He had little time for the polished spic-and-span, design-heavy theatre that was being produced in the capitals of the country. Long before Jerzy Grotowski or Peter Brook came along there was Brecht, emphasizing the primacy of the actor on the stage and Habib Tanvir’s theatre was all about his actors. They were-are, rather- amazing actors. Completely at home at Raipur or Delhi or Edinburgh. They are intensely physical and mobile on stage, athletic, even acrobatic, and tremendous singers withal. Their comic timing is not easily surpassed by any group of actors in India, yet they can transform into great tragedians within minutes. They speak Chhatisgarhi which is not always understood verbatim but they will speak it with elan, regardless of which corner of the world they find themselves in.
(Extract from p. xlvii Habib Tanvir Memoirs )
Habib Tanvir began writing his memoir when he was past eighty in 2006. Despite being fluent in English, he chose to write in Urdu. He had planned a three volume memoir called Matmaili Chadariya (Dusty Sheet), but he was unable to complete it. He died in 2009. The Memoir published dwells upon his childhood in Raipur, then Central Provinces and now Chattisgarh; his trip to England to gain training in theatre (1955) and his discovery of the Brechtian style of theatre. All though prior to his departure he had already written and directed Agra Bazaar ( 1954) where he had used the locals from Okhla in the play. He returned (after having abandoned his training) to India and established Naya Theatre, and continued to be closely linked to it for more than fifty years. Now it is managed by his daughter, Nageena. He won many awards and was even nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1972. His plays were powerful, with a Chattisgarhi folk element, till then unheard of, became his signature. Also an influence of Brecht and his upbringing in Raipur.
The memoirs have now been translated into English by Mahmood Farooqui. He has also written a detailed and a fabulous introduction that details the theatre movement in India, documents the seminal influences on Habib Tanvir and his plays, the politics and of course the Chattisgarhi kind of performance. The essay that Mahmood Farooqui writes is formidable in the amount of knowledge and information it packs in about the different forms of theatre, singing, folk theatre etc. Given how dense the essay is with information, it does not seem so to be so since he wears his knowledge lightly. (Thank heavens for scholars like him!) I suspect that being one of the key performers of Dastangoi has helped polish and refine the skills that he learnt as a historian. There is something that seeps through the text of being a performer and a practitioner at the same time. Love it!
I find reading memoirs a revelatory exercise. Not necessarily about the life being unveiled or the people the author met, but its always an insight into what the person chooses to reveal. Habib Tanvir does not write about theatre / IPTA as much as you would have wanted/expected him to. His freewheeling and surprisingly chronological account of his life is charming. ( A trait not necessarily associated with women memoirists, who tend to meander.) With such ease he pulls you into his life, introduce a multitude of characters without making your head spin. Given that he began writing these memoirs at the age of 81+, it is surprising at the amount of detail he has retained. He is a good storyteller with a phenomenal memory. I have been discussing this book with my friend and noted theatre actor Sudhanva Deshpande. ( He knew Habib Tanvir well and made a short documentary on him too.) Sudhanva prefers to call the memoir a “confession”. Whereas I have been reveling in the marvelous storytelling and evoking a time in Indian history that has disappeared forever. Reading the memoirs also resounded on a personal note for me. Suddenly my mother-in-law’s penchant for breaking into song and dance, singing folk songs and rattling off in Chattisgarhi made so much sense. It was obviously part of the social fabric. She too grew up in Raipur in the 1930s and 40s. A period that is dwelt upon in detail in the book.
This is book that I would heartily recommend. Read it for the period in Indian history that is not always told in history books. Read it for the experience of reading a memoir of a noted performer. Even the act of writing this memoir, is a performance. (He makes the “characters” come alive by recalling tiny details about dress, their deportment, emotions etc.) Read it for the translation. A work of art, this is.
Habib Tanvir – Memoirs will be released in New Delhi on May 28. At the launch (which is by invitation), Tanvir’s daughter is expected to sing some of the songs that lent her father’s theatre – Naya Theatre. It is to be followed the day after by a performance (open for all) at May Day Cafe.
Some links about Habib Tanvir:
A film on YouTube Gaon Ke Naon Theatre Mor Naon Habib (English) by Sanjay Maharishi / Sudhanva Deshpande. India
Sudhanva Deshpande’s obituary for Habib Tanvir ( 3 July 2009) http://www.hindu.com/fline/fl2613/stories/20090703261310900.htm . I am also looking forward to reading his forthcoming review of the book in Caravan.
Habib Tanvir: Memoirs Translated from the Urdu with an introduction by Mahmood Farooqui. Penguin/ Viking New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp.348 Rs. 599