A farewell to the bard of Bhopal

Habib Tanvir (1923-2009) Photo: Sudhanva Deshpande

HABIB TANVIR was the last great actormanager of the Indian theatre, in the grand tradition of Sisir Bhaduri, Prithviraj Kapoor, Utpal Dutt. But he was more. He was one of our finest playwrights, an internationally acclaimed director, a fine poet, lyricist, singer, designer, teacher. He ran a professional theatre troupe, Naya Theatre, for half a century. Anyone with any experience of running a theatre group will tell you what a staggering achievement that is. All along, maintaining the highest standards of artistic excellence.

Plays like Agra Bazaar, Charandas Chor, Bahadur Kalarin, Kamdev ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna, Mitti ki Gaadi, Shahapur ki Shantibai, Mudrarakshas and Raj Rakt, gave immeasurable joy to theatre lovers. In theatrical terms, there was nothing he left untouched. The ancient Sanskrit writers Sudrak, Bhasa, Visakhadatta and Bhavabhuti; European classics by Shakespeare, Molière and Goldoni; modern masters Brecht, Garcia, Lorca, Gorky, and even Wilde; Indian writers Rabindranath Tagore, Asghar Wajahat, Shankar Shesh, Safdar Hashmi and Rahul Varma. He adapted stories by Premchand, Stefan Zweig and Vijaydan Detha for the stage, besides adapting oral tales from Chhattisgarh. He took theatrical seeds from all over the world and nurtured them with the water, air and soil of Chhattisgarh. His plays were as cosmopolitan as they were rural, as modern as they were traditional. And always, just great rollicking fun.

Habib Tanvir was a public intellectual, responding to his times and the events around him with plays as much as by writing articles, speaking, joining protest marches and signing statements. Let me recount here one of my quintessential memories of the man.

In September-October 2003, on the eve of the State Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Habib sa’ab toured these two states extensively with his plays. The Chhattisgarh shows, a majority of them in villages, went off without a hitch. But when the troupe started performing in Madhya Pradesh, they came under attack from the Hindu Right. The play that evoked their ire was that little jewel of the Nacha tradition, a play neither written nor directed by Habib sa’ab, but simply inherited by him via his actors, Ponga Pandit, a rip roaring farce against untouchability.

It was all meticulously planned. In town after town, gangs of saffron activists would land up at the performance venue, and make enough noise to make the district administration jittery about law and order. But Habib sa’ab was considerably more crafty than his imbecile attackers. At Bhopal, they performed his classic Charandas Chor. After the performance, the organisers asked him to introduce his actors. He said, “We are kalakars (artistes); our introduction is our art. Would you like to listen to some songs?” “Yes,” chorused the audience. The actors started singing, and, without anyone realising, seamlessly segued into a performance of Ponga Pandit. By the time the Hindutva zealots realised what was happening, the play was over.

Actor Udayram said: “If the god of death comes knocking for Habib, he will say, ‘Wait, I am rehearsing’”

In the same tour, they were travelling from one town to another when they came upon a village. Habib sa’ab struck up a conversation with the villagers. Would you like to see a Nacha performance, he asked? Some of the villagers recognised his actors and within a short time the village chaupal had been readied for performance. Ponga Pandit was performed, watched by a few hundred villagers, who laughed and enjoyed the play without any interference from right wing goons. At another place, the protestors shouted ‘Joote maro saaley ko’ (‘Hurl shoes at the *#@^’) and ‘Jai Shri Ram’. Habib sa’ab scolded the protestors: “Aren’t you ashamed that you take the name of Shri Ram in the same breath as you utter profanities? Abuse me, for all you want, but don’t drag Shri Ram into it! I will not allow that!”

I was present at the performance in Vidisha during the same tour. We reached there in the afternoon, and the district administration began mounting pressure on Habib sa’ab to cancel the show, citing ‘law and order’. He listened to the DM and SP carefully and respectfully, asking questions about exactly how many people had gathered where. He then insisted on going to the venue before deciding. At the venue, a few dozen VHP-Bajrang Dal activists were shouting slogans against him. Except that they’d got his name wrong — ‘Tanvir Ahmed murdabad!’ — and this amused him no end.

There was very heavy police presence. But the police allowed some protestors to enter the auditorium. Habib sa’ab still decided to go ahead with the performance. First, they did Asghar Wajahat’s Jis Lahore Nahi Vekhya Voh Janmya hi Nahi, a play about a Hindu woman left behind in Lahore after the Partition. Habib sa’ab made the main character, a fundamentalist, say all the things you would expect your friendly neighbourhood VHP guy to say, but the protestors could say nothing, since the character in question was a Muslim.

AT THE end of the play, Habib sa’ab spoke to the audience about India, our myriad, wonderful cultures, the great religions of India, our syncretic and pluralrist traditions. He was like a Zen master — unruffled, calm, wise. What was fascinating was that he was not delivering a speech, he was speaking to the spectators, engaging them in a dialogue. Later, he explained to me that since most of the audience were ordinary students, he felt that he had to win them over with logic and reason. He spoke also about the Nacha, the theatrical form of rural Chhattisgarh, and how he had learnt much from his unlettered actors. He asked the spectators: would you like to see a classic play of this genre? One man, saffron scarf around his neck, said no. Before anyone could realise what was happening, the police swooped in and removed not only him, but the entire audience. Within minutes, the auditorium was empty, thanks to the police which was deployed to aid the performance.

Habib sa’ab came to the microphone again, and said: I don’t care if there is no one here. We have come to perform the play, and we shall perform the play. And so, the play was performed — to an empty auditorium. That was Habib sa’ab. Nothing could stop him from performing.

In the last years of his life, as his old actors began retiring and some started dying, and especially after his wife Moneeka died, many of us asked Habib sa’ab to slow down, to disband the theatre, to spend more time writing, teaching, workshopping. He would listen to us, nod sagely, agree that this was what he ought to do. And yet, every time someone phoned to ask for a performance, his eyes would light up. The lights, the music, the stage, the travelling, the hurlyburly of life on tour — all this gave him a high. As his actor Udayram said to me once: “If Yamraaj (the god of death) comes knocking, he will say, ‘Wait, I am rehearsing a scene.’”

And when the end came, he was still planning, dreaming, writing, active till the last.

Deshpande has co-directed, with Sanjay Maharishi, two documentary films on Habib Tanvir and Naya Theatre



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