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HomeVidura‘Renaissance man’ – remembering Habib Tanvir in his centenary year

‘Renaissance man’ – remembering Habib Tanvir in his centenary year

Habib Tanvir was born in September 1923 (he passed away in June, 2009). Shoma A. Chatterji pays tribute to the playwright who created a new theatre language in India

Habib Tanvir – Charandas Chor and Other Plays is a 397-page book of English translations of Tanvir’s plays. Following an introduction titled The Relevance of Habib Tanvir by noted theatre scholar and Kolkata-based author Anjum Katyal, the book contains the translations of Agra Bazar, Charandas Chor, Bahadur – The Wine-Seller and The Living Tale of Hirma. The Appendix titled My Milestones in Theatre is a translation of Habib’s own piece. The book also includes revised prefaces to the earlier editions of these translations done by Tanvir himself.

Writes Anjum Katyal in her erudite introduction: “It is impossible to discuss the theatre of independent India without the work of Habib Tanvir. The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre describes him as a ‘Hindi and Urdu playwright, director, actor, manager, poet and one of the most important theatre personalities of post-independent India. Indeed, his achievements were remarkable enough to justify the sobriquet ‘renaissance man’, which is what theatre activist and scholar Sudhanva Deshpende in his obituary, calls him.”

Habib Tanvir, born in September 1923 at Raipur, a small town surrounded by villages in Chhattisgarh, watched his elder brother play female roles in amateur Urdu plays. At 11, he himself played Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John and acted in another play by his Persian teacher, Mohammed Isaakh, about a young shoeshine boy. He won the Thakur Pyarelal award for his performance in both plays. ‘Tanvir’ was a pen-name he took later when he started writing poetry.

As a child, Tanvir had many opportunities to visit the nearby villages, interact with the residents and listen to the songs of the locals. He was so attracted by those melodies that he even memorised some of them. He went to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) in 1955 and travelled across Europe for three years. When he returned to India, Tanvir began a long quest for an indigenous performance idiom.

Habib Tanvir – Charandas Chor and Other Plays – the book cover.

Tanvir’s contribution to Indian theatre is his remarkable incorporation of traditions of folk and tribal theatre, music and language into his modern formal craft. He believed that the theatre of the people was to be found in villages, and brought folk forms and traditions to an urban, educated audience. Indigenous performance forms such as nacha were used to create a new theatrical language. He was the organiser, secretary, playwright and actor-director of IPTA (India People’s Theatre Association) between 1948 and 1950. In 1954, he directed Agra Bazar which he described as “the first serious experiment integrating song with drama and rural actors with urban [ones].” Over the last 55 years, Agra Bazar has been performed all over India many times.

In 1959, Tanvir and wife Moneeka Misra formed the Naya Theatre in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. His work was influenced by the left-wing cultural movement, and the power of his plays touched audiences, cutting across class boundaries. The actors were a blend of folk performers of Chhattisgarh and urban actors. In its first year, Naya Theatre produced three plays: Saat Paisey, a dramatisation of a Czech short story, written by Tanvir and directed by Moneeka; Jaalidaar Pardey, Tanvir’s revival of an adaptation of a Soviet play he had first directed in 1952; and Phaansi, adapted from an English one-act play and first directed in 1960.

Tanvir also directed a series of plays in English, including Brecht’s The Good Person of Schezuan, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Garcia Lorca’s The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife, Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters, Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Signet Ring of Rakshasa, and P. Lal’s transcreation of Vishakadatta’s Sanskrit classic Mudrarakshasa.

The 1970s began with the revival of Agra Bazaarplayed by Chhattisgarhi actors. Tanvir’s interest in folk performance culture remained alive and he continued working with these actors, presenting many aspects of their culture. Plays like Charandas Chor, Gaon ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damad and Kamdeo ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna will long be remembered and lauded.

Charandas Chor(1975), Tanvir’s most famous work, won him the Fringe Firsts Award at Edinburgh International Drama Festival (1982). It is the story of a typical folk hero much like Robin Hood, who robs the rich and evades the law until he comes up against his own commitment to the truth. Written by Vijaydan Detha and adapted into a play by Tanvir, it offers an incisive blend of tradition and modernity, folk creativity and skills on the one hand, and modern critical consciousness on the other. Shyam Benegal made a film on the play called Charandas Chor in which Habib Tanvir also played a role, but as the film was not marketed or distributed properly, few had the opportunity of watching it.

Tanvir was also founder-trustee of SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust), a collective of artistes and activists, and held the post of its chairman too.  His was one of the most militant voices in the spontaneous protest after Safdar Hashmi’s brutal murder in 1989. He had collaborated with Hashmi in dramatizing Premchand’s Mote Ram Ka Satyagraha.

Published in 2018 by Seagull Books, Kolkata, Habib Tanvir – Charandas Chor and Other Plays is a priceless addition to the collection of books on theatre, particularly Indian theatre, because it gives insights into the mind of one of the most innovative and creative thinkers and playwrights the country has produced. The layout and the cover of the book in yellow infuses it with a sense of the hope spread by the man who is its subject. The original plays were obtained for publication from his daughter Nageen Tanvir. The translation of Agra Bazar is by Javed Malick.  

(The writer is a senior journalist and film historian based in Kolkata.)