’s Jasma Odhan and Alkazi’s production of Tughlaq, but the one to create a sensation from India was Charan the Thief(Charandas Chor) at Riverside Studio in London. Naya Theatre became an unofficial theatre ambassador of India and remained so for a long time. Uncannily, cynics would still give Habibsaab the same tag of showcasing rural India, much like what was said about Satyajit Ray. 

It is not incidental that his most productive years, from 1973 to 1996, coincided with the fact that he had a very modest but stable space for himself and his company in Ber Sarai village near JNU in Delhi, for which he had to constantly fight the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). His battles with the DDA to keep the flats and with the department of culture to continue his grant can make an interesting book in itself.

Katyal ignores his mis-adventure at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, where he went in 1996 with the hope of finding a place for his team and actors after being uprooted from Ber Sarai. It turned out to be his most bitter experience, apart from the vicious hostility and threats from the Hindutva Rightwing.

When Peter Brook saw scenes from Shakespeare, Brecht, Moliere and Sudrak in 1982, he spoke in superlatives about Naya Theatre. This led to Charandas Chor going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it was given the highest international honour

The book could have had a chapter on Monicaji, the support system on which Habibsaab survived. She sacrificed what could have been a potential career as a professional theatre worker and built Naya Theatre — with her backstage organisation and management on tours — into a company that had no professional manager or organiser all these years.

How one wishes that Katyal had felt inspired enough to do a comprehensive book on Habib Tanvir which could have been a wonderful study of the man and his times. The book looks at his life and work in isolation of what was happening in Indian theatre and culture scene while he evolved into the legend he eventually became. The book misses the real essence of the man, the travails he had to go through, the uncertainty he would have about his subsequent theatre life during the years when there was no regular work space or a stable job.

The disappointment comes from a feeling that, had the Prithvi Theatre yearbook not happened, or Sudhanva Deshpande not made an effort to put together an issue of Nukkad on him along with a documentary, or, had Javed Mallick, his nephew, not written on him, the book would have been even poorer.

The book reads like second-hand information collated from various sources and edited in chronological order. While this might have been necessary to trace the progress of his extraordinary journey, it remains superficial because it isolates the man from his immediate surroundings, the compulsions, the adversities he faced and the controversies he created.

The most important theatre person in India, apart from maybe Alkazi, in the last century, a book on him needs far more rigorous research to do full justice than one reflected in this work.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2012