June 20, 2021
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Habib Tanvir, The Benign Dictator

On the 92nd birth anniversary of the man the likes of whom are hardly around in Indian theatre any more.

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Habib Tanvir, The Benign Dictator
File Photo - Narendra Bisht
Habib Tanvir, The Benign Dictator

I have a habit of reaching places late. I got to work with Habib Tanvir only in the last 5 years of his life. And this has been one of my big regrets; I often wish my association with him had started earlier. I would have learnt more—about theatre, arts, culture and even life. His death deprived me of all this.

He was perpetually on the lookout for new faces. I was working with M.S. Sathyu in Dara Shikoh when a fellow actor Humayun Abbasi, a family acquaintance of Habib Saab, introduced me to him. I eventually got to work with him in Agra Bazaar. But my first meeting with him was much earlier as a manager in the Standard Chartered Bank. He was standing in the queue at the counter one day when I spotted him. Of course I recognised him, immediately pulled him out of the queue, escorted him to my desk, and sorted out his queries. Later when I narrated the incident to him, he remembered it. Since 2004-05, I became a regular member of the Agra Bazaar troupe.

The most amazing thing about Habib Saab was that he had multiple backup plans for any situation. He would never be perturbed by any news, however problematic. Even 10 minutes before a show, if there were last minute changes to be made, he would calmly go about making them. He could chop and edit a play at a minute’s notice and yet it would come together as a whole, complete in itself. The show wouldn’t stop ever. He would improvise as and when required. 

At times his plays had 45-50 actors on stage, a pan-India cast with actors travelling from all over the country. They could be a logistical nightmare, but not for him. He would have multiple actors work on multiple roles so anybody could take over from anyone else in case of an emergency. He would call me "stepney". "Jahan chaahe laga do" he would say. So I played many big and small roles—shayar, shohda, patangwala, even a crowd member in Agra Bazaar.

He had an eye on everything, every aspect of the play, from lighting to music to costumes, props, sets, you name it. He had an eye for detail. There was a sense of rootedness in his works. The texts were anchored in a defined sensibility, culture, ethos and zubaan. His understanding of his material was immaculate. The enormity and nuance of it would sink only after multiple performances. Bahut badaa mayajaal tha unka but you would understand the big picture when you figured out how the smallest of the components operated.

Each of his plays had this layering and subtlety which hit you and stayed with you much after you had watched the play. The play demanded to be seen again and again. One had to revisit it to absorb and savour it. Each time you viewed a specific play a new window of meaning opened on you. 

He had once referred to himself as a "benign dictator". I remember hearing that in one of the documentaries made on him. He never wielded a hammer during rehearsals. He would sit with a pipe in a corner and intervene only when someone went off tune. He had this ambivalent relationship with the Chattisgarhi actors. They were idiosyncratic and difficult to handle. In fact, the character of policewala in Charandas Chor was Habib Saab himself, metaphorically, constantly chasing and steering his actors. It was about his own struggles as a director. The actors, on the other hand, would have problems with him yet could not live without him. He could steer and keep the herd together because he had a fine understanding of human nature. The actors would often get drunk and riled up post performance and would misbehave with him but he would just sit calmly and hear them out. Next day, when the hullabaloo would be over, the actors would tremble, wait for a reaction from him. But he wouldn’t react, he’d be silent and use it effectively. It intrigued and worried them and they would come around. He managed to take them all along. They would fight, leave and come back. But things kept moving. They wouldn’t halt. No wonder then why there were instances of three generations of actors working with Naya Theatre. 

His grounding, thoughts and understanding are missing now. Naya Theatre was self funded through invited shows. The grants were not very huge. One hears that the land allotted to him for the repertory also got usurped. Yet he kept Naya Theatre going for 50 years, it has survived six years after he is gone. If things are not seeming bright it’s also because of the government’s failure to recognise true artistes and what fosters a culture. He was a true visionary, a one in a century kind of man, the likes of whom are hardly around in Indian theatre any more.

Danish Husain is a film and theatre artiste.

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