Habib Tanvir was a man of quiet determination (Obituary)

June 8th, 2009 - 8:34 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, June 8 (IANS) Habib Tanvir, often dubbed the ‘legend’ of Indian stage, was a man of contrasts. He had a wicked sense of humour, a quiet determination and an uncompromising attitude that often verged on defiance.
Habib Tanvir passed away Monday after a month’s illness at a private hospital in Bhopal. He was 85. His family was with him at the time of his death.

“Tanvir was a man of quiet determination who was unfazed by adversities,” recounted Sudhanva Deshpande of the Jan Natya Manch, founded by late playwright Safdar Hashmi, and an editor at publishing house Leftword.

Recalling an incident, Deshpande said in 2004 Tanvir’s play “Ponga Pandit” came under attack from Hindu ‘right-wing activists’ when he was touring Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh with his repertoire.

“I went with him to Vidisha where he supposed to stage his plays. After staging the first play, he asked the audience whether they would like to watch a second one called ‘Ponga Pandit’. A right-wing activist from the audience said ‘no’. At this point the administration, which was already present and the police intervened; and told the audience to leave the venue to avoid trouble,” Deshpande told IANS.

The police requested Tanvir not to stage any more plays. “But Tanvir was quiet and determined. He declared, facing an empty auditorium, that two of his friends from Delhi were present as well as the drivers. That was crowd enough and staged ‘Ponga Pandit’ in an empty hall. The incident will always remain etched in my memory,” Deshpande said.

In his quiet way, Tanvir managed to drive home the message, he recalled.

Tanvir also had a wicked sense of humour and his “eyes always twinkled with laughter”.

“I remember acting in one of his plays, ‘Mote Ram ka Satyagraha’ based on a story by Munshi Premchand and scripted by Safdar Hashmi and Tanvir. I played several characters, but the one we both liked was that of Secret Agent 303. It had humorous shades though the play was a satire,” he said.

Tanvir’s open approach to culture, says writer-critic Javed Malik, was shaped by the crucible of the Left wing cultural movement - particularly the Indian People’s Theatre Association and Progressive Writers’ Association with which he was associated in early youth.

His first significant play, “Agra Bazar” in 1954, based on the life and times of plebian 18th century Urdu poet, Nazir Akbarabadi, an older poet in the generation of Mirza Ghalib, reflected his pro-people outlook.

“‘Agra Bazar’ marked a watershed because it had a mixed cast of rural and urban actors for the first time in Indian theatre,” Deshpande said.

Tanvir used the local residents of Delhi, folk artists from Okhla village in south Delhi and students of Jamia Millia Islamia to create a play that felt like a marketplace. He subsequently staged the play several times over the decades with new casts.

According to Deshpande, Tanvir’s death has left a void that will be difficult to fill.

Born on Sep 1, 1923, in Raipur in Chhattisgarh, he passed his matriculation examination from Laurie Municipal High School in Raipur and obtained his bachelor’s degree from Maurice College in Nagpur in 1944.

After a year’s tenure at the Aligarh Muslim University as a post-graduate student, he began writing poetry under the pen-name Tanvir. He subsequently came to be known as Habib Tanvir. In 1945, he joined the All India Radio, Bombay, and came to Delhi in 1954 to work with Qudsia Zaidi’s Hindustani Theatre.

In Delhi, Tanvir met actor-director Moneeka Mishra, whom he later married. Love changed Tanvir’s life and his creativity scaled new heights.

In 1955, Tanvir, his his thirties, left for Europe to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He stayed in Berlin for eight months where the plays of Bertold Brecht, the father of absurd theatre, produced by Berliner Ensemble stayed with him.

One of his iconic plays was “Charan Das Chor”, based on a Chhattisgarhi folk tale and in the local language won him an award at the Edinburgh International Drama Festival.

Other significant plays scripted and directed by Tanvir include “Mrichakatika”, “Mitti ki Gaadi” and “Jisne Lahore Nahin Dekya”. Besides, Tanvir also experimented with Chaattisgarhi folk music and dance traditions of Pandavani and Nach in his plays - where his cast spoke the Chhattisgarhi dialect.

In 2006, he wrote and directed “Raj Rakt”, based on two of Rabindranath Tagore’s plays.

He founded the Naya Theatre in Bhopal, acted in over nine movies, was a nominated Rajya Sabha member and was honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and the Padma Shri.

“He represented the best aspects of a progressive, forward-looking India,” Deshpande said.

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