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Habib Tanvir

  • Real Name: Habib Ahmad Khan
  • Born: 1 September 1923 (Raipur, Chhattisgarh)
  • Died: 8 June 2009 (Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh)
  • Primary Cinema: Hindi
  • Parents: Hafiz Ahmed Khan
  • Spouse: Moneeka Misra
  • Children: Anna, Nageen

Legendary playwright and director, as well as actor and poet, Habib Tanvir was a man of many hues. A patrician figure inseparable from his pipe, he was revered by theatre-wallahs for creating a new theatrical language that blended contemporary drama with folk performance. His vibrant personality and talent left their mark on theatre and cinema. He broke with European form to embrace Indian folk cultures, establishing Naya Theatre in 1959 with his wife, Moneeka Misra, which went on to redefine modern Indian stagecraft. His plays such as Agra Bazaar, Jis Lahore Ni Dekhya, Charandas Chor, and Gaon Naam Sasural Mor Naam Damaad, among many others, are acknowledged as classics of contemporary Indian theatre. He also acted in several films, including Charandas Chor (1975), Gandhi (1982), Kab Tak Pukaroon (1985), Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin (1987), Hero Hiralal (1988), Prahaar: The Final Attack (1991), The Burning Season (1993), Mangal Pandey (2005), and Black & White (2008). Over the decades, he won several national and international awards, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1969, the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship in 1979, the Padma Shri in 1983, the Kalidas Samman in 1990, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1996, and the Padma Bhushan in 2002. He was also nominated as a member of the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) of the Indian Parliament between 1972 and 1978. His play Charandas Chor won him the Fringe Firsts Award at Edinburgh International Drama Festival in 1982; in 2007, it was included in the Hindustan Times’ list of 'India's 60 Best works since Independence’. 

He was born Habib Ahmad Khan on 1 September 1923 in Raipur, erstwhile Madhya Pradesh, to father Hafiz Ahmed Khan, who hailed from Peshawar. Passing his matriculation from Laurie Municipal High School, Raipur, he later completed his BA from Morris College, Nagpur in 1944, and worked towards his MA at Aligarh Muslim University. He started writing poetry and assumed the pseudonym Habib Tanvir.

In his formative years, he reviewed films in English, wrote poems in Urdu and was exposed to touring Parsi theatre and all-night Nacha performances in Chhattisgarh. In 1945, he moved to Bombay to join the Indian People’s Theatre Association as a writer and director; he also joined the Progressive Writers Association. He also worked as a producer for All India Radio in Bombay. Nine years later he moved to Delhi, where he delivered his major productions.

During his training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the Bristol Old Vic and the British Drama League in the UK, he was influenced by Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble. He was even more influenced by the traditional theatre of his own homeland. He set up Hindustani Theatre along with Qudsia Zaidi and M S Sathyu, carving his first success with Agra Bazar (1954), wherein, for the first time on the Indian stage, he brought urban middle-class actors together with uneducated folk artists and even regular residents of Okhla village in Delhi. He employed street language in his play which was first not staged in a confined area or a closed space, but in an actual bazaar!

In 1959, along with his future wife Moneeka Miishra, he established Naya Theatre for which he scripted plays in English, Hindi and Urdu. Naya Theatre was devoted to folk performance. In order to enable his uneducated actors to work naturally, he used the Chhattisgarhi dialect rather than formal Hindi in his plays, and worked from improvisations as opposed to formal scripts. He incorporated folk songs, poems, and music into his plays, as exemplified in his much-admired play Charandas Chor (1974). 

Naya Theatre would redefine modern Indian stagecraft. He sang, wrote poems, directed plays, scripted dialogues, composed music, acted, and managed his theatre group, all with equal aplomb. Creating a large body of work, his themes in newly independent India revolved around issues such as nation, identity and democracy. He imbued the ideas of secularism, modernity and justice in all he did. His plays were largely performed by actors from Chhattisgarh, who were largely trained in the local performative tradition of the Nacha. An oral tradition, Nacha combines dance, music, acrobatics and improvised dialogues in the story-telling process. Thus did he disrupt the conventional modes of doing theatre, to usher in a new era in public culture. 

As a writer and director, he spent years researching folk traditions in drama, music and story-telling. He travelled through the interiors of Chhattisgarh meeting and working with local village artists, and used folk music in his productions.

In 1970, he revived his play Agra Bazaar, earlier staged with students of Jamia Millia and villagers of Okhla. Based on the life of the Urdu poet Nazir Akbarabadi, the remake was enacted by actors from Chhattisgarh. 

It was Charandas Chor, a satire, which would become his biggest hit as a writer-director, drawing full houses for nearly three decades across Europe and India. It also won him an award at the Edinburgh festival in 1982. The play, an adaption of a classical Rajasthani folktale by Vijayadan Detha, is based on the life of a thief, Charan, and a foolish policeman. Even though Charan is a habitual thief, he possesses a strange sort of integrity, and the audience sympathises with him. In an attempt to outsmart the police, Charan enters a Guruji’s ashram and expresses his desire to become a disciple. The guru extracts four vows from him, and how he navigates life by trying to live by those vows forms his struggle.

He himself considered his play Gaon Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damad a milestone in his theatre journey and credits it for preparing the way for Charandas Chor, which followed. First directed by him in 1973, it was a light comedy and folk tale. The story starts with the harvest season festival of Chher-Chhera and revolves around the love of two youngsters, Jhanglu and Manti. The comedy kicks in when Jhanglu pretends to be a brother-in-law to Manti, and uses tricks to elope, after her father fixes her marriage with an old village head. The folk songs of Chhattisgarh are a part of the play throughout.

A film version of his play Charandas Chor was made while the play was still in production. Directed by Shyam Benegal, its cast featured Lalu Ram, Madan Lal, and Babu Das. Tanvir himself also played the judge in the film. 

His debut as an actor in films came in 1953 with Rahi. He played a character named Ramu in this drama film written and directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. The plot revolved around Ramesh (Dev Anand), who after leaving the British Army, joins a tea plantation as a supervisor. Here he is required to harass Indians. Gradually, he has a change of heart and falls in love with a local girl Ganga (Nalini Jaywant), and revolts against his British employer.

He would act in approximately nine feature films, playing the Indian barrister in Gandhi, Moghul emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar in Mangal Pandey, and the qazi in Black & White. He also featured in television projects such as the TV film Staying On (1980), Masterpiece Theatre: Lord Mountbatten – The Last Viceroy (1986), and Natural World (1986).

He continued to tour with his theatre group well into his 80s and took an active interest in the matters of the day. Habib Tanvir passed away on 8 June 2009 in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. 

Actor Naseeruddin Shah cited Habibbhai, as he was fondly known, as one of those who guided actors even in their darkest of days. Salim Arif believed that Tanvir’s greatest contribution was that he gave the folk performer of India a belief in his art. “He diverted (national) attention to traditional resources in the performing arts, in a way he made it fashionable,” he shared. He used Nacha to tell a story and never as mere embellishment.

Tanvir was also known to be a very witty man, who would make everyone around him laugh. Actress Sayani Gupta reveals that while working with him, he would always share important things during the production in a very casual manner. His enigmatic quality and energy would leave all in awe. 

Nadira Zaheer Babbar, whose parents were leftists and mentors to Tanvir, revealed that she admired him because of his ideologies. “All his life he fought with fundamentalists. People like that are not made these days,” she pointed out.

  • Filmography (2)