Eminent playwright Habib Tanvir, one of the greatest stalwarts of the Indian stage, was known for blending theatre, folk art and poetry in his works, leaving an indelible mark on the minds of the viewers.
A multi-faceted personality, Habib Ahmed Khan adopted the pen-name ‘Tanvir’ when he began writing poetry at an early age. Born on September 1, 1923 in Raipur, Tanvir did his matriculation from Laurie Municipal High School, Raipur, and completed his B.A. from Morris College, Nagpur, in 1944. After pursuing his Master’s for a year at Aligarh Muslim University, he moved to Bombay and joined All India Radio in Bombay as a producer in 1945.
While in Bombay, he wrote songs for Hindi films and even acted in a few. He also joined the Progressive Writers’ Association and became an integral part of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) as an actor. Later, when most prominent IPTA members were imprisoned for opposing British rule, he was asked to take over the organisation.
The playwright won the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1969, Padma Shri in 1983, Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1996 and the Padma Bhushan in 2002. Tanvir was also a member of the Rajya Sabha from 1972 to 1978. His play Charandas Chor that was first produced in 1975 got him the Fringe Firsts Award at the Edinburgh International Drama Festival in 1982. In 1959, he founded the Naya Theatre in Bhopal and it is set to complete 50 years this year.
In 1954, he moved to Delhi and worked with Qudsia Zaidi’s Hindustani Theatre and also worked with the Children’s Theatre and authored numerous plays.
It was during this period that he met actor-director Moneeka Mishra, whom he later married. Later the same year, he produced his first significant play, Agra Bazar, based on the work and time of the plebeian 18th Century Urdu poet Nazir Akbarabadi of Mirza Ghalib’s generation. In this play he used local residents and folk artistes from Okhla village in Delhi with 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 market place. This experience with non-trained actors and folk artistes later blossomed with his work with folk artistes of Chhattisgarh.
In 1955, Habib moved to England where he trained in Acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and in Direction at the 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 be a lasting influence on him, as in the coming years he also used local idioms in his plays to express trans-cultural tales and ideologies.
This gave rise to a “theatre of roots” marked by an utter simplicity in style, presentation and technique yet remaining eloquent and powerfully experiential. A deeply inspired Habib returned to India in 1958 and took directing full-time. He produced Mitti Ki Gaadi, based on Shudraka’s Sanskrit work, Mrichchakatika, and it became his first important production in Chhattisgarhi.
There was no turning back from there. It led to the foundation of Naya Theatre in Bhopal along with his wife. In his exploratory phase, 1970-73, Tanvir broke free from one more theatre restriction. He no longer made the folk artistes with whom he had been performing all his plays speak Hindi, and instead switched to Chhattisgarhi, a dialect 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. During his career, Habib acted in over nine feature films, including Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982).
He passed away on 08th June 2009