People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 24 

June 14, 2009


Habib Tanvir,

Citizen Of The World


Sudhanva Deshpande


HABIB TANVIR (1923-2009) was India’s pre-eminent theatre personality. Playwright, director, actor, singer, poet, manager, designer, visionary, teacher, his career spanning some 60 years was one of astonishing output and creativity. His identity is inextricably tied up with that of his theatre company, Naya Theatre, which he formed along with his wife Moneeka Misra Tanvir fifty years ago, in 1959. In his death, we have lost a public intellectual, who responded to his times, the events around him, with plays as much as by writing articles, speaking, joining protest marches, signing statements.




Christened Habib Ahmed Khan, he took the pen-name ‘Tanvir’ when he started writing poetry (which he continued doing till the end of his life). He matriculated from Raipur in 1942, graduated from Morris College, Nagpur, in 1945, and went to Bombay to pursue an acting career in cinema. The War was winding down, the Quit India movement had already poured volatile youth on the streets, and he witnessed the heady days of the RIN Mutiny. The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) was formed in Bombay in 1942, and he soon found himself a part of it.


Habib Tanvir shifted to Delhi in 1954, and worked for Qudsia Zaidi’s Hindustani Theatre. He also worked in children’s theatre. He met the young actress/director Moneeka Misra, his future wife. His first significant play, Agra Bazaar, dates from this time. It is a celebration of the life and work of the plebian poet Nazir Akbarabadi, an older contemporary of Ghalib’s. Hardly any biographical information is available about Nazir, so Tanvir was forced to do a play in which the protagonist never appeared. The play is set in the bazaar, the locale that has kept Nazir’s poetry alive. With virtually no plot, the play was a stylistic novelty in its time. Tanvir drew into the play the residents of Okhla village in Delhi, in an experiment that was to be repeated on a more sustained basis with Chhasttisgarhi rural actors some years later.


Qudsia Zaidi died prematurely, and Habib Tanvir set off to England to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. In England he learned many things, including British discipline, the principles of blocking and some tricks of a director’s craft, but mostly he learned what he did not want to do. It seemed to him that English theatre was too rigid to allow the free movement that Indian theatre demanded. Western theatre, following Aristotle, demanded the unities of time, space and action, while Indian theatre, both the ancient Sanskrit and the rural, broke these unities constantly, admitting only one unity, that of rasa.


He roamed around in Europe for a while after that, watching plays, learning gypsy songs, sometimes earning money for passage by singing at bars songs from his native Chhasttisgarh, and eventually arrived in Berlin, determined to meet Bertolt Brecht. The year was 1956, and while Brecht himself had recently died, Brecht’s productions were alive. Tanvir was struck by the simplicity and directness of Berliner Ensemble productions. He was reminded of Sanskrit drama, with its ‘absolute simplicity of technique and presentation’.




Gaon ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damaad, his first significant Chhasttisgarhi production, was done in 1972. Charandas Chor was created during 1973–74, and won the Edinburgh Fringe First Prize some years later, catapulting its creator and his band of rural actors to stardom. It even did a run on the London stage, playing to packed houses. Mitti ki Gaadi, his Chhattisgarhi adaptation of Sudrak’s Sanskrit classic, was done in 1977; Bahadur Kalarin, an oral rural Oedipal tale, followed soon after. Shajapur ki Shantibai (Brecht’s Good Person of Schetzuan), with the incomparable Fidabai in the lead, was done in 1978, Lala Shohratrai (Molière’s Bourgeois Gentleman) in 1981. In other words, by about the mid-1970s, Tanvir had already evolved his distinctive idiom, and subsequent years saw him elaborating it, refining it, polishing it. Those who came to watch and love his theatre after this time tended to take this idiom, his style, for granted. It can therefore be quite easily forgotten that it took him fourteen long years, from 1958 to 1972, to come to it.


On Tanvir’s theatre, it is common to hear two views. One sees a development of the IPTA legacy in him, the other sees him as a practitioner of ‘folk’ theatre. Both are incorrect. While IPTA used ‘folk’ forms essentially as carriers of revolutionary ideology to the masses, Tanvir fashioned a popular modern theatre, borrowing elements from rural dramatic traditions, a theatre utopic rather than revolutionary.


What Tanvir was after were not folk forms, but folk actors. He got his first set of six rural actors in 1958. The actors brought their forms with them. He did several plays between 1958 and 1972, but most were, as he put it, ‘failures’. He wondered: the rural actors, in their own setting, are fabulous. What makes them stilted and trite when they act in his plays? He identified two main faults: he was trying to impose his English methods on them, and he was forcing them to speak Hindi, which they were uncomfortable with, rather than Chhattisgarhi, which they spoke with great fluency. So, once he allowed them greater freedom of movement and use of their language, they bloomed, and so did his theatre.


His range was amazing. Besides his own plays, he did plays by the ancient Sanskrit writers Sudrak, Bhasa, Visakhadatta and Bhavabhuti; European classics by Shakespeare, Molière and Goldoni; modern masters Brecht, Garcia Lorca, Gogol and Gorky, and even Wilde; and Indian writers Rabindranath Tagore, Sisir Das, Asghar Wajahat, Shankar Shesh, Safdar Hashmi and Rahul Varma. He adapted stories by Premchand, Stefan Zweig and Vijaydan Detha for the stage, besides adapting oral tales from Chhasttisgarh.


Habib Tanvir, then, was a citizen of the world, borrowing, reading, soaking up influences indiscriminately, but he became, through a long, hard, creative struggle, a resident of Chhasttisgarh. Chhasttisgarh is the prism that refracted his creative expression. His autobiography was to be called Ek Matmaili Chadariya—a life woven with multiple threads, a life the dusty colour of earth. He was a Midas turned upside-down: whatever he touched lost its sheen, it became rough and turned to Chhasttisgarhi. As Brecht put it: ‘True art becomes poor with the masses and grows rich with the masses.’




This is the man the Hindu Right has hounded since the early 1990s. To argue, as the Hindu Right did, that Habib Tanvir is anti-Hindu and, by extension, anti-Indian, is of course a reflection not on the man and his work, but of the depraved, pea-sized worldview of his attackers. To spit at the moon is to spit on your own face.


Tanvir remained close to radical causes. He directed a play for Jana Natya Manch in 1988, and was in the forefront of the protests that followed Safdar Hashmi’s murder at the hands of Congress goons in 1989. Over the years, both he and the left moved closer to each other, and in the context of the attacks on him by the Sangh Parivar and his refusal to bow to their dictates, he became something of a hero for left cultural activists.


If there is one theme that runs consistently through all his creative output, from Agra Bazaar and even earlier to the present, it is the celebration of the plebian. The culture, beliefs, practices, rituals of the Chhattisgarhi peasants and tribals, their humour, their songs and their stories, all this is what has given his theatre its incredible vitality. His characters do not lack religiosity, but have a down to earth commonsensical relationship with god. Charandas prostates himself in front of god in all sincerity before purloining the idol. A peasant or a tribal can turn a rock, a tree, an animal, anything, into god. Tanvir was fascinated by this openness and eclecticism. He opposed Hindutva because, among other things, it seeks to destroy this freedom and regiment the belief structures and practices of peasants and tribals.


Tanvir was an enemy of parochialism, of bigotry, of fundamentalism, and of the kind of development that crushes the poor. If Jamadarin/Ponga Pandit critiques, in a lively, robust manner, the caste system, superstition and priestcraft, the other play that he did extensively attacks Muslim fundamentalism: Asghar Wajahat’s Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya Voh Janmya hi Nai, the story of a Hindu woman left behind in Lahore after Partition. His last production, Raj Rakt, based on Tagore’s Visarjan, is also a critique of superstition. An earlier play, Moteram ka Satyagraha, based on a Premchand story and written in collaboration with Safdar Hashmi, is a humorous look at what happens when religion starts meddling with politics. In the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, he produced for a Delhi group Sisir Kumar Das’s Baagh, an allegory on the communal tiger on the prowl. In 1999, he wrote and directed for Jana Natya Manch Ek Aurat Hypatia Bhi Thee, on the 4th century a.d. woman mathematician from Alexandria, lynched on the streets by Christian bigots. Sadak, a short play, is a comic critique of ‘development’ that ravages villagers, tribals, their land and their culture. Hirma ki Amar Kahani is a more profound look at what development has meant for tribals. An early short children’s play, Gadhe, is a rip-roaring take-off on the education system that produces asses. His production of Rahul Verma’s Zahareeli Hawa is a fictional recreation of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Then there is Dekh Rahe Hain Nain, perhaps his most refined play philosophically, the story of a king’s futile quest for a calling that will harm no other being.


This, then, was Habib Tanvir, a man who represents two great traditions of Indian theatre—the tradition of the actor-director-playwright-manager, as well as the tradition of an active involvement, from the Left, in larger social and political causes. The first tradition is now extinct with Tanvir’s death. The second tradition, happily, survives, and some of the credit for this must go to Habib Tanvir himself, for showing the way.