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Home > 2022 > Uniqueness of Habib Tanvir’s theatre | Javed Malick

Mainstream, VOL 60 No 39-42 September 17 - October 8, 2022 - Bumper issue

Uniqueness of Habib Tanvir’s theatre | Javed Malick

Friday 16 September 2022


by Javed Malick

Habib Tanvir (1923 - 2009)

The folk component and flavor in Habib Tanvir’s theatre was too obvious and unmistakable for anyone to miss. But what was often not appreciated sufficiently was that he did not try to revive or resurrect any specific form of the folk play but developed a categorically modern form of Indian theatre with traditional flavour. For, what distinguished Tanvir’s theatre from that of his contemporaries was precisely this combination of Modernity and tradition.

Tanvir was an educated, city-bred, widely travelled and socially and politically alert and involved person. He was well versed in a whole range of theatre traditions in India and abroad. His early association with Marsist politics and left-wing cultural movements (an association which was lifelong and strong, though informal), had given him a rational, democratic, and unmistakably modern consciousness, which permeated all his work in the theatre. As for his understanding of the art and craft of modern stage, he was trained in England (mainly at the Bristol Old Vic)and spent months travelling and watching theatre in different countries of Europe. Initially, it was his association with IPTA which Kindled in him an interest in the folk culture of Chhattisgarh, the region he hailed from.

In contrast to this, The village actors that Tanvirhe worked with exclusively were mostly from economically amd socially disadvantaged class and caste. They had none or negligible schooling and had no formal training. Until Tanvir brought them to Delhi, most of them had never travelled beyond Chhattisgarh. Talent and skills that they possessed was natural, in-born and was usually further honed by their experience of the local folk forms, in particular the nacha a form which is basically a string of discrete songs and dances interspersed with shortcomic skits or gammat (gags). Strictly speaking, they were not actors but, originally, singers and dancers specializing in funny antics. Their experience of “acting” was limited to their participation in nacha skits. Working with Tanvir was their first experience of what may be described as regular, modern theatre. It took them quite a while before they learnt to appreciate its requirements of discipline and rigour. In the early years (roughly the 1960s) they were maddeningly casual about adhering to agreed dates for being in Delhi. they would go back to their villages promising to be back by such and such date and virtually disappear. An exasperated Tanvir had to literally go from village to village to find tem and bring them back. When Tanvir said that he never ran after folk forms but only after folk artists he was stating a literal fact. Tanvir’s theatre was thus an outcome of coming together of the skill and sophistication of a trained modern director with the enthralling, though raw and unhewn, skill of the Chhattisgarhi village performer.

The form/the style that resulted from this combination was at once traditional and modern, delightful and meaningful. Modernity could be discerned in the organizational, formal, and cognitive aspects of his productions, just as the folk vibrancy and flavor were produced by the vigour and skill, as well as the music and the speech rhythm of the Chhattisgarhi folk performer. What is more, in his work, the two coexisted in an aesthetically and cognitively enriching relationship of, as it were, mutual respect without either of them trying to erase or overwhelm the other.

(Author: Javed Malick is a former academic at Delhi university, some of his early writings have also appeared in Mainstream)

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