When Indian theatre’s controversial colossus Habib Tanvir died seven months ago, he put two of his closest associates in a spot: Ramchandra Singh, senior actor, gulped down his shyness and became the director of Naya Theatre. Nageen Tanvir, his daughter, a trained singer in Hindustani classical music and The Voice of her father's troupe, became its moneybag and the guardian of a life-long responsibility — Naya Theatre.
Ramchandra and Nageen are in Delhi to take part in the ongoing National School of Drama festival. Their troupe presents the theatre music of Habib Tanvir in the coming week. When they return to Bhopal, they will take stock together. “The form must now change,” says Nageen, “Ram must discover his own formula. Naya Theatre must produce a new play”.
They are studying a few, adds Ramchandra, very much the strong and steady lieutenant. “Konark is a behind-the scenes class struggle between artisans and kings during the construction of the Konark temple and Khamosh Julus is about the civic problems of Mumbai on the face of it…”
The Nageen-Ramchandra team is interesting. It should succeed because Nageen despite being the only child of Habib and Monica Mishra, has not been brought up to consider Naya Theatre as her patrimony. The nature of her reminiscences — her father’s suggestion that she try direction, and her reluctance (“I never showed interest so he nominated Ram”) and a belated sense of responsibility in the post-Habib era — are a measure of the institution that her father built.
She may have been her father’s first choice as successor, but not his last.
Prasanna, founder of Samudaya, a radical theatre movement of the 70s, puts it best: “Ebrahim Alkazi’s theatre model is like an Autobahn. It requires the road to be straight and modern. Habib Tanvir's road is like a meandering village path shaped by the footfall of the people using it.”
Nageen is also candid about her father’s contribution. “We don’t run after the folk ‘form,’ we just have folk artists among us…But the rural-urban divide that he tried to erase by mixing up the actors, that’s undone. The cream of our actors are old, unwell or dead. The BJP in Chattisgarh has also created a lot of havoc. It killed any kind of rebellious spirit…”
It’s tempting to sum up Nageen Tanvir as Habib saab’s ‘little girl’. Tying up her braids with a red tassel, lining her eyes with kohl, grimacing as her wooden earrings earrings dangle from her ears and then suddenly drop off — she does not re-make herself for the camera. When we ask her to pose, it puts her off. She takes cover behind a pack of biscuits. “Can’t I eat in peace?” she murmurs in half-jest.
But when she sings, they say, the sky cracks. Between Nageen and her voice, is the silence of dusk. Her voice can light a lamp.