Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Remembering Habib Tanvir: 'Agra Bazar' and Indian Theatre


Dhuundhoge agar mulkoN mulkoN milne ke nahiiN, naayaab haiN ham.....

The doyen of Indian theatre, Habib Tanvir, was laid to rest at a graveyard in Bhopal.

The 86-year-old theatre legend was draped in national flag, with policemen lowering their weapons to accord him full state honours.

Tanvir was buried adjacent to his wife Monika Misra's grave. The representatives of state governments of MP and Chhattisgarh, ministers and hundreds of admirers were part of the procession.

In the same BJP-ruled state where he had been literally boycotted in his old age and had earlier faced opposition for his play 'Ponga Pandit', [which was written not by him by two Hindu writers], his demise forced even those officials to the Qabristan, who had closed the doors of multi-cultural complex Bharat Bhavan for him.

Tanvir was not even allowed to get possession of land, which was allotted during the earlier Congress-regime, for his Naya Theatre group. The artists of IPTA and leftist artistes recited two jan-geets at Iqbal Maidan where the body was kept for a while and tributes were paid to the departed soul.

Habib Tanvir lived a complete life. Death is inevitable but there shouldn't be any regrets for him. He lived life on his own terms and has left a rich legacy.

Rediscovering Nazir Akbarabadi through Agra Bazaar

duniaa men baadshaah hai so hai voh bhii aadmi
aur muflis-o-gada hai so hai voh bhii aadmii

zardaar, be-nawa hai so hai voh bhii aadmii
nemat jo khaa rahaa hai so hai voh bhii aadmii

masjid bhii aadmii ne banaai hai yaaN miyaaN
bante haiN aadmii hii Imam aur khutba-khwaaN

paDhte haiN aadmii hii Quraan aur namaaz yaaN
aur aadmii hi unkii churaate haiN juutiyaaN

jo unko taaDtaa hai, so hai voh bhii aadmi
yaaN aadmii pe jaan ko vaare hai aadmii

aur aadmii hii teG se maare hai aadmii
pagDii bhii aadmii kii utaare hai aadmii

chillaa ke aadmii ko pukaare hai aadmii
aur sunke dauDta hai, so hai voh bhii aadmii....

[Excerpts from Nazir Akbarabadi's long nazm Aadminama]

It was not an easy job to recreate era of the people's poet Nazir Akbarabadi on the stage but Habib Tanvir accomplished this feat without showing the poet, in his play Agra Bazar. The play is a masterpiece.

Nazir Akbarabadi was born in 1735 and died after 1835 when he was over a hundred years old. The play is set in 1810 when Mir Taqi Mir had passed away and Ghalib was just 14.

The Mughal rule had ended and Akbar [Saani] II who occupied the throne at Shahjahanabad had his writ barely running past the Qila-e-Moalla.

The country was facing unrest and economy was in shambles. The bookseller, kakdiwala, kiteseller, darogha, tawaif, the street performer, everybody wanted Nazir to pen a Nazm for him.

Laddoo-wala, madari, eunuch, kanmeliya [one who cleans ear], tarbooz-seller, poet, conjurer, faqir and vendors are all part of the enchanting drama.

Tanvir himself wrote that he didn't want to focus on Nazir's philosophy and tasawwuf but his humanism, harmony rich insight about diversity of Indian culture and his popularity among the masses.

Nazir was a poet of Nazm and chose topics that were never touched before him. He wrote on Indian seasons, Hindu gods, colours, flowers, sweets and every such subject that was deemed un-poetic until then. 'Aadminaama' and 'Banjaranama' are classics of Urdu poetry .

Nazir also wrote Nazms like 'Mahadev ka Byaah', 'Baldev ji ka Mela' and 'Krishan Kanhaiya ka Balpan'. Sample:

...ek roz muNh meN kaanha ne maakhan jhuka diyaa
poochha Jasoda ne to vahiiN muNh banaa diyaa
muNh khol teen lok kaa aalam dikhaa diyaa
ek aan meN dikhaa diyaa phir bhulaa diyaa
aisaa thaa baansurii ke bajayyaa kaa baalpan
kyaa kyaa kahuuN maiN Krishan kanhaiyya ka baalpan.....

With folk artists like Gyarasa, a nutt, street acrobat teenager Sangeeta, two real faqirs of Ajmer Ashfaq-Ishtiaq who played iron rings and sticks while singing the nazms and artists from rural parts of the country, Tanvir staged the Agra Bazar in Okhla. It was an instant success.

The Kakdi-wala is sad that nobody is buying the cucumber. Like tarbooz-wala and laddoo-wala, he also follows suit and gets a nazm from Nazir.

The poem for the cucumber-seller:

farhaad kii nigaaheN, SheeriiN kii haNsliyaaN haiN
majnuu kii sard aaheN, laila ki ungliyaaN haiN
kyaa khuub narm-o-naazuk is Aagre ki kakDii....
....koii hai zardii-maail, koii harii bharii hai
pukhraaj munfail hai, panne ko thartharii hai
TeDhii hai so to chooDii voh Hiir ki harii hai
siidhii hai so vo, yaaro, Raanjhaa ki baansurii hai.....

The Kakdi-wala happily goes back and as he gives a call to the buyer, singing the nazm, his basket gets emptied fast.

It is an experience of lifetime to watch Agra Bazaar that became a landmark in Indian theatre. Over the years, the cast changed and there were a few modifications in the drama, but it remained one of the most popular plays ever and wherever it was staged, it drew jam-packed audiences.

The vocabulary that has now become extinct, the interesting conversations, the variety of articles at every shop like the patangbaaz naming dozens of varieties of kites--ranging from kajkulah to chamchaqa and manjhdar, the selection of artists who looked so real that the you also found yourself sent into the era, turned Agra Bazar a magical masterpiece.

Habib Ahmad Khan, who wrote poetry under the pen name Tanvir, was born in 1923 in Raipur in undivided India. He had begun his career as a journalist. He even acted in movies and was editor of various magazines. He later switched to theatre. In his long career, he achieved awards and wide acclaim.

Agra Bazar was first staged in 1954, not in an auditorium but a bazaar. The cast comprised untrained actors. He evolved himself as a playright and a director and later allowed folk artistes to speak their own tongue, Chhattisghari, rather than Hindi. It was another milestone for Tanvir.

His other famous plays include Charandas Chor and Mitti ki Gadi. By experimenting with Pandvani, a singing style which is part of temple ritual, and later the Nacha style, Tanveer emerged as a towering personality in Indian theatre by mid-70s.

Musicologist Bhaskar Chandarvakar likens Habib's music to Bhakti movement, with its commitment to humanism and social change through deep thought conveyed in a simple style. Critic and famous theatre personality Kavita Nagpal says that by avoiding adherign to people's music and rooting it in a social context, Tanvir always made a political statement.

She says that Habib Tanvir's Naya Theatre is the only company in the world to stage Shakespeare, Becht, Moliere and Sanskrit classics with folk actors who can't read and write.

Shyam Benegal said that Habib Tanvir was 'unquestionably one of the greatest theatre producers, directors, actors and writers and a pioneer of Hindustani theatre.

His passing ends an entire era of Hindustani Theatre. I worked with him but never tried to make his plays into films because they were so good, it would have been a sacrilege'.

After his wife Monika died, Tanvir was feeling lonely. He is survived by a daughter Nageen. Though he has another daughter, Anna Tanvir, a lovechild born of his relationship with French theatre artist Gill. Anna is a harpist. Habib sahab had a contented life and has left deep imprints on Indian theatre.

....laakhoN hii musaafir chalte haiN, manzil pohaNchte haiN do ek
aye ahl-e-zamaana qadr karo, naayaab na hoN kamyaab haiN ham.....

Khuda Hafiz, Habib Sahab.