Nageen Tanvir is busy planning a musical evening in Bhopal woven around the songs written by her ‘Baba’—the legendary playwright, actor, director and poet Habib Tanvir—to mark what would have been his 92nd birthday on September 1. “There will be conversations, personal anecdotes, readings from his autobiography.” She speaks enthusiastically of what she hopes will be a “cosy and intimate” get-together of his friends and associates. Talk to her about Tanvir’s most significant legacy, the Naya Theatre group, and the enthusiasm pales a little. “Nothing much is happening. There’s nothing interesting on the horizon. It’s a lean phase that comes in every artiste’s life,” she confesses candidly. Quite evidently, the group is in the midst of turmoil and churn in the face of financial constraints and an alarming dearth of actors, productions and shows. “Bikhraav sa aa gaya hai (Things are getting scattered),” says an insider. And it has been so steadily since Tanvir’s death in 2009.
Established in 1958, Naya Theatre has been a seminal repertory for many a reason. “It brought out a new dramaturgical language,” says writer Yogesh Tripathi. Urban and rural performers came together on a common platform here. “He believed the economically poor are culturally the richest,” says Jan Natya Manch actor-director Sudhanva Deshpande. And so he helped bring the folk tradition of Chhattisgarhi Nacha to the mainstream. “The thought, the ideas, the style, it didn’t derive from any school but were uniquely personal,” say Dhrupad duo Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha.
Tanvir also built the theatre on a bedrock of dissent. “He took on the state, religion and casteism in plays like Ponga Pandit...which infuriated organisations like the VHP,” says Amitesh Kumar, a PhD scholar on Habib. “Complex ideas like development, caste were woven in an outstanding way into the texts,” says theatre director and actor M.K. Raina, “It was truly people’s theatre.” It’s this radical activist spirit, much needed in the cultural creations of the day, that makes the steady loss of Naya Theatre’s relevance unfortunate. Much has to do with it being synonymous with Tanvir. “In ’08, when he couldn’t attend a show in Bareilly because of illness, the audience was most disappointed,” recalls Ramachandra Singh, present director of Naya Theatre. Nobody has been able to fill his intimidating shoes. Of late, the shows haven’t been coming, the group has mostly been reviving and rehearsing the old plays. In fact, there’s been no new production save Konark, directed by Ramachandra. It was a play Tanvir was himself working on at the time of his death.
A major issue has been the lack of good artistes. Many of Tanvir’s staples have either died or retired due to illness. Chait Ram Yadav passed away and Devi Lal Naag had to leave because of age, epilepsy and paralysis. Recently, two old-timers, actor Uday Ram Shrivas and Amardas Manikpuri, left the group. While Shrivas left of his own accord, there are contrary versions on what led to Amardas’s departure, one group saying he didn’t feel like continuing under the new dispensation, another alleging he was forcibly retired. “But if Habib saab himself was doing theatre in his late 80s, how can a person in his 70s be asked to leave?” is their query. New talent hasn’t been spotted and inducted as easily either. “It has been impossible to find a Bhulwa Ram kind of talent in the younger lot,” says Nageen.
Tanvir had the unique ability to keep the group together despite surviving on a pittance and operating out of a hole-in-the-wall flat in Ber Sarai in Delhi, and then later from Shamla Hills in Bhopal. The lack of money hurts, especially now. With budgets curtailed and shows not even getting full fees, the group has been finding it difficult to find sustenance in the last few years. “The central grant for 20 artistes is minimal,” says Nageen. “Every theatre has to have a home. I have seen them rehearse out of a street behind Kali Bari,” says Raina.
Actor Danish Hussain remembers the Chhattisgarhi actors as being a mercurial lot. Tanvir alone could handle them. “No one else can have that understanding of human nature,” he says. The actors kept coming, breaking up, going and coming back again. “The role of policewala in Charandas Chor was about his own struggles as a director, about steering and chasing his actors,” says Danish. Nageen admits to not being good at people management. “I am still learning. It requires a different kind of skill,” she says.
She also admits to have been a reluctant inheritor. Though she has been involved in theatre, her passion has always been music, something that she has always been upfront about. The burden of the legacy has weighed heavily on her.
But she’s now determined to turn things around. “Earlier, I used to get anxious and depressed by the smallest of problems but I have now decided to take the bull by the horns,” she says. A new production of an old play, Manglu Didi, is on the cards and there is also news of director M.K. Raina being roped in to work on a brand new play in November. Also, new nacha actors are being inducted for grooming and training in a month’s time. “It’s a battle. I will try to get it back on track to the best of my ability. Something good will come out of it.”
One thing everybody agrees on is that Naya Theatre is a cultural heritage that needs to be kept alive. “My soul says that it should keep growing for generations to come,” says Yogesh Tiwari of Naya Theatre. The Gundechas are confident Habib’s legacy will never die: “It will grow into another form. The unique thought that gave birth to Naya Theatre will last not just 50 but 500 years.” Amen to that.