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'Alternatives always exist'

The legend of Indian theatre, Habib Tanvir, was in the City recently with a play on the trauma of Partition, as a special tribute to the late B.V. Karanth. In a freewheeling interview, he spoke about culture, politics, communalism, and reasons for hope in times so bleak.

Habib Tanvir: Theatre that connects with life and society.

"I AM talking with a sleepy brain," Habib Tanvir warns, as we get talking. It's a mean hour — late afternoon — and he is 79. But a man who has lived and breathed theatre for well over half a century, Habib can speak sense even in his sleep.

So it is with a practised ease that he talks about his revolutionary experiments with the folk theatre forms of Chattisgarh, the formation of Naya Theatre in 1959, its landmark productions such as Charan Das Chor, the need to preserve our cultural roots without falling into the traps of either rightist politics or ornamental desiness... Talking of globalisation, consumerism, communalism, and warped developmental projects in one sweep, Habib sets an agenda before contemporary theatre: "Theatre should come to the rescue of whatever remains of our tradition and harness them to contemporary purpose." A classic example of such an effort is his own adaptation of Prahlad Natak, which was a critique of the politics of intolerance.

But aren't rightist political groups also talking about "preserving culture" and isn't there a danger of all such concerns collapsing into one undistinguishable agenda? "No, no, I am not talking about passing off simple hypocrisy, deceit, purposeful misguiding for cultural nationalism. Their brand of pracheen sanskriti is completely dead, it can no longer grow. Why do we need pracheen if it has no reference to the present? There is a lot of dead wood in tradition that needs to be flushed out... Come to think of it, there is a total paucity of talent in the fold of the Right... " He lets the sentence trail off.

And just then something happens that truly wakes him up, in an instant — a couple of drags from his shapely pipe and two cups of steaming hot chai. The topic is a hotly debated one too — the tricky relationship between arts and politics. "You don't necessarily become a better artiste if you are politically aware, of course," he passionately argues. "But whether you like it or not, politics is constantly influencing and defining your space as an artiste. You can't escape from that, can you? We will have to, for instance, bid goodbye to the very notion of culture if governments like the one run by (Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra) Modi come to rule all corners of this country!"

It was his association with scholars such as P.C. Joshi, during his days in IPTA in Bombay, that shaped Habib's "inclined towards the Left" thinking. "That does not mean that I buy all that the Left says all the time," he qualifies. He talks warmly about Joshi: "He was a liberal and a democrat in the true sense. He was not an artiste himself, but defined politics so wonderfully through culture. He was so unobtrusive that he never seemed to be teaching."

A pause and yet another drag later, he says: "Karanth was not half as political as I am." (An aside: Habib was in Bangalore with the play on post-Partition trauma, Jinne Lahore Nahin Dekhya Woh Janmya Nahin, as a special tribute to B.V. Karanth who passed away recently. Both Karanth and Habib, interestingly, used indigenous forms innovatively as idioms of modern theatre. It was curious that just as Karanth used Haridasa compositions innovatively in his production of Sattavara Neralu as the narrative thread, Habib used Urdu and Punjabi poetry in Jinne Lahore... ) Habib emphasises: "I am not suggesting at all that it made Karanth a bad artiste."

He recalls an argument the two had many years ago on the future of theatre. Karanth had said then that "the image" was destined to be the cultural manifestation of the future, as "the word" slowly but surely disappears. "That's convenient thinking," he relives the heated argument. "It's like someone giving you a cooked meal and you accepting it as the inevitable... It's like Bush defining what is `terror' and what is not and the rest of the world accepting it like the gospel truth!"

He firmly believes that alternatives always exist, if only one is willing to look for them.

"You can't, of course, find them if you are only interested in creating glamorous shop windows like Chandrababu Naidu, without a care about farmers who drink pesticides and kill themselves!"

But he admits that continuous onslaught of images may have jaded our sensibilities. He noticed a few children laughing at moments of great tragedy during the staging of Jinne Lahore... "One, perhaps, sees too much of violence and tragedy, sometimes even rendered comic, on television... "

But Habib also sees hope in the very onslaught of images. "It has to, logically, reach a point of saturation. The image need not be the inevitable choice of the future, we may do better."

This die-hard optimism is the underlying current of Habib's very personality. One sees it in Jinne Lahore... as well - a firm belief in the essential goodness of human spirit and its ability to triumph in the most trying circumstances.

But the sceptic asks: but are such liberal humanist arguments adequate any longer? How can one, rather innocently, hold on to them at a time when a pregnant woman is butchered in the name religion? Why do we impose this rather easy framework across contexts, be it partition or Gujarat carnage, thus erasing all specificities?

Habib counters: "Gujarat was clearly something of a lab experiment. The idea was to replicate it in other places. But were there any spillovers? No. That's reason enough for me to hope."


Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

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