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Keeping Habib Tanvir’s
Naya Theatre Onstage

By Githa Hariharan

The Telegraph
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 Saab’s 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 traditions.

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 from.

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 doesn’t. 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.

This incredible 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 Saab’s 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 Tanvir’s 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 artist’s right to create and perform; but also the audience’s 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 Tanvir’s plays.