Naya Theatre Onstage
By Githa Hariharan
03 November, 2003
The crowd at the JNU City Centre on Ferozeshah
Road was mixed there were passers-by, actors and theatre enthusiasts,
students and teachers, a few toddlers, and some frail old people who
had somehow managed to get to Central Delhi despite the evening traffic.
Once the two actors went onstage a small durrie that
had obviously been laid on many muddy patches before there was
rapt silence, except for the occasional spontaneous burst of laughter.
Watching all this from the side was theatre veteran, Habib Tanvir. Just
before the performance, he spoke to the audience. He said he cannot
imagine a more compact, effective drama form than the one we were going
to see; and, he said, with quiet conviction, that he could not see anything
in the play that should attract censorship.
Watching the play,
it was not the vexed issue of censorship that was uppermost in my mind.
It was the realization of a rare gift we have: an artist who selects
the best of our traditional heritage and puts it to use in our own times,
to take on our modern cultural needs, problems and questions. Over the
years, this is what Habib Tanvir and his Naya Theatre have done. Habib
Saabs plays have brought together a robust rural voice and a modern
worldview, and he has arrived at this point through years of learning
and honing his craft. From the early Agra Bazaar to the renowned and
evergreen Mitti ki Gaadi, his plays have celebrated the language, humour,
songs and stories of the Chattisgarhi peasants and tribals.
The result has been
a wonderful vitality, to which Habib Saab has added his own unique modern
Indian perspective. This means the India of his plays or the
world of his plays is not romanticized; or parochial; or bigoted;
or complacent; or satisfied with easy answers and labels. Whether the
heart of the play is an idea, a historical episode, or certain cultural
practices and institutions, its overwhelming thrust is to question,
and to do this making use of simple, direct, energetic rural performing
Habib Tanvir recently
turned eighty. There have been many tributes to his contributions to
Indian theatre, and to his continuing work to strengthen the vital link
between the theatre and real life; between the people on stage and those
living in contemporary Indian society. The tributes are no more than
what Habib Saab and his Naya Theatre deserve. It seems only a natural
and logical response to admire and learn from such an artist
someone who has helped us understand our strengths and terrible pitfalls,
in the most direct and lively manner possible. Indeed, this has been
the response to his plays, not just in cities in India and elsewhere,
but also in the rural India his plays draw their inspiration and energy
But there has also
been another sort of reaction from some rather predictable quarters.
Imagine the scene: the auditorium is full, and there is the usual air
of anticipation that surrounds you just before a play begins. The Naya
Theatre is about to perform two of their much-loved plays, Jamadarin
urf Ponga Pandit and Lahore. Then one man in the audience gets up and
raises his voice. He objects to the plays the audience is waiting to
see. The man has seventeen supporters in the large audience. What happens
next? Surely the little group of hecklers will be shown the door so
that the play can go on? This is what should happen. But it doesnt.
Instead, under the watchful eyes of the district collector, the police
escort the audience out of the auditorium to protect them
from seeing the plays. The actors perform to an empty auditorium.
scene is just one of those that have occurred in the last few months.
Like their colleagues in the preceding scene, the goons of the RSS-VHP-Bajrang
Dal-BJP ilk have also displayed their love for living Indian culture
by throwing rotten eggs and chairs on the stage; by slogan-shouting
during performances; by cutting power-supply to the auditorium; and
by forcing audiences into leaving, or performances into being cancelled.
It is as if our acultural fundoos have taken it upon themselves to illustrate
that the bigotry Habib Saabs plays meet head-on is only too real.
Given their passionate interest in culture, the attackers have not even
seen the plays they are attacking. On being questioned, some of them
have come up with reasons such as a jamadarin being shown striking
a Brahmin in the play, Ponga Pandit. This is a direct attack
on our sanskriti. Or: a man is shown entering a temple with
his shoes on. Or: a pandit should not be called a fraud
(ponga). Obviously, these self-appointed theatre critics do not
know that we cannot write a play or a poem or a film or a novel with
set rules about characters, action or ideas and beliefs. Even worse
is the implication that Muslim artists should only portray
and criticize the Muslim thread of our complex social fabric.
The play Ponga Pandit
is accused of being no prizes for guessing the charge
anti-Hindu. The play is critical, but not of Hinduism. What it does
take on, with its combination of pure fun and social incisiveness, are
aspects of our society that need critiquing as often as possible, and
from as many points of view as possible. The caste system; superstition;
priest craft; Brahmanism; and untouchability. Any self-respecting Hindu
would be indignant if told that this is what constitutes Hinduism.
As always with instances
of cultural vandalism, the timing is important. The play is by no means
a new one that has instantly given offence. Two Chattisgarhi actors,
Sukhram and Sitaram, put the play together in the Thirties, and since
then, the play has been performed by generations of rural actors. Habib
Tanvirs Naya Theatre, in fact, inherited the play
from the rural actors who joined the troupe. Naya Theatre has been staging
the play since the Sixties, and all over the country. No one found it
objectionable or called it anti-Hindu all these years. What
then has happened to the play since 1992 to make it offensive? Could
it be that those who pulled down the Babri Masjid have since been looking
for more and more victims in our shared cultural life to demolish?
Every new attack
on the already shrinking spaces of our cultural practitioners restricts
and falsifies their art. Equally, it deprives the right of our people
to information, ideas, debate in short, a vigorous, dynamic culture,
culture that is not a static thing, a statue or a building to be worshipped;
but alive, evolving, and always true to the questioning, seeking human
spirit. So the most obvious issue at stake is not just the artists
right to create and perform; but also the audiences right to benefit
from this creative performance. We, as fellow-citizens of Habib Tanvir,
must take on his attackers in our work, on the stage, in the media,
and on the streets. And we must do this in a voice as bold and powerful
as that of Habib Tanvirs plays.