Enter, folk theatre - Habib Tanvir

Colourful visions: Habib Tanvir. Photo: H.Vibhu  

A theatre person with a difference. Director, actor, playwright, poet—all rolled into one. A lively conversationalist with a sonorous voice and a wide range of interests. And, above all, the director who brought the rich dramatic and musical traditions of Chhattisgarh to national and international attention.

That was Habib Tanvir, one of the most significant theatre persons of post-Independence India, who passed away a year ago. During the half century of his career in theatre, Tanvir gave us such exciting and memorable productions as Agra Bazar, Mitti ki Gari, Gaon ka Naam Sasural Mor Naam Damaad, Charandas Chor, Jis Lahore Ni Dekhya, and Rajrakt, many of which are widely recognised as classics of the contemporary Indian stage.

The uniqueness of Tanvir's work in theatre was that it demonstrated how Indian theatre could be simultaneously delightfully traditional and poignantly contemporary or modern. His productions successfully harnessed the skills, energies, and conventions of traditional or folk performance and made them relevant to contemporary concerns and a secular and democratic worldview. The result was that his theatre was as incisive as it was entertaining.

Intense study

Far from the all inspiring catch-word that it later became, “folk theatre” was a neglected and greatly devitalised category when Tanvir began his career. Beginning with 1958 when he returned after several years in Europe, he spent years researching and studying folk traditions in drama, story-telling, music, and dance. He frequently and extensively travelled through the interiors of Chhattisgarh, meeting local artists, often watching their night-long performances. For five decades, he worked almost exclusively with village actors. His productions used folk music and musicians, and employed the village dialect, often alongside standard Hindi or Urdu.

Although he worked largely with more or less illiterate village artists, Tanvir himself was highly educated and well-travelled with a categorically democratic and modern consciousness, which was shaped mainly in the crucible of left-wing cultural movements. In particular his involvement during the 1940s in the Indian People's Theatre Association and the Progressive Writers Association had a deep and lasting influence on him. Having spent his childhood in Raipur, which was then a small town hemmed in on all sides by villages, Tanvir already had some early exposure to folk culture. His association with IPTA not only renewed his early interest in folk culture but also gave it a new political focus.

This complex of a democratic bias in favour of the common people, an interest in music, and passion for poetry lies at the basis of all of Tanvir's work in the theatre. It can be evidenced in all his plays from the celebrated Agra Bazaar to his last production Raj-Rakt, a play that he adapted from two of Tagore's stories. From time to time, he also used his art to intervene in a given social or political situation. The examples of this kind of what may be called Tanvir's activist work would include plays like Ponga Pandit, Zehreli Hawa, Sadak, Kushtia ka Chaprasi, and even the controversial Indira Loksabha.

When Tanvir moved to Delhi in 1954, the city's stage scene was dominated by amateur drama groups which, like the NSD a decade later, derived all their ideas from European models of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. There was little effort to link theatre work to the indigenous traditions of performance, or even to say anything of immediate value to an Indian audience. In complete contrast to this, Tanvir's first major production Agra Bazaar offered an experience radically different, both in form and content, from anything that the city had ever seen.

The play is based on the works and times of the much neglected 18th century Urdu poet, Nazir Akbarabadi, who not only wrote about ordinary people and their everyday concerns, but wrote in a style and idiom that disregarded and challenged the elitist norms of poetic decorum. Using a mix of educated, middle-class urban actors and more or less illiterate folk and street artists from the village around Jamia Millia where the play was first produced, what Tanvir, in an innovative artistic strategy, put on the stage was not the enclosed and private space of a room, but a bazaar – a marketplace with all its noise and bustle, its instances of solidarity and antagonism, and above all, its sharp social, economic and cultural polarities.


Soon after Agra Bazaar, Tanvir went to England where he studied theatre at RADA and Bristol Old Vic. During his travels in Europe, he also spent eight months in Berlin in 1956 soon after Brecht's death and saw many Berliner Ensemble productions. This influenced him deeply and reconfirmed him in his belief that one must work close to one's cultural roots. “I thought you could do nothing worthwhile unless you went to your roots and tried to reinterpret traditions and used traditions as a vehicle for transmitting the most modern and contemporary messages. Which means intervening in tradition creatively.” It is this idea of a “creative intervention in the tradition” that informs Tanvir's approach to the folk and sets him apart from many other theatre persons with an interest in folk traditions.

Tanvir did not romanticise the folk tradition. He was aware of its ideological limitations, and did not hesitate to allow his own modern consciousness and political understanding to interact with the traditional energies and skills of his performers. His project, from the beginning, had been to harness elements of the folk traditions to “make them yield new, contemporary meanings and to produce a theatre which has a touch of the soil about it.”

This rich interaction is perhaps best witnessed in Tanvir's excellent adaptations of A Midsummer Night's Dream ( Kamdeo Ka Apna, Basant Ritu Ka Sapna)and The Good Woman of Szechwan (Shaajapur ki Shantibai) as well as his complex philosophical play, Dekh Rahe Hain Nain, could not be possible without this collaboration. In the first two, Tanvir beautifully blended fidelity to the original foreign texts, the authenticity and freshness of poetic expression, and native folk tunes. In Nain, he successfully represented an intellectually complicated theme.

However, Tanvir was quite careful not to create a hierarchy by privileging his own educated consciousness over the unschooled creativity of his actors. In his work, the two usually met and interpenetrated, as it were, as equal partners in a collective, collaborative endeavour in which each gave and took from, and thus enriched, the other. An excellent example of this non-exploitative approach is the way Tanvir fitted and blended his poetry to the traditional folk and tribal music, allowing the former to retain its own imaginative and rhetorical power and socio-political import, but without in any way devaluing the latter. Yet another example can be seen in the way he allowed his actors and their skills to be foregrounded by eschewing all temptations to use elaborate stage design and complicated lighting.

Thus in contrast to the fashionable, folksy kind of drama on the one hand and the revivalist and archaic kind of ‘traditional' theatre on the other, Tanvir's theatre, with its incisive blend of tradition and contemporaneity, folk creativity and modern critical consciousness, offered a new and more inclusive model of modernity. It is this rich blend which made his work so uniquely memorable.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 10:36:57 AM |

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