From 'Pyarey Mama' to Habib Tanvir: A Personal Tribute

Tanvir, who died in June 2009, would have been 93 today. In this piece, Javed Malick, an academic and known theatre scholar, remembers him as family.

Habib Tanvir. Courtesy: Javed Malick

Habib Tanvir. Courtesy: Javed Malick

To the world he was Habib Tanvir, a public figure of national importance. But we, my sisters and I, called him pyarey mama (lovely uncle). Many who did not know him well enough might have thought that Pyarey was his name. The fact, however, is that we called him pyarey mama because he was a major focus of our love and devotion for as long as I can remember. It is possible that an unconscious urge prompted us to make an open declaration of our love (pyar) for him each time we referred to or addressed him. It was perhaps I, the eldest of the siblings, who started it but it soon became a tradition in the family such that not only my sisters and I but all the other children in the extended family and the neighbourhood called him that.

In retrospect, this overwhelming expression of love and attachment for him seems somewhat puzzling. For, pyarey mama was the younger of our two maternal uncles. The elder one, Zaheer Ahmed Khan, whom we simply called badey mama, was older than my mother who herself was several years pyarey mama’s senior. Badey mama stayed with my grandparents and khala (who was the youngest of my maternal aunts). It was badey mama who we were very close to. He was very fond of my mother and loved us (the children) intensely. He spent a lot of time with us. He played with us, told us stories, bought us candy, took us out, carried us on his shoulders to show us the rath yatra and muharram processions. He knew by heart a lot of humorous verses by sundry poets and recited them to amuse us. We particularly enjoyed the verses with scatological references, which he knew in abundance. He also had a keen interest in our growth and education.

On the other hand we hardly knew pyarey mama at that time, except as a distant and charismatic figure who inspired in us a mixture of love, devotion and awe. He was virtually the VVIP of the family. He had left Raipur before I was born. During the first years of our life, we, the children, had only occasional interaction with this absentee, but fiercely loved, uncle. Even during his visits to the family, he seemed distant – usually too preoccupied with weightier matter to reach out to us. He was either out visiting friends or cloistered in his room upstairs with his books and papers. I think it was partly this sense of his inaccessibility which had created a kind of mystique around him. We were forever eager to attract his attention. In order to endear ourselves to him, we vied with one another whenever he needed something brought to him from another part of the house. We would jump with joy if he so much as just smiled at us.

In our childlike attachment to him we often became very possessive and did not like to share him with anyone else. Once, during my adolescent days we noticed that a distant cousin of ours, who was a couple of years older than me, would visit pyarey mama a bit too often. This cousin had a moderately good singing voice and knew a number of Chhattisgarhi folk songs. Pyarey mama, who at that time was already seriously involved with folk music of the region, would get him to sing those songs and compare them with the versions that he had heard elsewhere. We resented this closeness between them. He was, after all, our uncle and our distant cousin had no right to get that close to him. So, overcome by jealousy, one day, I and my sisters, aided by a young domestic help, cornered the cousin while he was on his way to visit pyarey mama and gave him a thrashing.

Such occasions of pyarey mama’s actual physical presence in our midst were very rare and usually very short. Nonetheless, he occupied a huge and central place in the family’s emotional landscape. The long gaps in between his much fussed over visits were filled with talks of him. He was usually the subject of conversation within the family as well as with visiting relatives and acquaintances. During my early years he was in Bombay exploring, as I now know, various career possibilities. He was trying out a career in cinema as an actor and as a radio journalist. He became actively involved with left wing politics and joined the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association and Progressive Writers’ Association, and wrote poetry of revolutionary import. My khala remembered a number of these poems and often sang or recited them.

Pyarey mama also entered our early consciousness through photographs and letters from distant places. The arrival of these letters was invariably the cause of a great deal of commotion and excitement in the family. Each letter passed from hand to hand, and was read and re-read for several days, with each word and sentence being discussed and mulled over. The aura surrounding Pyarey mama was further intensified by his photographs – for example, as a dapper young man in a tweed jacket and tie, sitting in the A.I.R. recording studios in Bombay; or standing next to Balraj Sahni costumed as a plantation worker in K.A. Abbas’s film Raahi; or looking like a street goonda in a striped T-shirt holding a knife ready to attack Dilip Kumar in the film Footpath. Then some years later when he went to England, there were those lovely picture postcards from, say, aboard the P&O ship and from what, to my young mind, sounded like mysterious places in a fairy
land – Cairo, Aden, Berlin, Budapest, Moscow.

Habib Tanveer on (All India Radio) AIR. Courtsey: Nageen Tanveer/Naya Theatre

Habib Tanvir on (All India Radio) AIR. Courtsey: Nageen Tanvir/Naya Theatre

In India (as also perhaps elsewhere) anyone however remotely connected with the cinema – more recently the TV – becomes an instant celebrity. This is so in great metropolitan cities and it is even more so in small provincial towns. This was equally true some six decades ago (which is the period I am talking about here). Raipur then was a small mofussil town on the Bombay Howrah railway line. Everyone knew everyone else and this acquaintance often went back generations. Imagine the excitement in such a place when one of its own boys makes it to the big screen. So, Habib Tanvir was not just a VIP for the family but also for the town. Every time there was a film featuring him, no matter how short and marginal his role, it created a veritable public stir and became the talk of the whole town.

Once, when I was about six or seven years old, we learnt that there was a Hindi movie which was reported to have Pyarey mama in it. My grandmother took my sisters and me to the cinema hall one evening to watch her son. On reaching there we discovered that the house was full. However, tickets were available in the black market for twice or thrice the price. Refusing to patronise the black market, my grandmother insisted on being allowed in without tickets, creating quite a scene. Finally, the manager was called in to deal with the situation. He wanted to know why she thought she had a right to watch the film without a ticket. My grandmother’s simple and totally disarming answer was “Because my son is acting in it.” I do not know if it was because the answer amused him or because he was actually persuaded by the argument, but we were allowed to watch the film. Ironically, the film (I think it was called Hulchul, a typical tearjerker made by Gemini Studios) did not have pyarey mama in it at all. Instead, he featured for a fraction of a minute in a short commercial film advertising Sunlight soap that was screened before the actual movie.


It was only when I moved to Delhi for my university education that I began to see pyarey mama as a real person. Away from his doting family and almost worshipful Raipurians, he was no longer a pampered son, or a pampered brother, or a virtually deified uncle, but an artist still struggling to make a mark. This was during the early 1960s. Pyarey mama and mami (Moneeka) lived in a modest one bedroom flat in the Western Extension Area of Karol Bagh on the upper floor of a two-storied building. For a few years, after finishing my first college degree, I lived in the barsati on the terrace above their flat. It was during these years that I came to know them more intimately and to better appreciate the nature of their work in the theatre. This was the period when the Naya Theatre was still struggling to come out of its infancy and they were working hard to help it find its feet.

At the time I could not quite fathom the full significance of pyarey mama’s work. I was still young and immature, and did not really comprehend what exactly it was that he was trying to achieve, why he was bringing obscure and – to my mind at that time – obscurantist forms (like the temple rituals) from remote corners of Chhattisgarh to present them before Delhi audiences. I did not understand and often felt very embarrassed by the way he and mami worked so hard to produce plays which usually failed to attract an audience. It was only later that I began to make sense of what Habib Tanvir (as I had started to call him by then in all my written or spoken public utterances) was all about.

This was a hard period for Habib and Moneeka. They were working painstakingly to make Naya Theatre a success . Alongside this, was the struggle for livelihood. They were obliged to take up other assignments in order to earn their living. Among other things, they conducted workshops and produced plays with amateur groups and college students. Tanvir also wrote film and TV reviews for local newspapers and magazines. I now see it as his exploratory period in theatre – a period when he was groping but not in total darkness. I say this because I now know that during this period Tanvir knew exactly what it was that he was searching for but was not yet quite clear about how to find it.

Tanvir and Moneeka Misra. Courtesy: Nageen Tanvir/Naya Theatre

Tanvir and Moneeka Misra. Courtesy: Nageen Tanvir/Naya Theatre

After years of groping and experimenting, Tanvir did find what he was looking for an indigenous but also contemporary performance idiom for his theatre. In popular mind the name of Habib Tanvir is inextricably linked with the idea of the folk and his theatre is often mistaken to be a variety of folk drama. It is understandable why this is so. Tanvir worked almost exclusively with village actors who brought with them their traditional style of acting. In fact, it was precisely the electrifying power and enthralling quality of their performance which attracted Tanvir to them and made him develop his unique style of theatre in partnership with them. His productions not only used traditional performers but also made abundant use of folk music and musicians. Moreover, the language of his plays was in large part the folk dialect of Chhattisgarh. In short, his work represented an unmistakable proximity to the traditions of folk performance in India in general and in Chhattisgarh in particular.

However, what people often failed to remember or recognise was that, besides its indebtedness to traditional forms and conventions, there was another, and equally significant, current that ran through all of Tanvir’s work, namely, the current of a robustly democratic and contemporary consciousness. This consciousness, which was the result of his lifelong and strong though informal association with the left-wing politics, could be witnessed in all his plays from the early Agra Bazaar to his last poduction Rajrakt. In other words, his stage creations, their strong and unmistakable folk flavour notwithstanding, did not offer traditional folk drama in its pure or unmediated form but represented a specific and distinctively Indian version of contemporary theatre.

Tanvir’s social consciousness was tempered in the crucible of radical politics. This radical influence of his youth never left him. The fact that, Tanvir remained not only politically conscious but also
politically involved throughout his life can be most clearly evidenced in what I would describe as his activist work in the theatre. Works like Ponga Pandit, Zehreli Hawa, Sadak, Kushtia ka Chaprasi and even the controversial Indira Loksabha are examples of how Tanvir used his art as a weapon in order to intervene in some immediate socio-political situation or movement.

These two dimensions of Tanvir’s work – his predilection for the folk, and his modern and democratic consciousness – are not two separate currents or aspects of his theatre. On the contrary, they are closely interconnected or intertwined, and defining strands in the colorful and vibrant tapestry of his work. He combined and interwove them into a style of theatre which was unique in the sense that it neither followed the European model nor did it blindly copy any traditional Indian form. His approach to folk cultural forms was niether revivalist nor antiquarian. He did not

Habib Tanvir as the Rajpurohit in his signature play, Charandas Chor, Modinagar, Rajasthan, October 2002. Credit: Sudhanva Deshpande/Indian Cultural Forum

Habib Tanvir as the Rajpurohit in his signature play, Charandas Chor, Modinagar, Rajasthan, October 2002. Credit: Sudhanva Deshpande/Indian Cultural Forum

romanticise them. He knew quite well the debasement and devitalisation that the traditional forms had suffered due to rapid urbanisation and the homogenising influence of films and TV. He was also aware of the severe ideological limitations underlying the simple approach to issues and problems that one found in traditional forms or folk culture. However, this did not prevent him from recognizing that there were skills and energies that still existed in our folk traditions and could be harnessed to forge a new, truly indigenous performance idiom. So, what he did was to draw upon these energies and strengths of traditional performances in order to fashion an artistically exciting and cognitively enriching kind of theatre which was specifically contemporary or non-traditional
in both its outlook and its form – that is to say, in what it said and even in how it said it.

In doing this, Tanvir was not only evolving a new style and idiom for his own work. He was also, in some ways, redefining the very concept of modernity, particularly in relation to Indian theatre. He was against the post-colonial project of modernity, which tended to exclude from the focus of its attention large areas and large sections of ordinary Indians who lived outside metropolitan centres. This modernity, he recognised, was flawed. It failed to give adequate attention or importance to India’s regional languages, cultural forms, traditions and lifestyles. In the name of nation and nationality, markers of regional identities were often swept under the carpet and even sought to be bulldozed into one homogenous phenomenon, by establishing large, monolithic, centralised policies and “national” institutions for implementation of those policies.

It is a sad coincidence that Tanvir passed away in the year that the Naya Theatre, which is virtually synonymous with his name, turned 50. Naya Theatre is one of the oldest theatre groups in India – perhaps the oldest of its kind. It is very rare for any theatre group to not only survive for half a century but also remain active, vibrant,and in the forefront of the country’s theatre scene for that long. I do not know of any other Indian theatre group which can rightfully claim this distinction. Also, despite its age – pretty old for a theatre group – Naya Theatre, true to its name, continued to
be new — retaining a freshness, vigour and a uniqueness in its productions. One reason for this was the tremendous amount of commitment and sensitiveness with which they were prepared by pyarey mama.