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Habib Tanvir: Towards an Inclusive Theatre

Anjum Katyal

Sage Publications

Pages: 248 Rs. 650

Naya Theatre years: The best of times, the worst of times

Anjum Katyal’s biography of Habib Tanvir is an outstanding chronicle of how the maestro’s omnivorous cultural taste helped shape an epochal theatre movement in India, writes Sharanya

SHARANYA  16th Mar 2013

Habib Tanvir

n 1992 after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, HabibTanvir and his troupe Naya Theatre performed Ponga Pandit—a cheeky Chhattisgarhi Nacha play that had been on the Naya Theatre repertoire along with its earlier avatar Jamadarin since the 1970s—in Delhi and other cities. Ponga Pandit is about a jamadar(or sweeper) who enters a temple and on touching holy objects, earns the wrath of a pandit as the items are now 'polluted', which causes her to subsequently pick them all up and walk away; she now has her own temple and she doesn't need him anymore.

In 1993, the performance in Ayodhya itself was uneventful but "in a farcical twist worthy of the farcical nature of the play", according to Habib Tanvir: Towards an Inclusive Theatre authored by theatre critic Anjum Katyal, a performance later that year in Gwalior produced resistance from the Sangh Parivar for the first time. Stone-pelting disrupted the performance, and the play began to be deemed as "anti-Hindu" by the press after this incident. Tanvir and his troupe, though, decided to continue staging the play. "If they can propagate lies," he said, "It is my job to counter those lies."

The violently imaginative activities of the gatekeepers of authentic "Hindu" culture—should we choose to accept its existence as a dubious nationalist ideal if not as fact—now constitute a familiar rip in the canvas of Indian art. Films are censored, literature is banned and artists are exiled from the country. Paranoia dictates the modern communal temperament, and tracing the latter's lineage back to a time when the privately political first began morphing into the public personal nearly always produces astonishment—at the absence of fear, perhaps, but also inevitably at the presence of what is now viewed as such profoundly radical art. Habib Tanvir, Hindi theatre's most memorable pioneer, was a man who not only shook fists at this demarcation between 'entertainment' and 'politics' but also merrily reinvented the boundaries between 'low' folk and 'high' classical Indian theatre, thus destroying, at least in the theatre space, any prevailing notions of creating and safeguarding essential "Indian" sentiment.

Habib Tanvir: Towards an Inclusive Theatre reads as much as a biography of Chhattisgarhi folk theatre as one of Tanvir himself and is, by extension, a rumination on how some of the most relevant issues confronted by society today manifest themselves in art: communal politics, the effect of liberalization policies and technological advances on tribal societies, the relationship between the State and religion, women's reproductive rights, casteism, and of course, whether Nazir is a more valid torchbearer of Indian literature than Bharat Muni is.

Situating at least thirty years of Tanvir’s sensitive engagement with folk theatre but more importantly folk theatre’s trust, in turn, of Tanvir’s partly-urban sensibilities is, however, no mean feat.

Habib Tanvir, born Habib Ahmed Khan, was influenced by a variety of cultural milestones and figures. Urdu mushairas, formal Parsi theatre, and Chhatisgarhi Nacha and Pandvani performances all deeply impacted him as a child growing up in Raipur, while the cultural activities of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) and the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) in the 1940s pushed him to shrug off certain kinds of theatre (proscenium-arch English theatre, for instance) and engage more closely with Indian folk-theatre forms. Agra Bazaar, staged in 1954 at Jamia Millia University in Delhi, was based on the poet Nazir. After a year at RADA in London, Tanvir found that he had no interest in movements that "start from the spine" or correcting his 'w's in classroom, and consequently moved to the Old Vic in Bristol to study production. After three years of travelling across Europe, engaging closely with theatre and music, Tanvir returned to India and made Mitti ki Gadi, a production that introduced features that would go on to become trademarks of Naya Theatre: the intertwining of Indian folk and classical traditions, and the presence of Chhatisgarhi folk actors.

his biography begins by tracing the trajectory of Tanvir's involvement with theatre, but branches into chapters such as "The Classics and Literature" and "Connecting with the Folk", which are remarkably lucid in addressing not merely the larger political implications of Habib's theatre, but also the ways in which the participation of the players itself indicates everyday aesthetic choices that are not neutral or 'apolitical' in any way. For instance, the brochure of Lala Shohrat Rai, an adaptation of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, mentions that Shohrat Rai was a merchant who aspired to "be considered a member of the elite [...] He starts learning English, the fine arts...adopts Hindi, in lieu of his dialect which is his mother tongue." Katyal astutely remarks, "There are many resonances here with real life, particularly the aspect of Hindi versus the mother tongue: it is clear that the Chhattisgarhi actors would have no trouble personalising—or enacting—this take."

While Tanvir's insistence on blurring the lines between classical Sanskrit drama and folk traditions because Sanskrit texts are not sacrosanct is admirable, discomfort does arise when this continuous emphasis onthe formeras ultimately representing "the quintessence of Indian culture" remains mostly unchallenged. The silence on Tanvir's constant juxtaposition of Westernized theatre with Indian and 'local' (true) Indian theatre is similarly disappointing. Such myth-making arrives dangerously close to siting Indian theatre—of this hybrid variety—as the terrain of authentic Indian-ness, by mere virtue of participating in such a pluralistic creative tradition.

Situating at least thirty years of Tanvir's sensitive engagement with folk theatre but more importantly folk theatre's trust, in turn, of Tanvir's partly-urban sensibilities is, however, no mean feat. Katyal's biography of Tanvir on the whole does open up a much-needed conversation about how theatre-making itself performs political functions outside of content, and raises some nagging questions about how boundaries between the porous categories of 'tradition' and 'modernity' are negotiated in Tanvir's "Inclusive Theatre", and on whose terms. Naya Theatre may not be all that naya today, but dragging it into the political spotlight once again may, as Katyal's biography suggests, inspire a naya audience.

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