A theatre person called Habib Tanvir

The news of 85-year-old Habib Tanvir’s death on the eighth of June brought back memories of my association with him in New Delhi. He was a good human being. Habib Saab to all his friends,

Tanvir was a multifaceted personality, an outstanding playwright, director, critic, poet and actor in Hindi and Urdu. He brought the folk riches of his native Chattisgarh to the attention of the world long before it became an independent state. He took the people’s theatre exclusive to the villages to the city. Some of his famed plays were Agra Bazaar (1954), Charandas Chor (1975), Gaon ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damaad, Kamdeo ka Apna Pasand, Basant Ritu ka Sapna, Moteram ka Satyagrah, Mitti ki Gadi, Zehrili Hawa, Ponga Pandit, Jisne Lahore Nahin Dekha and Visarjan. Basant Ritu ka Sapna, was Habib’s brilliant translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I saw his famous play Agra Bazaar produced in 1954 only in the 1960s. The reason for the hiatus was Habib’s higher education in theatre arts as a Government of India Scholar at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Bristol Old Vic. The restaging of Agra Bazaar in the 1960s earned Habib a permanent place in the theatre world. The play was about the eighteenth century people’s poet Naseer Akbarabadi, a descendant of Mirza Ghalib. Folk singers and street theatre practitioners from Chattisgarh were invited to Delhi for this play. Their high-pitched singing accompanied by the harmonium was reminiscent of S.G. Kittappa’s 5-kattai vocalisation. The actors were selected from the Okhla district and Jamia Millia University. The plays, which switched from Hindi to Chattisgarhi, abounded in expletives, putting Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder to shame with their four-letter words. Their excremental vision extended to urinating on the stage, upsetting the pundits of theatre.

Unkempt hair that had probably never been combed, a pronounced stoop and kurta-pyjamas became the Habib Tanvir trademark. He did not rate his own acting very highly, but did make brief appearances in his plays – as a policeman in Charan Das Chor, for instance. He also did small roles in films like Footpath, Gandhi, Mangal Pandey, Hero Hiralal, Black and White and Prahaar, mostly at the insistence of his friends. A number of theatre groups functioned in the 1950s out of the Theatre Communications building at Connaught Place, where Palika Bazaar is now situated. The Delhi Tamil Sangam, Romesh Mehta’s drama troupe and Natya Sudha, run by Koothapiran’s brother Venkataraman, were all located there. Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre had been allotted a room there on a monthly rent of Rs. 50.


For all that he was steeped in theatre, Habib Tanvir was no novice when it came to worldly matters. He knew when to pull which strings in the political puppet show. Every honour he deserved literally sought him out – the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1969, the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan (2002). A member of the Rajya Sabha for five years from 1972, and a Fellow of the SNA, he received the Kalidas Samman in 1990. He annually received one or more opportunities to take his Naya Theatre troupe overseas, courtesy ICCR. After his death, nonagenarian Zohra Sehgal – who acted in his early plays – and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit paid homage to Tanvir, and a group associated with him has proposed his name for a Bharat Ratna. During her memorial speech, the Chief Minister promised Tanvir’s daughter Nagin all help from the Delhi administration. Earlier, the Delhi government had allotted Habib Tanvir free residential accommodation under the artists’ quota, very close to my residence. All the Chattisgarh actors stayed there, and rehearsals were held there as well. It was like a lunatic asylum, with all manner of visitors coming and going all the time. Habib’s wife Monica Misra was an uncomplaining hostess who supplied them endless cups of tea. Habib lived on tea and tobacco and his wife stood steadfastly by him in all he did. After her death, Nagin took over. With the change of government at Delhi, Habib had to vacate the quarters and move to Bhopal.

Once a friend of mine and I went to the Kamani auditorium in Delhi to watch a rehearsal for Agra Bazaar. Habib Tanvir gave me a knife and said, “Mani, please bring me a small tree for the play. None of us can leave the rehearsal to find one now.” My friend and I went from tree to tree on Copernicus Marg and to the adjoining park looking for a suitable tree, finally deciding on a large branch that looked like a nice tree canopy, cut it, and carried it along the road to the auditorium. Once we installed it on stage and it acted in the play,

I was as pleased as if I had acted myself. I can never forget the trouble Nemichand Jain and Tanvir took to enrol me in the National School of Drama in the early 1960s. They collected the application form for me and made me fill it up. Tanvir would drop in at my place on rare occasions for a late night drink. My bar which closed impartially to all comers at ten pm reopened for him on those occasions. I too would start afresh with my first peg. Critiques of recent plays, gossip, and controversies were invariably exchanged until after two am. Tanvir was a very good conversationalist. It was impossible to win an argument with him. His speech was clear, poetic even, sprinkled with Urdu verses. He never preached from a pedestal, it was something he did not know. He could go down to the level of a Chattisgarhi folk artist and converse. He and Safdar Hashmi were close friends. “He is one of the few friends to have understood me,” he often said. The one thing we had in common was that we were both pipesmokers. Habib then used to smoke Indian tobaccos like Capstan and Wills. When he ran out of stock and couldn’t wait till the Connaught Place shops opened next morning, he would send someone to collect tobacco from me. Only one smoker knows the desperation of another, and I’d send him a chocolate scented Captain Black packet of pipe tobacco. He always showered his thanks on me the next morning.

I more or less lost contact with Habib after I moved to Chennai. I recently bumped into Govind Ram and Devilal, his theatre associates since the beginning of Naya Theatre, while on a visit to Bangalore. They gave me news of him. They recalled how he performed Ponga Pandit for his two friends from

Delhi when the play was banned in Bhopal and the police stopped its staging at the Vidisha theatre there. He staged it after ten pm for his two friends and their chauffeurs! There have always been Habib followers who have deified him as their guide and mentor. To his perennial disciples, it has always been a case of “His life is wasted who has never seen Habib,” to paraphrase the famous line of Asghar Wajahat about the city of Lahore.

The author is a prominent Tamil theatre personality from Delhi. He has also acted in a number of films.Translated from Tamil by V. RAMNARAYAN