To say that the passing away of Habib Tanveer in the recent past has created a vacuum that cannot be filled is not just a cliché. Modern Indian theatre produced many great virtuosos: Utpal Dutt, Shambhu Mitra, Ibrahim Alkazi and B V Karanth. In Bengal, Utpal Dutt created his own powerful idiom of political theatre whereas Shambhu Mitra brought a new aesthetics to the stage. Neither can one ignore the colour, magic and depth which Kanhaiya Lal, Ratan Thiyam, Lokendra Arambam, K N Panikker and Jabbar Patel have brought to theatre. But, Habib Tanveer was incomparable.
After Independence, a new powerful theatre had to be created. After popular entertainment theatre was swallowed up by cinema, the field was open for serious theatre that could engage in serious dialogue regarding profound philosophical and political issues. After all, Natya Shastra had emphasised long ago that theatre is both amusing and educative. Apart from dige­sting the riches of premodern Indian theatre, it also had to absorb the best of western culture but it already left an indelible imprint on Ind­ian culture during the colonial period.
Alkazi, the founding father of institutional National theatre introduced the rigour of western formalist modernism, while B V Karanth instilled into theatre the freedom of native theatres. Most of the living theatre
directors in India are working within these two dominant paradigms. However, the aesthetics of both these models is problematic. Despite their technical virtuosity, they somehow stop short of evolving a new aesthetic hole out of the clash of the old and the new, the western and the native. Only Habib Tanveer achieved this rare miracle.
Like all enlightened modern Indians, Habib Tanveer was an heir to the conflicting heritages of India and the West. He was immersed in the riches of Urdu poetry and culture. An excellent Urdu scholar and writer, he had
imbibed the best of Marxism. Most of the Marxists in Indian theatre, their socio-political commitment notwithstanding, chose to work with a western semiotics, as did formalists theatre people like Alkazi. The nativists directors like B V Karanth and others became imbricated in an outdated ideology built into native styles. In this context, neither of the two schools could come up with a theatre idiom authentically Indian and also modern. This is where Habib Tanveer succeeded.
After the petering out of IPTA movement, like Alkazi and Karanth, Habib Tanveer went to study in RADA, the premier theatre institution in London. However, unlike the other two masters, he discontinued his studies and
returned to his home country. It is after this that the phase of his innovative genius began, culminating in his troupe, Naya Theatre. Unlike NSD directors, he chose to work with tribal artistes from Chhattisgarh. He created his own unique idiom through his dialectics with these artistes who, though not literate, embodied a rich heritage of living people’s theatre, particularly the Panthi Dance associated with Satnami Panth. Tanveer brought their resources to bear on his theatre that was acutely aware of socio-political issues. The result was an energetic idiom drawn from collective traditions but extremely unique.
His theatre was not an illustration of either a political or aesthetic ideology but created its own politics and aesthetics. In the act of doing it his greatest achievements like
Charan Das chor
have a riddle-like quality characteristic of collective wisdom.
, another seamless fabric of song music and dance was a novel way of dramatising the earthy poetry of Nazeer Akbara Badi. Whether Tanveer worked on an Indian classic like
or a play by Moliere or a folk tale or a contemporary event, it transformed into something haunting through his alchemy.
Habib Tanveer is unique. He had neither predecessors nor successors in tradition or modernity.