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Scent of the soil

P. ANIMA

Veteran theatre personalities debate the future of Indian stage post Habib Tanvir.



Taking stock (Clockwise from top left) M.K. Raina, A scene from Habib Tanvir’s “Charandas Chor”, Prasanna, Arvind Gaur and Devendra Raj Ankur.

Habib Tanvir, the legend may be gone, but the legacy lingers on. This past week, renowned players of the theatre fraternity paid tributes to Tanvir and also debated the future of Indian stage. At the symposium, “The Crisis of Indian Theatre &am p; Habib Tanvir” organised by the Sahitya Akademi, playwrights Prasanna, Devendra Raj Ankur, M.K. Raina and Arvind Gaur tried to pin down on what ails Indian theatre.

The four veterans gave different perspectives of Tanvir – the man and the playwright. Together, they also narrowed on the lessons to be learnt from the icon to plug the pitfalls in today’s theatre.

Theatre sans soul is the crisis, believed Kannada playwright Prasanna. “When there is a split between ‘to live’ and ‘to perform’ it is crisis. There has been a gradual switch from theatre being an art of living to entertainment,” said the author of a dozen books. Renowned director Raina too pointed out the travails of making theatre “entertainment.” “Delhi theatre has become too costly for me. None of us can afford a show here,” moaned Raina pointing at the exorbitant rates of auditoriums and the “entertainment tax” levied.

Prasanna pinned the blame also on the collapse of amateur theatre which closed an avenue for protest. “Amateur theatre allowed people from other medium to express their anger and angst directly to the people, especially in the ‘60s. All that is gone,” said a passionate Prasanna.

According to Ankur, former director of the National School of Drama, a crisis existed in the form of theatre, “There is no dearth of content, but in what format should it be put into. The search is for the form of the play,” he said.

If what emerged as a people’s form is in quandary, the society cannot be relieved of blame, believed the practitioners. “Our cultural life is becoming very market-driven,” said Prasanna. Gaur too shared the sentiment, “Crisis in theatre is the crisis of the society.”

The legacy

On the legacy of Tanvir, Prasanna said the legendary playwright was instrumental in breaking the Brahminical hold in theatre. If portrayal in theatre had been largely Brahminical till then, Tanvir’s “Charandas Chor” proved a turning point. “He broke all barriers and started afresh. He may have created an incomplete aesthetic picture, but he broke barriers and created a world where a thief is not a thief,” said Prasanna.

“Habib decided India is one, but Indian culture is not one,” said Prasanna. Small cultures and its distortions fascinated him. “He brought communities from outside to inside,” said Prasanna about Tanvir’s work with communities from Chhattisgarh. By choosing to perform with villagers in villages, Tanvir seems to have directed where the future of theatre lay. According to Prasanna, villages assure an audience for the craft. “Habib taught that you can do theatre at any place, any chauraha, said Prasanna. “Where there are people there is no theatre and where there is theatre there are no people,” Prasanna pointed out the irony.

Simplicity was key to Tanvir’s theatre as he chose to tell people’s tale with actors rooted in the soil. Raina reminded that Tanvir stressed on telling a story and was never carried away by technology. Gaur agreed. “The actor was of chief importance to Habib, but now it is design and technology,” said Gaur.

Ankur, recalled days well-lived on Rs.10 daily allowance during the days of staging Tanvir’s masterpiece “Agra Bazar”. Ankur recollected that Tanvir too went through his phase of experimentation – with English and Parsi theatre and theatre with city dwellers before he settled with Chhattisgarhi theatre.

Raina summed up, Tanvir captured the essence of a culture through his theatre. “He made Fidabai (folk performer from Chhattisgarh) an international actress. The landless, penniless and downtrodden performers were celebrated in his theatre,” said Raina.

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