Speaking Volumes: Tanvir’s Petromax Theatre

(Published in the Business Standard, June 5, 2013)


Though I know that Habib Tanvir’s plays, from Agra Bazaar to Charandas Chor and Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya, were often performed inside the chaste space of auditoriums in Delhi, my memory insists on situating them outside.

The spaces most natural to the late theatre maven and his troupe at the Naya Theatre were the improvised ones: streets, maidans, open-air performances in Chattisgarh, makeshift stages in a park, hammered together by a skilful local carpenter a few minutes before the performance began. It is only on reading his memoirs, freshly translated by Mahmood Farooqui, that you understand why Tanvir’s plays had the smell of Petromax lanterns.

The most complete theatrical biography of Tanvir is to be found in Anjum Katyal’s Towards an Inclusive Theatre, published by Sage.  But while Katyal follows his legacy with her trademark erudition, this Memoir (Penguin/ Viking, translated by Mahmood Farooqui) brings back the man himself. Tanvir writes in an episodic style, each chapter self-contained, carrying a set of sketches or a slice of time. Many of the memoirs written by Indians in the 18th or 19th centuries were laid out in this fashion.

(My late grandmother, who wrote a memoir for her family members, explained that this way of writing came naturally in an age of hand-or-typewriting. It allowed those who did not have the luxury of long periods of writing time, to set down their recollections in short, intense bursts, without fatiguing either memory or wrist muscles.)

Habib Tanvir grew up with theatre all around him, in the air of the narrow-angaaned, bustling homes of Raipur. Impromptu mushairas competed for attention with the drama of a butcher who slaughtered his wife one day, in the galli behind their home.

In the preface, the historian and dastangoi Mahmood Farooqui explains what goes into the best kind of theatrical education. Growing up in Raipur, the son of a “first-generation migrant Pathan from Peshawar who could never speak fluent Urdu”, Tanvir was surrounded by a wealth of languages, dialects and theatre, both off and on the stage. He sang with his mothers and sisters in milads, with the cadences of Urdu poetry brought to him by uncles and aunts.

The first play he saw was Mohabbhat ke Phool, performed by a Parsi theatre company for Durga Puja: “It so captivated me that I have not been able to come out of its spell.” Visiting his sister in Bilaspur, Tanvir heard boys and girls singing dadariya, rhymed couplets posed as questions and answers. “Good dadariya has a compelling force,” writes Tanvir, who had, along with his great theatrical gifts, the great story-teller’s parallel ability to woo women, “and girls are known to elope with their lovers under its spell, therefore it is forbidden to sing it inside the village.”

Cinema came later—first, the bioscope, he recalls, and then films at Babulal Cinema, enlivened by the enthusiastic commentary of the cinema owner. “Abey, why are you sitting around wasting time, embrace her, you wimp. If you can’t do it them make way, I am coming to take your place…” Chunnilal provided a parallel soundtrack, as rich in colour and melodrama as the original.

These cadences are faithfully reproduced. Farooqui’s years as an actor, scholar and translator have given him a keen ear for the cadences of Tanvir’s Urdu, from the use of classical phrases to passages that have a more robust, bazaar swing to them.

Tanvir meant to write his memoirs in three parts, but the project remained unfinished. Brief, economical sketches fill out the later, crowded years of apprenticeship in the theatre and his rapid discovery of forms that suited him best. Balraj Sahni gave him a swift education as an actor: rehearsing till late one night, Tanvir was unable to get into his role as an old man. Until Sahni slapped him and made him do the scene: “I began to cry and began to act amidst sobs.” Sahni said this was the Muscle Memory school of direction.

Years later, as a director himself, Tanvir had to find different ways of directing his Chattisgarhi actors. He had to stop applying his “English training”, to allow them the freedom they were used to on the Nacha stage, with both movement and language, and then there was magic.

Sometimes, the magic came about by accident. When one of his very first plays to be staged in Raipur in the open air, Habib Tanvir was delighted to see that crowds of hundreds had gathered. But then they saw him and started to leave, in hordes. Then he learned that they had come because he’d arrived in a station wagon, holding a briefcase that looked like a doctor’s bag. They thought he was there to give them family planning injections. “We had to send many actors to tell them that there’s no doctor and it’s a play. Then they returned…” As they would, time and time again, to watch his plays for decades, despite the fear of injections.






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