Habib Tanvir, one of India’s best known playwrights and theatre directors, was born Habib Ahmed Khan on 1 September 1923 in Raipur in present-day Chhattisgarh.
He died on 8 June 2009.
His father was from Peshawar and mother from Raipur. Tanvir’s maternal uncles dabbled in poetry and music. His elder brother took part in amateur theatre. The young Habib would also occasionally see plays in Urdu which were part of the travelling Parsi theatre tradition.
Recalling a play from his childhood days, he once said: “Mohabbat ka Phool, which my brother acted in, was just one of the plays written by one such playwright, Hafiz Abdullah, and I remember weeping, shedding tears copiously in the tragic scenes. My brother (playing a woman's role) was the beloved of a man who gets injured and goes to meet him and laments.”
After completing his school and college education, Habib was keen to join the film industry in Bombay. He even acted in a film in the lead role, but it was probably not released. He went on to do programmes for All India Radio including film reviews that were well-received. For about six months he worked in the editorial team of Filmindia, a popular magazine run by Baburao Patel.
When he started writing poetry, he added Tanvir to his name and henceforth was known as Habib Tanvir. He tried his hand at various things — including writing for magazines such as the Illustrated Weekly of India and Box Office and playing small roles in films. He also became a part of both the Progressive Writers’ Association and Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). It is here that he found the medium suited best to his artistic temperament.
After nearly a decade in Bombay, a time well spent in multiple creative pursuits including theatre, Habib Tanvir moved to Delhi in 1954, and thus began an illustrious career in theatre. He initially worked in and wrote several plays. One of his early major plays was Agra Bazaar, which in its use of the language of the street gave a radical new energy to the Indian theatre movement.
“[Agra Bazaar] is a celebration of the life and work of the plebeian poet Nazir Akbarabadi, an older contemporary of Mirza Ghalib….With virtually no plot, the play was a stylistic novelty in its time. Habib Tanvir drew into the play the residents of Okhla village in Delhi, in an experiment that was to be repeated on a more sustained basis with Chhattisgarhi rural actors some years later,” Sudhanva Deshpande wrote in the Frontline magazine in 2009.
In 1955 Habib Tanvir went to Europe, absorbing the best of theatre there, and formally studied theatre in Britain. He took particular interest in watching numerous Brecht productions in Germany. The rich experience he gained in Europe made him look at Indian theatre with fresh eyes.
He also realised that there were important differences in Indian and western theatre traditions, and he began to appreciate the centuries-old rasa form that influenced the former.
After returning to India Habib Tanvir and his wife Moneeka Mishra founded the Naya Theatre. He creatively used folk performing traditions from his native Chhattisgarh to tell universal stories. Years later Habib Tanvir said that it took him many years to realise that his Chhattisgarhi actors were far more comfortable speaking in their local dialect than in the mainstream Hindi that people used in Delhi. Once he figured that out, his plays featuring actors from Chhattisgarh became easier to direct.
Some of his renowned plays of the first few decades include Gaon ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damaad, Charandas Chor, Mitti ki Gaadi, Bahadur Kalarin, Shajapur ki Shantibai, and Lala Shohratrai.
About Charandas Chor, one of his most famous plays, the writer and critic Nilanjana Roy wrote in the Business Standard in June 2009: “The story of a thief who keeps his honour at the cost of his life by stealing, but keeping his commitment to refrain from doing four things, is a stage classic. In Tanvir’s version, it showcased the rich roughness of the Chattisgarhi dialect, and brought folk theatre into an urban setting. It developed a second life, adapted as a children’s play.”
Ponga Pundit, another Habib Tanvir special which was regularly staged through the decades, was based on a pre-independence story written by two folk artistes from Chhattisgarh. When Hindu right wing groups targeted the play in the 1990s, it didn’t deter Habib Tanvir and Naya Threatre from staging it.
The recipient of numerous awards including the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, Habib Tanvir was also nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1972. With his death on 8 June 2009 the curtains came down on some of the finest moments on the Indian stage.
Also on this day:
1957 — Dimple Kapadia, Indian film actress, was born