Behind the Scenes

An incomplete memoir of a full life

Habib Tanvir as the constable in a show of Charandas Chor in Delhi, April 1998. COURTESY SUDHANVA DESHPANDE
01 July, 2013

THE MAIN CONTOURS of his life’s story are, by now, fairly well-known.

Habib Tanvir was born circa 1923 in a traditional, religious family. His father was a Pathan from Peshawar. Tanvir went to school at Raipur in the Central Provinces (now Chhattisgarh), and did his BA from Morris College, Nagpur. He spent a year at the Aligarh Muslim University, before shifting to Bombay, where he pursued an acting career in films. Here he was drawn to leftist ideas through the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) and the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). He also did a variety of odd jobs.

Eventually, he forsook his film career and moved to Delhi. In 1954, he created his first classic, Agra Bazar, on the life and times of the 19th-century plebeian Urdu poet, Nazir Akbarabadi. He incorporated the villagers of Okhla into the play, an experiment he was to continue in a sustained manner later.

Tanvir left for England in 1955 to train in theatre, gave up his training without completing it, and roamed around Europe. He spent about 8 months in Berlin, watching the plays of Bertolt Brecht (who had just died) at the Berliner Ensemble.

Returning to India, he established his own professional theatre company, Naya Theatre, in 1959, along with his future wife, Moneeka Misra, herself a trained theatre director. He would run it for 50 years. Naya Theatre was a unique company, predominantly composed of rural, unlettered actors from Chhattisgarh, who were steeped in traditional performance forms such as the Nacha. But Tanvir was not interested in the rural forms per se. It was the actors who fascinated him—uninhibited, energetic, with riveting stage presence, highly skilled, and capable of great subtlety.

Tanvir’s was not a theatre of the exotic. It celebrated the cultures of the plebeian (in plays such as Gaon ke Naon Sasural, Mor Naon Damand), critiqued the model of so-called ‘development’ which destroyed the lives and cultures of the poorest tribals (Hirma ki Amar Kahani and Sadak), posed questions of enormous philosophical depth (as in Dekh Rahein Hain Nain, a tale of a king who gives up his kingdom and riches, eventually becoming a chandal, burner of corpses, in his search for a vocation that would do no harm to another human being). He wrote his own plays, directed modern texts by writers such as Shankar Shesh, Asghar Wajahat, Safdar Hashmi and Rahul Varma, expertly translated Molière, Shakespeare and Brecht, tackled the Sanskrit classics, and did short, interventionist, political pieces. In short, he created an extraordinarily vibrant, philosophically profound, politically engaging, modern theatre which, moreover, was also thoroughly entertaining.

Perhaps his best-known play is Charandas Chor (1975), the deceptively simple tale of a thief who vows never to lie, even at the cost of his life. The play won the Fringe First award at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1982, and went on to play on London’s West End.

Habib Tanvir as the Rajpurohit in a show of Charandas Chor in Modinagar, Rajasthan, October 2002. COURTESY SUDHANVA DESHPANDE

In 1988, he collaborated with Safdar Hashmi, the young communist theatre activist, to produce Moteram ka Satyagraha, based on a Munshi Premchand story. Hashmi’s killing, barely six months later, while performing a street play in support of industrial workers, was a key moment in Tanvir’s later life, leading to some of his most explicitly political works. This was also the time when he faced intermittent persecution from the Hindu Right, mainly for Ponga Pandit, a traditional Nacha farce against untouchability, neither written nor directed by Tanvir, but presented by him through the Naya Theatre.

In 1972, Habib Tanvir was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. He received several awards and honours, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and later Fellowship, Kalidas Samman, and the Padma Bhushan, and was awarded honorary doctorates by several universities.

He acted in some movies later in life, including Sudhir Mishra’s Yeh Voh Manzil Toh Nahi, Nana Patekar’s Prahaar, Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey, and Subhash Ghai’s Black and White.

Moneeka died in 2005 and Habib in 2009. Their daughter, Nageen, runs the company now. That’s the biodata of a theatre legend. What was the life of the person?

MOST MEN—AND YES, men more than women—write memoirs to massage their egos. Men whose moment has passed strive, through their memoirs, to correct the attention deficit. Shocking revelations and exposés are often the stock in trade of such memoirs, especially if large advances are involved. Some are frauds—the business tycoon who wants us to believe that his empire was built on honesty, hard work and genius; the sportsperson who vigorously denies doping; the diva who pretends that the only seductive thing about her was her singing; the phony memoirist who invents a past of drugs, abuse and crime. Then there are the underdog’s memoirs—some shine a light on society’s underbelly and injustices, while others bathe the writer in a halo for having succeeded where others failed.


Habib Tanvir’s memoirs, however, reveal a storyteller who delights in the mundane, and in recreating and evoking a past era in wonderful, idiosyncratic detail. The memoirs are also a confession. When Tanvir began writing them, in 2004, he was 81. Even though his English was superb, he wrote in Hindustani, a language over which he had absolute mastery, in the Urdu script, in which he wrote fastest and most effortlessly. His language was both simple and elegant, and Farooqui’s translation does an admirable job of capturing its rhythm and cadence. He had planned to write three volumes; the work was to be called ‘Matmaili Chadariya’ (Dusty Sheet, a title that nods at Kabir), and he promised he would hold nothing back. In the end, he abandoned the title, preferring the plain ‘Memoirs’, but stuck to the three-volume plan, even though it was clear to everybody around him that he would be lucky to finish the first. (Eventually, he was able to complete the first volume and fragments of the second. The third remained unwritten.) And while he writes with disarming honesty—he apologises to the progeny of the people he writes about in advance because, as the translator Mahmood Farooqui says, “he writes . . .with a candour that is sometimes unbelievable, even to a reader forty years removed from the event”—he was simply unable to write the full story because it hurt so much.

ON THE EVIDENCE OF HIS MEMOIRS, Habib Tanvir’s childhood was fairly carefree and happy. His family was large and full of unique characters. Tanvir’s friends will recall many of the incidents narrated in the memoirs. He was a master raconteur, delighting his audience with inimitable tales told in a rich and sonorous voice, full of humour and good cheer, and with a twinkle in his eye.

Habib Tanvir in his Bhopal home, June 2007. COURTESY SUDHANVA DESHPANDE

To have known Habib Tanvir was to have known an aesthete. He was fascinated by beauty: in women, food, literature, architecture, clothes, language, in the grand and in the mundane. He pursued it, worshipped at its altar, and strove to create it in his own work as a playwright, lyricist, director, actor, composer and poet. His life, though, was as much about suffering for beauty as it was about striving for it.

All his life, Tanvir pursued a singular vision of the theatre, and he created something no one before him had imagined. In the early years, the 1940s and early 1950s, it befuddled even his closest friends. Dina Gandhi (later Pathak), his leader at IPTA, ex-lover and lifelong friend, used to say that when Tanvir spoke about creating a modern theatre taking as his inspiration the music and dance of unlettered rural folk, nobody understood, but he spoke with such passion and persuasion that it was impossible to contradict him. And because he was incredibly stubborn, he realised his vision, even though he had to undergo great financial and artistic struggles for it.

His memoirs, however, are not about his theatre, concluding as they do in the mid-1950s, before he came into his own as a playwright-director. Theatre does figure in these pages, but incidentally. Other themes run through them.

Characters. Habib Tanvir observed people closely and had the uncanny ability to describe a person in a few deft strokes. His memoirs are full of delightful characters, especially from his childhood, such as his uncles—Bandooq-waale Mamu, the policeman, often had to arrest his own brother, the nationalist Kale Mamu. Or Chunnilal, of Raipur’s Babulal Cinema, who screened silent films in a huge circus-like tent and who bellowed out an extempore commentary alongside so funny and so vulgar that one could not be sure whether the audience came to watch the film or hear his commentary. Or Joseph Cariappa Hilary who, Tanvir was convinced, could not have been a criminal because he had suffered in love and could weep like a child about it—till, in the end, he was arrested for scams, frauds and robberies. Or the posh Banne Bhai—the Marxist writer Sajjad Zahir—who once kissed Moneeka in a taxi and when she resisted, saying she loved Tanvir, withdrew immediately with a quick, sophisticated “Pardon” in French. Or the poet Josh Malihabadi who, punctiliously every evening at 6.30, would say “Achha, ab hum jaaithain”, always in Awadhi, before being transported to another world, via his two carefully measured pegs, even in full company. Even if it had nothing else to commend it, the book would be worth reading just for the characters Tanvir describes.

Habib Tanvir at a rehearsal in Bhopal of Zahreeli Hawa, a play by Rahul Varma on the Bhopal gas tragedy, 2003. COURTESY SUDHANVA DESHPANDE

Food. Habib Tanvir was a gourmet. He liked all kinds of food, from the simplest to the most delectable, but he was a moderate eater, who savoured flavours and textures and tastes. His memoirs are dotted with references to food. It is as if he is unable to describe a person without telling us what sort of food he cooked or ate. He was also fond of his two drinks every evening. He usually drank rum, which he carried in the small bottles given on international flights, but if you had whiskey, he’d drink that, keeping his rum in reserve for the next day. He loved to smoke, and he’d light his pipe the first thing in the morning. There was virtually no one who could prevent him from smoking. I was once with him in Frankfurt, where the management of the theatre deputed an unfortunate soul to follow Tanvir with a small bucket of water. That way, the theatre could allow him to smoke without contravening the fire regulations. But this, it was emphasised, was a unique exception, only for ‘the maestro’.

Poetry. While he was not a man to nurse regrets, my guess is that the only artistic regret that Tanvir had at the end of his life was that he was under-appreciated as a poet. He composed poetry throughout his life, and was collecting his poems for publication when he died. In the memoirs, poets and poetry are constantly foregrounded. This was the time when poets were, as Farooqui puts it, rock stars. Ali Sardar Jaffri, Josh Malihabadi, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra, and a host of others were Tanvir’s friends, and the memoirs are a valuable historical record of the period from the 1930s to the 1950s when modern Urdu poetry soared, breaking moulds, fashioning others, disrupting traditions, creating others.

Language. To be in rehearsal under Tanvir’s direction was to be treated to an ongoing class in linguistics. Words, phrases and ways of putting things fascinated him endlessly. His favourite examples were of the workers in the ammunition factory in Bombay where he worked during World War II, who used “tapiya” and “batamiya” for top and bottom of crates, or the railway coolies calling an air-conditioned car a “thandi gadi”. He felt that languages which the elites consider ‘sub-standard’—sometimes called dialects—are the true repositories of our culture and traditions. The medieval saints—Kabir, Meera, Raidas—composed in these ‘sub-standard’ languages. The standard form of any language would simply dry up if it were not fed constantly by the many streams of these ‘sub-standard’ languages. He found the dialects incredibly “sweet but poverty-ridden”. When I once told him that the musicologist Ashok Ranade argued that the standard form of a language is what results when the music is sucked out of the dialect, he was delighted and kept repeating this for weeks to anyone who cared to listen.

Politics. Though he never became a member of the Communist Party, Habib Tanvir was a leftist throughout his life. In the 1940s, through the IPTA and PWA, he was introduced to Marxist concepts and a number of communists made a deep impact on him, including Comrade Mushtaq of Raipur, Comrade Usman of Aligarh, and, later, PC Joshi, the culturally enlightened General Secretary of the Communist Party of India. He talks about how the IPTA actor Balraj Sahni taught him to use “muscle memory” to act; he describes the creative ferment and excitement of IPTA rehearsals in Bombay where he encountered singers like Amar Sheikh, who had “fire in his throat” and Annabhau Sathe, who could “win over a gathering of thousands in a second”; and he recalls an amazing performance, Shantidoot Kamgar (The Working Class, Harbinger of Peace), where the actors, dressed as workers, would put up a poster at a mill gate as the shift changed, instigate an argument around it, and, when a sufficient number of workers had gathered, end with a speech. As a historical record of the Left cultural movement of the 1940s, the memoirs are a treat.

Sex. The memoirs conclude around 1954 when Tanvir, aged 31, migrates to Delhi after spending nearly a decade in Bombay. He has had a range of sexual experiences by then such as watching a woman bathe, experiencing rape, and spending a night with a sex worker. And then, there are his many loves, about whom he speaks with fondness and vulnerability, without a hint of braggadocio. (Moneeka used to tell a hilarious story: because of Tanvir, she lost her job in the Hindustani Theatre. They agreed to meet to discuss this. She wanted to fight with him, but couldn’t, because he planted a kiss smack on her mouth. Habib narrates the same story in the memoirs, though, as if out of modesty, he omits the kiss.) He neither boasts, nor seeks sympathy, nor offers justifications. He was a student of human behaviour, his own as much as anyone else’s.

THE TANVIR HOUSEHOLD WAS A JOYOUS ONE. I became a regular visitor to their home in Delhi’s Ber Sarai in 1988, when he was directing a play for Jana Natya Manch. This was based on a Premchand story and the first draft was written by Safdar Hashmi. As I watched Safdar churn out scenes and songs, I was amazed at his creativity and imagination. A single sentence in Premchand’s story became a full scene in Safdar’s hand. But then when Habib sa’ab took over the script, I was flabbergasted. Every hint of humour in Safdar’s script was expanded into a full comic situation and then, during rehearsals on the floor, the scenes became funnier and madder still. But equally, at the denouement, where Safdar had originally expanded the Premchand scene, Habib sa’ab cut away the flab and restored it to the original with a pithy “Brevity, Safdar.”

The joy of working on the play, it seemed to me, spilled over into the Tanvir household. I was wrong, of course. It was Habib sa’ab and Moneekadi’s joy that suffused our play—and indeed, suffuses these memoirs. Right to the end of her life, Moneekadi would say, laughing, and with a twinkle in her eye, “It’s been a hard life, lekin mazaa bahut ayaa. This man Habib, you see, is a crazy fellow.” It was as if the phrase ‘joie de vivre’ was invented for them.

Tanvir could be witheringly funny—or simply withering—about people he considered fools, but that was about their intellect, attitudes or behavior, not their actions. This is a delicate line to draw, to be sure, and I don’t know if he would put it this way, but what struck me repeatedly over the years was his almost Zen-like acceptance of the choices people made. When an actor in his mandali left him after creating a sickening public scene, in front of a number of strangers at a theatre festival, I went to him livid and frothing at the mouth. He held my hand, smiled gently, and said, “There must be some reason.”

FOR LONG, it was not well known that Tanvir had two daughters—Nageen, born of his wife Moneeka, and Anna, seven months older than Nageen, born of Jill, one of the many loves in his life before and during his marriage to Moneeka. Anna and Nageen are both singers. It was his fondest hope to see them perform together, and he was able to organise a joint concert in Dehradun after Moneeka died. In the memoirs he gives his relationship with Anna its due sanctity and respect.

Where the memoirs stumble is when he writes about Moneeka, his partner and his support. In intimate moments, he would hold her hand and whisper gently, “Darling”. That touch and that word contained an ocean of emotion. When she died in 2005, he was distraught. He had wronged her, the one true love of his life, and he had wronged her repeatedly over 45 years. What was gone was gone, and could hardly be rectified. The act of writing his memoirs was perhaps a way of publicly acknowledging his actions, and her fortitude. This is what gives them the feel of a confession, even though, in the absence of the subsequent volumes, the confession remains incomplete.

Moneeka’s death, unexpected as it was, foreclosed the possibility of a reprieve. It was heart-wrenching. He would cry like a baby at the very mention of her name. He would freeze with grief when he tried to write about her. In the end he did manage to write something but it is the weakest chapter of the book, meandering and badly structured. Many readers however are unlikely to notice this, partly because by the time they arrive at this chapter, they will already have been treated to a feast throughout the memoirs, and partly because his style, simple and straightforward, manages to camouflage his debilitating sorrow.

Habib Tanvir lived a full life of great joy, simplicity, and unbounded creativity, but a life also of hardship and some sorrow. His memoirs are true to his life. Of how many memoirs can one say this?