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.

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