Habib Tanvir

(1 September 1923 – 8 June 2009 / Raipur, Chhattisgarh / India)

Biography of Habib Tanvir

Habib Tanvir poet

Habib Tanvir was one of the most popular Indian Urdu, Hindi playwrights, a theatre director, poet and actor. He is the writer of plays such as, Agra Bazar (1954) and Charandas Chor (1975). A pioneer in Urdu, Hindi theatre, he is most known for his work with Chhattisgarhi tribals, at the Naya Theatre, a theatre company he founded in 1959 in Bhopal, and went on to include indigenous performance forms such as nacha, to create not only a new theatrical language, but also milestones such as Charandas Chor, Gaon ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damad and Kamdeo ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna.

For him true "theatre of the people" existed in the villages, which he strived to bring to the urban "educated", employing both folk performers as actors alongside urban actors. He died on 8 June 2009 at Bhopal after a three week long illness. Upon his death, he was the last of pioneering actor-managers in Indian theatre, which included Sisir Bhaduri, Utpal Dutt and Prithviraj Kapoor, and often he managed plays with mammoth cast, such as Charandas Chor which included an orchestra of 72 people on stage and Agra Bazaar had 52 people.

During his lifetime he won several national and international awards, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1969, Padma Shri in 1983, Kalidas Samman 1990, Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1996, and the Padma Bhushan in 2002; apart from that he had also been nominated to become a member of the Upper House of Indian Parliament, the Rajya Sabha (1972–1978). His play 'Charandas Chor' (Charandas, The Thief) got him the Fringe Firsts Award at Edinburgh International Drama Festival in 1982, and in 2007, it was credited for "an innovative dramaturgy equally impelled by Brecht and folk idioms, Habib Tanvir seduces across language barriers in this his all-time biggest hit about a Robin Hood-style thief" as it was included in the Hindustan Times' list of 'India’s 60 Best works since Independence'.

Early Life

Born in Raipur, Chhattisgarh(erstwhile Madhapradesh) to Hafiz Ahmed Khan, who hailed from Peshawar.
He passed his matriculation from Laurie Municipal High School, Raipur, and later completed his B.A. from Morris College, Nagpur in 1944. Thereafter he attend Aligarh Muslim University, for a year doing his M.A first year.

Early in life, he started writing poetry and took upon a takhalluz, pen name, Tanvir, and soon he was being called, Habib Tanvir.

Career

In 1945, he moved to Bombay, and joined All India Radio (AIR) Bombay as a producer, while in Bombay, he wrote songs for Urdu, Hindi films and even acted in a few. He also joined the Progressive Writers' Association (PWA) and became an integral part of Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) as an actor. Later, when most of prominent IPTA members were imprisoned for opposing the British rule, he was asked to take over the organization.

In 1954, he moved to New Delhi, and worked with Qudsia Zaidi’s Hindustani Theatre, and also worked with Children's theatre, and authored numerous plays. It was during this period he met actor-director, Moneeka Mishra, whom he was to later marry. Later in the same year, he produced his first significant play 'Agra Bazar', based on the works and times of the plebian 18th-century Urdu poet, Nazir Akbarabadi, an older poet in the generation of Mirza Ghalib. In this play he used local residents and folk artist from Okhla village in Delhi and students of Jamia Millia Islamia creating a palette never seen before in Indian theatre, a play not staged in a confined space, rather a bazaar, a marketplace. This experience with non-trained actors, and folk artists later blossomed with his work with folk artists of Chhattisgarh.

Stay in Europe

In 1955, now in his 30's, Habib moved to England, he trained in Acting at Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) (1955) and in Direction at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (1956). For the next two years, he travelled through Europe, watching various theatre activities. One of the highlights of this period, was his eight-month stay in Berlin in 1956, during which he got to see several plays of Bertolt Brecht, produced by Berliner Ensemble, just a few months after Brecht's death. This proved to a lasting influence on him, as in the coming years, he was also used local idioms in his plays, to express trans-cultural tales and ideologies. This over the years, gave rise to a 'theatre of roots', which was marked by an utter simplicity in style, presentation and technique, yet remaining eloquent and powerfully experiential.

Return to India

A deeply inspired Habib returned in 1958 and took directing full-time. He produced, 'Mitti ki Gaadi' post-London play, based on Shudraka's Sanskrit work, Mrichakatika, it became his first important production in Chhattisgarhi. This was the result of the work he has been doing since his return, with six folk actors from Chhattisgarh. There was no turning back from there. This led to the foundation of 'Naya Theatre' a theatre company he founded in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh in 1959, along with his wife, Moneeka Mishra, also a theatre person.

In his exploratory phase, 1970–73, he broke free from one more theatre restriction, he no longer made the folk artists with whom he had been performing all his plays speak Hindi, and instead switched to Chhattisgarhi, a local language, they were more accustomed to. Later, he even started experimenting with 'Pandavani', a folk singing style from the region and temple rituals, making his plays stand out amidst the backdrop of plays which were still using traditional theatre techniques like blocking movements or fixing lights on paper. Soon spontaneity and improvisation became the hallmark of the new style, where the folk artists were allowed greater freedom of expression.

A further evolution was seen in 1972 with his next venture with Chhattisgarhi Nach style, a play titled 'Gaon Ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damaad', based on a comic folk tale, where an old man falls in young woman, who eventually elopes with a young man.

The technique has finally evolved to an accomplished form, by the time he produced his seminal play, 'Charandas Chor' in 1975, which immediately created a whole new idiom in modern India theatre; whose highlight was Nach - a chorus that provided commentary through song. Later, he collaborated with Shyam Benegal, when he adapted the play to a feature length film, by the same name, starring Smita Patil and Lalu Ram. In 1980, he directed the play Moti Ram ka Satyagraha for Janam (Jan Natya Manch) on the request of Safdar Hashmi.

During his career, Habib has acted in over nine feature films, including Richard Attenborough's film, Gandhi (1982), 'Black and White' and in a yet-to-be-released film on the Bhopal gas tragedy.

His first brush with controversy came about in the 1990s, with his production of a traditional Chhattisgarhi play about religious hypocrisy, 'Ponga Pandit'. The play was based on a folk tale and had been created by Chhattisgarhi theatre artists in the 1930s. Though he had been producing it since the sixties, in the changed social climate after the Babri Masjid demolition, the play caused quiet an uproar amongst Hindu fundamentalists, especially the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), whose supporters disrupted many of its shows, and even emptied the auditoriums, yet he continued to show it all over.

His Chhatisgarhi folk troupe, surprised again, with his rendition of Asghar Wajahat’s 'Jisne Lahore Nahin Dekhya' in 1992. Then in 1993 came, 'Kamdeo Ka Apna Basant Ritu Ka Sapna', Tanvir's Hindi adaptation of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream". In 1995, he was invited to the United States by the Chicago Actors Ensemble, where he wrote his only English language play, 'The Broken Bridge'. In 2002, he directed, 'Zahareeli Hawa', a translation of 'Bhopal' by the Canadian-Indian playwright Rahul Varma, based on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. During his illustrious career he brought works from all genres to stage, from ancient Sanskrit works by Sudrak, Bhasa, Visakhadatta and Bhavabhuti; to European classics by Shakespeare, Molière and Goldoni; modern masters Brecht, Garcia, Lorca, Gorky, and Oscar Wilde; Tagore, Asghar Wajahat, Shankar Shesh, Safdar Hashmi, Rahul Varma, stories by Premchand, Stefan Zweig and Vijaydan Detha, apart from an array of Chhattisgarhi folk tales.

Legacy

In 2010, at the 12th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the annual theatre festival of National School of Drama, Delhi, a tribute exhibition dedicated to life, works and theatre of Habib Tanvir and B.V. Karanth was displayed. The 13th Bharat Rang Mahotsav opened with an Assamese adaptation of his classic play Charandas Chor, directed by Anup Hazarika, a NSD graduate.

Awards and Honours

Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 1969
Padma Shri 1983
Kalidas Samman 1990
Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1996
Padma Bhushan in 2002
Nominated as a member of the Upper House of Indian Parliament, the Rajya Sabha (1972–1978)

Habib Tanvir's Works:

Plays
Agra Bazar (1954)
Shatranj Ke Mohrey (1954)
Lala Shoharat Rai (1954)
Mitti ki Gaadi (1958)
Gaon ke naon Sasural, mor naon Damand (1973)
Charandas Chor (1975)
Uttar Ram Charitra (1977)
Bahadur kalarin(1978)
Ponga Pandit (1960s)
Ek Aurat Hypathia bhi Thee (1980s)
Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya (1990)
Kamdeo ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna (1993)
The Broken Bridge (1995)
Zahreeli Hawa (2002)
Raj Rakt (2006)

Filmography
Foot Path (1953)
Rahi (1953)
Charandas Chor (1975) (lyrics and script)
Staying On (1980) (TV)
Gandhi (1982)
Yeh Woh Manzil to Nahin (1987)
Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1986) (TV)
Hero Hiralal (1988)
Prahaar (1991)
The Burning Season (1993)
The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey (2005)
Black & White (2008)

Bibliography
Charandas Chor. Tr. by Anjum Katyal. Seagull Books, 1996.
Use of Music and Dance in Contemporary Dramatic Performances.
The Buddhist Theatre of Tibet.
The Living Tale of Hirma: Hirma Ki Amar Kahani. Calcutta, Seagull Books, 2005.
Janam comes of Age by Habib Tanvir , 1988 Theatre of the streets: the Jana Natya Manch experience, by Arjun Ghosh, Jana Naṭya Mancha, edited by Sudhanva Deshpande. Published by Jana Natya Manch, 2007.
Tanvir ka safarnama (documentary film), dir. Ranjan Kamath. 2008.

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