Habib Tanvir: Indian playwright with an indigenous take on theatrical tradition
- Shanaz Habib
- guardian.co.uk, Thursday 3 September 2009
Tanvir is best known for Charandas Chor, his play about a thief who is also a man of his word. Photograph: Sudhanva Deshpande
The playwright and theatre director Habib Tanvir, who has died at the age of 85, drew inspiration from sources as varied as Bertolt Brecht, classical Sanskrit dramaturgy and the folk theatre of India‘s villages. In line with Tanvir’s lifelong quest to create a new form of theatre that moved away from the realistic Stanislavskian tradition, his Indian theatre company, Naya Theatre, mixed indigenous performance styles to create a new theatrical language. He believed that a theatre of the people originated in the village and his collaborative work brought together folk performers and urban actors.
Born Habib Ahmed Khan in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh (an eastern state formed in 2001, formerly part of Madhya Pradesh), he later added Tanvir to his name when he started to write poetry. During his childhood, he had many encounters with the indigenous peoples of Chhattisgarh, the Satnamis and the Bastars. He would return to their storytelling techniques later as he pioneered a hybrid aesthetics in contemporary Indian theatre.
Educated in Raipur and later at Aligarh Muslim University, he was drawn to music, poetry and theatre. In 1945, he moved to Bombay (now Mumbai), where as a writer, actor and journalist, he became an active participant in two great intellectual movements of the time – the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association and the Progressive Writer’s Association. As he found his voice as an artist, he was influenced by their secular, left‑leaning political vision.
Nine years later, he moved to Delhi. It was here that he really began an independent career in theatre. Amid the polished accents of the Anglophonic theatre scene in the capital, he staged the noisy, cacophonic marketplace of Agra Bazaar, paying homage to the memory of the eccentric 18th-century Urdu poet Nazir Akbarabadi, who wrote verse on demand for market vendors. Agra Bazaar was radical in its engagement with popular culture and use of street language.
In 1955, Tanvir started studies at Rada in London and Bristol Old Vic theatre school while travelling through Europe, watching theatre. According to his playwright-director friend Sudipto Chatterjee (currently a senior lecturer at the department of English and drama at Loughborough University), Tanvir hitchhiked to Berlin to meet Brecht, only to find that he had just died. He spent several months in Berlin watching Brecht productions – yet another crossroad in his life. Chatterjee recollects asking him how his Rada experience shaped him. Tanvir replied: “It taught me, via a negative route, why and how I needed to create a new idiom for my own theatre.” He learned by unlearning and challenging his Stanislavskian training at Rada that theatre did not need to be realistic. His encounter with Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble happened at the right moment to fuse this understanding into a commitment to indigenous idioms and social consciousness in theatre.
Soon after, Tanvir returned to India and in 1959, with his wife Moneeka Mishra, he founded Naya Theatre (New Theatre). The group produced many plays, using folk artists from Chhattisgarh and their music and performing traditions to stage European and Indian classics. According to the theatre critic Javed Malick, Tanvir was convinced that the techniques of folk theatre are in perfect harmony with the imaginative flexibility of classical Sanskrit dramaturgy. Mitti Ka Gadi, staged in the late 50s, his rendering of the 8th-century Sanskrit classic Mrichchakatikam, shows many signs of this conviction.
He continued to experiment with the form of his new theatre in the 1960s and 70s. He moved away gradually from scripted and standardised plays towards improvised theatre that allowed more freedom for unschooled folk artists. In 1975, he wrote and directed Charandas Chor, the story of a thief who is also a man of his word. Tanvir is best known for this play, a marvellous example of his layered, humanistic vision of the “common man”. The play won him an award at the Edinburgh festival in 1982.
He also had a genius for framing the universal impulse in every story within the hopes and fears of the local context. And so The Good Woman of Schezwan became Shajapur Ka Shantibai and Shakespeare’s songs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream metamorphosed into folk melodies in Kamdeo Ka Apna, Basant Ritu Ka Sapna.
Even as he was evolving a new form of theatrical expression, Tanvir was also keeping his theatre company afloat – the usual precariousness of the artistic life was heightened as government grants dried up because his progressive agenda fell out of favour with conservative political will. Ponga Pandit, a play about religious corruption, touched a few raw nerves during the increasingly polarised 1990s and many of the performances were disrupted by Hindu revivalists. Yet he never shied away from airing political and social issues – the more recent Zahreeli Hawa was based on the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984.
There is a fine line between “folk” and “exotic”, and Tanvir’s integrity and imagination never failed him. He made his distaste for orientalism clear and was always conscious of the danger of appropriation. His approach was collaborative and empowering. He will be remembered for this larger, cultural vision as much as for his radical theatre.
Tanvir is survived by two daughters. His wife predeceased him.
• Habib Ahmed Khan Tanvir, playwright and theatre director, born 1 September 1923; died 8 June 2009
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