Habib Tanvir: The Making of a Legend

In any culture and in any age, it is rare for a person to become a legend in his or her own lifetime. Yet, judging by the immense enthusiasm and interest with which his productions are received by large audiences in different parts of the country, the 76-year old stalwart of contemporary Indian stage, Habib Tanvir, seems to have already attained this distinction. However, since legends are not born but made, it is instructive to remember that Tanvir's great success and popularity was not given to him on a platter but was earned through a lifetime of serious and sustained effort and struggle.

In popular mind, the name of Habib Tanvir is closely linked to the idea of the folk theatre. However, when he began his career, "folk" had not yet become a major preoccupation in contemporary theatre practice. In fact, he can be regarded as one of the pioneers of the interest in folk forms and traditions of performance. Nonetheless, his approach to folk culture distinguishes itself sharply from that of many others in contemporary theatre. His approach to the folk in particular and his cultural consciousness in general were shaped in the crucible of the left-wing cultural movement -- particularly Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) and Progressive Writers' Association (PWA) -- in which Tanvir actively participated during his early, post-university years.

Tanvir traces the genesis of his interest in the folk to his childhood. He was born and brought up in Raipur, which was at that time a small town surrounded by villages on all sides. There was daily and constant interaction between the residents of the town and the village folk. Although his immediate family was town-based, some of his uncles were landowners and visited the countryside often. As a child, he too had several opportunities to visit villages where he listened to the music and songs of the local people. He was so fascinated by these melodies that he even memorised some of them. After finishing school, he was sent to Aligarh Muslim University for his Bachelor's degree. Having completed his studies there, he moved to Bombay in 1945 and immediately joined IPTA and PWA there.

Tanvir's twin interest in poetry and music found its first major expression on stage with Agra Bazar, which he wrote and produced soon after moving to Delhi in 1954. When he arrived in Delhi, and began his career in the theatre, the Capital's stage scene was dominated by amateur and collegiate drama groups which offered English plays in English, or in vernacular translation, to a socially restricted section of the city's anglophone elite. These groups, as also the NSD a decade later, derived their concept of theatre, their standards of acting, staging, and direction, from the European models of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. There was little effort to link theatre work to the indigenous traditions of performance, or even to say anything of immediate value and interest to an Indian audience. In complete contrast to this, Agra Bazar offered an experience radically different, both in form and content, from anything that the city had ever seen.

The play, as we know, is based on the works and times of a very unusual 18th-century Urdu poet, Nazir Akbarabadi, who not only wrote about ordinary people and their everyday concerns but wrote in a style and idiom which disregarded the orthodox, elitist norms of decorum in poetic idiom and subject matter. Using a mix of educated, middle-class urban actions and more or less illiterate folk and street artists from the village of Okhla, what Tanvir, in a highly interesting (and, for its time, revolutionary) artistic strategy, put on the stage was not the socially and architecturally walled-in space of a private dwelling, but a bazaar -- a marketplace with all its noise and bustle, its instances of solidarity and antagonism, and above all, with all its sharp social, economic and cultural polarities. The play also foregrounds a poetry that takes the ordinary people (their lives, and their everyday struggles) as both its inspiration and its addressee. It uses the example of Nazir's poetry and his plebeian appeal to challenge orthodox, elitist literary canons. What the play thus offers is a joyful celebration of what Mikhail Bakhtin called 'the culture of the marketplace.'

In Agra Bazar, two major emphases that characterise Tanvir's work in the theatre -- one, an artistic and ideological predilection for the plebeian, popular culture; and, two, a penchant for employing music and poetry in plays not as superfluous embellishment but, much like Brecht, as an integral part of the action -- had their first and one of the finest expressions.

Soon after this production, Tanvir went to England where he spent over three years studying theatre at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He also traveled extensively through Europe, watching theatre. He spent about eight months in Berlin in 1956 and saw several recent productions by Bertolt Brecht (who had died that year). This was Tanvir's first encounter with the German playwright-director's work and he was more profoundly influenced by it than by anything that RADA could teach him. In fact, on returning to India, he quickly began to unlearn much of what he was taught in England -- and thus followed a trajectory of development diametrically opposite to that followed by other British-trained Indian directors. Tanvir was now doubly convinced that no truly worthwhile theatre -- that is, no socially meaningful and artistically interesting theatre -- was possible unless one worked within one's own cultural traditions and context.

The result of this enhanced awareness was, that disregarding the colonial mind-set that dominated the theatre scene at the time, Tanvir began his long quest for an indigenous performance idiom. This quest went through at least two distinct stages before the director arrived at the form and style which is now the hallmark of his work in theatre. His first move was to work with some folk artists of Chhattisgarh and their traditional forms and techniques. His first production, mounted soon after returning from Europe, Mitti ki Gadi (a translation of Shudraka's Mrichchakatikam), included six folk actors from Chhattisgarh in the cast. Besides, he used the conventions and techniques of the folk stage, thus giving the production a distinctly Indian form and style. The play, which is still revived from time to time (although it is now performed entirely by village actors), is considered by many as one of the best modern renderings of the ancient classic.

Mitti ki Gadi convinced Tanvir that the style and techniques of the folk theatre are akin to the ones implied in the dramaturgy of the Sanskrit playwrights. He believes that the theatrical style of the latter can be accessed through folk traditions. The imaginative flexibility and simplicity with which the classical playwrights establish and shift the time and place of action in a play, Tanvir argues, is found in abundance in our folk performances. Mitti ki Gadi, as well as his recent production of Visakhadatta's Mudrarakshasa, are practical demonstrations of this fact. For example, changes in time and locale in both productions are suggested through dialogues and movements without formally interrupting the performance. To quote just one instance from Mitti ki Gadi, when a character orders his subordinate to go to the garden and see if there is the body of a woman there, the subordinate simply runs around the stage once and returns with the answer, 'I went to the garden and found that there is a woman's body there.'

Tanvir and his wife Moneeka Misra (herself a theatre person) founded a company of their own in 1959 and called it Naya Theatre. The group produced a number of plays including modern and ancient classics of India and Europe. Although most of these plays were produced with urban actors, Tanvir's interest in the folk traditions and performers had come to stay and continued to grow. However, it was not until the early 1970s that this involvement reached a new and more sustained phase.

At that stage of his career, Tanvir was not entirely satisfied with his work with folk actors. He recognized two 'faults' (as he calls them) in his approach to them. One, he realised that it was not correct to fix the performance rather rigidly in advance by blocking movements and arranging lighting on paper. This, he felt, did not work with the rural artists who could not read or write and could not even remember which way and on what line they should move. The second difficulty was that, by doing plays in Hindi or Hindustani, he was making these actors speak standard Hindi, a language they were not accustomed to. This had the effect of making them act with a severe handicap and thus of inhibiting the full and free expression of their creativity in performance.

Conscious of these faults, Tanvir began to rid his style of work of them. He started using the method of improvisations. He also allowed the folk actors to speak in their native Chhattisgarhi dialect. The years 1970-73 were an exploratory phase for him. During this period, he worked intensively with rural performers in their native language and style of performance. He allowed them to do their own traditional pieces mostly in their own way, merely editing and touching them up here and there to make them more stageworthy. During this period he tried many things, from temple rituals to stock skits and pandavani.

The second significant breakthrough came during a nacha workshop that Tanvir conducted in Raipur in 1972. In addition to several observers from the urban centres of Raipur, Delhi and Calcutta, more than a hundred folk artists of the region participated in the month-long exercise. During the workshop, three different traditional comedies from the stock nacha repertoire were selected and more or less dovetailed into one another to make one compact, full length play. A few short scenes were improvised and inserted to link them up into one story. A number of songs, which had never before been brought on the stage were also included after appropriate editing. The production which was thus created was called Gaon ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damaad, an almost wholly improvised and delightful stage play.

The play was a significant turning point in Tanvir's development. With this production, which was a great success not only in Chhattisgarh but also in Delhi, he had broken new ground. He felt that he had found the form and style that he had been searching for ever since his arrival on the theatre scene as a director in the 1950's. After the 1973 workshop, it became easier for him to go on with the construction and casting of a play through improvisations -- a method that he continues to use to this day. By the time he produced his masterpiece, Charandas Chor (1975), that evergreen darling of theatregoers throughout the country, the form and style of his theatre had reached its perfection.

Tanvir's Naya Theatre works almost exclusively with folk actors. However, even his occasional productions with urban actors and for groups other than Naya Theatre -- such as, Dushman (Gorky's Enemies) for the NSD Repertory or Jisne Lahore Nai Dekhya Wo Jamyai Nai (Asghar Wajahat) for the Sri Ram Centre Repertory -- are marked by the style that he has developed through his work with the folk artists. Nonetheless, the theatre that Tanvir had developed was not a "folk theatre" in the strictest sense of the term. He is a conscious and highly sophisticated urban artist with a modern outlook, sensibility and a strong sense of history and politics. His interest in folk culture and his decision to work with and in terms of traditional styles of performance was itself an ideological choice as much as an aesthetic one, whether Tanvir himself was fully conscious of it as such or not. There is a close connection between his predilection for popular traditions and his left-wing disposition. His involvement with the left-wing cultural movement, an association which he maintains (no matter how loosely) to this day, already meant a commitment to the common people and their causes. His work in the theatre, in style as well as in content, reflects this commitment and can be seen as part of a larger (socialist) project of empowerment of the people.

Tanvir's fascination with the "folk" is not motivated by a revivalist or an antiquarian impulse. It is based, instead, on an awareness of the tremendous creative possibilities and artistic energies inherent in these traditions. He does not hesitate to borrow themes, techniques, and music from them, but he also desists from the impossible task of trying to resurrect old traditions in their original form and also from presenting them as stuffed museum pieces. Notwithstanding a popular misconception, his theatre does not belong within any one form or tradition in its entirety or purity. In fact, as he is quick to point out, he has not been "running after" folk forms as such at all but only after folk performers who brought their own forms and styles with them. The performance style of his actors is, no doubt, rooted in their traditional nacha background, but his plays are not authentic nacha productions. For one thing, while the number of actual actors in a nacha play is usually restricted to two or three, the rest being stop-gap singers and dancers, Tanvir's production involve a full cast of actors, some of whom also sing and dance. More significantly, his plays have a structural coherence and complexity which one does not usually associate with the "simple" form of the nacha. Another important difference is that while in the nacha songs and dances are used largely as autonomous musical interludes, in Tanvir's plays they are neither purely ornamental in function nor are they formally autonomous units inserted into a loose collection of separate skits. On the contrary, they are closely woven into the fabric of the action and function as an important part of the total thematic and artistic structure of the play.

In other words, Tanvir does not romanticise the 'folk' uncritically and ahistorically. He is aware of their historical and cognitive limitations and does not hesitate to intervene in them and allow his own modern consciousness and political understanding to interact with the traditional energies and skills of his performers. His project, from the beginning of his career, has been to harness elements of folk traditions as a vehicle and make them yield new, contemporary meanings, and to produce a theatre which has a touch of the soil about it.

This rich interaction between Tanvir's urban, modern consciousness and the folk styles and forms is perhaps best exemplified by the songs in his plays. Tanvir's excellent adaptations of A Midsummer's Night Dream (Kamdeo Ka Apna, Basant Ritu Ka Sapna) and The Good Woman of Szechwan (Shaajapur ki Shantibai) could not be possible without this interaction. In these plays, he has worked close to the original text and written songs which reproduce the rich imagery and humour of Shakespeare's poetry and the complex ideas of Brecht. Despite this fidelity to the original texts, not only has Tanvir given his poetic compositions the authenticity and freshness of the original but has also fitted his words to native folk tunes with remarkable ease and skill.

One of the most outstanding examples of this kind of interaction is Tanvir's Dekh Rahe Hain Nain, based on a story by Stephen Zweig, in which he has successfully represented a complex theme without compromising the vitality and creativity of his folk actors. It was the moral dilemma embodied in the protagonist, a courageous warrior, who is tormented by the guilt of having to kill his own brother, which had attracted Tanvir to Zweig's story. However, in writing the play, he went beyond the story and invented new events, situations, characters and added dimensions and nuances which significantly enriched the story and made it more poignantly relevant for us today. The result is a play that traverses a complex gamut of motifs from the abstract, almost metaphysical, quest for inner peace to the concrete, material problems of the ordinary people in wake of a war, economic inflation and political corruption; from an idealist impulse towards renunciation of political power and towards an absolute solitude to an urgent sense of the necessity to get involved with others for a shared endeavour to change the world.

Tanvir is quite careful not to create a hierarchy by privileging, in any absolute and extrinsic way, his own educated consciousness as poet-cum-playwright-cum-director over the unschooled creativity of his actors. In his work, the two usually meet and interpenetrate, as it were, as equal partners in a collective, collaborative endeavour in which each gives and takes from, and thus enriches, the other. An excellent example of this non-exploitative approach is the way Tanvir fits and blends his poetry with the traditional folk and tribal music, allowing the former to retain its own imaginative and rhetorical power and socio-political import, but without in any way devaluing or destroying the latter. Yet another example can be seen in the way he allows his actors and their skills to be foregrounded by eschewing all temptations to use elaborate stage design and complicated lighting.

Thus in contrast to the fashionable, folksy kind of drama on the one hand and the revivalist and archaic kind of 'traditional' theatre on the other, Tanvir's theatre offers an incisive blend of tradition and modernity, folk creativity and skills on the one hand and modern critical consciousness on the other. It is this rich as well as enriching blend which makes his work so unique and memorable.


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