Hue naamwar benishan kaise kaise,
Zameen kha gai aasman kaise kaise.
So many distinguished names have withered,
How many skies has the earth gobbled up!)
A couple of weeks before he breathed his last, Habib Tanvir, the doyen of Indian theatre, while speaking over the phone from Bhopal, gave off little of his imminent exit from the world’s stage. He had not been keeping well: it was the respiratory problems that had sapped him of his strength and stamina. But death was the last thing on Tanvir’s mind. The stalwart’s voice was feeble, but not without its trademark resonance. He would have turned 86 on September 1 this year. And had you called him for an interview, he would have been glad to do so. But he was not in a position to, he said, promising you that he would talk when he gets well. A promise he isn’t around to keep.
The story of the playwright and theatre director’s life and his achievements is enormous. Born in Raipur, Chattisgarh, Habib Ahmed Khan “Tanvir” (his pen name), was educated at Raipur, Nagpur and Aligarh. An alumnus of Aligarh Muslim University, his was a name you heard for the first time in the corridors of General Education Centre in AMU in the ’90s where the members of Drama Club swore by him, many declaring him to be a role model.
Tanvir has left a rich legacy behind. And many generations will be indebted to him for what he achieved. Starting his career as a journalist, he joined All India Radio in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1945. It was here that his stint with cinema began. He wrote songs for and also acted in a few films. The stint started with Zia Sarhadi’s Foot Path (1953), but it was Charandas Chor, directed by Shyam Benegal and based on Tanvir’s play, with which he made his mark.
Later, he acted in films like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), Nana Patekar’s Prahaar (1991) and Ketan Mehta’s The Rising (2005). He was last seen in Subhash Ghai’s Black & White.
But Tanvir’s loyalty lay with theatre. He joined the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) and became an active member of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) as an actor. In 1954, he moved to New Delhi. It was here that he worked with Qudsia Zaidi, an eminent theatreperson and mother of the multi-faceted Shama Zaidi. With Tanvir, Qudisa started Hindustani Theatre in the late 1950s. It was during this period that Tanvir met actor-director, Monica Mishra, whom he eventually married.
The year 1954 also marked the production of Tanvir’s famous play, Agra Bazar, which is synonymous with his name even today. Based on the life and times of 18th-century Urdu poet, Nazir Akbarabadi, the play redefined the scope and space of theatre in society. Its cast included local residents and folk artists from Okhla village and the students of Jamia Millia Islamia. It was a play which was not staged in any auditorium, but at a marketplace.
Tanvir, later, dedicated much of his life to working with the folk artists of Chhattisgarh.
Tanvir was deeply influenced by the plays of Bertolt Brecht, many of which he got to watch while he was in Berlin in the late 1950s.
It is to Brecht that he owed the genesis of “local” idioms to portray “trans-cultural” tales. It was Brecht’s influence that eventually shaped Tanvir’s “theatre of roots”.
He went on to establish Naya Theatre in Bhopal in 1959, along with his wife, Monica.
His later productions like Charandas Chor (1975), Ponga Pandit (1960s), Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya (1990), Zahreeli Hawa (2002) and Raj Rakt (2006) saw him sharpening his style, marked with simplicity, spontaneity and improvisations.
After his wife’s death two years ago, Tanvir had started feeling lonely. He is survived by his daughter, Nageen.
Anna Tanvir, born of his relationship with French theatre artist Gill, is his another daughter. Tanvir was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1969 and Padma Shri in 1983.
The playwright has made his final exit. And the Agra Bazar has fallen silent.