A reading to commemorate and celebrate the life and work
of poet, playwright, actor and theatre director
Date: 11 July, 2009 (Saturday)
Time: 6.30 pm
Place: Prithvi House, 1st Floor (Opp. Prithvi Theatre, Janki Kutir, Juhu)
Nadira Babbar, Javed Siddiqi, Shama Zaidi and Mahmood Farooqui
will be reading extracts from Habib Tanvir’s plays, poetry and memoirs.
The readings will be followed by the premiere of Dancing at 80: Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre, a 30-minute documentary on Habib Tanvir directed by Mahmood Farooqui
ENTRY IS FREE, ALL ARE WELCOME.
HABIB TANVIR (1 September 1923 – 8 June 2009), poet, playwright, actor and theatre director.
Born Habib Ahmed Khan in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, ‘Tanvir’ was the pseudonym under which he wrote his poetry. “Later,” he said, “I dropped Ahmed Khan and simply called myself Habib Tanvir.” A name that would travel far and wide and come to stand for some of the most robust, innovative, culturally committed and indigenously rooted theatre in India and the world. A student of Morris College, Nagpur, Tanvir travelled to Bombay in 1944-45 to join films. The late 40s and early 50s saw the young Tanvir writing scripts for ad films, working as a freelance journalist, acting and writing songs for Hindi films. He joined PWA (the Progressive Writers’ Association) and IPTA (the Indian People’s Theatre Association) as a poet, reading his new work at the literary sessions held every Sunday.
After the break-up of IPTA, where he functioned as organiser, secretary, playwright and actor-director for two years (1948-50), Tanvir moved to Delhi. “…I was convinced that I had something to say – socially, politically – and for what I had to say, the medium was not the cinema. It was theatre.” This realisation brought him to Delhi, where he wrote several plays for children, and considered devoting himself to children’s theatre.
It was in 1954 that Tanvir wrote and produced the seminal work Agra Bazar, woven around the humanistic poetry of Nazir Akbarabadi, proletarian and popular poet of 18th century Agra. “Agra Bazar,” Tanvir said, “was my first serious experiment integrating song with drama, and rural actors with urban.” One of his most popular plays, revived every decade, this was the play in which Tanvir felt he had “established his signature.”
In 1955, he travelled to England to study at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) but realised after one year that the course had little relevance for him. He seemed to have gained much more from his second year studying production under Duncan Ross at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Ross said to his students – “Production is telling a story” and this was a mantra Tanvir put to use in all his work, keeping the decors simple, the set-ups minimal and the movements fluid.
After a year of travelling across Europe, Tanvir returned home in 1958 and directed Mitti ki Gadi (Begum Qudsia Zaidi’s Hindi translation of the Sanskrit play Mrichchakatika) with six performers from the Chhattisgarhi Nacha theatre. These six would go on to form the core of his Naya Theatre. Tanvir’s inclusion of the Nacha play Ponga Pandit in his repertoire marked the bringing together of folk traditions of song, improvisation and presentation, and earned both critical and audience appreciation, as well as the ire of the Hindu Right, being as it is, “a hilarious attack on casteism” (The Hindu, 27.8.93).
Gaon ka Naam Sasural Mor Naam Damaad (1973) grew out of a workshop that combined three stock Chhattisgarhi comedies into sparky new material, with fresh characters, link scenes, appropriate songs and a dramatic end. This was a departure from the contemporary Nacha theatre, and yet “ensured greater traditional authenticity in that they were taken from the creative expressions of community life.” The play was a runaway success, attended by thousands all across Chhattisgarh, as well as playing to packed houses in Delhi, proving that the language of the play was no barrier at all.
With Charandas Chor, Tanvir took a Rajasthani folk tale dramatised by Vijay Dan Detha and adapted it to the local resonances of the Satnamis of Chhattisgarh, whose Guru established the dharma of “Satya hi ishwar hai, ishwar hi satya hai.” In 1982, Charandas Chor was staged at the Edinburgh International Drama Festival Fringe, where it won the first prize, before going on London and further rave reviews. Other plays by Tanvir included Bahadur Kalarin (1978), the Oedipal story of Bahadur, a wine maker and her son, Chhachhan, based on a folk legend of Sorar, a village in Chhattisgarh. Hirma ki Amar Kahani (1985) was, in the words of Safdar Hashmi, “more overtly political than anything [Tanvir] produced during the last ten years or so.” Dekh Rahen Hain Nain (1992) was based on Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s story, Eyes of the Undying Brother, and seemed to reflect the spirit of the times – “Disillusion coupled with a desperate search” (Nikhat Kazmi, Times of India). And Kamdeo ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna (1994) was Tanvir’s vivid translation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into Urdu, Hindi and Chhattisgarhi. As Tanvir put it, his main problem was “how to render the play in terms of language.”… “A particular language is always encushioned in a particular culture” and finding equivalences that would create the same impressions as the original meant changing the male fairies of the original into the undeniably feminine ‘pari’ and Midsummer into ‘Basant’. It was this ability to be faithful while being flexible that made the play one that “the Bard might well have been tickled with” (Chitra Padmanabhan, The Economic Times).
For Habib Tanvir, the language of the people was the source of great vitality and creativity. “My literary interests brought me […] finally to the dialects because I considered those to be the source for all great literature – Tulsidas, Mirabai, Kabir – all derived such strength from the people’s dialects.” … “Language is constantly getting coined by people who use it, who need it, who make their living off it. For words connected with horse and saddle, every part has a name, but who has given the names? Those who make those things. You go to an ironsmith, he’ll give you all the names connected to the horses’ hooves. … I’m mentioning all this because it became the basis of my theatre.”
This lifelong passion for, and contribution to, the theatre won Habib Tanvir numerous national and international awards, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1969, the Padma Shri in 1983, Kalidas Samman in 1990, Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1996 and the Padma Bhushan in 2002. But one suspects it was the theatre itself, the plays, the performances, the actors, the close-knit, vibrant world of the Naya Theatre and all its unforgettable productions that was Tanvir’s greatest reward. As Udayram Shrivas said about his long-time collaborator and director, “Mein kehta hoon jab tak voh zinda rahega theatre chalayega. Voh yahan tak soch raha hain ki marne ka time bhi aayega toh bolega ki ek minute ruko hum zara ek scene kar letey hain uske baad jayenge hum.” (I say that as long as he is alive he will run the theatre. In fact, when it’s time for him to go, even then he will say ‘one minute, just wait, I’ll just finish one scene and then I’ll go.’)
[More on Habib Tanvir can be found in the Prithvi Theatre Yearbook: On the Road with Naya Theatre, which was the primary source of reference for the above note.]
NADIRA BABBAR was born Nadira Zaheer, to communist leader Syed Sajjad Zaheer and Urdu writer Razia Sajjad Zaheer. Her parents were actively associated with the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), and IPTA, giving her an upbringing strongly rooted in culture and theatre. A gold medallist from the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi in 1971, Nadira went to Germany on a scholarship, and later worked with renowned directors like Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brooks. She moved to Mumbai in 1980, and started her theatre group, Ekjute, whose first production Yahudi ki Ladki (1981) is considered one of its finest. Over the last 25 years, Ekjute has given Indian theatre over sixty plays including Sandhya Chhaya, Look Back in Anger, Ballabpur Ki Roop Katha, Baat Laat Ki Halaat Ki, Bharam Ke Bhoot, and Begum Jaan, as well as plays written by Nadira herself, such as Dayashankar Ki Diary, Sakku Bai, Suman Aur Sana and Ji Jaisi Aapki Marzi. In 1990, Ekjute started the ‘Ekjute Young People’s Theatre Group’, whose productions include Aao Picnic Challen and Azdak Ka Insaaf.
JAVED SIDDIQI began his career in journalism and went on to become a playwright and scriptwriter. His impressive film credits, over more than two decades, include Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi. He has been a committed member of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) and has contributed to the founding and functioning of the Marathi chapter of the Association. Tumhari Amrita is his most well-known play. A love story told through an exchange of letters, where words are the sole vehicle of ideas and emotions, Farooque Sheikh and Shabana Azmi played the lead roles in this play, which has run for the last fourteen years and is still going strong. Other plays written by Siddiqi include Begum Jaan, Hamesha, Raat (an adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden) and Andhe Choohe, based on Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap. He has adapted Bertolt Brecht’s play Mr. Puntila and his Man Matti as P. K. Seth ne Peeke Bola, Yevgeny Schwartz’ The Dragon as Rakshus and Lorca’s Blood Wedding as Lal Mitti.
SHAMA ZAIDI describes herself as a “writer, costume designer, art director, theatre person, art critic and documentary filmmaker.” Her involvement with theatre began in her college days in Delhi, where she took an active interest in Hindustani Theatre, a group started by her mother, Qudsia Zaidi. She studied stage and costume design at the Slade School of Art, London, before apprenticing in stage, film and TV design with Herr Hein Heckroth at the Frankfurt Municipal Theatre in Germany. For some time, she also functioned as an observer in the Berliner Ensemble. Returning to Delhi in 1961, she worked for Hindustani Theatre, before shifting to Bombay in 1965 where she worked as a writer, designer, performer and director for Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). She also translated/adapted over a dozen plays into Hindustani from various languages. She has worked with directors like Satayjit Ray, Shyam Benegal, M S Sathyu, Girish Karnad, among others. Her film credits include Shatranj ke Khiladi, Charandas Chor, Manthan, Bhumika, Mandi, Garm Hava, Umrao Jaan, Trikaal, Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda, Mammo, The Making of the Mahatma, Sardari Begum, Zubeida and Netaji.
MAHMOOD FAROOQUI is a Dastango and has just completed a book on the 1857 uprising in Delhi. He is translating Habib Tanvir’s memoirs into English. He has also directed a 30-minute documentary on Habib Tanvir, titled Dancing at 80: Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre.