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Playmaking as a Primary Act of Politics

Habib Tanvir could reconfigure the idea of the "political" through the minutest of gestures or linguistic and tonal inflections of speech, without any of the self-conscious radicalism of fist or flag-waving and declamatory sloganeering. Forever, Habib remained a refined storyteller who, in each retelling of a story, could find fresh and creative ways in which to mine it for a contemporary, current nuance, and repoliticise it.

HABIB TANVIR (1923-2009)

Playmaking as a Primary Act of Politics

Sadanand Menon

Habib Tanvir could reconfigure the idea of the “political” through the minutest of gestures or linguistic and tonal inflections of speech, without any of the self-conscious radicalism of fist or flag-waving and declamatory sloganeering. Forever, Habib remained a refined storyteller who, in each retelling of a story, could find fresh and creative ways in which to mine it for a contemporary, current nuance, and repoliticise it.

Sadanand Menon (sadanandmenon@yahoo. com) is a writer, photographer and stage lights designer based in Chennai. He is also currently Adjunct Faculty, Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

T
he most striking thing about Habib Tanvir was that he persistently seemed to remain in a state of play. Playful, playmaking, playacting – for him “the Play was the thing”. And, without being fussy or burdened or messianic in any manner, he effortlessly slipped from song and speech in Urdu to English to Hindi to the Chhattisgarhi dialect in a ceaseless dialogue with languages and the politics of meanings within that. It was a process through which he re-invented the idea of the “political” in theater – in particular Indian theatre.

As someone familiar with “radical” playwrights, actors and directors of the Indian stage, I was forever excited with the manner in which Habib could reconfigure the idea of the “political” through the minutest of gestures or linguistic and tonal inflections of speech, without any of the self-conscious radicalism of fist or flag-waving and declamatory sloganeering. Forever, Habib remained a refined storyteller who, in each retelling of a story, could find fresh and creative ways in which to mine it for a contemporary, current nuance, and re-politicise it.

The legacy of “political theatre” is long in the Indian context. From the time of Dinabandhu Mitra’s “nationalist” plays like Neel Darpan (1860) – whose repeatedly political renderings, particularly in 1875 in Lucknow, provoked infamous colonial laws like the Dramatis Performances Act of 1876, circumscribing any critical tendency on the Indian stage against colonial rule – all theatrical efforts that chose to push it beyond the merely entertaining have existed on sufferance of the “benevolence” of the administration.

Nationalist “political theatre” scored many victories, particularly post the 1942 Quit India Movement. This was a period that saw the consolidation of an anti-imperial artists’ front, which began with the Progressive Writers Association of 1936 and which went on to morph into a more inclusive and capacious body like the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) in which writers, actors, singers, composers, dancers and directors rubbed shoulders, taking the idea of an equitable society and of “peoples revolution” to the streets, fields, factories and to wider mass consciousness.

From the openly inflammatory plays of the 1870s like, for example, Upendranath Das’s Surendra-Binodini to the more sophisticated and allusive plays of the 1910s like K P Khadilkar’s Kichakvadh (Marathi) to Girish Ghosh’s Siraj-ud-daulah (Bengali), Indian theatre pursued a steady course of provoking dissent against the colonial regime, even as it faced bans and proscriptions. With the consolidation of the IPTA in the 1940s, a distinct socialist content too emerged and plays like Bijon Bhattacharya’s Nabanna (Bengali) or Thoppil Bhasi’s Ningal Enne Communist Akki (Malayalam) or Shanta Gandhi’s Jasma Odan (Gujarati) were landmark productions that assumed cult status. Theatre activists like Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, Prithviraj Kapoor, Shambhu and Tripti Mitra, Balraj and Bhisham Sahni, Shanta and Dina Gandhi (nee Pathak), Utpal Dutt and a long list of such writers/performers across the country added substantially to the interpretation of the “political” on Indian stages.

Stifled Melodrama

Of course, with increasing mainstreaming, most theatrical activity got attached to proscenium spaces and to the conventions of narrative blocking and body stances within that. This usually ended up producing a stilted kind of melodrama of contrived gestures and loud and clichéd verbiage which communicated the idea of an oppositional politics, without necessarily “politicising” the viewer.

It was into this space that Habib Tanvir slid in with a distinctly different comprehension and conceptualisation of the pedagogic/ political in theatre. He was to eventually evolve his work in two specific areas – one, to reclaim the space for a new suggestive, allusive content more common to folk ballads and to a whole range of humo rous and irreverent performances drawing upon the spirit of resistance embedded in native wit and irony. The other area was the rejection of the proscenium space in favour of a more fluid and unregu lated theatrical space which contributed immensely to the participative character of his productions. In retrospect, it

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Economic & Political Weekly

seems ironic that just five years after Habib did his tumultuous Agra Bazaar, in 1954, which thumbed its nose at conventional, academic, mainstream theatre, the National School of Drama was set up, historically destined to repeat all the “mistakes” that Habib was setting out to correct.

Post-Emergency, as Indian theatre witnessed an upsurge of several variations of street-theatre – from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) backed Safdar Hashmi and Jan Natya Manch kind of issue-based “activist theatre” in Delhi to Gurcharan Singh’s road-shows amidst the Punjab peasantry to Prasanna’s Samudaya movement in Karnataka involving students and artists to Na Muthuswamy’s “Koothu-p-pattarai” which drew its vocabulary from traditional street theatres of Tamil Nadu to the more directly Maoist flavour of “Gaddhar” and other “revolution-through-theatre” activities in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – there was new energy being injected into the tired veins of Indian theatre.

Reinterpreting the Body

There was also a new, emerging consciousness in the 1970s about reinterpreting the body on stage. Prominent international theatre personalities like Peter Brook, Richard Shechner, Jerzy Grotowski and Eugenio Barba had by then travelled in India and had written excitedly about the new idioms of performance practices and actor training that they had encountered. Their insights into, for example, the Ramlila of Ramnagar (near Varanasi) or the training methods in Kathakali and Kudiyattam, were to re-position Indian theatre both in India and abroad. It led to a new impulse to “return to roots” and seek energy from the soil as well as from the physiophysical energies of breathing, chants, charis (gaits), thang-tha, kalarippayattu, nat-sankirtan, yakshagana and chchau.

Two important developments happened in Indian theatre of the 1960s-70s. One was the advent of major contemporary playwrights and playscripts, a moment that seems to be completely lost today. Dharamvir Bharati, Mohan Rakesh, Vijay Tendul kar, B V Karanth, Girish Karnad, G P Deshpande, Badal Sircar, G Shankara Pillai, Kavalm Narayana Panicker, Mahesh Elkun chwar, Chandrashekhar Kambar, H Kanhailal, Satish Alekar, it is a long list. The other m ajor development was the entry of Ford Foundation as a significant “cultural funder” in India and the series of theatrical grants it gave to prominent Indian playwrights, specifically to work with “folk” material.

Interestingly, Habib Tanvir figures in all these. He too was a major playwright who contributed in slicing through the stranglehold of Hindi and Urdu by privileging an adaptive and improvisatory Chhattisgarhi dialect for the stage, with folkloristic plays, replete with music and movement, based on indigenous legends like Gaon Naam Sasural Mor Naam Damaad, Lala Sohrat Rai,Bahadur Kalarin, Mote Ram ka Satyagrah and the eponymous Charandas Chor. Also his adaptations of Sanskrit classics like Shudraka’s Mrichchakatikam or Visakhadatta’s Mudrarakshas were strong arguments against the sterile, naturalistic theatre of the time. He too was among the early batch of theatre workers to be bestowed a Ford grant to work with “rural forms” and, eventually, the form that he evolved became an interesting bridge between the rather too formalised proscenium stage and the rather too unstructured street-theatre activity. Habib brought about a questioning of both form and content which has remained relevant some 50 years later, even till today.

It is now of historic interest that Habibsaab chose to take his final curtain call a few weeks ago, on 8 June in Bhopal, even as discussions were on about celebrating 50 years of Naya Theatre, the company of ruralurban, schooled-unschooled actors he formed in 1959 with his friend, collaborator, wife Moneeka Mishra. Moneeka left us in 2005 – soon after the wonderful tribute paid them by the Prithvi Theatre Festival, where a bunch of his plays were presented and r esources raised to fund a revival of the i mmensely influential 1954 play Agra Bazaar.

But, despite problems of finance, organisation and logistics, Habib was able to cobble together a team of some 40 actors who stayed with him for 40 years. I have seen the single room tenements in Ber Sarai, opposite the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where Habib, his troupe and their families lived and practised for years, even as the Delhi Development Authority issued constant notices to them to vacate, pending demolition. There was a time when, for months, their modest quarters were encircled by cranes and bulldozers as the

HABIB TANVIR (1923-2009)

i ntrepid lot refused to budge unless provided alternate quarters and sang their fullthroated songs about pulling down a feudal system. As the actors grew older and picked up ailments, some of them stopped working and some just died along the way. But the core group stuck together. This was an unprecedented achievement in the highly mobile context of theatre anywhere in the world. What might now happen to the group is anyone’s guess, as their talented daughter Nageen struggles to retain its inventory and its inspiration.

Luckily, much of their songs and compositions have by now been recorded and stored in the digital mode. A few documentary films too have been canned. However, their landmark productions might simply wind up as the group of tribal and urban performers scatters and disperses. The only hope (futile, I know) is if the government of Madhya Pradesh or some other such official agency chooses to support the continued survival of the group and it radical repertoire. This is too much to hope for in the present Indian context.

Exit of a Generation

Theatre in India is, all of a sudden, threatened with some rapid depletions. Last year it lost Vijay Tendulkar and now, Habib. E ssentially a generation of artists who shaped the most definable contours of modern Indian theatre, are exiting without leaving behind any line of succession. One shudders at the vacuum a few years down the line as a few more stalwarts, aging and ailing now, take their bow. For, the flowering on stage that we witnessed from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s has now run dry and new modes of performance and spectatorship have overtaken stage work. Almost all the pioneers of that revolution have passed on or retreated into a fuzzy, diffuse penumbra of social amnesia and historic erasure from where they are unable to provoke or excite contemporary reality.

Habib himself has left after having completed only the first part of his autobiography Matmaili Chadariya (Soiled Blanket). With the kind of rich, packed life he led and the kind of seminal contributions he made to the landscape of political theatre in I ndia, two more parts were in the pipeline. It is a moot point if they would get written up later by someone else based on his notes

Economic & Political Weekly

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june 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

HABIB TANVIR (1923-2009)

and diaries. As I sat opposite him a monthand-half ago in his flat in Bhopal, Habib, hoarse and just out of hospital, yet looking dapper in a new moustache and goatee, confirmed he had completed the section on the IPTA in his autobiography. That perhaps brings the narrative to the late 1950s and, of course, is valuable as there are few coherent and comprehensive descriptions available of that contested period in the annals of Indian radical theatre. However, most of his own major contributions as a playwright and director come after that.

Decades ago, he regaled some of us in Chennai on how he came to work with the folk and tribal performers of Chhattisgarh and the manner in which he himself slowly got converted to their adaptive and integrative style. It led him to abandon the didactic style of IPTA and the academic style of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) where he trained, and consciously go to a theatre of the roots where the emphasis was on a loose, flexible and malleable style, free of theatrical devices of the proscenium like “blocking”, “plotting”, etc. The result was a body of performances that rippled with spontaneity and could be instantly rigged up at any conceivable venue – from fields and factories to schools, railway stations and public squares, relying entirely on the suppleness of the script and the improvisational strategies of the performers.

Habib’s untutored “actors” too were distinguished by the ability to simply let go and enjoy themselves in bursts of uninhibited energy. Totally unselfconscious, it was often a pleasure to see them enjoying their own jokes even as the audiences roared with laughter around them. Habib also learnt to move away from academic scripts to a kind of wry, idiomatic and metaphoric plays that conveyed sharp poli tical messages through allegory and suggestion rather than the direct agitprop, so common to “political” theatre. He yoked this successfully to Chhattisgarhi folk musical-theatres like Naacha, dances like Rai and musical discourses like Pandavani.

Habib once explained to me that no one likes to be “caught being taught”. He described an incident when he called on a friend and found the man trying to teach his resisting four-year-old how to count. The kid was kicking and screaming and would not cooperate. Habib scolded his friend for his backward idea of “teaching” and grabbed the child away, assuring his friend that he would handle the situation. Carrying the child in his arms, he strolled about a bit until the child fell quiet. Then he slowly pointed to the tiled roof and asked the kid, “See, beta, how many beams are up there! One, two, three…?” The sullen child looked him straight in the eye and exclaimed, “Uncle, I can see; you are trying to teach me!”

This experience, he claimed, was a great learning and he decided to abandon the didactic route in art as explored by early Leftist theatre and work through allu sion, suggestion and inference, enabling audiences to enjoy as well as draw their own political conclusions, so that they did not feel their realisation was externally induced. It led to the creation of a theatre without schooling. Of course, this was also the influence of the time he spent at the Berliner Ensemble in Germany, where he was hugely influenced by the methods of the Epic Theatre as developed by Bertolt Brecht. Brecht’s focus was the working class. Habib decided to focus primarily on the consciousness of the emerging Indian middle class, in order to make them allies in a future revolution.

My first meeting with Habib in Chennai was a disaster. It was 1976, the height of the Emergency. Habib was a Rajya Sabha member and an unabashed supporter of Indira Gandhi’s 20-Point Programme. He was, of course, merely being true to his links with the Communist Party of India, which was rooting then for Indira Gandhi. After a brief meeting, standing on the main road in Mylapore as he was about to get into his car, we got involved in this massive altercation about the Emergency and his seeming endorsement of it. Had we not been pulled apart that day by dancer/ choreographer Chandralekha, who was his friend but was equally exasperated with his “political compromise”, we might have ended up in permanent hostility.

Sometime later, I called on him in Delhi and was driven in his old Fiat car to the Jamia Milia University where he taught drama. It was here that I first saw and responded to his charismatic skills and method. Chandralekha was to invite him, in 1980, for a magical “Creativity Workshop” in Chennai where his contributions were decisive. In the company of the person he considered his mentor, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, he demonstrated to us his method of picking up subjects and themes of universal appeal, inflecting them with a creative content that turned them into mock-humorous political parables and then setting them to musical beats which were simple, yet infectious.

It laid the foundation for a deep friendship and respect. By the early 1990s, Habib was very much at the forefront of the cultural resistance movement of artists in the wake of the murder of Safdar Hashmi by political goons of the Congress Party in Delhi. He became an inseparable part of the secular mobilisation and literally channelled his entire creativity to providing much needed artistic and cultural oxygen to the secular front.

Threats by Hindutva

Post-Babri Masjid demolition and the communal storm that was let loose in 1992, H abib took the bold decision to revive a 1930s play Jamadarin or Ponga Pandit written by two dalit workers which he had flirted with in the 1960s. In the new political context, he dusted it and pulled it centrally into his repertoire, much to the chagrin of the Hindutva brigade in India and abroad. When he toured with it in the United Kingdom in 1993, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) i ssued direct threats and at many places, even disrupted his perfor mances. These disruptions and hooligan-interrupted performances were to continue right until the last couple of years, as the VHP and the Bajrang Dal targeted him. On occasion, Habib and his troupe performed to empty audit oria as the local police cleared the entire audience on the pretext of clearing hecklers.

Habibsaab will be remembered for fashioning a direct, non-sophisticated theatrical form which was, nevertheless, high on artistic, musical and political content. Just as deeply as he dragged on his tobacco pipe, he also dragged on the “rasa” in life. The smoking was to eventually lead to his fatal respiratory troubles. But the pleasures he has left behind are special. Both fearless and sensuous, he delivered contemporary Indian drama of its aesthetic pretences and juggled up a form that spoke straight to the heart. One can almost see him now, on a distant shore, with his beret at a rakish angle, clutching his pipe and orchestrating a host of angels to raise their pitch and belt out an irreverent song in Chhattisgarhi.

june 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

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Economic & Political Weekly

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