Habib Tanvir (1923-2009) planned his memoirs as a three-part autobiography which he started writing in his 80s. Unfortunately, he had only finished one volume till his death in June 2009, covering his life till 1954. It is very likely the first instance where a memoir was first published in translation: the Urdu original was published a few days after the release of this fine translation by Mahmood Farooqui in English.The excerpts below capture the tumultuous time for IPTA ( Indian Peoples' Theatre Association) and PWA (Progressive Writers' Association) in the first year after independence.
When the country became independent the Communist Party was divided into two factions. There was P.C. Joshi on one side and on the other side was B.T. Randive whom we used to address as BTR. The Telengana movement was in full flow, Makhdoom had disappeared, he was off poetry and was working with the tribals in the jungles of Telengana, he had gone underground. Vishhwamitr Adil had adapted a Chinese one act play in the background of Telengana and called it, ‘One Night in Telengana.’ I was playing the role of an old farmer in the play who loses his young son and towards the end of the play breaks down in grief. Balraj Sahni was directing the play and we were busy rehearsing.
One day the General Secretary of Bombay IPTA Ramarao came and said I have got the idea of a new play. His idea was about the everyday life of a clerk who lives in Borivali and travels to work in an office at Churchgate. When he sits down on his chairs he starts getting weird dreams. This was the idea, we assembled around him to hear more, Balraj had really liked the idea. Mohan Sehgal who in future would direct several films was appointed the director of the play. In a few days that very skeletal idea began to turn into a satirical feature. Mohan told everyone working on the play to think about their parts, to come up with dialogues and improvisations and to develop the plot as they saw fit. That’s how it happened, we used our imagination to fill up the play. Ahuja came up with his own dialogues, Dina made up her own, I was playing a Judge. I would sit there clipping my nails with a tailors’ scissors and would strike the table with an unusually long wooden hammer and say everyone keep quiet and listen to me. I had developed a new kind of stammering style. Balraj would walk downstage to the audience and say, ‘I live in Borivali and work in Churchgate and bring my tiffin with myself and then he would look up and say wow what fish, how big it is, look the whole tank is full of fish. Balraj had done the maximum improvisation, the basic idea which was not more than five minutes or so had expanded to over an hour. The play was given the name of ‘the Magical chair.’
The All India session of the Communist Party of India was held in Allahabad in 1948 and along side an IPTA drama festival was also organized. In that festival the Bombay wing presented these two plays, ‘One Night in Telengana’ and ‘The Magical Chair’ But Balraj was not satisfied with my performance. On the final night before the performance the rehearsal went on till very late. I was trying to play an old man and cry like one but Balraj, who was getting angrier by the minute, would scream for me to do it again and again. Eventually he could not stand it any more and gave me a tight slap and fiercely said to me, ‘now say your dialogues.’ I began to cry and began to act amidst sobs. The moment my speech ended he hugged me and said ‘now you will not forget it.’ I said, is this a new mode of direction, he said yes its called Muscle Memory. I happened to visit Indonesia in 1971 and at a school there I saw a famous Indonesian dancer teach Ramayan dance to the children. In the Indonesian Ramayan dance dramas the dancers adopt a particular pose. They double up their backs, like a hunchback and dance. I noticed that the children were facing difficulty adopting the pose, the Guru did not try to explain anything to them, instead he stood behind them, took his hands through their armpits and back around their ears and yanked it hard to create the pose. I was reminded of Balraj Sahni’s trick, perhaps this is what is called Muscle Memory.
The next day both the plays were presented. Balraj’s performance in 'The Magical Chair', when he speaks in a dry tone saying ‘civil liberty is one thing, civic liberty is another’, totally mesmerized the audience who were in splits. There is one thing that I would like to reiterate about Balraj, for all his work in films, cinema wasted his talent. He was such a brilliant comedian, he was so effective in Jadu ki Kursi that his performance was unforgettable. I have seen many of his films too, he always acted with great control and subtlety but he was never given a comic role. Jadu ki Kursi did not have a script, the whole thing was an improvisation. I had this friend called Noor Nabi Abbasi, Mughni Abbasi’s brother, he had an astounding memory. He was never formally in IPTA, he did act in some of my productions in Delhi, but he often came to watch IPTA rehearsals and shows. He knew the play ‘One Night in Telengana’ by heart. Years later he recited it to me, standing up, complete with impersonations, mimicking me exactly. You can listen to Jadu ki Kursi from his mouth, he won’t miss a word. I used to urge him to write it down for the records because there is no script available anywhere, he would say yes but would not do anything. Towards the end he was in such a bad shape because of Alzheimer’s that he would not remember his wife and children’s names even.
Sheela Bhatia had come from Delhi with the Delhi Art Theatre’s production of Balwant Gargi’s “Loha Cut” which was about a Railway crossing watchman. Before partition her troupe was called something else but when she moved to Delhi she renamed her troupe as Delhi Art Theatre, her group was associated with IPTA in Lahore as well as when she came to Delhi. She had once brought an Operatta from Lahore to Bombay which was called Call of the Valley, this was a musical play about Kashmir where Sneha Lata Sanyal was singing, there was also Inder Razdan in it, it had beautiful Punjabi folk songs being sung in open, high octave notes. Other plays were also staged at the Allahabad festival. The units from Bengal, Bihar, Allahabad, presented their productions but we could not see them because we had to travel to Jabalpur with 'Jadu ki Kursi'.
Nemichand Jain was in his home town Allahabad in those days. He was also a member of IPTA and was busy with production and publication of books, he said that once we had let the cops turned up asking him where Mr IPTA was staying, he said Mr IPTA has already left. The shows of 'Jadu ki Kursi' were also very popular in Jabalpur and after we had moved to Bombay from there it turned out that the cops had appeared there too and were saying the same thing, ‘Where is Mr IPTA staying.’ They got the same answer there, that Mr IPTA has left.
BRT was elected the General Secretary in the Allahabad convention of the Communist Party which meant that the culturally inclined PC Joshi was sidelined and then gradually the party split into two wings, the CPI and the CPM and then newer avatars of the party kept cropping up and now god knows how many communist parties are politically active. A long time afterwards I met P C Joshi in Delhi, he was leading a retired life then, he said you have given a new life to Nazir Akbarabadi by writing a play on him, you should now write on Kabirdas. The Pandits have placed him on a pedestal and by turning him into a worshippable saint have actually buried him. There is a lot of fire in Kabir which frightens the Pandits. You should write a play on his revolutionary poetry, come and stay with me, I will imprison you here, I will give you books by Sardar Jafri and Hazari Prasad Dviwedi, your meals and cigarettes will be provided. I promised I will do it but never had the good sense to act on it. (Taufiq) I once told Faruqi saheb and Prem Sagar Gupta of the Delhi CPI that Dange saheb had dreamt of a Trade Union Theatre, why don’t we charge the Delhi Mill workers one Rs each per month as membership fees and form a Trade Union Theatre to show plays to the workers. They agreed to the idea but did not eventually do anything.
When the Communist party got embroiled in the debate about whether we had truly become independent or not, to my mind the IPTA movement came asunder from that time on. Before independence everyone had a common enemy in the form of British Imperialism and a common goal to get rid of that enemy. After independence it became difficult to identify the enemy so easily, earlier it was the goras now it was brown, the enemy was now inside, controlling the country. IPTA was gripped by self destruction. Shambhu Mitra who had once brought a wonderful play by Tulsi Lahri called ‘Chhenhre Tamar’ to Bombay where Tripti had brilliantly acted as a village girl who loses her wits when she comes to the city had now moved away from IPTA. In Ahmedabad the formerly very active IPTA member Jaswant Thakkar had also cut himself off from IPTA. Dina had formed a separate repertory with the famous Parsi theatre actor Jai Shankar Sundari under the supervision of Rasik bhai Parikh and was busy with productions of Sharat chandra’s Viraj Bahu, Ibsen’s Doll’s House and Gujrati folk story Mina Gujri. Bengal, Bombay, Gujarat, Delhi, the IPTA branches at these plays had wrapped up. Niranjan Sen of Calcutta, who was the General Secretary of IPTA at the time refused to accept defeat and made a plan to collect all the artistes associated with IPTA. He was a very efficient, enthusiastic and hard working man. He understood the intricacies of organization. He organized an IPTA conference in Delhi in 1957 and did a big festival of IPTA plays. I was not in India at the time but I believe that a festival of such brilliance had rarely been organized before. However, this was IPTA’s swansong, as the festival got over, IPTA took its last breath.
Morarji Bhai was the Premier of Bombay in 1948, he left the British rulers behind in his hatred for the Communists. In those days (and even today) the Police used to have the authority to censor plays. I had written a play and sent it to the Police, I never got it back, it is probably still lying somewhere in its archives, I don’t even have a copy of it. Anyway, it was not so good that I should mourn it, the police can keep it as far as I am concerned. But in 1955 when I was trying to get admission at RADA, my leftist activities in Bombay became an impediment, my file was dug out and sent to Delhi. Ashfaq Husain who was then the Home Secretary, he and Begam Zaidi, told me that the Prime Minister Nehru saw my file and remarked who is not a Communist in their youth, Maulana Azad advocated my case and I was sent to London. I was told that that file which dated from Morarji Desai’s time had been burnt. But when I was working in the newly formed Television studio in Delhi in 1964 and Gulzari Lal Nanda was the Prime Minister that file resurfaced and because of it I was thrown out of my job within a few months. I was taking a drama Workshop in Mysore when I received a telegram saying my job had been terminated. No other explanation was given.
In 1948 the Communist party took out a Peace procession in Bombay. Apart from the party leaders all the leading members of IPTA also participated in it, there was also a large number of mill workers present. When it left Parel Morarji Desai’s police force did a lathi charge on it, they also began to fire, some people were killed including Mughni’s young brother. I suffered a wrist injury. At that time I used to stay at the YMCA in Colaba and the St Xaviers hostel was close by where Vijay Kishor Dube used to stay. I moved into his room. A few days later Surendra Ahuja came and said I have gone mad looking for you, where have you been. I said I am underground. Why? Because there were party orders that when the police comes to disrupt the procession you should try and evade arrest. And what is this, he pointed to the bandage on my wrist. I got hit by a lathi. Why didn’t you go to the hospital. Because the police would have found out, anyway it is a very superficial wound, does not require any elaborate treatment or anything.
Ahuja laughed and said who do you think you are. Some self-importance you have. The police has already discovered and arrested everyone they wanted to. Your name was not there in the police list. The party has sent word from jail saying to tell you that IPTA has been disbanded, that you should collect everyone you can and continue the work of IPTA.
I discovered that Annabhau Sathe, Golwalkar, Amar Sheikh, Balraj Sahni, Sardar Jafri, Dina, Sangvi, the police had a list of names and they have caught everyone individually. They don’t care about the rest.
I took over the reorganization of IPTA. I was now the Secretary, the playwright, the actor, director, everything rolled into one. The PWA and IPTA leaders remained in jail for two years. For two years I was the absolute monarch of IPTA.