Telephonic Interview with Habib Tanvir
Dated October 15, 2004
‘Unless you see the bad, you do not recognise the good’
Introduced Habib to the reason why we are asking him some questions. Told him about the Ranga Shankra newsletter.
Q. Agra Bazaar opened fifty years ago and is still performed, that in itself is a staggering fact and feat. Has the play changed along its long journey?
Ans: Yes, it has but not very much. It opened in 1954 and by the early sixties, I made some revisions which resulted in new characters and added greater complexity to make it more meaningful.
The play has three strands: the cucumber seller or the vendor’s life, the economic problems faced even by the elite class, and the lover and the rival. These three strands are interlinked bringing out the main theme of the play, which is the literal plebian poetry of Nazir Akbarabadi. This foregrounding of the theme takes place not only through Nazir’s poetry but also through the character of his friend the kite seller.
You see, Nazir was a poet of poverty; he never left Agra even though he was lured by kings and nobles. The play also cannot really be opened up to any city or place. It shall remain the Agra Bazaar, wherever it is performed. The important thing to note is that though Nazir was writing about poverty he was also extremely contemporaneous, religious, and relevant even today. That gives the play its strength. It is a play performed at many places, in various styles, yet it remains faithful to its creation and adapts itself to the changed environments.
Q. And Charandas Chor?
Ans. Charandas Chor is an anti-establishment play. It holds up a mirror to the present where everyone including the Guruji, the policeman, the treasurer and even the Queen is corrupt. The only truthful person and an unlikely hero, is the thief. And he pays a price, his life. In that sense the Chor is like Jesus or Gandhi.
This is a simple form, more like a film. In this play the songs project the meaning. And yet the Chor stands out not because he is truthful, but because he is not even aware of his being honest. He is just living his life according to his choices. He wants to stick to his choices, in this case a negative choice. He stands out because he does not compromise, he does not bend, and he does not buckle. Yet, he does all of these without even being aware of any high drama. That makes the play live on, and it has lived on without really being changed or modified.
I have seen some shows of it where the directors have made it simpler by removing the songs, due to a lack of singers or time. Yet, the real joy of the play is in its entirety, not by being shuffled.
Q. You have actors from Mumbai, Delhi, Bhopal, and Chhattisgarh, what is it like to work with this eclectic ensemble?
Ans. You know, its strange but true that the urban actors I work with are more inhibited. While the rural actors who are illiterate respond better to lines, to gestures, mannerisms, and songs. Guess it has to do with what education has done to the urban lot. It has crammed them; the urban actor is more inhibited in his responses, his emotions, his spaces, and his life. While the rural actor is more free, flexible and adaptive.
Of course, I hardly dictate anything. I like to observe the talent and resources of different actors and see how their potential can be tapped. So while I ease the urban actors, I groom the rural ones. In the end the performance is the same.
Q. You have witnessed the many phases of the Indian theatre. What do
you feel about the work that you see today?
Ans. Yes, theatre has changed and I am quite happy with some of the things I see in small town India. People like Ratan Thiyam, Jabbar Patel, Panikker, and others are doing a good job.
In Lucknow, Kanpur, Jabalpur, Sholapur. These are places with limited means, they have no resources, no spaces, yet they have imagination. And their imagination is in abundance. They dramatize novels, poems, stories and convey the meanings to the audiences.
Rural India is devastated by the damage done through the electronic media. Yet, these efforts are on. See its like you need the good and bad both. Else, who will recognise the good? So, its okay, as long as there are efforts to do good work, the resources do not really matter. Yes, I also see some urban theatre, and it is not very good.
Q. We are coming back to an early question, but what for you is the timeless beauty of Agra Bazaar and Charandas Chor which makes these plays endure so?
Ans. The communicability and humour of Agra Bazaar is high. People come to see it to get a glimpse of a medley of things. They over all attract people because guess everybody likes to see the reality, the ethos of a market, and Agra Bazaar depicts it well.
Now everybody knows the story of Charandas Chor, but before they learnt of the story Charandas Chor stunned people. They could not believe that this light, humourous play will stop rollicking and end in the end that it has. Many people feel why can’t Charandas make the compromise and live happily with the Queen, so they do not understand the value of the Chor’s truth. So they are shocked when he is killed, and gradually it dawns on them. That makes the play attractive. Now that people know the story, they still find the conflict between corruption and truth interesting; guess they all relate to it in some way, in the modern world.
Q. You have a world of your own with your Chhattisgarhi performers. What is that world like?
Ans. Despite great destruction of life and folk theatre by the media and the films, and the other urban developmental patters, we do not feel that folk is dead. In fact, it is thriving. There is something good and healthy about folk which nourishes many contemporary thoughts and keeps alive the tradition and brings it alive in the body political.
So there is a lot of hope, much more than I can say about many urban places. However, I do not know much. Yet, the economies of the small town India is different. The sabzi wallah comes to your door to sell his wares. You rub shoulders with the rural, you imbibe learnings and maybe values. The culture stays alive. What is in the city? The super malls and packaged food. Where is a culture in it?
I am not for economic deprivation for the rural India, but we must be sensitive to cultural loss. See my life in Bhopal. There is a fundamentalist government. Food, shelter, acting space, welfare of the troop, train tickets, everything is a struggle. I have to fight hard for our rights; I have to fight hard to avoid the suffocation.