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Artistic statements

UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA takes a look at Habib Tanvir's oeuvre over the past five decades that was on show at the Prithvi Festival in December.

"Charnadas Chor": truth and integrity from the perspective of a thief.

TOWARDS the end of every year, the Prithvi Theatre Festival brings Mumbai an array of new and old plays from across the country and a range of discussions on the theory and practice of theatre.

This year's Prithvi Festival brought together several special experiences: such as the return of early Prithvi actresses Zohra Sehgal and Uzra Butt in the Indo-Pakistan collaboration "Ek Thi Nani"; the return of Commedia dell'Arte Galore from Italy; 14 new and premiering productions in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and English; and two phases of the Festival to travel to the new Rangashankara in Bangalore, and to Habitat Centre in Delhi.

But the highlight of this year's Prithvi Festival in Mumbai has undoubtedly been the seven-production presentation of Habib Tanvir's Naya Theatre. From a revival of his first major production, "Agra Bazaar", which dates back to 1954, to the new "Zahreeli Hawa" based on the Bhopal gas tragedy, the plays are powerful artistic statements.

People's songs

"Agra Bazaar", based on the life of plebeian poet Nazir Akbarabadi, is located in the heart of Agra's marketplace. Here, a watermelon seller sits next to a ladduwala, a paanwala and a kakdiwala, all on the pavement before other shops. On one side is a kite vendor's colourful stall, so important in the leisurely days of 18th Century Agra, and on the other is a bookseller. Above the grocer's is the kothi of a courtesan, where men come to hear her sing and spend time with her in the evenings.

As the street vendors wait for people to buy their ware, we see them engaged in the ordinary business of every day: talking, grumbling, bickering, slowly fanning their wares with grimy towels to protect them from flies, and even, on occasion, breaking into a fist-fight. Such a fist-fight is what brings the troublesome daroga to their street, and it is, of course, the kakdiwala who is blamed for instigating it.

The kakdiwala is still looking for a song for his fresh green kakdi, but the erudite scholars who come to the bookseller's pooh-pooh him away. When talk turns to the everyday poetry of Nazir Akbarabadi, the scholars turn away in displeasure — all except one, who is drawn to the power and the music of the words. Crossing over to the other side, lovers of Nazir's poetry congregate at the kite-seller's stall to listen to more of these remarkable verses — and then the kakdiwala gets an idea. If the poet writes so well about everyday things, he figures, surely he should be able to write a verse about his kakdi.

And so the kakdiwala gets his poem; on hearing him, the watermelon seller breaks into song; not to be left out, the ladduwala comes up with his own song about his til ke laddu. The people are singing poetry of their own, and this is the revolution that Nazir's poetry has wrought.

Thief's perspective

"Charandas Chor", Tanvir's most well-known production, is a play about truth and integrity told through the perspective of the thief of the play's title, Charandas Chor. Not only a clever and benevolent thief, a la Robin Hood, but also a man of his word, ready to pay any price to retain his integrity.

As Javed Mallick has observed in his excellent introduction to Anjum Katyal's translation of "Charandas Chor", Charandas is "a figure of the common man who is capable of virtues rare in an unjust, class-based society...truthful and a man of his word," a man who lives up to and dies for his word.

As Mallick points out, the original story, from writer-folklorist Vijaydan Detha, has a far bleaker ending, with the thief being killed and the guru becoming the king instead; but in Tanvir's more hopeful version, the thief is put to death, but lives on in the hearts and minds of people, revered by them for his integrity. It is this optimism, this faith in the goodness of ordinary people that shines through the work of Naya Theatre.

South Mumbai's Horniman Circle Garden was the perfect setting for"Kamdeo Ka Apna Basant Ritu Ka Sapna", Tanvir's excellent Hindi adaptation of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in which the story of Bottom and his companion thespians becomes the main story, framed inside the plot of fairy king Oberon's war with his queen Titania. The adaptation is as faithful as possible to the forms of Shakespeare's play, retaining verse, blank verse, and prose for different passages.

In keeping with this year's theme of taking the Festival out into other venues and locations of the city, Tanvir's "Gaon Ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damaad" was staged at the Amphitheatre, Land's End, Bandra. As Tanvir has said, this Chhatisgarhi play represents a turning point, paving the way for all his subsequent productions with a folk base. A product of the Nacha workshop conducted by Tanvir at Raipur in 1973, the play is a collage, an improvisation created by interweaving three traditional stock comedies: Chher Chhera, Budhwa Vivah, and Dewar Dewarin, all interwoven into a farce about a rich old man marrying a young girl, who finally elopes with her young lover. The play is a Chhattisgarhi folk Nacha style musical comedy, rich in terms of traditional folk songs and rituals.

Habib Tanvir: five decades in theatre.

Of his celebrated "Ponga Pandit", Tanvir says that it "is a farce in the true Nacha old traditional comedy, a product of the illiterate Chhattisgarhi folk artists' imagination." "Sarak", on the other hand, is a critique of what goes by the name of development. Both plays were staged as free performances at Prithvi during the Festival.

It was only "Zahreeli Hawa", the story of the Bhopal gas tragedy, which was the weak link in an otherwise vibrant and energetic presentation by Naya Theatre. Scripted by Canada-based playwright Rahul Verma, Tanvir's staging, using little of the folk tradition and depending more on cumbersome and often melodramatic stretches of dialogue, doesn't quite work in conveying the enormity of the tragedy.


The Horniman Circle Garden was also the setting for a well-presented exhibition on Habib Tanvir and Naya Theatre, which was set up in 1959. "The idea behind the exhibition is to tell the story of Naya Theatre from the point of view of the theatrical journey the company has taken over the past five decades — to bring the audience into the `behind-the-scenes' world that creates the productions we finally see. Such exhibitions from theatre will tell our stories, celebrate our achievements and learn from our struggles. And what better theatre story to begin with than that of Habib Tanvir's Naya Theatre," according to Sanjna Kapoor and Sameera Iyengar, organisers of the 2004 Festival.

Finally, Tanvir's stage draws a significant part of its energy from bringing together diverse elements: the rural and urban, the old and the young; and even the smallest actor, the four-year old Bobby, whether playing a monkey-man's tiny red-nosed monkey or the exquisite flower-bedecked child being fought over by Titania and Oberon, is a splendid performer.

And at 81, Tanvir is still out there, among his actors, working, planning, taking notes. The themes are universal, the presentation rooted in the local. As Sudhanva Deshpande has said so memorably, Tanvir "is a citizen of the world, borrowing, reading, soaking up influences indiscriminately; but through a long, hard, creative struggle, he has made Chhattisgarh the prism that refracts his creative expression. He is a Midas turned upside-down: whatever he touches loses its sheen, it becomes rough and turns to Chhattisgarhi."

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