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     Volume 8 Issue 75 | June 26, 2009 |

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Farewell to a Mentor

Sayeed Ahmad

I do not have words to express the loss at the passing away of Habib Tanvir, a mighty man. He was my friend, my mentor and my inspiration. While I grieve I am compelled to recall how and where I met him.

I reached Kabul on October 13, 1972 along with my wife Perveen . It was at the end of a long day's journey between Peshawar and Kabul that we crossed the Karakorum range through Khyber Pass. On the way we also went through the Salong Pass which had been built by Russian engineers and is a marvelous piece of engineering. It was nearing dusk when, having crossed Jalalabad, we reached the valley of Kabul. I had visited Kabul earlier and spent time in the company of Professor Javed, Vice Chancellor of Kabul University and his illustrious family. Those were happier times, but now I was facing dark days as we had escaped from Pakistan without any legal papers. Exhausted after the hazardous journey we slept it off and next day after breakfast we rang up Professor Javed. He was surprised and asked where we were. I told him explaining the circumstances under which I had left Pakistan. So when Professor Javed told me that there was a "mushaira" of poet Sajjad Zahir in Urdu and Farsi, I took the opportunity of meeting some of my other friends and especially Sajjad Zahir. He was known to me through his relatives in Pakistan, Sibte Hassan, editor of Lailo-Nahar and Painter Shakir Ali.

Habib Tanvir

As we approached the "mushaira" hall; my wife, seeing a lady in a sari, holding on to a tiny girl of about six at her side, smiled and got into conversation with her. She was none other than Moneeka Tanvir, herself a stage director, married to Habib Tanvir the renowned playwright. Within a few minutes she became very warm and asked me to meet her husband. She was an extrovert and gave such a friendly smile that I went forward eagerly. Habib Tanvir, a lean and handsome personality, came forward and in his sonorous voice greeted me.

At that time I did not know the antecedents of Habib Tanvir, who was a well-known poet in India and I only had a cursory idea about his theatre activities. As the evening progressed a strong rapport grew and it seemed as if we had known each other since long. His simplicity and naturalness endeared him to me. It was the same with his wife who was educated in theatre in the USA. In Bombay she worked in the Indian National Theatre, and also headed the Academy which Kamaladevi Chattapadhyaya had opened. Moneeka taught dance, stagecraft and lighting. Later she worked in the Little Ballet Troupe which was run by Gul Bardhan. Hearing that, I was from Dhaka she immediately started to speak in Bangla. Her father S K Misra belonged to Bengal and her mother was also Bengali. Their only daughter Nageen was a spritely child fond of singing and dancing and as I discovered later also took to acting. The "mushaira" began with an announcement by Professor Javed that eminent poet Sajjad Zahir is in town, on his way back from Ashakabad, Capital of Tajikistan.

It seems there was a magnetic pull between Habib Sahib and myself as we were on the same wave length. Our minds were both prone to experimentation and innovation and we found tremendous stimulus in each other's company. Next day Habib Sahib mentioned that he had a programme to meet the legendary Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan formerly of Congress Party at Jalalabad. My wife and I readily accepted the invitation. It was a long journey from Kabul to Jalalabad but the time just flew as there was no death of subjects to exchange. Even little Nageen kept us fully entertained with songs along with her vivacious mother Moneeka. We went through narrow lanes lined with mud houses and eventually reached the mohalla of the great leader. We were ushered into an open courtyard containing bare rope “charpais” (beds) three of four arranged for seating.

The writer with Habib Tanvir.

Khan Sahib enquired about the situation in East Pakistan and how my family were faring there. He also wanted to know how we were managing our stay in Kabul. I expressed my fears and worries about the action taking place in the eastern wing, and the news of brutalities coming from there. I sensed the simple warmth of this great man, the frugality of his living and his human principles, within minutes.

During our stay another memorable incident I recall is that we were invited to a theatrical performance in which prostitutes were professional actresses. Habib Sahib and I were greatly intrigued to learn about this unique theatre form and so agreed to go. What immediately struck me as odd was that one section of the audience was screened off by a wire netting from the stage. On enquiring what purpose that served we were told that the intention was to prevent over-excited men in the audience from reaching the stage. Habib Sahib showed no real anxiety, but rather was all the more game to witness the show. A long time later when I came to know him very closely as a friend, I was able to understand his enjoyment of the situation. Habib Sahib's grandfather was a Pathan. His grandfather hailed from Saidu Sharif in Swat and later migrated to Madhya Pradesh, India.

To speak of the great playwright, Habib Tanvir's extraordinary insight and talent reveals two things one, he revived the almost lost treasures of old folk tales and dramatised village performances, which lie at the base of Indian culture and secondly, he transported the wealth of Indian folk acting into the spotlight of the modern stage, infusing pure drama or total drama, to audiences who were seeking their roots. My realisation of Habib Tanvir's greatness as an innovator of a new stage form affected me deeply. His remarkable strength and stature in the face of critics' negative reviews did not stop him from experimenting. The critics thought that he was using gimmicks taken from folk theatre. But Habib knew and believed in what he was doing. He culled out from the treasure house of folk culture a lyrical and rhythmic dialogue-song-dance performance that hinged on contemporary situations, problems of the modern man. It is known that in his early struggle he hardly got any audiences support either.

Habib Tanvir, although a product of the western school of RADA and Bristol Old Vic, was a man of the cultivated class, who had kept company with Bertolt Brecht in East Germany and had staged several plays by Shakespeare and Moliere, remained essentially Indian in his attitude and taste. He was an enigma because he handled both eastern and western expressions with equal ease. “It's all one seamless movement deriving from the experience of life said Peter Brooks about his stage shows. “Habib moves from the specific to the universal and back to the specific with remarkable competence”.

In 1982, Peter Brooks visited India and met Habib's Naya Theatre. He said, “They represent and absolute extreme of purity; a peasant company directed by a highly sophisticated man who brings them up to town and takes every conceivable precaution to prevent the town from contaminating them. There are no learnt conversations, no symbolic hand gestures. If you want a tree you stick a foot up in the air. It's pop art, using the vocabulary of natural fun and in that sense the Naya Theatre shows could be from anywhere, but there is something about this part of India that makes them very talented. They are born actors.”

Habib Tanvir, the mastermind behind this revolution in Indian Theatre deserves the acclaim he finally received. Tanvir was Brechtian in his handling of the story but his form was uniquely his own. Most interesting was that he made the simple village family theatre part of the bigger world theatre. He had strong socialist beliefs, but no political ambitions. Habib bhai was a very colourful person full of witticisms. His moral strength helped him to overcome difficulties of health, financial strain and even housing. He lived in a two-roomed small government Class IV quarter in Ber Serai outside Delhi for years and never felt it was inadequate. His rehearsals were held in the courtyard. His actors lived with him and Moneeka shared their simple food.

As I pay my last respects dear friends, I say farewell and pray we meet when the contains rise again.


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