Habib Tanvir

Javed Malick

In the death of Habib Tanvir in June 2009, Indian theatre lost one of its most remarkable and legendary figures of the post Independence period. The uniqueness of Tanvir’s half a century of work in the theatre was that it demonstrated how Indian theatre could be simultaneously both delightfully traditional and poignantly contemporary or modern. His plays successfully harnessed the skills, energies, and conventions of the traditional or folk performance and married them to contemporary concerns and a secular and democratic worldview. The result was a wonderful kind of theatre which was as incisive as it was entertaining.

When Tanvir began his career, the ‘folk’ was neither the fashion nor the passion in India’s theatre practice. Far from an all-inspiring catchword that it later became it was a neglected and greatly devitalised category. Tanvir was one of those who pioneered the revival of interest in folk performance traditions and made it into a significant and influential category in regard to the contemporary theatre practice in India. Beginning with 1958 when he returned to India after training in England and travelling extensively through Europe, he spent several years researching and studying folk traditions in drama, story-telling, music, and dance. He frequently and widely wandered through the interiors of Chhattisgarh, meeting and spending time with local performers and often watching their nightlong performances.1 For five decades, he worked almost exclusively with village actors. His productions used folk music and musicians, and, for dialogue, employed the village dialect, often alongside standard Hindi or Urdu.

Tanvir’s involvement in the folk was not motivated by any romantic nostalgia for a culture fast disappearing. In other words, his approach was neither revivalist nor antiquarian but was profoundly influenced by his own urban, categorically modern consciousness. Although he worked largely with more or less illiterate village artists, Tanvir himself was a highly educated, well read, well travelled and sophisticated person with a robustly democratic and contemporary consciousness. This consciousness was shaped in the crucible of the radical cultural movements of his youth. The 1940s were heady years for India’s left-wing politics. Tanvir spent several years of that decade in Mumbai during which he was actively associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), the two major and highly influential leftist cultural organisations of the time. Having spent his childhood in Raipur, which was then a small town hemmed in on all sides by villages, Tanvir already had some early exposure to folk culture. But it was his active involvement with IPTA which not only renewed his early interest in the folk culture but also gave it a new political focus and significance. IPTA’s slogan ‘People’s theatre stars the people’ prompted many to link their art to plebeian cultural forms and traditions as opposed to the culture of the ruling classes. Similarly, his association with the PWA intensified his interest in poetry and he started writing poetry of radical social and political import. This complex of a democratic bias in favour of the common people, an interest in music, and passion for poetry lies at the basis of the entire corpus of Tanvir’s work in the theatre. It can be evidenced in all his plays from the first major production, the celebrated Agra Bazar to his last production Raj-Rakt, a play that he adapted from two of Tagore’s stories. From time to time, his democratic consciousness also prompted him to use his art to intervene in a given social or political situation. The examples of this kind of what may be called Tanvir’s activist work would include plays like Ponga Pandit, Zehreli Hawa, Sadak, Kushtia ka Chaprasi, and even the controversial Indira Loksabha.

When Tanvir moved to Delhi in 1954, the city’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. As mentioned above, these groups, as also the National School of Drama 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. As already mentioned, in this play, 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.

The play 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 actors 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 foregrounded a poetry that takes the ordinary people (their lives, and their everyday struggles) as its inspiration, its subject, as well as 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 the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called ‘the culture of the marketplace.’

Soon after this production, Tanvir went to England where he was to study theatre at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). No sooner had he got in there that he wanted to get out. He realised that he was wasting his time, for the kind of training they were trying to give him, he recognised, would be of no use to him if he wanted to practice theatre in India. He moved out of there and went to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to learn direction. But he learnt a great deal more from his travels through Europe when he saw theatre in different countries. He spent 8 months in Berlin in 1956 soon after Brecht’s death and saw many Berliner Ensemble productions. This influenced him profoundly and reconfirmed him in his belief that one must work close to and in tandem with one’s cultural roots. ‘I thought you could do nothing worthwhile unless you went to your roots and tried to reinterpret traditions and used traditions as a vehicle for transmitting the most modern and contemporary messages. Which means intervening in the tradition creatively.’ It is this idea of a ‘creative intervention in the tradition’ that informs Tanvir’s approach to the folk.

On returning to India, Tanvir 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 of his time. He 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.

Tanvir’s approach to the ‘folk’ was neither uncritical nor ahistorical. He was aware of their ideological limitations and did 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, had been to harness elements of the 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, on the one hand, and the folk styles and forms, on the other, is perhaps best exemplified by the songs in his plays. For example, 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) as well as his complex philosophical play, Dekh Rahe Hain Nain, could not be possible without this collaboration. In the first two, Tanvir beautifully blended a fidelity to the original foreign texts, the authenticity and freshness of poetic expression, and native folk tunes. In Nain, he successfully represented an intellectually complicated theme.

However, Tanvir was 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 met and interpenetrated, as it were, as equal partners in a collective, collaborative endeavour in which each gave and took from, and thus enriched, the other. An excellent example of this non-exploitative approach, as we saw above, is the way Tanvir fitted and blended his poetry to 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 allowed 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, with its incisive blend of tradition and contemporaneity, folk creativity and modern critical consciousness, offered a new and more inclusive model of modernity. It is this rich and enriching blend which made his work so uniquely memorable.


1 Incidentally, in the course of his sustained engagement with the cultural heritage of the region, Tanvir was also able to bring a number of folk form and styles (such as, Chandaini, Pandvani, and Nacha) from the remote tribal areas of Chhattisgarh into the national focus. Today some of them especially, Pandvani are known and appreciated internationally.

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