In memoriam

Move over Habib – here comes the legend!

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WHEN the urge to write finally reaches the fingertips, any piece of paper will do. Being unable to type or work on a computer, I am always looking for something at odd hours to put down stray thoughts. I have letters from Kamladevi Chattopadhyay written on the margins of cyclostyled government reports and my mother scribbled her thoughts of the day on the edges of newspapers or behind used envelopes. Any size or shape was good enough to invest in the industry of words.

Writing on passing values behind the ubiquitous printout of an email seemed appropriate. Rima and Mihir Bhatt had just wired a delightful manuscript with tentative and homely sketches of everyday Ahmedabadis, drawn and written by their son Som Bhatt. A gifted young man with a vantage position of his faultless samskars, I have known little Som growing up as he would – doing more with less while doodling on the walls of his grandmother Ela Bhatt’s house. On several occasions I have seen the formidable Ela Ben indulge her grandchildren with an uncharacteristic sense of personal joy and pride.

Always in awe of witnessing gentle transmissions, seeing so much happen from so little, I consider myself fortunate in having touched base with a generation of real time achievers, handing over fast shrinking legacies with a sense of quiet grace.

Seeing Nageen at the propped-up funeral of her father Habib Tanvir, my friend and teacher in the 1960s and ’70s, I was moved by the seamless transmission between generations and the continuity of concerns that guide Naya Theatre. I have known Nageen since she was born and have grown up teasing her for her nervous demeanour while she has grown into a well-centred artist in her own right. Nageen’s mother, Moneeka, with her clear sight lines, would hold things together when the world would be falling apart, while Habib, calm and intense, would thrive on creative chaos. Although the parents would have both been hugely amused and perhaps a little surprised at the hurriedly improvised ‘state style’ funeral, Nageen like a balanced whole went through the motions as per cue.

On the Shatabadi on the way back from Bhopal, I was shown a dozen national and regional newspapers with long columns on Tanvir Saheb. Clearly my friend dead had became more famous than Habib alive. Had it not been for the unusual media reportage, the ranks of India’s forgotten and anonymous geniuses would have doubtlessly swelled a little more. Now, even the funeral procession had to be stopped midway in the searing heat of the afternoon to squeeze in eulogies by representatives of each political party. A few awful songs as epitaph were also thrown in. It was indicative of the times that a cold corpse in a hot van waited, as if in a green room, for his final performance.

‘Tanvir Saheb’s art was like a lamp, a broom, like an axe,’ thundered the red brigade… ‘He will remain in our enduring heart and the piercing mind,’ offered the helping hand… ‘An era has come to end,’ heaved the khakhi nicker supremo…

Habib got the one thing he probably anticipated least – a State Funeral. Hounded out of residences for so many years with nowhere to go with his group of village actors, where was the state at the time when he most needed it? In direct contrast now were all his well-wishers, appearing, disappearing and reappearing from all corners to lay wreaths and organize gun salutes. Bhopal’s saffron brigade, who had looked the other way when their goons had attacked Ponga Pandit, were in pathetic attendance; the righteous defenders of creative expression marked their obligatory presence, as did the edgy critics of authority that remain aloof at the marginalization of art institutions. Everyone celebrated the common man becoming a people’s hero! Death indeed unites us all and all our agendas, even if for a brief while, in the euphoria of emotion. The Artist had finally come centre stage and the media was taking notice.

Cracking the harsh sun, the huge tamarind trees covering the Bada Baag Kabristan have their roots gathered around crumbling graves, both marked and unmarked. There was much less than the customary do gaj zameen for each person buried there and the crowds practically piled up on top of each other. In the melee no one could remember where Moneeka was buried only a few years back, and in any case the two were destined to sleep in crowded rooms.

With hardly a place to stand, photographers, cameramen and a curious audience clambered over tombstones and rubble to get to where the action was. Habib wrapped in a kafan of mill poplin was buried by a mound of people even before he could be lowered. In the midst of a much neglected Muslim neighbourhood, no one probably had seen such scale of drama before.

A dozen odd policemen raised their rifles in salute and fired 3-4 shots into the tamarind above, bending hurriedly to pick up the empty shells that fell from their pre-war carbines. (I was told that these are needed for the record or would otherwise be considered stolen or worse, not fired at all.) There was a moving moment when the bugle played a plaintiff melody and the crowd became silent… like magic the people just melted to form a corridor clearing the way for the sound to reach the coffin 10 yards away… only India!

I have always been awestruck with the movement of everyday drama when the normal and mundane turns on its axis… the chaos of a crowd transforming into an orchestra of collective catharsis… the vivid theatre of ritual pouring over life, only to disappear into a crucible of void.

I am trying to remember the name of that ‘common man’… I think Ram Nath whose eulogy Habib wrote so poignantly, celebrating the life of a perfectly ordinary man with some extraordinarily precise measurements summing up a life lived well… the total length of nails and hair produced by Ram Nath during his lifetime, the pair of slippers he wore out, the turbans discarded, the hours he slept in all his years, the weight of different foods he ate, the number of lovers he had… A normal life seen from a universal, but not so normal perspective.

As teenagers, we flocked to the National School of Drama, drawn to Ebrahim Alkazi’s form of theatrical disciplines borrowed from not the best of the West. Reading about his reluctance to comment on Habib’s work, ‘I have seen too little’ (he is reported to have said in a newspaper obituary), I was not surprised. It was brutally honest as one would expect from Alkazi. The school he established like many other cultural institutions in this country, was not set up to see ‘the other’. The Drama School in the ’60s was mostly oblivious to that which even after 200 years of colonial rule remained visible perennially, if only one cared to look. The reigning monarchs, then uncomfortable with issues of modernity, saw our own vital traditional forms as irreverent, perhaps irrelevant, and had more or less outcast them in our own backyard.

I remember one night way back in 1968 going out in search of Habib and Moneeka’s rented rooms in the bylanes of Karol Bagh’s refugee colony with the legendary theatre director Joan Littlewood. Joan, who had given me my ‘first break’ of working on a mad film in Hyderabad, was one of Habib’s great admirers. She also had the dubious distinction of being the first to have ever uttered four letter words on an Indian stage while chairing a conference for the most respected International Theatre Institute. Joan who was also the first to correct my perspective on irreverence, had refused the OBE by simply asking, Where was the British Empire? She had also told the Indian theatre elite to go ‘....’ and live under the Queen’s skirts with their LAMDA and RADA degrees. Habib, who had been a student of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and later at the Old Vic as a colleague of Peter O’Tool and Albert Finny, had been known to cock a snook at pedigree. In the late ’60s, if you were not against the establishment even if you were a part of it, you were nowhere!

Obviously, what attracted us as precocious youngsters ready to hit the streets, was the chaotic seduction of a chain-smoking Shanta Gandhi who wrote Mukhda for us to go on the road in a truck I hired by selling my paintings. Shantaji’s intuitive experiments with Bhavai, the folk theatre form from Gujarat that she used as pedagogy to introduce intimidated drama students from small towns to a more friendly indigenous sense of rhythm and form, was for some of us NSD’s shining moment. Then I left for my studies and stint abroad and came back post Indira Gandhi’s triumphant overhauling of the Congress party. Shanta Gandhi had become the Director of Nehru Bal Bhawan and her passion became more controlled. Habib lent his support to the Congress party and produced a bad play, Indra Lok Sabha. He became Rajya Sabha MP and was comfortable, for a while dreaming big and doing well.

For most of us, however, Habib Tanvir remained best as a struggling pioneer who quixotically demonstrated the muscle of traditional theatre as a provocative and compelling format for storytelling. What was highly relevant was that this worked for even a blasé urban audience that came once in a while to indulge in exotica.

Ironically, some of us in college before our NSD days knew Habib only as a director of plays by Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. I was part of the production of Lady Windermere’s Fan being staged by the girls at the Lady Irwin College, with boys invited from St. Stephens College (believe me – big deal!). Habib cast me as the dashing Lord Darlington and life had never been so good! Of course, I was emulating him as he was in the early ’60s when I had first seen him walking into Grindlays Bank, Connaught Place, where I had gone with my mother. I remember vividly this unforgettably good looking guy, ‘hep’ (the equivalent to ‘cool’ then), suave, stylishly clad in olive green and sepia corduroys (off-setting the colour of his eyes), twirling his fingertips through curly hair or putting on a beret, fumbling in a tobacco pouch and ploughing his pipe with a key, waiting for his cheque to be cashed. We never met then. I was twelve but I never forgot and Darlington gave me a chance to cast myself in the image of a hero I could never become even at eighteen.

Later Habib surprised us with the choice of re-staging his earlier production of the great Sanskrit classic Mricchakatika, ‘the little clay cart’, by Shudraka in which he once again cast me as an actor. Habib’s comfort level with all forms of theatre/theatrewallah’s and his versatility was a lesser known fact. Although I cannot even remember the role I played or whether the play was in Hindi or English, I do recall rehearsing at Shilpi Chakra in Shankar Market where my mother had an empty flat that a wildly mixed cast could use after salubrious rehearsals.

We learnt from Habib the joy of teamwork and only knew the man as playful, urbane and hugely sophisticated… just like us, aspiring to be him! The other Habib unknown to us then was born in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, to which he would return from time to time for his real tonic. Through him we had experienced the legendary Puna Ram for 18 nights at the Ajmal Khan Park, or the enigmatic Teejan Bai bringing to life with pure artistry the immense depth of Mahabharata in Pandavani style. Much later, while working with Peter Brook in the Mahabharata, I would never tire of talking about the economy of words and the eloquence of gesture.

An epic less, illiterate generation weaned on the Beatles was seduced by the lilting sua’s of nacha and the high pitched melodies of brilliant actors – the mischievous Devarins whom we all watched with trepidation getting more than their share of Tanvir Saheb’s attention. We followed Habib to Raipur for his first workshop/seminar on the ‘contemporary use of traditional forms’ where we sat on the ground in a circle singing to each other, and no one delivered a paper. Later I helped him organize the Swang workshop in Rai near Sonepat while developing the Dehati Kala Kendra in Rohtak for the Government of Haryana.

Lakshmi Chand’s lyrics set to the ragas of Haryanvi jogis – reincarnated as two new plays, Shahi Lakarhara and Jani Chor – incorporating the histrionics of khayal and nacha performers. While Habib worked with folk artists from Mewat, Malwa and Mewar, he let me take time off for improvisations with the Chhattisgarhis. Everyone would watch each other every evening and something else began to take shape. Here was evidence of contemporary India sensing a quality of life that was utterly modern. In my notes of that period I called it …err… ‘National Integration’.

Later I designed the simple sets for the first production of Charan Das Chor with battered takhats – patinized with their use by local halwais. But a more evolved scenography (I didn’t know the word then) was invented for the swang that offered to raise gender and caste issues viz-a-viz seating while improving sight lines and lighting for rural theatre in the round. Habib made me address issues that offered greater mobility of location for bigger audiences. With all the brash ‘ingenuity’ of a designer, one had made only a few friends, but Habib always indulged me, allowing a long leash for fantasy. I recall presenting my design of a modular podium with four sunken pits made with locally available rented material to create seating for musicians and non-performing actors and to facilitate more effective points of entry and exit. This facilitated greater dialogue between actors and musician and between singers and instrumentalists, opening up the stage and leaving it uncluttered for free movement, while improving visibility from all sides. Even spotlights were hidden without a glare under a square asman gir (sky canopy).

At the workshop, however, I was put in my place by a jogi who said the village chaupal was an ideal theatre anyway with its limited space, parked bullock carts, platforms (deodis, chajjas), roofs and trees, leaving people to choose their own preferred place to sit or stand suiting their own sense. ‘Kuch log roop mast hote hain, kuch raag mast, kuch taal mast aur kuch mast mast!’ Why does design want to give everything to everyone?

My journey to understand rural India’s creative expressions, I now call ‘Cultural Industries’, continues with Habib’s inspiring initiations acting as enduring talismans. Three years ago I was asked to steer a task force in the Planning Commission to recommend means for harnessing original content with creative performers and artisans, helping them become productive partners in the knowledge society. Placing the legacy of talent in close proximity to the most powerful institutions in the country was one way of highlighting their formidable potential. These communities of professionals are today ignored by the elite of free India’s planning process. Dismissed as the unorganized sector, with no gameplan for their contemporary incarnation, they are at best fed platitudes and offered lip service. Our failure to recognize even the revenue models offered by the creative self-employed is foolish, but remaining oblivious to the economic potential of such traditional skills and resources in the global marketplace is being totally irresponsible.

The marginalization of traditional skills that Habib fought against so valiantly employ large numbers of the poor, particularly women. A tragic devaluation of their contribution by those who govern affects the balanced growth of our knowledge economy. At least the bleak future of employment in both agriculture and industrial sector should necessitate that cultural and creative industries be encouraged to provide more livelihood than they do at present. At all the memorials for Habib that I have attended since, not one leader or activist has raised issues that were central to Habib’s life work, or suggested what might be done to redress the imbalances that made Habib angry.

Naya Theatre worked with both urban and rural artists speaking a different language to help create a spontaneous form of new drama. Was this the new Indian potpourri, the mixed up khichdi in a pan-Indian melting pot? Or was it a very diverse India coming to terms with its vital differences, celebrating its endangered plurality?

Can our popular theatrical forms, connected delicately to ritual and seasonal context, be reduced to mere colourful components of urban theatre, or be part of official or Bollywood extravaganzas to be used and abused by ‘modern’ choreographers? Can the traditional artists understand the significance of new presentation formats through their own struggle to find an empowered space in an increasingly homogenized world? Can we contain the aspirations and artistry of so many skilled artists and their endless ideas and evolving sensibilities with ticketed shows and time constraints with limiting theatrical facilities? Is there an educated media positioning their talent for the local, national and global market?

Can academics take greater interest in training and capacity-building, policy and planning, research and documentation, marketing and management of cultural resources? On issues of credit and finance, on legal matters and copyright, on social issues and aspirations and basic needs like health, housing and places of work for the artists and artisans, there is hardly any work.

Fifty years ago the art world had its questions, insecurities, intrigues and squabbles, but it was far better off than the indifferent, cynical disregard for creative dialogue in the homogenous direction we are heading today. Traditional artists from the four corners of India with their different languages are still telling a collective story. How important is it for India today to forge an interdisciplinary team of young professionals to look at these issues and articulate them as our national concern?

How can South Asia, with all its common civilizational memories and still a very poor subcontinent, reinvent ways to share, improvise and innovate – to do more with less? How indeed can we, as before, learn to be more effective doing more, while cribbing less?

Since 1970, my exposure to rural crafts and ritual arts continued under the tutelage of several gurus like Pupul Jayakar, Habib and great artists from folk theatre and dance, especially itinerant performers including lesser-known acrobats, jugglers, puppeteers, magicians, animal trainers, balladeers and the like. My increasing involvement with these people during the 1970s limited the time spent with Habib and Moneeka, because it meant travelling from village to village covering more than 400 districts – often on foot, bullock carts, wading through rivulets, on buses and bicycles – as one tried to be better informed about the formidable assets of India. Theatrical dimensions have become an indispensable part of all our communication or design projects in the field – whether it be a puppet show about the demise of rural industries, or on issues exposing the greedy systems of production, or the unfair competition between interpersonal communication and the electronic mass media, on the value of working with one’s hand or some inherent weaknesses of traditions, or the social stigma attached to some craft skills like leather.

These issues meant developing scores of scripts and programmes that we have used to hold workshops and marketing clinics all over India. I made a point of inviting Habib whenever I could and he always came to several such intermedial interactions – the most notable being at Garhi Bohar where the staging of Jamadarin at the farmers’ footwear symposium raised critical issues of caste-based professions and the social stigma attached to some livelihoods. In my diary of 1977, Habib wrote in his hand:

‘Our villages still retain some genuine Indian culture. This is the paradox of poverty. In trying to remove poverty, we have destroyed a great deal of beauty which is rural culture. Yet a great deal of it still remains to dazzle and puzzle us. Our dilemma is this: How to preserve and promote our cultural traditions and at the same time remove poverty? We are only learning to balance progress with culture.’

Commenting on my work in Haryana, he added:

‘The Rohtak Centre presents an explanation of this new effort. It’s an excellent example and I hope it multiples. Our visit with the folk play from another region, mainly Chhattisgarh, to this centre was so well received. It brought out for us the basic harmony that does exist between all folk art and craft, no matter to what region they belong to. And then I recited to the people a poem of mine, Purani Chappal, which I fancy is modern. Even this seemed to fit in. In other words, there is harmony also between the modern and traditional and no contradiction as imagined by the unimaginative.’

Working with Habib in the ’60s led me even closer to Kamladevi Chattopadhyay and her theatre craft workshop, Naika, and its collection of theatre crafts that brought people like Inder Raizdan and Gopi Krishnaji as our collaborators. Naika’s vital connection with living theatre craft skills, linked to the making of puppets, masks, costumes and jewellery, most of which was Moneeka’s department, was a vital programme threatened with no resources. We had seen most of these craft skills suffering the same fate as the fast disappearing ritual and theatre that enshrined their usage. This taught us how making, being and doing are intrinsically related and indeed how even a flower can’t be plucked without altering a star.

Even as the mortal remains of Habib and Moneeka turn to dust and their ideas, flying in the air right now, begin to evaporate with the heat, what can we possibly do to go beyond empty memorial meetings, declaring the man dead as a legend? Plenty really… if we choose to live life consistently… share and savour moments of creative play… reach out to recognize the latent potential of rural India… fight tenaciously even at moments of personal vulnerability…

One last thought as I think of the chaos under the tamarinds in Bhopal. Could we not bring two fistfuls of dust from Bada Baag Kabristan, mix it with the soil next to the Badi Jheel in a cool open spot near the Bharat Kala Bhawan Rangmanch? Then with appropriate ritual, plant a kadamb tree and let a madhu malati grow next to it to do the rest.

In the future, before stepping on stage, performers might go there to reflect silently on the nobility of theatre touching our soul.

Rajeev Sethi

* Habib Tanvir, 1923-2009.