Anjum Katyal speaks about her book on the life and work of Habib Tanvir, to be launched this Friday in New Delhi

This Saturday, September 1, marks the 89th birth anniversary of iconic playwright-director Habib Tanvir. One of the most significant theatre voices of independent India, Tanvir harmonised his Western-oriented academic education with a love for the indigenous traditions of his country, just as he balanced a talent for entertaining with his firmly held ideological approach. The late doyen is remembered not only for his landmark productions such as “Charandas Chor”, “Agra Bazar” and “Ponga Pandit” among others, but also for the way he found his own contemporary theatre language using Chhattisgarhi performance traditions and built his work around the actors from his native Chhattisgarh — an approach that was not only an inspiration in his lifetime but remains one even now, with the productions of his Naya Theatre group still in demand.

Fittingly on this occasion, Sage has brought out a book, “Habib Tanvir — Towards an Inclusive Theatre” by Anjum Katyal that will be launched in New Delhi this Friday. Going through the pages of the publication, generously dotted with reminiscences of the master about the varied experiences of this versatile career, it is difficult not to become nostalgic for an era where such masters existed who were equally adept at writing, directing and acting, who cared as much for the minor details of their art as for the progress of the society to which they belonged. “I keep fighting that feeling,” says the author. While acknowledging that the that times have changed, and it seems as if all the giants are disappearing she notes, “I know that can’t be true, and there will always be people who do excellent work.”

It is also true, she points out, that the years in which Habib Tanvir and other illustrious nation builders were working were the pioneering years of Indian independence. It was as if they came of age along with the country, she remarks. So it was in a sense the times that brought together so many eminent filmmakers, artists, writers, theatre workers who had a “sense of purpose” and “combined the high standards of their art with their strong sense of social commitment,” feels Anjum, who spent a decade as editor of Seagull Theatre Quarterly (STQ) and is still associated with the journal.

“Sometimes I feel there’s a sense of jadedness now,” she mentions, in the context of theatre work today, “as if nothing new is possible.” This was not the case in the heady decades from the 1940s to the ’70s when Indian artistes were in search of an idiom at once contemporary and rooted in the soil.

Tanvir also stood unflinchingly for theatre as a vigilant voice of protest against injustice and inequality. “It was always about pushing it beyond just having fun,” says the author, adding that though he had a piquant sense of humour, he reminded his actors that they couldn’t just be funny for the sake of it but had to use humour as a tool to critique the system. Taking the example of “Charandas Chor”, she observes, “Everything has a political edge to it,” and describes it as “a general pushing towards a more inclusive society. It was important for him to have something more meaningful than entertainment, but at the same time not sacrificing humour.”

Anjum, who interacted regularly with Tanvir, has translated his ever popular “Charandas Chor” and is the co-translator of “Hirma ki Amar Kahani.” In the book she has included many of Tanvir’s recollections as preserved in a long interview she took of the doyen for STQ. Given his wonderful expression and evocative command of language, this is certainly a welcome addition to the publication, blending with her own lucid unfoldment of the story. And, like all the best stories, Habib Tanvir’s is a tale that inspires and grows beyond itself. A story that launched a thousand stories.

(The book will be launched on August 31 at the India Habitat Centre, 7 p.m. The evening features a documentary on Habib Tanvir and a panel discussion featuring Anuradha Kapur, Javed Malick and Mahmood Farooqui.)