Habib Tanvir once told me he believed in the future of theatre. Coming from a legend of Indian theatre’s most glorious renaissance era, this was surprisingly optimistic. “The generation after independence has sown the seeds so deep that theatre cannot perish in this country,” he said.
He will always be survived by theatre.
Political independence had not unbridled theatre’s colonial yoke when Tanvir started imbibing influences and training from India and Europe.
On his return he dreamt of an indigenous idiom that would serve as a “slap in the face of middle-class theatre which was an imitation of an imitation”.
He found his expression by bringing together Chhattisgarhi folk artists to perform diverse scripts directed with the finesse of a new age director.
His turn towards popular culture rebelled against the pretensions of the existing forms and gave folk theatre a new lease of life.
Like Brecht, music played an integral part in his narrative.
In Naya Theatre, Tanvir and wife Moneeka Mishra founded a form that drew cheering audiences in tiny villages and hallowed halls like the Edinburgh Fringe alike.
Innumerable accolades notwithstanding, life was always an uphill journey for Tanvir. It was never easy to travel with a bunch of unschooled novices. There were drunken bouts, tantrums, jhaar-phoonk and absenteeism. Fida Bai, the pièce de résistance of his theatre, beat up an actress in Cardiff, threw platefuls of food at a formal do in France and publicly stripped and urinated to humiliate a co-actor.
But listening to Tanvir recount these stories, you’d never get a sense that he was complaining.
Tanvir was a symbol of the dreams, visions and ideals of the generation that met with destiny in 1947; that ushered in pride and possibilities in our art and literature.
Deconstructing a legend is difficult largely because the magic lies somewhere beyond the list of achievements.
As memory brings back the effortless poet constantly stoking the fire of his pipe and charming you with his wit and affection in turns, all you can say for sure is death rarely takes away so much.
(Pragya Tiwari is a writer, critic and documentary filmmaker)