Habib Tanveer

Habib Tanveer, the doyen of Indian theatre breathed his last on June 8, 2009. He was not only a theatre personality, but an organic cultural personality; one of the greatest products of the Marxist cultural movement in India. His lifelong association with IPTA and PWA shaped his ideological orientation and unflinching commitment to the development of a cultural movement dedicated to social change. Habeeb Tanveer
Probably no one else relied upon and learnt so much from the common masses in the arena of Indian theatre as Habib saheb did. Common Chhatisgarhi villagers and their art traditions were the biggest source of his theatrical arsenal - from costumes, music, dances, conversational styles, themes to actors and languages. He believed that every individual was an actor in her day-today life. Every space was a theatre where the unending drama of life unfolded itself continuously. These simple, yet profound insights made him develop a theatrical praxis which is unique. He found versatile actors from amongst the artisans, peasants, labourers and students. Actors of his troupe such as Madan Nishaad, Bhulva Ram, Madan Das, Thakur Ram, Lalu Ram, Jagmohan, Shiv Dayal and Govind Ram had no formal education. He discovered excellent themes and characters in traditional folktales, dances, songs and theatrical devices amenable to infusion of new consciousness critiquing contemporary realities. More than anybody else he displayed that theatre was not a ‘close-up’ art. He could turn a street, a marketplace, a village, practically any space into a stage.
Well- versed in the ancient Sanskrit drama tradition as well as modern European theatrical traditions, he was able to rope in both to the service of a distinct kind of Indian People’s theatre developed from the base of Chhatisgarhi folk theatre, firmly grounded in traditions, memories, and dreams of the struggling common masses. Chhatisgarhi dialect, Chhatisgarhi dance-drama ‘Nacha’, musical story-telling from Mahabharata in folk style- Pandavani got recognized globally through Habib’s theatre.
Habib successfully blasted the bourgeois myth that art forms committed to social change lacked in craft, technique and entertainment. Habib Saheb himself was a poet. He has been credited with introducing music and poetry as essential components of realist theatre in the country. He acted in almost all his plays and many films too.
Among his many inspirations, the greatest probably was that of Brecht. He internalized the spirit of Brechtian epic theatre, while developing his own variety of People’s Theatre. His continuous experimentations, improvisations and innovations with classical as well as folk forms, myths and legends made him evolve a distinct form suitably adapted to the Indian ethos. Habib always had a message in his plays totally comprehensible to the common people, yet his style was never didactic. The progressive consciousness echoed in all the dimensions of his plays.
The first play which brought the Habibian style into prominence was ‘Agra Bazaar’ (1954) based upon the songs and poems of 19th century Urdu poet Nazir Akbarabadi, not even considered a serious poet in his own time. Nazir was a poet of common people. A contemporary of Mir and Ghalib, Nazir was, in a way, re-discovered and represented to the people through ‘Agra Bazaar’. In this play, Nazir’s simple verses depicting the lives of artisans, small shopkeepers, vendors and common folks written in a spoken form of Urdu mingled with other dialects of area around Delhi and Agra, interspersed with the colloquial usages and idioms, was turned into commentary and chorus by Habib Saheb.The play had hardly any plot. Scenes were created on the basis of poetry itself. When the play was staged at Jamia in an open ground, the villagers passing by with their cattle would stop for a moment out of curiosity. Habib Tanveer announced to them that they could come to the stage and sit there along with the cattle. Many of them did so and ‘Agra Bazaar’ came alive with real characters of a marketplace on the stage. Habib’s rediscovery of Nazir through drama can only be compared to Kabir’s rediscovery by Kumar Gandharva through music.    
‘Mitti ki Gadi’ (1958) based on Shudrak’s Sanskrit play ‘Mrichchakatikam’ was a marvelous display of how ancient Sanskrit drama could be adapted to modern sensibilities, that too through folk devices. ‘Charandas Chor’ (1975) based on a Chhatisgarhi folktale is an epic, yet hilarious commentary on state of social, political and religious affairs from the vantage point of a thief, which ends on a tragic note. Habib’s ‘Jin Lahore Nahi Dekhyan, Wo Janmyan Hi Nai’ based on Asghar Wajahat’s play is a masterpiece which posits the best of sub-continental composite culture against communal consciousness. ‘Jamadarin’, later renamed as ‘Ponga Pandit’ is a play based upon a folktale which attacks religious bigotry and caste atrocities. In the post-Babri Masjid demolition era, this particular play was attacked many times by Bajrang Dal and Sangh outfits during live shows at Gwalior and elsewhere. Each time Habib Tanveer refused to go backstage amidst stone pelting and hooliganism. ‘Zahreeli Hava’, an adaptation of an English play based on Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 by Rahul Verma, is a thorough critique of the multinational corporate onslaught on the people of this country.’Hirma ki amar Kahani’ questions the official paradigm of ‘development’ and assimilation of tribals in the so-called ‘mainstream’ of the nation from an authentic tribal worldview and successfully problematises the hegemonic discourse of ‘development’. Habib Saheb’s plays were never short of viewers, even after the arrival of Television in India. He made many small T.V.documentaries for UNESCO.
Habib Saheb won numerous international and national awards. He was nominated Rajya Sabha member, awarded Padmabhushan, and provided 5-6 acres of land near Bhopal for his ‘Naya Theatre’ complex by governments. Yet, his stature as an artist is far above such official recognitions.
-- Pranay Krishna
Brief Life sketch
Habib Tanveer – Born on September 1, 1923 at Raipur, Chhatisgarh. Died 8th June, 2009 at Bhopal. Bachelor’s degree from Nagpur University. Learnt theatre at Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London; Theatre School, Bristol and British Drama League, London..
Started career in film journalism as Assistant Editor of ‘Film India’ magazine, Mumbai in 1946. Was involved in acting, writing dialogues and songs and making documentaries at the Bombay film industry from 1946 to 1953. Active in IPTA, Bombay along with Shambhu Mitra, Dina Pathak, Balraj Sahni,  Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and others during 1948 to 1953. Founded ‘Hindustani Theater’ at Delhi in 1954. Founded ‘Naya Theatre’ at Delhi in 1959. Married theatre artist and director Moneeka Misra in 1961. Member of Rajya Sabha during 1972-1978. Awarded Padmabhushan in 2002.
Major Theatrical Productions

Agra Bazaar (1954), Mitti ki Gadi (1958), Lala Shohratrai (1960), Gaon ke naon sasural, mor naon damaad’ (1973) , Charan Das Chor (1974), Bahadur Kalarin (1978), Hirma ki Amar Kahani (1985), Ek aur Dronacharya  (1988), Jin Lahore nai vekhyan, wo janmya hi nai (1990), Dekh rahe hain Nain (1992), Kamdev kaa apna, vasant ritu ka sapna (1994),  Mudrarakshas  (1996),  Ek Aurat Hepatia kee thee (1999), Zahreeli Hawa (2002), Veni sanhaar (2002), Visarjan (2006).