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In search of lost time

Habib Tanvir’s Memoirs are a prodigious act of remembering. He started writing it when he was 81. It happened by accident. He was asked to write a piece about the famous Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafri based on his personal memories by a newspaper in Bhopal. Mahmood Farooqui writes.

books Updated: Jun 01, 2013 10:31 IST
Mahmood Farooqui
Mahmood Farooqui
Hindustan Times

Habib Tanvir; Memoirs
Translated by Mahmood Farooqui
Rs. 599 pp 345

Habib Tanvir’s Memoirs are a prodigious act of remembering. He started writing it when he was 81. It happened by accident. He was asked to write a piece about the famous Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafri based on his personal memories by a newspaper in Bhopal. As he wrote about Sardar Jafri his thoughts veered to other famous figures of that era with whom he had interacted personally during his ten-year stay in Bombay. After reading the piece, the editor of the newspaper asked him to expand it because what he was writing was actually his memoirs. The initial chapters were then serialised in the Bhopal-based Urdu newspaper ‘Nadeem’. But the real spurt in his writing came in 2005 after he lost his wife and theatre collaborator Moneeka Misra Tanveer. He wrote entirely from memory, with no research assistants or reference material.

He had initially planned to write it in three parts, corresponding to the three phases of his creative life. He grew up in Raipur, went to Morris College, Nagpur, and Aligarh Muslim University for his higher education, and then went to Bombay to become a film star. The 10 years that he spent in Bombay were a phenomenal learning curve for a young man from a mofussil town. This was a phase of tremendous creative energy in Urdu literary culture, the age of Manto, Meeraji and the Progressive Writers’ movement. Since he was also a poet and sang his poetry very well, Habib Tanvir enjoyed great access to the Urdu literary scene. This was also a phase when the Indian theatre scene was being revolutionised under the influence of IPTA, the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Stalwarts such as Prithviraj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Sombhu Mitra and several others were enthusiastically involved with taking theatre to the masses, literally, and creating a new language of theatre which spoke of everyday concerns and politically took on the British colonial powers. Habib Tanvir was a very active member of IPTA and in his memoirs he recounts a wonderful story about being slapped by Balraj Sahni when he could not act to the latter’s satisfaction in a play. He also worked for the All India Radio under the legendary Zulfiqar Shah Bukhari at a time when the medium was at the height of its power and popularity in India. Through these activities he interacted with some of the greatest cultural figures of his age. Imagine having Ustad Vilayat Khan Saheb doing his riyaz in the next room or Manto writing his famous radio features right before your eyes!

The second phase of his life began when he went to study theatre at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, RADA, in London in the 1950s. He travelled extensively around Europe, sometimes literally singing for his supper, hoping to meet Bertolt Brecht but sadly only reached Berlin a few weeks after his demise. The contacts he made during these journeys and the experience he had of watching all of Brecht’s plays, sometimes repeatedly, was also to prove formative for his subsequent career. After his return from Europe he eschewed the big urban centres and chose to work with Adivasi actors from Chhattisgarh whom he had watched as a young man. For nearly 20 years after that he charted a lonely and sometimes forlorn course, along with Moneeka di, trying to find a form to best express his ideas. He believed that the best route to our classical theatrical heritage, particularly Sanskrit theatre, lay via our folk performances where a lot of our traditions were still alive. He also believed that Indian theatre needed to fall back on this heritage, and obviously on its vernacular languages, in order to not become a mere shadow of the western dramatic tradition. After years of trial and error he finally arrived at a very simple truth. Let the actors perform in their own language and improvise as they best saw fit, because the Chhattisgarh Nacha tradition thrived on improvisation. The play that resulted from this realisation, Charandas Chor, eventually went on to win the First Fringe award at the Edinburgh Theatre festival, where it was invited at the behest of Peter Brook who was deeply impressed with Habib Tanvir’s work. It is a play that has been performed in many countries in the world and in many places in India, including village fairs and regardless of where it is staged or who the audience is, it never fails to achieve a raucous reception. The simplicity of the form that he arrived at allowed him to sustain an independent theatre repertory for nearly 50 years.

His memoirs are a mouthwatering peek into mid-twentieth century India and an invaluable chapter of our cultural history. But they are a little more than that. There is a wonderful interplay between the public and the personal as he draws memorable portraits of his aunts, uncles and cousins and the milieu they lived in. The cultural and religious practices, the political life of the times and some of the legendary figures of that era come alive in his deft hands. It is also a remarkable act of remembering as he delves into figures and details that influenced his life.

I feel privileged to have enjoyed his friendship — it was he who addressed it thus in spite of the vast age difference between us — and to be able to bring a remarkable life and a remarkable memoir to the wider public.

Writer and historian Mahmood Farooqui has revived Dastangoi, the art of Urdu storytelling. He co-directed Peepli Live.

First Published: May 31, 2013 22:56 IST