The distance from Raipur, where Habib Ahmed Khan was born, to Bhopal, where Habib Tanvir died recently, is little more than 630 km—a narrow compass.
But Habib Tanvir’s life as a playwright and a poet, “Tanvir” being the takhallus he adopted as a young man, was broader in scope. It took him from ancient Greece to contemporary Europe, from Rajasthani folk fables to fierce political drama in Bengal—always, though, via Chattisgarh.
I met the legendary founder of the Naya Theatre when we were both in search of an exit. Delhi’s English-language theatre was inundated with bedroom farces, and that evening’s comedy at the Kamani auditorium was unbearably bad. Sneaking away at interval, I found the front door locked—presumably by a director aware that there was no better way to retain his audience. A rumpled man with black-framed spectacles beckoned me over conspiratorially: “Look! We can escape from the side.”
With the brashness of youth, I told him why I thought Delhi theatre was terrible. He was gentle with my ignorance. “Try your luck further down the road,” he said, mentioning a play festival at Mandi House. He spoke of Alkazi, Girish Karnad, Badal Sarkar and then said, “I’ve done a little play writing myself. There’s one you might like, called Agra Bazaar. My name’s Habib Tanvir.”
We met a few times over the years, and that central modesty never shifted, though he was perfectly aware of his worth. He once said that he had begun his career seeing himself as a writer—as time went by, he felt that his role was to be a translator and a sutradhar. He spent most of his life on the road with the Naya Theatre troupe as actor, director, adaptor, writer, producer, manager, narrator; his engagement was active, right up till his eightieth year. As a small tribute, here’s a look at some of the plays that shaped Tanvir sahib.
Agra Bazaar (1954): As a young man growing up in Raipur and Aligarh, Tanvir developed a sharp ear for the many flavours of Hindi; he had a special fondness for the richness of Chattisgarhi-accented Hindi, and for the language of the bazaar versus the durbar. He was fascinated by the 18th century poet, Nazir Akbarabadi. Akbarabadi was very much a common man’s poet, writing verses to the ordinary man-on-the-street (in the Aadmi Nama), to a hand-fan, to dal, to cucumbers.
Tanvir’s Agra Bazaar takes a vegetable vendor who believes that if he could only get a poet to write in praise of his wares, he would sell more sabzis. Scorned by the great bards of the day, he finally finds Akbarabadi—who remains an offstage presence—and poetry comes down from the courts to the streets. Staged by Tanvir, Agra Bazaar became a brilliant spectacle, gently stressing that literature and poetry are the prerogative of the masses, not just a rarefied few.
Charandas Chor (1975): The story of a thief who keeps his honour at the cost of his life by stealing, but keeping his commitment to refrain from doing four things, is a stage classic. In Tanvir’s version, it showcased the rich roughness of the Chattisgarhi dialect, and brought folk theatre into an urban setting. It developed a second life, adapted as a children’s play.
One of Tanvir’s strengths was to take material written by others and to reshape it for the stage—Charandas Chor was originally based on a Rajasthani folk tale adapted by Vijaydan Detha.
Raj-Rakta (2006): Tagore’s Visarjan is one of his most powerful and most flawed plays, based on a clash between the priest of a kingdom and his king over whether animal sacrifice should be banned. Tanvir’s instinct was to go back to the far stronger novel, Rajarshi (1887) on which Visarjan was based, and meld the play and the novel. Unfortunately, Raj-Rakta works better in text form—it remained awkward on stage in the Naya Theatre production—but Tanvir’s script, if you can get it, remains a classic example of how to write an adaptation.
Ponga Pundit (1930s, staged by Tanvir 1960s onwards): Ponga Pundit is identified so strongly with Naya Theatre and Tanvir that many assume he was the author. It was written, as he often pointed out, by two folk artists, Sukhram and Sitaram, as a takedown of organised religion (and corrupt priests) and works best as improvisational theatre.
After the 1992 razing of the Babri Masjid, Tanvir’s performances of the play were often attacked by the Shiv Sena—under the mistaken assumption that he, as a Muslim, was insulting Hinduism. Naya Theatre took the rotten eggs, tomatoes and hecklers in their stride and continued to produce the play.
Perhaps Tanvir sahib’s more esoteric plays—such as the one on the Greek mathematician Hypatia—will fade into obscurity. But his brand of folk theatre has proved surprisingly robust, and though we’ll miss that lean figure with the mobile expressions on stage, his plays will survive his passing.