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Hope and home for theatre...

ANJANA RAJAN speaks to Habib Tanvir who believes that there is more to theatre than just Hindi or Delhi-centric presentations... .



Habib Tanvir... presenting stimulating theatre.

THE GROUNDS of Lady Shri Ram College in South Delhi are abuzz as the late afternoon sun slants down on the young women filing out of classes and heading home. Some however, head for the college auditorium, where the Bhopal-based Naya Theatre company is preparing to present its latest production, "Zahreeli Hawa" - a play by Rahul Varma, translated and directed by celebrated theatre director Habib Tanvir. Inside the auditorium, the air is calm. Habib Tanvir sits on the stage noting sound cues with a team member. Scattered among the rows of seats are the actors and singers - the Chhattisgarhi artistes that make the Naya Theatre unique as well as other members of the international cast that has got together for this production about the Bhopal gas tragedy. While some are seated quietly, others are to be found stretched on the ground asleep, or perhaps they are practicing shavasan, yogic relaxation. There is none of the panic or noise associated with the preparations for a stage show. No shouted instructions, no heavy stage props carelessly scraped across the stage, no voices raised in loud conversation.

Perhaps it is the effect of the association of the Tanvir family with the late Yoga guru and theatre personality Pandit Shambhu Nath, perhaps it is merely a calm born of knowing your stuff, believing in the message you are presenting rather than thinking of it as a performance. That would be the effect of the directors - Habib Tanvir and his wife Monica - who know the value of theatre as a medium to raise social awareness. Then again, it could be the effect of that characteristic pipe, whose leisurely flame rises softly from the bowl till the tobacco smoulders. The curlicues of smoke waft upwards, matching the impeccable English accent of the man responsible for making the Chhattisgarhi dialect an international theatre language.

Thought-provoking theatre is what Habib Tanvir believes in. "It should be stimulating, raise some pertinent questions, even if they are the commonest of questions." He mentions the status of women, dowry, arranged marriage, as issues that are taken for granted until the public is stirred to think about them. The questions raised may not be answered in the play, they may be left open. Of course, he adds, the thought provoking character of theatre should not take away from its artistic quality. "I am not talking about preachiness," he qualifies.

Liberalisation and globalisation are ruining our culture, he believes. They are "the bane of our civilisation", he adds.

Habib Tanvir is a veteran who has seen India's theatre scene grow since Independence. It was with great enthusiasm that institutions such as the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the National School of Drama and the various state Akademis were established to promote the theatre arts in India. One of the underlying hopes behind these institutions was that India would develop a national theatre. Today, with a multiplicity of groups struggling to keep the show going - what with the competition from films, television, the pressures of earning a living, a certain social laziness and sheer bad taste - it is doubtful whether we are at all nearer the goal of a national theatre. And in a country criss-crossed with linguistic and cultural diversity, is the term national relevant at all?

Habib Tanvir points out that there is a certain "Hindi imperialism" in the belief that if theatre is done in Hindi and in Delhi, it is national theatre. "That is bunk. It is a multicultural and multilingual society and as far as theatre is concerned it must be multilingual." Referring to notions such as national theatre as "much abused words," he states, "we shouldn't run after these terminologies which are fast turning to dust."

On the economic viability of theatre companies he admits, "Mine is managing well, and Rathan Thiyam's is managing well. But by and large they are not. That should not discourage us," and points out that all over the world theatre companies are subsidised by the State. "Culture is required to be fed and nourished by the State. The standards are in our hands." He warns that the State or sponsoring bodies should not try to influence quality or type of work. Their attitude should be `neki kar, kuein mein dal.

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