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Habib Tanvir, the iconic playwright and director known for his work with tribal artists

Habib Tanvir travelled through the interiors of Chhattisgarh, meeting and working with local village artists, and used folk traditions in his plays.

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Director, actor, playwright, poet, Habib Tanvir was a man of many colors, all rolled into one. His vibrant personality and talent are fondly remembered by many in theatre and cinema. Tanvir’s plays like Agra Bazaar, Jis Lahore Ni Dekhya, Charandas Chor, Gaon Naam Sasural Mor Naam Damaad, among many others are widely recognised as classics of contemporary Indian theatre.

Actor Naseeruddin Shah once said that he cites the example of Habib Tanvir as one of those who has guided actors even in their darkest of days. “When I interact with newcomers, I have the example of people like Habib Tanvir, Girish Karnad, Om Puri, Shyam Benegal, Satyadev Dubey. When I was a youngster, they were idols for me” he said.

“I remember Tanvir ji as a very witty man, he would make everyone around him laugh. He would always tell us important things during the production very casually. The first time I met him was when Agra Bazaar was staged at Delhi’s Indraprastha College for women. He had this enigmatic quality that would leave all of us in awe. He would sit in a corner, engrossed in work but would keep a keen eye on everything and everyone. It’s like he would make a small tilt of the head and would know what is going on in the rehearsals. There was an energy about him all the time,” actor Sayani Gupta told ThePrint, remembering her experiences while working with the legendary playwright.

Born on 1 September, in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, Habib Ahmed Khan changed his name to Tanvir after he started writing poetry. After having studied in Aligarh Muslim University, he moved to Bombay in 1945 where he got actively involved with the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association and the Progressive Writers Association, as a writer, actor and journalist. Nine years later he moved to Delhi, where he delivered his major productions.

In 1959, Tanvir founded the Naya Theatre group, which produced plays using folk performances by native tribal artists of what is now Chhattisgarh. As a writer and director, Tanvir spent years researching folk traditions in drama, music and story-telling. He travelled through the interiors of Chhattisgarh meeting and working with local village artists, and used folk music in his productions.

He was the recipient of a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1969, Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship in 1979, Padma Shri in 1983 and Padma Bhushan in 2002, among other national and international awards during his lifetime.

On his death anniversary, ThePrint looks back at three of his famous plays.

Agra Bazaar

When Tanvir moved to Delhi in 1954, the theatre scene in the national capital was dominated by groups that focused on the 19th and 20th century European models of theatre. His Agra Bazaar stood in complete contrast, in terms of content and form.

Agra Bazaar is a homage to Nazir Akbarabadi, an 18th-century Urdu poet who wrote in a style that was disregarded by poetic norms of his times. Tanvir cast a mix of people — educated middle-class actors, street artists and even regular residents of Okhla village in Delhi and used street language in his play. In fact, the play was first not staged in a confined area or a closed space, but in an actual bazaar.

Gaon Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damad

Habib Tanvir once said, “This play was like a milestone in my theatre journey and this play also helped me to give a way to my next production, Charandas Chor.”

Gaon Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damad, first directed by Habib Tanvir in 1973, is a light comedy and folk tale. The story starts with the harvest season festival of Chher-Chhera and revolves around the love of two youngsters, Jhanglu and Manti.

The comedy kicks in when Jhanglu pretends to be a brother-in-law to Manti, and uses tricks to elope, after her father fixes her marriage with an old village head. The folk songs of Chhattisgarh are a part of the play throughout.

Charandas Chor

In 1975, Tanvir wrote and directed Charandas Chor, which won him an award at the Edinburgh festival in 1982. The play, an adaption of a classical Rajasthani folktale by Vijayadan Detha, is based on the life of a thief, Charan, and a foolish policemen.

Even though Charan is a habitual thief, he is a man of a strange sort of integrity, and the audience sympathises with him. In an attempt to outsmart the police, Charan enters a Guruji’s ashram and expresses his desire to become a disciple. The guru extracts four vows from him, and how he navigates life by trying to live by those vows forms his struggle.

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