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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 27, June 20, 2009

Habib Saheb and the Gonds‘ Story of Creation

Monday 22 June 2009, by Sohail Hashmi



Habib Tanvir, 86, one of the country‘s greatest dramatists, passed away in Bhopal on June 8, 2009. He was instrumental in creating a new language in theatre blending contemporary drama with folk performance and raising folk forms to a level that could attract international attention.

Born Habib Ahmed Khan in Raipur on September 1, 1923, he wrote poems at an early age under the name ‘Tanvir’, a word that never left him. Among his seminal works were Agra Bazar, Charandas Chor, Kamdeo ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna, Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya. He also produced Mitti ki Gadi, a translation of Shudraka‘s Mrichhakatikam: using six actors from Chhattisgarh, the play employed convention and techniques of the folk stage. Following the Bhopal gas tragedy of December 1984, he came out with Zahreeli Hawa. He directed Raj Rakt as recently as in 2006.

In the forties he joined the Indian People‘s Theatre Association (IPTA) and Progressive Writers‘ Association (PWA) in Bombay where he had moved as an All India Radio producer after his graduation from the Aligarh Muslim University in 1945. His relationship with the IPTA and PWA led to his lifelong commitment to social consciousness. He headed the Sahmat till his death.

At a function in New Delhi in 2007 to remember P.C. Joshi, the CPI General Secretary whose brainchild was the IPTA, on the occasion of the latter‘s birth centenary, Habib Saheb spoke of those glorious days when the Left‘s footprints in diverse fields were so extraordinary and unique.

In 1959 he and his wife and professional partner, Moneeka Misra, founded the Naya Theatre in Bhopal, focussing on plays based on ancient and modern classics. With the passage of time he worked on improvisations in folk theatre.

He won the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1969, Padma Shri in 1983, Sangeet Natak Fellowship in 1996 and Padma Bhushan in 2002. He served in the Rajya Sabha as a nominated member in 1972-78.

He did act in a few films including Richard Attenborough‘s Gandhi, but his first love was always theatre.

One of his works, Ponga Pandit, evoked in the ire of the Hindutva forces who charged him with denigrating Hinduism following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, but he stood his ground.

Habib Tanvir left behind his daughter, Nageen, who was by his side when he breathed his last. His wife predeceased him in 2006.

The following piece by someone close to him brings out one aspect of Habib Saheb‘s multifaceted genius.

Several years ago while shooting for “Urdu hai jiska naam” I and Subhash Kapoor, the director of the series, had gone to Bhopal because we wanted Habib Saheb to anchor the series. While location hunting we went to see the Museum of Man—a sprawling open-air campus spread on one side of the famous Shamla hills in Bhopal. One area of the museum is dedicated to tribal myths and their theories of creation. One story fascinated me and I narrated it to Habib Saheb in the evening. Habib Saheb liked the story greatly and took it down in as much detail as I could remember. Sometime later when I saw a performance of Zahreeli Hawa I realised that he had woven the Gond myth in the preamble of his play and had very effectively incorporated contemporary environmental concerns and the role of MNCs in this primordial tale of great simplicity and beauty.

From the time I heard the news of his death, the story has been coming back to me. I rang up Alakhnandan, the director of theatre group Nat Bundela, and he put me in touch with Shampa Shah of the Museum of Man. It turned out that Shampa had first heard the story in or around 2000 from Pyare Lal Vyam, a Pradhan Gond from Mandla near Amarkantak. It was Pyare Lal who came to Bhopal and built the traditional Kothar (granary) upon which he also wrote the myth that is reproduced below. Incidentally the kind of granary Pyare Lal built is called a Lillar Kothi; Lillar is akin to one’s inner-most being, with constant comings and goings of thoughts, ideas and influences. The Lillar Kothi is likewise filled with and emptied of grains.

The story is reproduced below in a hurried translation.

The Story of Creation—The Mythology of the Gonds

Bada Dev was sitting on a lotus leaf when the idea of creating the world came to him. He needed clay to create the world. He looked down but all he saw was water. He rubbed his chest to remove some of the congealed muck from his breast and fashioned a crow out of it. Bada Dev now sent the crow in search of the clay.

The crow flew away in search of the earth. He looked everywhere but all he could see was nothing but water. Tired and exhausted, he settled on a stump that protruded above the endless sheet of water. He had not even settled down properly when a voice asked him: “Who is this sitting on my claw?”

This was Kekda Mal, the crab: The crow narrated his woes to Kekda Mal and sought his help in finding the clay. Kekda Mal said to the crow: “The clay has gone to the netherworld and is being eaten up by the earthworm.” The crow requested Kekda Mal to somehow bring the earthworm out of the netherworld.

Kekda Mal dragged the earthworm out, but the worm was not ready to let go of the clay, because it was his food. Kekda Mal caught the earthworm by the neck and squeezed it really hard, and the earthworm spat the clay out. The crow grabbed the clay and flew back to Bada Dev.

Bada Dev now asked Makda Dev, the spider, to spin a web across the sheet of water and spread the clay on the web. Bada Dev now released all the animals and birds and other living beings on the earth.

Man asked Bada Dev: what do I feed my children with? Bada Dev plucked three hairs from his head and threw them on the earth, they took root and grew into Mango, Teak and Kasi trees. Bada Dev now gave an axe and a basoola and asked him to make something from the wood of the three trees.

The moment man began to chop the tree, Kathphodwa, the woodpecker, began to imitate his actions. Man got distracted and ended up giving glancing blows to the wood. He destroyed the trees and only had a crooked piece of wood left with him. In frustration he threw the basoola at the Kathphodwa. The woodpecker flew off and the basoola disappeared in the skies.

Man went back to Bada Dev for help. Bada Dev gave him some ash from his fire and asked him to bury it in the roots of the tree. Bada Dev also told man: “There has to be an explanation for all the wood getting chopped in this manner.”

The moment man placed the ash on the roots, the trees flowered and the earth was filled with forests. In an attempt to understand the secret of the crooked piece of wood, man threw it on the earth.

The bamboo maiden emerged from the place where the piece of wood had fallen. The goddess of grains was hiding inside the bamboo maiden. She now emerged from within the bamboo maiden and spread all over the earth.

The crooked piece of wood turned out to be the first plough and from then on man learnt to cultivate crops. In order to prevent the goddess of grain from disappearing once again the Gond woman learnt a thing or two from the white-ant and built a Lillar Kothi (granary). She filled it up with grain to feed the whole world.n

The author is a writer and activist associated with the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat) of which Habib Tanvir was the President.

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