Their past is a legacy treasured, their future, tentative steps to a new theatre grammar. Naya Theatre, a theatre revolution spurred by the legendary Habib Tanvir, now ventures into a new phase where preserving signature plays is as significant as charting a novel course without Habib Tanvir.

Half a dozen months after Habib Tanvir's death, Naya Theatre continues to engage audiences with their classic productions. The story was no different when their epic “Charandas Chor” was performed at Safdar Hashmi Memorial organised by SAHMAT this past week. Curious people waited all day to watch the play and finally when the group came on stage, led by Habib Tanvir's daughter Nageen Tanvir, gave them a wholehearted welcome.

After her father's death, Nageen has spiritedly kept the group together and along with Ram Chandra Singh, the new director of Naya Theatre appointed by Habib Tanvir, she hopes to give it a new future.

Nageen grew up with Naya Theatre which her father established in 1959. The folk artistes of Chattisgarh, the soul of the group, watched over her as a child and a grown up. Now, the group goes through throes of change, as the performers who worked with Habib Tanvir, slip into oblivion.

“Most of them have retired or passed away,” says Nageen, adding only about four of the veteran artistes are in the group now. “When my father started the group in 1959, it had the cream of Chattisgarhi artistes. Now, we don't find that kind of talent — those who can act, dance and sing. Situation has changed a lot in Chattisgarh, for the worse,” says Nageen.

If the nucleus of Habib Tanvir's plays were folk elements like ‘nacha', Nageen says these forms have now been distorted beyond recognition.

Without their guiding light, perched on a point of transition, Nageen knows there are too many slots to fill and timely changes to be made at Naya Theatre. She remembers her father's final days in the Intensive Care Unit, “He was worried about Naya theatre. It was a quick death, 28 days in the hospital, nobody expected it…He was hallucinating and seeing doctors and nurses as actors and was saying they were not rehearsing properly.”

“He did a hell of lot of writing and was a poet too. He composed music, was multi-faceted. I can compose, but I can't write songs. He translated. He was a writer and a poet and that is my biggest handicap and greatest worry. You can't find that kind of talent,” Nageen dissects where her father's absence will be most felt.

However, there is clarity of vision in the way Nageen wants Naya Theatre to be, post Habib Tanvir. “Imitations will make a pale copy,” she says and asserts the key is to do new productions a new way.

“The form has to change. It cannot be the way my father did. There has to be a new style and method. The new director has to create his formula, his signature. Style is bound to change, should change,” she says.

Come summer, Nageen plans a workshop to find new talent for Naya Theatre and the production emerging from it could well be their first new play after Habib Tanvir.

“We want the workshop to attract maximum talent from the villages around,” says Nageen.

If decades ago, Naya Theatre comprised only folk artistes, with the shrinking number of these performers, it had to widen to urban actors. Nageen knows it is difficult to attain perfect harmony between the section of folk and urban performers.

“They never gel — the rural and urban actors, my father knew that. Their attitudes are so different. The urban actors have the attitude of an amateur, whereas the folk artistes are full time actors. This is their only source of income. Here we have the guru-shishya tradition which doesn't work with urban actors,” explains Nageen.

Despite the troughs, Nageen and the group have managed to stay focussed, even when the Chattisgarh government banned “Charandas Chor” for a short while. “We have to summon courage and face challenges,” she says.

On her role in Naya Theatre, she says, “I will support Ram Chandra Singh. I will help them in every way I can. I love backstage work, doing costumes. I want to groom young artistes and train them in organisational skills, so they can be independent.”