Prime Edition

Memoirs

Habib Tanvir, Mahmood Farooqui (tr.)

Penguin

Pages: 400 Rs. 599

A timely memoir rekindles a master raconteur’s flame

Habib Tanvir’s autobiography reveals a brillant, complex man who relished nothing more than the company of friends and an infinite evening of storytelling, writes Sharanya.

SHARANYA  27th Jul 2013

Habib Tanvir

hespian Habib Tanvir lived an exhilarating life: it is a justifiable conclusion if we consider merely the triumphant arc of his career. Habib Tanvir—née Habib Ahmed Khan — was born in 1923. He grew up in Raipur, in an atmosphere that celebrated the decadence of mushairas, Kali Bari theatre and Parsi theatre. After finishing his BA from Morris College in Nagpur, he pursued an MA in Urdu from Aligarh university in 1944 (but didn't finish it) and went off to Bombay to work in cinema, subsequently getting involved in the leftist cultural activities of groups such as the Indian People's Theatre Association, which was the cultural wing of the CPI, and the Progressive Writers' Association. Tanvir lived in Bombay for nearly a decade and later spent a year at RADA, the renowned theatre school in London, before moving to the Bristol Old Vic to be a student of production in theatre. He spent three years travelling across Europe, before returning to India to start Naya Theatre.

Tanvir is best known today, then, for his contributions to modern Indian theatre through the founding and running of Naya Theatre, which re-imagined Chhatisgarhi folk theatre rituals with scripts ranging from those that dealt with the life of Nazir Akbarabadi (Agra Bazaar) to those by Brecht (The Good Woman of Szechwan was adapted as Sajapur ki Shanti Bai, for instance). After the death of Tanvir's wife Moneeka, and Tanvir's own death in 2009, Naya Theatre was taken over by their daughter Nageen, and continues performances till date.

So what is it that Habib Tanvir's Memoirs — translated expertly into English by Dastangoi reviver Mahmood Farooqui — tells us that we don't already know from his biography? For starters, Tanvir writes very little chronologically about his contributions to theatre; they arrive at the end of the book in chapters such as "IPTA", "Progressive Writers' Association", "Kabuli Theatre" and "1948", and more often than not, as intersections in the recounting of other incidents. He also doesn't talk very much about his years of study or travel abroad, focussing almost exclusively on his early years in Raipur, his extraordinary years of adventure in Morris College, his time in Bombay and any memorable travels he undertook thereafter. For the reader who is uninitiated with his dramaturgical achievements, I imagine the gradual unravelling of his journeys and the temporal piecing together of the unexpected encounters in his life — a writer's residency in Bellagio, or a tiger hunt in Hyderabad — is immensely delightful.

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Tanvir doesn’t reveal himself to be infatuated with theatre any more than he is with people around him, and at this he excels; we learn of his life through the lives of the people who matter to him.

Above all, though, the reason why Memoirs is a charming read is because it is a book that relishes its characters; it is a book about people who are loved, the various people in Tanvir's life, right from his childhood to his adult life in Bombay. Tanvir doesn't reveal himself to be infatuated with theatre any more than he is with people around him, and at this he excels; we learn of his life through the lives of the people who matter to him. Most chapters in the book are named after and completely devoted to these people, whilst others refer to memorable places: "Madani and I" is about his best friend Madani in Raipur, with whom he would stroll around graveyards at night with, as a child. "Kamla" is dedicated to his former Christian fiancée, whom he deserted because he wanted to focus on his career and who later grew to become a very close friend, and "Maulvi Yasin's Madrasa" consists of hilarious portraits of his teacher Maulvi Saheb — who ate "with great relish and showed it by shaking his right shoulder" and wanted his rotis at the madrasa burning hot, so his servant would run back and forth from the Maulvi's house next door, dropping them on his plate before scrambling back on his bike for the next one — and his sister Hifza Aapa, and their father Bade Hafizji.

anvir remembers incidents keenly, and in such detail sometimes that they can often feel disconnected from other events or people surrounding him at the time. They are stories that glitter in a vacuum on their own, informing us as much about the pulse of pre-Partition Raipur as the secret lives of the people who appeared to have lived these resplendent lives. Take, for instance, a fond recollection of Chunnilal, who owned Babulal Cinema in Raipur and "had no concept of timings as far as his shows were concerned [...] He would sit there for as long as he could sell tickets for that particular show." Chunnilal was known for running the shows in a rather unusual, if thoroughly enjoyable fashion because "it was difficult to say whether people came to watch the film or to listen to Chunnilal's commentary on the film":

"His commentary keeps pace with the film. The film can hardly protest because it is silent and there is nothing to check Chunnilal — he does not suffer the lack of words nor of voice, he utters whatever comes to his mind, and the audience enjoys itself as does Chunnilal [...] Someone makes the reasonable objection, 'But we are already watching all this, Chunnilal.' Chunnilal says 'shut up' in his booming voice. 'Abey, why are you sitting around wasting time, embrace her, you wimp. If you can't do it then make way, I am coming to take your place [...] The hall is rolling in laughter but Chunnilal goes about it with utter seriousness, not even a smile on his face, this is obviously serious work for him."

Habib Tanvir's memoir bursts at the seams with the intricacy of his memories. He remembers with alarming clarity: "You crossed the vestibule to go into an aangan," he says about his house in Raipur, "Behind which lay a verandah and then two rooms; one of the rooms led to another baithak where Hyder Ali would meet his clients, entertain his friends or play chess with Sudhir Mukherji." There are too many people mentioned in the book for us to remember each persona vividly, and the sincerity of his memory is startling — if exhausting at times — but this lends Memoirs an unexpectedly special quality: that of compiled short fiction, written with the greatest relish and a propensity towards empathy that makes us think of Tanvir affectionately, as a man who enjoyed to sit down with a cup of chai with his favourite people and enjoy an evening full of story-telling. It is a precious glimpse into the life of a man we have otherwise known as one of the greatest practitioners of Hindi theatre.

 
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