Nageen Tanvir describes her father Habib Tanvir’s theatrical approach, even as she tells Anjana Rajan that times have changed

“A sense of humour, subtlety, patience, tolerance, all that has to be there, but unless you have the tenacity you cannot sail through life,” says Nageen Tanvir, recalling the qualities that helped her father, late Habib Tanvir, achieve success as a theatre director, actor and writer. “My mother (Moneeka Tanvir) was equally courageous,” she remarks, adding wryly, “I am the frail, protected child.”

Nageen recollects her father’s untiring will in the face of adversity. “He would play to empty houses,” she says, because even without spectators he seized the opportunity of performing on stage to polish and tighten his work. It is almost startling to hear of the struggle of the founders of Naya Theatre, a group held in reverence for blazing a trail in Hindustani theatre’s contemporary voice, to get audiences. But that was many decades ago. Naya Theatre was formed in 1959 and saw years of hard work, search and transformation, as any true artistic endeavour must.

With Mahmood Farooqui’s English translation of Habib Tanvir’s memoirs published by Penguin Viking set to be released on May 28 in New Delhi, it is a summer of remembrance. Nagin, who will come to the Capital for the launch from Bhopal, where Naya Theatre — the repertory that became famous for its versatile, highly musical Chhattisgarhi actors — has been headquartered since 1996, has seen much of this transformation close up. She describes the progress of their theatrical emphasis as “first totally urban, then mixed, then totally folk and then some urban and some folk”.

Nagin grew up in Delhi. “We used to live in Karol Bagh. In Delhi then there were a lot of Urdu speaking people,” she reminisces.

“In the ’90s others (language groups) started coming in, and the culture became a bit mixed up.”

Theatre in the Capital did not offer vast variety, she says. “In the 1970s, Punjabi theatre used to take place in Sapru House. They were not very good quality plays.” She names as exceptions the work of Sheila Bhatia and Rekha Jain, but says, “The general impression I used to get was that in Delhi, to see a cultural programme is the done thing, fashionable. The elite would go. It was not serious, in-depth theatre. That was the impression my parents also got and I was much influenced by their thinking.” Nageen notes, “The National School of Drama has also contributed to that impression,” especially after the 1980s.

“My father wanted to do Hindustani plays. He was the first person who wanted to do professional plays.” Speaking of directorial approaches, Nageen, a trained vocalist who has acted and sung in her father’s plays and continues to work with the Naya Theatre repertory, points out, “Up to a point it’s important to leave the actor free. And in Indian art it’s important to let them improvise. But even in that you need to have a definite thought. If you don’t, it becomes very random and disorganised.”

Therefore her father made sure the reigns of the production were in his hands. “A lot of hard work has to be done on the script, which my father used to do. Duncan Ross, his guru in England, had taught him that the story has to be lucid. Whatever comes in the way of the flow of the story, just do away with it.”

Describing Tanvir’s methodology, she explains that he would divide a scene into units, sub-units and sub-sub-units. “He would explain the story to the folk artistes and say what was supposed to happen in a scene. He would say take three dialogues and work on them — alone, with others — and then show it to me. If there was comedy and he thought there is no meaning in it, he would say, ‘Ab is mein meaning daalo’. (Now put meaning into it)

Once he was satisfied, he wrote down the scene based on the artistes’ articulation, says Nageen. “Then he gave the artistes the script and took them through all the dialogues. Casting would be the last thing he did.” Everyone knew all the lines and he made his decisions based on the capabilities of the different actors without their getting an inkling which role he was considering them for.

Another principle taught by Ross which her father always remembered, says Nageen, was, “Do not forget the very first impression you get from a story because that is what gets diluted in rehearsals.”

While her mother looked after costumes and other vital aspects of production, Nageen observes, “But that was secondary.” She describes her father as “a slow worker, a slow thinker.” Therefore, “The final product was terse, and because he was a poet his prose was good. Because he worked on the text, he was very thorough with movement, and he said every movement should have a meaning.”

Apart from quality of literature, he achieved economy of words and movement: “The director should know where the improvisation should stop, whether in movement or words.”

Nageen feels that directors of today ought to read good poetry as this helps to gain command over effective language. Among her father’s favourite sayings was, “Brevity is the mother of wisdom,” the old English aphorism.

“And I think directors should also learn from dancers. Movement, use of space and economy of space cannot be better learnt than from a dancer.” Her father was greatly inspired by dancers too, and in the memoirs he describes his lasting amazement at seeing a Kathakali performance for the first time, a depiction of Hanuman.

“And a painter knows the economy of the brush,” Nageen continues, mentioning the number of artist friends, including Jatin Das, Krishen Khanna and others, who were part of her parents’ circle.

Nageen, a concert vocalist currently undergoing advanced training under the Gundecha Brothers, cites her father’s observation of voice and accent. “He used to assimilate the speech of all the beggars, the (roadside) vendors. It seeped into his subconscious.” Music, voice modulation even in a non-musical play is of utmost importance, she adds, as it affects speech and diction.

It is now nearly four years since his passing. “Baba never prepared anyone to take over Naya Theatre, because he never trusted anyone,” she states. “Purane log aise hote thhe (people of that generation were like that). Once he asked me, do you want to direct a play, but I didn’t show any interest. I wanted to do music, whether on stage or in film. There was supposed to be a meeting in 2009 but before that he passed away. ”

While she remains committed to the theatrical principles for which Habib Tanvir stood, the strictness with which he ran Naya Theatre is not possible now, says Nageen. “We can’t have the feudal system he had. Now it has to be run in a different way,” she affirms. “I have to overhaul the entire engine, because it’s 53 years old. You can’t keep looking back, you have to move forward.”

When Naya Theatre was new

The first batch of village actors was illiterate and would learn the lines aurally.

They came from the oppressed castes: weavers, cobblers, instrument makers. The women were from the nomadic community.

A teacher was engaged to teach them to read and write.

A yoga teacher was also employed.

Nageen says, “They would run off to the village with no explanation, saying ‘I don’t want to come for the performance.’ Baba had so much energy. He would say, ‘I will take a rope and bring them back’!”

Growing stage

Nageen Tanvir on a childhood where school was the least favoured destination.

“I wanted to sing and dance. I was also good at painting. I used to daydream a lot. I never read books as a child, although I loved comics — Laurel and Hardy, Amar Chitra Katha — and I loved to listen to stories. I was not into sports. But when Baba was an MP and we had a big drawing room, I would do tatkar (Kathak footwork) for three hours! I grew up amongst elders. My parents would take me to dinners. Great classical music would be played. There would be shair-o-shayari. I would fall asleep at nine o’clock. We had a red Standard Herald, and my father would pick me up like a sack and take me home.”

“Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, Vilayat Khan (recordings) would be playing in the house, and the actors would listen to it all. Now of course, the generation has changed. It’s a very impatient generation.”

Mahmood Farooqui’s English translation of Habib Tanvir: Memoirs will be released in New Delhi on May 28.