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Eminent playwright Habib Tanvir dies at 86

Tuesday, June 09, 2009 12:14:44 PM, Agencies


Habib Tanvir

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Bhopal: Habib Tanvir, one of India’s greatest dramatists,  died on Monday at the age of 85. He died of pneumonia and pulmonary complications. His daughter Nageen was at his bedside when the end came.


The theatre legend was admitted to the National Hospital here three weeks back after he complained of breathing problems and was put on a ventilator, family sources said.


A patrician figure inseparable from his pipe, Tanvir was revered by the people attached to Theatre world over for blending theatre, folk and poetry in his works, leaving an indelible mark on the minds of the audience.


Born on September 1, 1923 at Raipur, Habib Tanvir passed his matriculation from Laurie Municipal High School, Raipur and completed his BA from Morris College Nagpur in 1944. After pursuing his Masters degree for a year at Aligarh Mulsim University, Tanvir moved to Bombay and joined All India Radio (AIR) Bombay as a producer in 1945. A multi-faceted personality, Habib Ahmed Khan adopted the pen-name 'Tanvir' when he began writing poetry at an early age.


He also joined the Progressive Writers' Association (PWA) and became an integral part of Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) as an actor. Later, when most prominent IPTA members were imprisoned for opposing the British rule, he was asked to take over the organisation.


In 1955, Habib moved to England where he trained in Acting at Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and in Direction at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (1956). For the next two years, he traveled through Europe, watching various theatre activities.  One of the highlights of this period, was his eight-month stay in Berlin in 1956, during which he got to see several plays of Bertolt Brecht, produced by Berliner Ensemble, just a few months after Brecht's death. 


This proved to a lasting influence on him, as in the coming years, he also used local idioms in his plays, to express trans-cultural tales and ideologies. This gave rise to a "theatre of roots", which was marked by an utter simplicity in style, presentation and technique, yet remaining eloquent and powerfully experiential.


A deeply inspired Habib returned to India in 1958 and took directing full-time, founded Naya Theatre in 1959 and immersed himself in drama. His troupe would live and work in a large bungalow and for many of the artists, Naya Theatre was a source of livelihood. ‘‘They loved and hated each other like a family,’’ said Choiti Ghosh, a theatre actor who spent two-and-a-half years with Naya Theatre. They also produced some audacious theatre. For Ghosh, Tanvir’s Basant Ritu ka Sapna is the best adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that she has ever seen. ‘‘He has cut out the lovers,’’ she said. ‘‘And it’s all in verse.’’


Known for his plays like Agra Bazar and Charandas Chor, Tanveer was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1969, Padma Shri in 1983, Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1996, and the Padma Bhushan in 2002. He also scripted many films and acted in few of them including Richard Attenborough's films Gandhi (1982) and Bhopal Gas Tragedy.


Tanvir was also nominated as a member of the Rajya Sabha (1972-1978). His play "Charandas Chor" got him the Fringe Firsts Award at the Edinburgh International Drama Festival in 1982.


Some of Tanvir's plays have even met with controversy. In 2003, Ponga Pandit was targeted by the Sangh Parivar for offending Hindu sensibilities, even though it had been performed for decades. His daughter Nageen Tanvir said, "His life was full of struggle. But I have never seen a more determined person than him.'' Tanvir died before completing his autobiography. Nageen admitted that she's not sure what to do about it. "But something will have to be done,'' she said.


A large number of people from the theatre and art world in the city thronged Habib's residence here n Bhopal to pay their last respects to him. Condolence messages began pouring in as the news of his demise was made public yesterday.


Vice President Hamid Ansari termed the demise of Habib Tanvir as irreparable loss for the Nation in general and the Theatre Industry in particular. "Today the country and the Theatre industry has lost one of its greatest sons. His life would remain as a role model for the future generations", Hamid Anasri said in his condolence message.


Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dixit who was away in Nainitaal spoke to Tanvir's daughter on phone and offered her condolence over the sad demise.


Director Salim Arif recalls that some of his best moments in theatre were spent in the company of Tanvir, who was fondly known as Habibsaab. "To me Habibsaab's greatest contribution is that he gave the folk performer of India a belief in his art,'' he pointed out. "He diverted (national) attention to traditional resources in performing arts. In a way, he made it fashionable.''


Jameel Khan, a member of Naseeruddin Shah's theatre group Motley, recalled that he didn't recognise Tanvir when he first met him at the Prithvi cafe. "For the first time, I saw Naseerbhai sitting like a student,'' Khan said. "I'm a great admirer. I see this guy who has given his entire life to theatre and has given employment to actors from tribal areas who otherwise would not get a platform to perform.''

His funeral will be held here in Bhopal today on Tuesday.




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