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A Remarkable Career in the Theatre

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.

A Remarkable Career in the Theatre

shohrat rai

Habib Tanvir ran a professional theatre company for half a century not by stooping to accommodate “popular” taste, but by, quite simply, raising popular taste to a level where his audience could appreciate, love and admire his most complex creations. He was concerned about the world around him and had things to say about it. He was the voice of our conscience.

Shohrat Rai is the pen name of a theatre activist associated with the Jan Natya Manch.

hen Habib Tanvir died on the early morning of June 8 in a Bhopal hospital after some three weeks of illness, the curtain came down on one of India’s most remarkable theatre careers. His productions, including Agra Bazaar, Mitti ki Gadi, Charandas Chor, Bahadur Kalarin, Shajapur ki Shantibai, Hirma ki Amar Kahani, Moteram ka Satyagraha, Dekh Rahe Hain Nain, Jis L ahore Nahi Vekhya Voh Janmya hi Nahi, Kamdev ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna and Raj Rakt, gave joy and delight to hundreds of thousands of spectators over the decades. S everal of these plays are considered classics of modern Indian theatre. Tributes are pouring in, and many have spoken of the very high artistic standards he achieved. Here, we shall only mention three aspects of his career that made it so very remarkable.

‘Naya’ Theatre

One, that he ran a professional theatre company for a full 50 years, but steadfastly refused to turn it into a commercial theatre company.

Naya Theatre is not an amateur company where actors met in the evenings to prepare plays from which they expected no financial rewards. Naya Theatre is a professional company, where actors are employed, which means that their survival depends on the financial health of the company that, in turn, depends on how many performances they are able to notch up. The pressure, then, to start producing work which panders to popular taste is immense. The market and its dictates then bind you in a vice-like grip. Popular taste, as mediated by the market, is not popular taste in the real sense. It is what the market determines to be the popular taste.

Naya Theatre is also an unusual company. Habib Tanvir had brought six actors from rural Chhattisgarh to Delhi in 1958 and formed his own company with them the following year. This was long before identity politics made working with dalits or tribals,

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HABIB TANVIR (1923-2009)

in a sense, fashionable. And it is reasonable to conclude that he wanted to work with these actors not to make a political point, but simply because he had seen them perform in the villages and he thought they were absolutely fabulous a ctors.

In the late 1950s, though, it was not

easy to “sell” plays with rural performers. U rban India’s fascination for the “folk” arts was still a long way away. Nor was there a market abroad – the first Festivals of India were still two decades in the future. And, in any case, what Habib Tanvir was doing was not present “folk” plays. He was not an impresario. He wanted to create a modern theatre; he wanted to present the classics from the ancient S anskrit and the western theatre. He saw himself, perhaps, as something of an a rtistic vanguard.

But artistic vanguards often fail commercially – sometimes because they are far ahead of their times, sometimes because their ideas work better in their heads than in their creations. Mostly, though, it is a combination of the two. And so it was with Habib Tanvir. From 1958 to about 1972, he tasted no commercial success, and the reason, he was honest to admit, was that his plays from this time were “failures”. His actors, capable of such flights on the rural stage, appeared stilted and cramped in his plays. The reason, he discovered eventually, was twofold – that he was forcing them to speak in Hindi rather than in Chhattisgarhi, and that he was not allowing them freedom of movement. The moment he a llowed them to speak in their mother tongue and allowed them freedom in rehearsal, they blossomed, and so did his theatre. All of a sudden, with Gaon ke Naon Sasural, Mor Naon Damaad (1972), he found commercial success as well. Suddenly, there was no dearth of a udiences.

Fourteen years of “failure” then achieved three things: far from churning out fast food because that is what the market deems popular taste to be, he had managed to create taste for what he w anted to serve. But this could not have happened unless he, too, was willing to learn lessons. And, of course, his actors needed to r elearn their craft because, even though they were now speaking and moving with greater freedom, a complex modern theatre is d ifferent from the rough rural theatre.

HABIB TANVIR (1923-2009)

Habib Tanvir, then, ran a professional after independence did not aid matters. As theatre company for half a century not Tanvir was to put it:


by stooping to accommodate “popular” taste, but by, quite simply, raising popular taste to a level where they could appreciate, love and admire his most complex creations.

A Theatre Career

Two, that Habib Tanvir’s career was a t heatre career.

To understand this, we have to go further back in time, to the 1940s. Habib Tanvir was educated in Raipur, Nagpur, and Aligarh, and he eventually migrated to Bombay to make a career. When he arrived there in the mid-1940s, the city was in ferment. These were the days of the Royal Indian Navy mutiny and militant working class actions. Habib Tanvir worked as an announcer on All India R adio, so he kept up to date with the news. The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) was formed in Bombay in 1942. Tanvir became part of it, as well as of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA). They performed plays on anti-imperialist themes, on class struggle, on the need for communal amity. Tanvir was also a talented poet and singer. He frequented mushairas, along with stars of Urdu poetry like Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Janisar Akhtar, etc.

But what Tanvir had gone to Bombay for was to pursue a career in the movies. Going by his photographs of the time, he was a handsome young man. His Urdu diction was superb and he had a strong but melodious voice. Everything, in other words, to make it as a leading man. He acted in films, and also wrote dialogues and songs for some. Maybe it was just luck, but he does not seem to have got the “break” that makes actors into stars.

Then, India gained independence. What this did to theatre was actually quite curious and unexpected. It emptied the theatre of its artistes and workers. Most of I ndia’s best actors, directors, writers and musicians had been radicalised in the IPTA or PWA. Suddenly, their biggest two enemies, the fascists in Europe and Japan, and the colonial power at home, were both defeated. Those who stayed with IPTA or PWA were lost. The intense ideological struggle within the communist movement right

Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar, Narendra Sharma, Shombhu Mitra, Sachin Shankar were all part of the IPTA movement. They considered themselves soldiers of the Party, whether they were members or not. But when there was a divide within the Party, they did not understand what to do, because the IPTA was the cultural squad of the Party. It did not have an independent policy. People were lost. With no one to show the way, one by one they abandoned the path. The 1948 Allahabad Conference was the death of IPTA; the funeral was conducted in 1956.

The film industry provided the way out. A large number of theatre artistes and writers migrated to the film industry. Some doubtless out of the belief that film was the medium of the future, where you could reach millions at one go, some simply because it seemed expedient – and lucrative – to go. Tanvir, who was both a poet and an actor, and so could easily have carved out a double career in the film industry, is perhaps the only significant name from that time that chose to remain in the theatre. And he chose not just to r emain in the theatre, he even migrated from Bombay.

That he enjoyed doing theatre intensely was without doubt one reason he stuck to it. But perhaps the more important reason was that he was getting disenchanted with the film industry. In an interview about his early years, he said:

Premchand had gone to Bombay and went bankrupt; they had no use for his stories. The Bengalis had some use for Saratchandra who was dead by that time. But Premchand was alive and quite someone to reckon with in Hindi literature, but was hardly ever recognised by the Indian film industry.

Tanvir recognised that even back then, when the Bombay film industry was more open to talent, it had no use for real literary talent. You could either write for literary value, in which case you remained a destitute poet, or you could write for the market that the film industry serviced; you could not do both simultaneously. As for acting, of course stars got adulation and mass popularity, but they had little control over the creative side of film making, and certainly the more famous star you were, the more you

for our complete catalogue please write to us at: DEBRAHMANISING HISTORY Dominance and Resistance in Indian Society Braj Ranjan Mani 81-7304-648-4, 2008, 456p. Rs. 395 Pb AMMA AND OTHER STORIES Omprakash Valmiki Naresh K. Jain (tr. and Introduction) 81-7304-783-9, 2008, 244p. Rs. 595 MARGINALIZATION IN THE MIDST OF MODERNIZATION A Study of Sweepers in Western India Takashi Shinoda 81-7304-647-6, 2005, 280p. Rs. 745 MAHAR, BUDDHIST AND DALIT Religious Conversion and Social-Political Emancipation Johannes Beltz 81-7304-620-4, 2005, 309p. Rs. 750 UNTOUCHABLE SAINTS An Indian Phenomenon Eleanor Zelliot and Rohini Mokashi-Punekar (eds) 81-7304-644-1, 2005, 285p. Rs. 750 MULTIPLE MARGINALITIES An Anthology of Identified Dalit Writings Badri Narayan and A.R. Misra (comp. & eds) 81-7304-511-9, 2003, 238p. Rs. 500 BUDDHISTS IN INDIA TODAY Descriptions, Pictures and Documents Detlef Kantowsky 81-7304-511-9, 2003, 238p. Rs. 500 DR B.R. AMBEDKAR A Study in Just Society James Massey 81-7304-523-2, 2003, 124p. Rs. 250 Hb 81-7304-524-0, Rs. 100 Pb CASTE Origin, Function and Dimensions of Change Suvira Jaiswal 81-7304-334-5, 2000, 278p. Rs. 200 Pb CASTE SYSTEM, UNTOUCHABILITY AND THE DEPRESSED H. Kotani (ed) 81-7304-329-9 1997, rpt. 1999, 299p. Rs. 230
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Economic & Political Weekly

became prisoner of your own image. As he put it:

I arrived at the conclusion that the cinema provides the artiste with no freedom. You cannot act the way you want, nor can you direct freely. The producer, who had no artistic sense or sensibility, who was a mere moneybag, would interfere in the director’s, actor’s, and writer’s work. I thought that even an actor has a social responsibility, which you can bring in with your characters. But the cinema did not provide that sort of freedom.

Habib Tanvir was too much his own man, too much of a free spirit, to become a prisoner of the film industry, no matter how rewarding such a career would have been financially. And, as his subsequent career bears out, he was concerned about the world around him and had things to say about it. To remain in the film industry, to put it brutally, was to surrender one’s creative and political freedom. To Tanvir, neither was acceptable.

Voice of Our Conscience

Three, that he radicalised himself p olitically a second time around at a stage when many others of his generation were looking to reap the benefits of having “made it”.

His first radicalisation was, of course, when Tanvir came close to the Communist Party of India (CPI) (though he did not become a party member) in Bombay in the 1940s. But, in a sense, there was not anything particularly remarkable about that. He was in his early twenties, an idealistic young man, and the air around him buzzed with radical ideas. Virtually all his friends and mentors were left wing r adicals of one kind or another. But IPTA declined rapidly after independence, and eventually the CPI itself split.

One section of the communist movement, even back in the 1940s, looked upon the Congress more kindly than the other. One reason for the split in the CPI in 1964, perhaps the most important reason, was that there was a difference on how to characterise the state – if it was in the hands of the “national bourgeoisie”, then closer ties with the Congress followed; if it was in the hands of the big bourgeoisie, then the Congress was to be opposed.

Artistes on the left may not have posed the question quite so programmatically, but they answered it with their actions. Tanvir, along with a large number of other left a rtistes and intellectuals, came quite close to the Congress over time. He c ampaigned for the Congress in the 1971 elections. In 1972, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha and his tenure traversed the Emergency. This must have created p roblems. The photographer-designer Sadanand Menon recalls ( rangatest/index.php?option=com_content& task=view&id=20&Itemid=34&favm=625):

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 Mrs Indira Gandhi’s 20-Point Programme. He was, of course, merely being true to his links with the CPI, which was rooting then for Mrs 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 Chandralekha, who too was equally exasperated with him, we might have ended up in fisticuffs.

Tanvir achieved his greatest successes in the days immediately following the Emergency. His Charandas Chor won the Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (The Fringe) in 1982, and the play even did a run on the London stage. Tanvir’s Naya Theatre was now invited regularly to every major (and minor!) theatre festival in I ndia, and to the Festivals of India that Indira Gandhi began to “sell” India abroad. He knew Indira Gandhi herself, and counted among his friends several prominent C ongress leaders, especially from Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. He had friends in high places – senior bureaucrats and others. He was in his sixties, at the height of his creative powers and fame. He could have w rangled for a position within the by now large cultural apparatus of the state – the National School of Drama, the Sangeet N atak Akademi, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and so on. Or, alternatively, he could have slowly wound up his own theatre company, lectured at drama schools the world over, directed a production for one company or the other every once in a way, and become a revered, venerable, but fairly harmless icon.

But the state of the nation was not looking good. A prime minister was assassinated; s ecessionist tendencies were on the rise, as was “majoritarian” communalism; a new prime minister, a political novice, promised to take India into the 21st century when the

HABIB TANVIR (1923-2009)

mass of rural poor had barely stepped into the 20th. And Habib Tanvir was too much of an iconoclast to allow himself to become an icon. Most of all, he was deeply committed to the idea of a modern, secular, progressive, democratic India – an India where the lowest of the low would find material and spiritual sustenance, where diversity and pluralism would be celebrated, not flattened out.

From the mid-1980s onwards, Habib Tanvir became more and more active in political causes – joining demonstrations, signing petitions, speaking, performing (often without fees) on progressive platforms. The murder of the young communist playwright Safdar Hashmi (with whom he had collaborated on a play just a few months earlier) in January 1989 shook him. It incensed him that things had reached such a pass that a man could be battered to death for performing a mere play. He was watching with increasing concern the rise of the Hindu Right. Then, when the Babri Masjid was demolished in December 1992, his worst fears seemed to come true.

Soon, he himself was under attack – for a play called Ponga Pandit, a rural farce against untouchability neither written nor directed by him, but simply inherited by him via his rural actors. Along with M F Hussain, Tanvir became the Hindu Right’s favourite target. The play was a ttacked again and again over a period of some 10 years or so at different places in India and abroad. The more the play was attacked, the more Tanvir was deter mined to continue doing it – he sought out o pportunities to perform it, he had the play script published, and before every performance, he spoke at length about the play, about our theatrical traditions and the long history of farce in India, about the importance of keeping alive democratic spaces.

Virtually each and every one of his productions after the mid-1980s was on a directly political theme – something that cannot be said in the same way about his plays of the 1970s. He did plays on communalism, on anti-poor “development”, on violence and non-violence, on the B hopal gas tragedy, and even one anti-capitalist play (Gorky’s Enemies in Safdar Hashmi’s adaptation).

For the last two decades of his life, then, Habib Tanvir was not only one of India’s most prominent theatre artistes. He was also the voice of our conscience. That voice is now silent. Alas.

Economic & Political Weekly

june 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

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