Unlike its western counterpart, Indian theatre in regional languages has never been a lively and vibrant phenomenon. One is hardly ever likely to come across such a roll call of redoubtable Western playwrights, ranging from the Elizabethans Shakespeare and Marlowe down to the whole lot of European, British, American, and African dramatists, as Ionesco, Beckett, Brecht, Ibsen, Synge, Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, and Wole Soyinka. But the one name that is sure to conjure up an image of a modern theatre that is indigenous and non-imitative of the western model is Habib Tanvir’s.

Anjum Katyal’s Habib Tanvir: Towards an Inclusive Theatre is an engaging and erudite comprehensive literary biography of Habib Tanvir (aka Habib Ahmed Khan) (1923-2009) the iconic Hindi and Urdu playwright, actor, director, journalist, manager, poet who strode the Indian theatre like a colossus. In his active professional career of 60 years, he put up on stage 77 plays. Along with his wife, he founded a repertory, Naya theatre, and with a chosen group of professional folk actors drawn from his native district Chhattisgarh, he staged his plays throughout the length and breadth of India. With his chosen group of strolling players, he was instrumental in creating a theatre discourse that steered clear of the dominant Western-style proscenium theatre as well as our age-old traditional performance.

Tanvir was fully aware that consequent on the weakening of the rural economy and the growing migration of the rural population to the cities in search of new pastures, folk art with its oral cultural heritage was facing imminent collapse. Recognising the vitality of India’s rich and evocative oral tradition, he fashioned a popular modern, contemporary theatre, with the assistance of folk actors, borrowing rural dramatic roots and modes but eschewing consciously elaborate stage designs and complicated lighting. We are told that such a theatre was not the outcome of a sudden impulse but a result of sustained effort all through his life to perfect his form of art. This book in 12 chapters traces the course of Tanvir’s professional journey right from his early years in Raipur, life in Bombay, tour of Europe and interaction with the Brecht theatre group, establishment of Naya theatre, staging of classics, down to his final days when he donned the role of a committed social activist. Tanvir went to Bombay seeking a career in films. But the Bombay years convinced him that his medium would be the theatre and not cinema. His very first play Agra Bazaar catapulted him to fame. Staged in Delhi in 1954 — revived time and again by popular demand — it exhibited his unique style with a ‘fluid structure with interwoven narratives, humorous sequences, live songs and music, a local flavour in the setting and the language.’

Sojourn in Europe

A three-year sojourn in Europe sharpened his skills, taught him that there was a long felt need in India for a cultural renaissance, evolving a new theatre which would mean ‘injecting contemporary consciousness into old cultural patterns and thereby produce the new.’ With the starting of his Naya Theatre, the most productive career of Tanvir began. He staged Moliere, Brecht, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, the Sanskrit classic Mudrarakshasa and many more. A major landmark in his career was Chandradas Chor, a big hit, acclaimed a modern classic which had all the features of his mature theatre form.

Though a demanding and a restless perfectionist in his profession, he treated his actors and collaborators with grace, warmth, and respect and his attitude toward them is described as ‘paternalistic.’ No wonder they, in turn, gave forth their best! In the next phase of his career he staged a wide variety of classic texts. It is even said that ‘he liberated Sanskrit drama from its confinement to the pages of literature and freed it for the stage’. Tanvir firmly believed that “the goal of theatre is not to draw crowds or to achieve cheap popularity; it should, in fact, wean them away from cheap and vacuous entertainment towards a value based theatre. Our most important work is to re-establish its values”. Anjum Katyal’s stimulating study explores in great detail the various aspects of Tanvir’s theatre and his sense of purpose that led him in one direction: building an inclusive theatre that would address social issues from a truly Indian point of view. Verily he was a pathfinder.

HABIB TANVIR — Towards an Inclusive Theatre: Anjum Katyal; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B 1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 650.

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