Habib Tanvir: Towards an Inclusive Theatre expects of Tanvir’s theatre philosophy and practice as he experimented with both content and form. Starting with his early life and work, katyal charts his professional trajectory from Agra Bazaar to Gaon Ka Naam Sasural, when he was searching for his true from, to Charandas Chor, which portrayed the eventual maturing of his style and beyond maturing of his style, and beyond, to cover his entire oeuvre.
Anjum Katyal has been involved with theatre publishing for decades as an editor, writer, translator and critic. As Chief Editor of Seagull Books, Kolkata (1987-2006), she was responsible for their New Indian Playwrights series, which featured post-Independence Indian playwriting in English translation, as well as several theatre studies titles. She was Editor of Seagull Theatre Quarterly (1994-2004), the only national theatre journal of its time, which focused particularly on the voices of practitioners. She has translated Habib Tanvir’s Charandas Char (Charandas the Thief) and Hirma ki Amar Kahani (The Living Tale of Hirma) as well as Usha Ganguli’s Rudali (Funeral Wailers) and stories by Mahasweta Devi and Meera Mukherjee; she is currently translating Habib Tanvir’s Bahadur Kalarin. As Editor of Art and the City (www.goethe.de/artandthecity), a web magazine on the contemporary arts, she has commissioned and edited pieces on contemporary theatre in urban India.
Apart from theatre in particular, she has worked on publications on Indian arts and culture and been involved in organising several exhibitions of contemporary art, as well as writing catalogues for exhibitions by Chittrovanu Mazumdar, Somnath Hore, Manu Parekh, Madhvi Parekh, Reba Hore and Nasreen Moochhala. She has a background in education and teacher training. A published poet, she also sings the blues and reviews and writes on theatre and the visual arts.
She is presently Consultant (Publications) with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIAS), a research institute based in Kolkata. She is also a Consultant with Oxford Bookstore.
Katyal is currently writing a book on Badal Sircar (SAGE Publications, Forthcoming)
Anjum Katyal’s book on Habib Tanvir’s ideas, and his rich and varied practice, is an elegant and timely reappraisal of one of the greatest artists of modern India. It takes us through his readings and conversations, through text, music, performance and theatre history.
In order to find entry points into Habib Tanvir’s vast body of work, a few signposts may need to be placed. When writing about him, the words popular and traditional, modern and secular immediately come into orbit. The important thing to emphasise is that these are contested categories and the degree of radical energy we draw out from them is dependent on the historical contexts within which they function. Further, that as categories they must not obscure and over-define the work; that we as audience must constantly revise our understanding of them in the contemporary moment where they are deployed; that we must side by side revise our notion of the contemporary itself, when it is understood through these self-same categories. In other words, we should allow the work in its contemporary rendition to destabilise the categories.
One of the markers of the traditional is an element of unchangeableness. Traditions are handed down to be preserved, as it were; their connection with the past is their principal value. However, that value is relative to the mode of transmission-whether the transmission is done with impelling force or with ease and informality; with ceremony, as for ratification, or as an active process of dialogue and change; within the urgency of practice or with the drive of an upholder. Habib Sahib both assembles and takes apart traditional devices and conventions in the process of play-making, causing a rupture in the modernist sense and yet sustaining a course through the traditional by use and handling.
Tradition and modernity are oppositional concepts too familiar to be stretched; the word modern, possibly the most apt description of Habib Sahib’s work, is more elastic as it is invested in innovation. It foregrounds the most ‘up-to-date’ constituents of the present as separated from those that establish continuity with the past.
If we take the concept ‘modernity’ with this cargo of meanings, then Habib Sahib’s work complicates it by cross cutting the traditional modern binary with contemporary forms of the folk and popular. Now the popular is what people do-their ways of eating, singing, talking, dressing, dancing, worshipping-referring, therefore, to relationships and processes, as well as objects and images. I Beliefs and values shape the popular and these in turn are expressed by particular aesthetic strategies and conventions-by the nature of formal choices taken towards art-making.
While popular culture might be that which is produced by the people as a part of their everyday life, the symbolising power of popular cultural work often creates a ‘public’ with a political understanding-even a space for resistance. One way or another, definitions of popular cultural work are never neutral; they are always entangled with questions of culture and power. In looking at Habib Sahib’s commitment to political activism and especially to secularism, such an understanding of the popular is quite critical.
‘Popular culture’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘everyday’ culture. The term everyday is important precisely for its taken-for-granted qualities. But it is also a boundary word, readable only when compared to something that is not everyday, that is, extraordinary or out of the way. Habib Sahib works with the ordinariness of theatre-making, derived from the popular forms of Chhattisgarh; he attempts to revalue it-revalue the commonplace, that is-and the artwork that is grafted within it. The workaday and the familiar become remarkable and strange once their taken-for-grantedness is disrupted by transfer to literary and performative spaces; into other and new narratives and stories. The cultural translation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream as Kamdev Ka Sapna by Habib Sahib comes to mind. Kamdev is a translation, not an adaptation, and the difference is important to mark. Translation as we know is the process of shifting meaning across cultural boundaries. And it can raise, often in very urgent ways, questions of interpretation and meaning, even destabilising assumptions of originals within literary hierarchies. In an adaptation, which Kamdev I believe is not, one text is absorbed into the other with no trace or residue visible; Kamdev, on the other hand is like a palimpsest, where the original is visible under the overwriting.
Habib Tanvir’s journey through the major concerns that occupied artists of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s as citizens of a newly independent India- identity, nation and democracy-as well as his vision for a more egalitarian and equitable society underlined by justice, freedom of expression, modernity and socialist collectivity with a stake in art practice, have been defining forces in modern Indian theatre practices.
Anjum Katyal’s illuminating study is keenly attentive to the way Habib Tanvir gave value and tangibility to cultural forms; that he sought to open a radical space in a society that is becoming rapidly consumerist. Her research allows us to traverse the complex landscape that he himself tracked.
One of my favourite Habib Saab stories (and he was quite a raconteur) is about a brief encounter on his European odyssey, when he was travelling through Europe in the mid-1950s, seeing theatre, doing odd jobs and barely managing to make ends meet. One evening in Nice, as he sat on the beach with hardly any money left in his pocket, a young Algerian lad approached and kept pestering him for a souvenir-his last 10 pound note, his fountain pen-till Habib asked him if he could sing. He said yes.
I said, ‘Would you like to hear a song?’
‘D’you promise to give me an Algerian song?’
He said, ‘Yes’.
I said, ‘Then I promise to give you an Indian song.’
He sang me an Algerian song. I liked it. I liked the lilt of it. I learnt it and then I sang to him a Chhattisgarhi folk song. He liked it. So I took some time learning his song and writing it and he took his time trying to learn my song-I don’t know if he still remembers it or not-and the night passed. It was time for the train, four in the morning and I shook him by the hand and said, ‘Now you’ve got a souvenir from me and I’ve got one from you and we’re none the poorer for it, in fact we’re richer. Goodbye.
This little anecdote has stayed in my mind. So much more than just an amusing tale about a random encounter, I feel that it speaks volumes about the man, and his philosophy of culture. By offering to exchange songs as souvenirs, he gives a value and tangibility to cultural forms-particularly ephemeral ones like songs and oral narratives-that are largely disregarded, especially in our current consumerist society. By exchanging a nugget of our own culture, he seems to suggest, we exchange a valuable part of ourselves. And this is a true gift: we spend time over the process of exchange, thereby bestowing more value on it; we make an effort in both giving and receiving (learning) it; and the gifting enriches both parties equally. This kind of cultural exchange is also lasting-years later Habib Tanvir introduced the very same Algerian song in a production.
Songs, and the oral tradition of which our folk performance forms are an integral part, remained central to Habib’s theatrical journey right to the very end of his life.
Habib Tanvir (1923-2009) was one of India’s best-known modern theatre directors. The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre describes him as follows: ‘Hindi and Urdu playwright, director, actor, manager, poet, and one of the most important theatre personalities of post-Independence India’.’ He is best known for his work with Naya Theatre, the repertory formed by him and his wife and professional partner Moneeka Misra, with actors from Chhattisgarh, which started functioning as a professional company around 1972, after which Habib Tanvir’s plays were mostly performed by this troupe of Chhattisgarhi actors who had largely been trained in the local Nacha performance form.
However, Habib Saab’s true importance to Indian theatre, in my opinion, does not lie in his personal achievements as an actor or a director, playwright and manager, though these were remarkable enough to justify the sobriquet ‘renaissance man’. Indeed, theatre activist and scholar Sudhanva Deshpande, writing three days after his death, calls him just that:
Habib Tanvir was a renaissance personality. There was nothing he could not do in theatre-he wrote, translated, adapted and evolved plays; he was a master director, a superb actor and a good singer; he wrote poetry and songs; he could compose music; he was a designer; he was manager of his company Naya Theatre, which he ran first with his wife Moneeka (and single-handed after her death) for exactly fifty years; he was a critic and theoretician; more, he was a seer, a guru for generations of younger theatre artistes. In all this, and through his prodigiously prolific theatre career spanning some sixty years, he remained an artiste with a deep social conscience and engagement, a public intellectual who never shied away from taking a stand and lending his name to progressive and secular causes.” There are several towering Indian theatre personalities who, like Habib Tanvir, have produced work of a very high standard, milestone productions in India’s theatre history. His name will certainly be part of any ‘who’s who’ of Indian theatre by these criteria. But to my mind that is not his most valuable or significant contribution to the history of Indian theatre.
What makes Habib Saab’s contribution so invaluable and irreplaceable is his intervention in the most fundamental discourse of theatre in independent India-the whole question of direction and form. He entered the world of theatre at a critical point, just as India gained independence. His contemporaries, major practitioners and theorists were engaged in giving a shape, an identity, to Indian theatre. On the one hand, there was the colonial legacy of Western-style proscenium, modernist and avant-garde theatre; on the other, the Orientalist-led rediscovery of ancient Sanskrit texts and traditional performance forms.
Urban India adopted the proscenium with enthusiasm, regardless of political persuasion or theatrical style. From the popular Parsi and Company theatre to the politically leftist theatre of Utpal Dutt in Bengal, the Western-style stage came to dominate theatre in the cities. The popular Parsi and Company theatre troupes also toured extensively in the small towns and rural areas, thereby, familiarising audiences there with the conventions of the proscenium theatre. Parallel to this, individual stalwarts turned to traditional performance forms. Sanskrit theatre as laid down by the Natyashastra, was one discovery. (Habib also did Sanskrit classics like Sudraka’s Mrich-hakatikam and Visakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa.) Another area of exploration was the rich legacy of regional performative traditions to be found all over the country. From the Nacha of Ha bib’s home ground, Chhattisgarh, to the Tamasha and Lavani of Maharashtra, the Bhavai of Gujarat, Yakshagana of Karnataka, Koodiyattam of Kerala, Therukoothu of Tamil Nadu, and the Chhau of Orissa-the list is as varied as it is colourful. Closely connected to these are performer-training systems and martial arts disciplines-like the Manipuri Thang-ta or Kalaripayyat in South India. Arguably the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), out of their interest in people’s culture, was the first to explore these ‘folk’ forms and bring them into their theatrical presentations in a sustained way. Later, these became grist to the mills of theatre directors in search of ethnic forms of expression. The outcome of this trend was the loosely termed ‘roots theatre’ movement. Typically, ‘theatre of the roots’ utilised aspects of training or presentation taken from one or more of these traditional systems in the service of a ‘modern’ theatre which was usually the vision or artistic expression of an individual director.
Both these dominant parallel trends in modern Indian theatre-the Western-looking and the ethnic-Looking-were far removed from the folk theatre that was still vibrantly alive in the Indian countryside. These folk theatre forms were of, by and for the rural and semi-rural populace, and travelled a separate circuit all their own. Closely linked to the robust oral culture of Indian village life, they had evolved over centuries and continued to adopt from and adapt to contemporary reality-whether this meant satirical skits on current affairs, topical references to local scandals or the introduction of popular Hindi film songs into their performance routines. They were subaltern forms, brimming with irreverent digs at the status quo and subversive wit and humour. However, as the rural economy weakened and collapsed, folk actors and groups found their survival threatened. Precious oral heritage slipped into oblivion as songs ceased to be sung, dances ceased to be danced and rituals ceased to be performed. Invaluable skills and indigenous knowledge, as important a part of India’s cultural heritage as the Sanskrit scriptures the nation-state so zealously preserved, gradually grew extinct, largely unnoticed by the cultural mainstream.
Habib Tanvir recognised the value of this oral cultural heritage. He spoke often on the subject:
The educated lack the culture which ... the villages possess so richly though they are illiterate ... being more than compensated by the rich oral tradition of our culture and who therefore are the more cultured.
The rural sophistication is not understood by the urban people and vice versa. But I find the villager much more sophisticated ... in many, many instances. In the arts they are much more sophisticated.
I believe in the viability of the rich forms of the rural theatre in which they have a tendency to incorporate the most topical, the latest local happening, the thematic and formal flexibility by which we cannot claim this is how it was performed 200 or 2000 years ago .... I believe that it is possible to usher in progress without demolishing this culture. This environment should be preserved, this ... rural environment most conducive to the fullest growth of the folk theatre form, because this community life which is so rich in its cultural expression can be transformed to a progressive community in which this expression remains.
In fact, at the time when Habib began his career, ‘fo’k’ was not a term in common use. As theatre critic and scholar Javed Malick points out, it was neither the fashion nor the passion of India’s contemporary stage. Far from being the all-inspiring catchword that it later became in Indian theatre, it was a neglected and greatly devitalised category. Tanvir was one of those who pioneered the revival of interest in folk performance traditions and made it into a significant and influential category.
Several of his peers were also excited by the riches of the folk performative tradition. However, rather than use it, like they did, as a resource for images, motifs, idioms and elements to be transformed into a theatre of his own design and making, Habib chose to shape his own theatre around the presence of the folk performer, who is, literally, the embodiment and vehicle of oral performance culture. The folk performers are in themselves ‘endangered archives’. He has said, time and again, that he was not running after folk forms as much as running after folk actors; with the actors came the forms. Another way of saying it was that the owners of the tradition brought it with them; it was not taken from them for the use of others.
Yet his was not folk theatre, although, since he frequently used material such as folktales, folk songs and rituals in his productions; it is often mistaken for an attempt at it. But this would be a misreading of his work. As Javed Malick clarifies, ‘Tanvir’s fascination with the folk is not motivated by a revivalist or an antiquarian impulse.? Sudhanva Deshpande further insists:
On Habib Tanvir’s theatre, it is quite common to hear two views. One sees a development of the IPT A legacy in him, the other sees him as a practitioner of ‘folk’ theatre. Both are incorrect. IPTA sought to build an all-India network of revolutionary cultural groups in close association with the Communist movement. Habib Tanvir, after his early years with IPTA, has never again done that kind of work. Certainly in his theatre practice there isn’t even a whiff of IPTA; while IPTA used ‘folk’ forms essentially as carriers of revolutionary ideology to ‘the masses’, Habib Tanvir has fashioned a popular modern theatre, borrowing elements from rural dramatic traditions that has more often than not been utopic rather than revolutionary.
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