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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre: Newness arising from the old

Habib Tanvir

abib Tanvir created the repertory company Naya Theatre along with his wife-to-be Moneeka Misra in 1959 and ran it for the next fifty years. (Their daughter Nageen Tanvir continues to run it.) What was unique about Naya Theatre was that it was created with a group of nacha actors from Tanvir's native Chhattisgarh, who performed in their vivid, physical nacha style in Naya Theatre's productions of Shakespeare, Brecht and Sanskrit classics, as well as fresh interventionist plays written by Habib Saab.

Habib Tanvir's account of how he came to work with these actors is as fresh and direct as one could ask for: "when I had come back from Europe in 1958, before beginning Mrichchakatika, I went home to Raipur to meet my family... I heard that there was to be a Nacha on the grounds of the high school where I was educated — Nacha is a Chhattisgarhi form of secular drama. It was to start at nine o'clock. I saw it all night through, which is the usual duration for a Nacha. They presented three or four skits. There was Madan Lal, a great actor. Thakur Ram, another great actor, Babu Das, a very good actor too, Bhulwa Ram, a glorious singer: and what comedians, these fellows, like music hall comedy. They were doing chaprasi nakal, sadhu nakal (take-offs). I was fascinated. I went up to them and said — would you like to come to Delhi and join me in a production?"

Of course, even a marvellous stroke of inspiration such as the one above does not automatically translate into a lifetime's body of work. The forced brevity of this interview (given to Seagull Theatre Quarterly in 1996) could suggest a grand beginning leading seamlessly into a legendary career. But Habib Tanvir is not the man to elide the many stumbling blocks to a new theatrical vision. In an appendix to his marvellously frank memoirs — translated from his inimitable colloquial Hindustani to a deliberately unregimented English by Mahmood Farooqi — he offers us glimpses of the ruthless unlearning and slow, rigorous absorption that went into the process. Initially, he says, "I was trying to apply my English training on the village actors — move diagonally, stand, speak, take this position, take that position. I had to unlearn it all. I saw that they couldn't even tell right from left on the stage and had no line sense." But instead of giving up in frustration, as a young man just back from RADA and watching Brecht in Berlin might be expected to do, Habib Tanvir went back to watch Nacha. He realised that what his actors had honed for years was an ability to respond to an audience that invariably surrounded them, to spontaneously shifting their focus to wherever the response was from. In making them change, he would lose their biggest strength. A similar realisation dawned on him with regard to language: that it was by letting the actors perform in their native Chhattisgarhi that they would sound truest and most confident.

his ability to observe and learn from his actors, to incorporate into his form what came naturally to them — rather than trying to fit them into some pre-appointed grid — can be called anthropological, in the best possible way. But it was also, at its core, aesthetic — derived from Habib Saab's unstinting joy in the folk forms he adopted. He had spent much of the 1940s working with the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) in Bombay, then a remarkably vibrant space in which writers, actors and musicians like Balraj Sahni, Dina Pathak (then Gandhi) and Shailendra, affiliated loosely or closely with the Communist Party, were producing plays in all languages: creating jatras in Bengali, drawing on tamasha in Marathi. The IPTA's openness to existing Indian forms — linguistic, theatrical, musical — was probably a crucial influence on Habib Saab's own. But the memoirs, though incomplete — the first volume of a planned three-volume work — reveal a theatrical sensibility formed as much by a youthful ear for Chhattisgarhi songs and Urdu poetry, and an eye for visual flourish that goes right back to his childhood. We learn of the summer vacation when he first heard dadariya, "a self-composed song which proceeds in terms of questions and answers", outside Luhrakapa village, near Bilaspur. "Good dadariya has a compelling force, and girls are known to elope with their lovers under its spell, therefore it is forbidden to sing it inside the village." We hear how he wept copiously through his first play at Raipur's Kali Bari — but he manages to recall that the curtains "rose up and disappeared" rather than parting sideways as they do now. Describing the silent cinemas of his youth, he paints a fantastic portrait of one Chunnilal who first sold tickets, then entered the hall and provided a hilariously poker-faced commentary throughout the film.

Writing about showing old films to students at Pune's Film Institute, Tanvir elucidates his philosophy more lucidly than I ever could: "It is important to know the tradition not because it is holy or deserves worship but because it is only the tradition and the canon that allows us to chart new paths, even if it involves a breaking up of the old." This was a deeply secular man who worked throughout with the religiosity of his actors, drawing on the theatre of their ritual. And yet he never shunned the urban modern person: among his most remarkable statements is that his film reviews for radio in the 40s were based on conversations with taxi drivers who "always had something original to say". "Often, all I did... was to quote them."

If only we could all listen like Habib Tanvir did.

 
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