Art is Always Anti-Establishment

(Published in The Hindu)

When you look at HABIB TANVIR close up, you are struck by the serenity of the lines on his face. If one were a reader of faces, one might see in those lines the story of Habibsaab's journey with theatre, experiencing, exploring, rejecting, discovering and arriving.

Born in Raipur, he grew up on Parsi theatre, silent films and the robust lilt of Chhatisgarthi folk songs that filled the air all around. He wanted to act in films but soon discovered that the film actor had no autonomy; no power to make even the smallest social comment through his performance.

Habib Tanvir ... `Even street theatre can be artistic."
He moved to Delhi to escape the temptation of films and be closer to his language, Urdu. He trained at RADA and the Bristol Old Vic, travelled all over Europe, saw Brechtian theatre, returned home and did "Mitti ki Gadi", his adaptation of Sudraka's "Mricchakatikam".

Between then and "Charandas Chor", which burst on the theatre scene in 1975, he had gradually arrived, through a series of rejections and discoveries, at a form and style of theatre which became uniquely his. Though he has broken no new ground since then, he has continued to reap a continuous crop of stimulating theatre from that rich field, becoming in the process, that rare thing — a legend in his lifetime.

In November this year, Prithvi theatre will present a festival of his plays, including his latest production, "Zehrili Hawa", about the Bhopal gas tragedy.

Excerpts from an interview with SHANTA GOKHALE.

YOU began working with folk artists before the 1970s movement in which urban theatre people began to use folk forms. Their work is over. Yours goes on. Comment.

There was this fashion. It is people's traditions that matter to me. There are urban traditions created over at least 200 years if not more. Cash in on them, get them out, do something with them in your own way. But don't go to the bhavaiyas for a month and produce a feeble version of the strong bhavai while not doing anything for the bhavaiyas themselves and their art which is dying out. I was strongly against it. It's aping of the worst order, sucking their blood in double exploitation using the form and doing nothing about them. It took me years to discover a simple thing — that I should give my artists autonomy, that I should give them their mother tongue. I knew the sweetness of it but I was totally unaware of its communicability to non-Chhatisgarhi people. That is what held me back. And I got bad versions of Hindi and feeble actors because of their self-consciousness. Finally I said "let's try this" and after three years of failure I got the breakthrough with "Gaon ka Naam Sasural" and then "Charandas Chor". The fallacy is that I've been reproducing the nacha form. The nacha is a primitive form with only two actors. The third comes and goes like a messenger or something. The fact that I'm fond of crowds itself means I have nothing to do with the nacha form.

Your latest play, "Zehrili Hawa", is written by a Canadian Indian, Rahul Verma. You don't often do plays written by living authors. How do they react to the way you edit, interpret and amplify their texts?

I liked Rahul Verma's play entitled "Bhopal". I liked its thrust which was against multinationals — what they are not doing abroad and what they are doing in our country. But there was one problem with his script. Not being acquainted with poverty or with rural people, his rural character was weak, romantic, goody goody. So I said I've known the poor. I have seen Maharashtrian women kicking and boxing a man and the man taking it. It's the survival instinct. It adds another level to deprivation. Slapping, kicking, using curse words that only men use. Poverty is demeaning. The poor may be simplistic. Even nice. But one can't forget the frustration. That is what I brought into my version. Rahul accepted it even for his Toronto production including the two poems I have used.

I edited Asghar Wajahat's play "Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya" from 19 scenes to nine. I wanted to connect the lure of money with vandalism. The economic dimension of communalism has not been highlighted enough. In Gujarat for instance, the Bohras (who are least political) were attacked. For their property. The Iraq war has much to do with money, oil... The author watched rehearsals and many shows and said it's a little too comic. So I said take the Porter in "Macbeth". He is comic but what he is saying portends the tragic event that is coming. He also didn't much care for the poems I had used, which connected the main theme to the larger issue. He could not accept my version.

You have also done issue-based plays. Yet they are not propagandist. How do you ensure that?

That comes from my conviction that the moment you say things out clearly and produce answers your audience says thank you, nice evening, goes home, has dinner and sleeps. Also there is no single answer to a question. If you incite them with a disturbing question, there may be more answers than you thought of. In street theatre you take immediate problems and produce answers, because there are answers. Once the problem is solved, you can throw away the play. But even street theatre can be artistic.

Safdar Hashmi came back to straight theatre to enrich his street theatre.

That's right. He did that to make his nukkad natak more stimulating; also to get his actors to give more rounded performances. He was a rare fellow, imaginative, open-minded, always ready to learn. He was the only person who wrote a sensitive critical appreciation of "Hirma ki Amar Kahani".

Some people had ideological problems with that play. You seemed to be saying feudalism was a good thing.

Safdar talked to me at length about this dilemma. He came several evenings to watch the rehearsals and saw the show at least three times before he wrote about it. He said the play presents a dilemma with no solution. My dilemma was this — that democracy is desirable despite its propensity to turn into fascism and ....

You believe fascism is inherent in democracy?

Yes it is. You can have Narendra Modis working within a democracy. Whatever is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan is happening in the name of democracy. Americans have persuaded themselves that their kind of democracy is it and everyone must emulate it. And yet democracy is more acceptable than dictatorship. But feudalism, no matter how condemnable and exploitative, has its own silver lining. It has supported the arts, not just classical but the folk arts. It can teach us something even about administration. So there is a dilemma, and I have left it at that in "Hirma" ... .

You have been attacked by the Hindu Right too. Last year your "Ponga Pandit" and "Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya" were attacked for being anti-Hindu.

Hardly two weeks ago, a daily from Raipur, the Haribhumi, devoted two whole pages to "Bahadur Kalarin" and made all kinds of accusations against me. The play is based on a folk tale that deals with the Oedipal problem. Thousands of Chattisgarhi men and women took it in pin-drop silence despite my apprehension that they might not be able to take incest as the theme of a play. But two MPs objected saying why have you shown incest? And I said there is a classical tale of a brother and a sister involved in a sexual relationship. The Oedipal Complex is there in our folk knowledge. But these people don't know the stories. But why do you have to go and announce it to the whole world, they asked. To this I had no answer.

When you chaired the last session of the theatre seminar held to celebrate 50 years of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi last year, you were asked about the attack. You made a light comment and let it pass. Do you not feel angry?

I do feel very, very angry but what matters is the tenacity to resist. I also try to see other aspects of it. "Ponga Pandit" is a folk tale. It has been accepted by Hindu society for years and years. But now the play is so much in demand that I can only thank the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For the first time I've had the play translated into khadi boli with a tape for music and a note on how we have done it. It is to be published in a literary magazine in Bhopal. There's also been a video recording so that they see how we do it.

Would you say this is a dangerous time for the arts?

Sometimes the worst society produces the best of art. After the revolution the socialist society produced nothing but muck in terms of painting. Art is always anti-establishment. You can never have an ideal society. Art flourishes in the loopholes of the best society. It is like the hilsa of Dacca. They are proud of it. They say it is better than the Hooghly hilsa. I ask them why, it is the same hilsa. They say no. The Hooghly hilsa goes with the current. Ours goes against the current so it is tougher and sweeter. Art goes against the current to flourish. You can almost wish for a bad society if you want art to flourish!

Do you believe art can change society? Would you say your theatre has brought about change?

Yes and no. Art never changes society. It cannot be the vehicle of change. But art, particularly theatre, does something very precious. It paves the way for change, it affects opinions, it opens up minds. I think my work has had its effect in the sense that there were some dying arts. Government had a scheme for the dying arts. I noticed an old man with a lantern performing. I asked him what are you performing? He said "Chandaini". It takes 18 evenings of three or four hours each day to complete the story of "Lorik and Chanda", an ancient folk tale.

You have a play on it?

Yes, "Sone Sagar". I hunted for other performers of "Chandaini", assembled them and now there are several "Chandaini" parties. I once did a workshop in Burundi, Komal Kothari's village, with Ugam Raj Khiladi's khyal performers who used to do stories like Raja Harishchandra. There was very little dialogue. Largely music and dancing. I did a play with them based on their own folk performance — "Thakur Ro Russu". I wrote the story and changed their costumes from satin and all that to cotton. They refused to wear them because in their region, sweeper women wore those prints. So we decided they could wear their own costumes when they performed there. Outside they would wear my costumes.

I met Khiladi two years later and asked how the play was doing. Not well he said. I took another workshop. Five years later the play was still not doing well. It took 15 years for the play to take root and begin to be appreciated. The government scheme is to survey, budget, report on result. I left the last column blank. Art is not like drought where you can count how many died; or an earthquake where you calculate damage. Hundreds of Chhatisgarhi actors have passed through my hands in the course of these 50 years. There was no institutionalisation. No contract was ever signed. I took no action when they let me down. Parts of plays I've done have found their way into local performances. We heard a nacha version of the second act of my "Mitti ki Gadi". I've seen a vibrant Chhatisgarhi version by a young party of another play of mine. I asked them this: "Had you seen my production?" They hadn't. They sit around in tea shops. Someone tells a story. They make their own play from it. It adds to their repertoire. Many young performers are being nicknamed Habib Tanvir Junior. How can you survey and assess such things? That is why the answer to your question is, yes and no.

Published On : 26-09-2004