If the greats of Indian theatre could be set up for a conversation with each other, there would be some who would look back on the institutions they had built, and some on how well they had escaped them.
In post-Independence India, the struggle to decolonise was carried out by theatre artistes in different ways. While Ebrahim Alkazi tried to fashion an idea of India through western idioms and monumental spectacles, Habib Tanvir gave to theatre a unique Indian-ness in vocabulary, staging, and in fact, an entire dramaturgy. Tanvir’s company, Naya Theatre, set up with wife and partner Moneeka Mishra, is more than 50 years old, and his plays are still being staged. The company, that has been managed by Nageen Tanvir since her father’s demise in 2009, has done a new play, Konark, and is opening up for outside collaboration — so we will not talk of Habib Tanvir or his company in the past tense.
Nageen Tanvir at the Desaj folk music festival in Delhi. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)
Nageen could not but agree. "His life went in making plays; there was always a shortage of funds; there was no time to sit down and plan the future," she says. adding that the struggle against bureaucratisation and bureaucrats continues for the troupe. Backstage at the Desaj folk music festival in Delhi recently, Naya Theatre artistes who were being paid a measly Rs 2,000 per head, were having to prompt festival organisers for conveyance money.
Nageen doesn’t complain. She has seen her father being hounded by state governments and then eventually being given a state funeral; she has also seen her father make art from tight corners. Theatre veteran MK Raina points out that in Bhopal, where the troupe is based, they rehearse in a shack behind a Kali temple. Raina, incidentally, is the first director who will be staging a play — Asghar Wajahat’s Veergati — under the Naya Theatre banner after Tanvir’s death.
"In the ’80s, he (Tanvir) was blacklisted by the BJP. They tracked him while he was conducting a theatre workshop in Bastar and said he was trying to make an obscene film on tribals," Nageen recalls with an amused look.
Nageen has acted in many plays alongside her father, playwright-director Habib Tanvir
The unsteady present, mainly due to lack of good folk artistes and the death or retirement of the company’s veterans, is, however, a constant worry. The senior actors listen to her, the younger lot won’t. A senior actor of the company, Ramchander, has stepped in as director, but production quality has suffered. What Naya Theatre really needs, says critic Piyush Daiya, is another Habib Tanvir. "It has to be someone who will bring in the spirit of innovation, someone who will assimilate the energy, the vitality and the protest inherent in folk traditions and then transform them into a contemporary experience," he says.
What Daiya hints at is confirmed by Nageen herself whose talk of "something new" is always a going back to the old. Nageen has, to her credit, tried to make the most of a challenging situation by stretching herself to act in many of the female roles of the repertory such as the role of the Queen in Charandas Chor, the courtesan in Agra Bazaar. "People would say Nageen is a singer, not an actor, but my father said what I had was artless art," she says disarmingly as if daring you to disagree. Tanvir, she adds, had a few regrets. He wanted to publish his Urdu poetry; he wanted to paint.
"A sense of incompleteness haunted him," she divulges at the end of a tour down memory lane. "He had become an icon and that became his prison."
That, along with the lives and responsibilities of those still attached to Naya Theatre, has become hers as well.