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Contemporary Indian Theatre And Habib Tanvirs

Habib Tanvir and Naya Theatre are two inseparable names which will always be remembered in the modern theatrical scenario in India. It’s been a year since the death of Habib Tanvir, one of the most popular Indian Hindi, Urdu playwrights, a poet, a theatre director, and an actor, but still the majority of theatergoers in India remember his famous artworks like Agra Bazar and Charandas Chor. The country will always recall this man as the founding father of contemporary theatre of India. But before we go into his life and work details we will have a quick understanding of the evolution of contemporary theatre in India.

The traditional theatre,

The classical or Sanskrit theatre and

The Modern theatre.

Contemporary Indian theatre, as we know it today, has been widely influenced by the change in the political scenario in India. During the 200 years of British rule Indian theatre came in direct contact with western theatre. With the union of power by the British Raj in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Bengal, it was in the metropolises of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta that they first introduced their style of theatre, primarily based on London concept.

This genre of theatre began to expand in the 1850s as more enthusiasts started to perform their own play on different languages based on western style. Due to the growth of this new form of the theatre the other conventional form of theatre felt the heat. Theatre started being ticketed from the 1870s. By the 20th century and First World War, it became a product for sale and was restricted into the auditorium.

As the Indian freedom movement picked momentum, the creative side of the theatre took a setback. In 1922, the Indian Communist Party was founded and along with it came the Indian People`s Theatre Association (IPTA), which worked as its cultural wing. They took the initiative of portable theatre and these were based on various political agenda primarily against the British Rule. Indian theatre was turning out as a medium of social and political change that would be more concerned about reaching out to the common people.

Post-Independence, Indian theatre got a fresh and broader outlook from appropriate mixing of various styles from medieval, Sanskrit, and western theatre. This newly found entity was further enhanced by the formation of Sangeet Natak Academy in Jan 1953 and the National School of Drama, New Delhi under Ebrahim Alkazi in 1959. This dramatic revival brought many pioneers in the theatrical front among which Habib Tanvir was one of the most popular theatre playwright-director in Hindi and Urdu. Along with B.V. Karanth (1928-2002), Ibrahim Alkazi (born 1923), Utpal Dutt (1929-1993) & Satyadev Dubey (born 1936), Tanvir shaped the structure of modern theatre in India.

The individuality in Tanvir’s form of theatre was that it showed how Indian theatre could be simultaneously blended with traditional and contemporary aspects. His theater was not fixed to any one form as a whole. His works reaped the skills, energies of folk performance and made them relevant to the secular and democratic perspective. The effect was that his artwork was as challenging as it was entertaining. During the five decades of his stint in theatre, Tanvir gave such memorable productions as Agra Bazar[1954], Mitti ki Gari[1958], Gaon ka Naam Sasural Mor Naam Damaad[1973], Charandas Chor[1975], Jis Lahore Ni Dekhya[1990], and Rajrakt[2006], of which many are renowned as classics of the contemporary Indian stage.

In popular culture, the name of Habib Tanvir is closely related to the concept of the folk theatre. However, Habib Tanvir’s appeal with the ‘folk’ was motivated by the folk performers who brought their own styles along with them. Habib Tanvir plays involved actors who can sing and dance. His project from the start had been to utilize elements of folk as an instrument to produce theater to appeal general masses.

Habib Ahmed Khan was born in Raipur, Chhattisgarh to Hafiz Ahmed Khan, who belonged to Peshawar. ‘Tanvir’ was a pen-name he took later when he started writing poetry. Raipur, during that time was a small town surrounded by villages. As a child, Tanvir too had many opportunities to visit villages, interact with the residents and listen to the songs of the locals. He was so attracted by those melodies that he even memorized some of them.

Tanvir completed his schooling from Laurie Municipal High School in Raipur and his BA from Morris College Nagpur in 1944. After pursuing his Masters for 1 year at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Tanvir moved to Bombay in 1945 and joined All India Radio (AIR). He also joined the PWA (Progressive Writers’ Association) and became an essential part of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) as an actor. When the Communist Party of India was banned many IPTA members were jailed or went underground. From 1948-50, Habib solely handled the responsibility of running the organization.

In 1954, Tanvir moved to Delhi, and worked with Hindustani Theatre formed by Qudsia Zaidi and authored many plays. It was in this period he met Moneeka Mishra, also an actor-director, whom he later married. In the same year, he produced ‘Agra Bazar’, based on the times of the 18-th-century Urdu poet, Nazir Akbarabadi, an older poet in the generation of Mirza Ghalib. He used students of Jamia Millia Islamia and local residents and folk artists from Okhla village and created an ambience never seen before in Indian theatre. The play was not staged in a restricted space, but in a bazaar, a marketplace. Later, On a Govt of India scholarship, Tanvir went to England in 1956. He received training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and the British Drama League, and having exposure to Western drama and production styles.

He traveled extensively throughout Europe, watching theatre. In 1956 he spent about 8 months in Berlin and saw numerous productions by Bertolt Brecht. Being Tanvir’s first experience with the German playwright-director’s work he was quickly influenced by it. Simplicity and directness were the benchmark of Berliner Ensemble productions, and Tanvir was reminded of Sanskrit drama, about its simplicity in technique and presentation. By the time he got back to India, he was determined to unlearn much of what he had learnt at RADA. Thus following a path of development opposite to that followed by other Indian directors trained in Britain.

Soon after returning from Europe, he worked with some folk artists of Chhattisgarh and tried to understand their forms and techniques. His first production, Mitti ki Gadi, included 6 folk actors from Chhattisgarh in the cast. Besides, to give a distinct Indian form and style, he used the conventions and techniques of folk stage. This play though is now performed entirely by village artists, but it is still considered as one of the best modern portrayal of the classic.

Tanvir and his wife Moneeka Misra founded Naya Theatre in 1959. During this stage of career, Tanvir’s interest in the folk traditions and performers continued to grow. But, it was not until the early 1970s that this association reached a new and more sustained phase.

Tanvir wasn’t entirely satisfied with the working of folk actors. He identified two ‘faults’ in his approach to tackle them. Firstly, the problem with the rural artists was they not only could read or write but couldn’t even remember what way they needed to move in the stage. So, it wasn’t wise enough to pre-define their movements in advance. Secondly, making these people speak standard Hindi in Hindustani plays created a severe handicap for them and restricted their freedom of expression and creativity in performance.

To improvise on these faults, the folk actors were allowed to speak in their native Chhattisgarhi dialect. He also worked intensively with rural performers in their language delivery and style of performance. Also, to make them feel stage worthy, he allowed them their own portion of delivery in their own traditional way. The second breakthrough came when Tanvir conducted a nacha workshop in Raipur in 1972 where more than a hundred folk participants were involved in a month-long exercise. During this workshop, three different traditional comedies were selected and combined to form a full length play. Further improvisations linked them up to a full story, leading to a stage play called Gaon ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damaad.

This play marked a turning point in Tanvir’s career, not only because the play was a grand success in Delhi but that he finally found the form and style he was searching since his directorial debut. Since then, he continued his construction and casting of play through improvisations. Through this method, at that time he produced his best work – Charandas Chor(1975). This play is still the evergreen favorite for most theatre goers.

Tanvir’s Naya Theatre worked almost entirely with folk actors. But, his occasional productions with other theatre groups were also marked by the style he developed through his work with folk artists. But, this newly developed style was not “folk theatre” by any sense. He was still an urban artist with sensibility, modern outlook and strong sense of history and politics. His unique style and content in theatre always reflected his commitment to common people and their causes, primarily due to his involvement with the leftist cultural movement in early years.

Tanvir’s fascination with the “folk” was motivated by the fact that he believed there is a huge artistic and creative energy inherent in these traditions. He always borrowed techniques, music and themes from these traditions as and when required. His theatre never belonged to any one form or tradition wholly. His plays, from the beginning, have been utilizing elements of folk traditions as a tool and make them give new, contemporary meanings, and to create an art form which has that touch of soil in it.

The performance styles of the actors were always in their conventional nacha background, but the plays were not original nacha productions. While the number of actors in a nacha play is usually 2 or 3, the rest being background dancers and singers, Tanvir’s plays used to involve a whole casting of actors, some of whom could sing and dance. His productions always had a structure which one doesn’t associate with the original form of the nacha.

Another significant difference is that while the nacha songs are mostly used as intermediate musical delays, in Tanvir’s plays they were closely embedded as an important part of the theme of the play. This is best displayed in some his adaptations like The Good Woman of Szechwan (Shaajapur ki Shantibai) and A Midsummer’s Night Dream (Kamdeo Ka Apna, Basant Ritu Ka Sapna). Tanvir not only gave his poetic compositions the freshness of the original but has also used his words to fit native tunes with ease and skill.

However, Tanvir was always conscious not to create a difference between his own educated minds over the uneducated creative mind of his actors. An example of this approach is the way Tanvir mixed his poetry to the traditional tribal and folk music, retaining its own imaginative power without in any way less valuing the latter. Another example is the way he allowed his actors and their skills to be projected by less complicating the lighting & stage design.

Therefore in contrast to the stylish genre of drama on one side and the ‘traditional’ theatre on the other, Habib Tanvir, with his own blend of tradition, folk creativity and critical consciousness, offered a fresh and innovative model of field of dramatics. It is this rich blend which made his art so memorable.

Even after Tanvir’s death, his innovative art form and style is still being carried forward through newer productions of Naya Theatre. Seeing recent performance of Naya Theatre actors in movie “Peepli Live” we can probably comment that Tanvir’s art form is gradually crossing the barriers of contemporary theatre and exploring newer towards mainstream cinema.



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