I met Habib Tanvir in Bombay in 1952. He was my first friend in the theatre circuit. Those were tough times. Habib loved drama. But he needed money. For his love, he did theatre. For his needs, he plunged into cinema. Many a time, he tried to marry his wants with his needs. It produced work that was easily distinct.
Right when I first met him, I knew Habib was something else. He stuck to his views, was perhaps a rebel—like many who aligned with the Left. He was part of both the Progressive Writers’ Association and Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). When IPTA members were imprisoned in the mid-1940s, Habib took over the running of the organisation. His ideological moorings gave him the frame of reference for his art. His life, now, seems like an emblem to a particular sort of commitment.
Habib always thought of the stage as a medium for the masses. It wasn’t enough for it to remain within the confines of cities and towns. The rural experience of India, he believed, formed an integral core of our social experience. It had to be harnessed in our art.
His early plays had a distinguishing idea of romance. By 1954, Habib had quit Bombay for Delhi. It was the year when he debuted with Agra Bazaar. The drama explored the life of lesser-known 18th -century Urdu poet Nazir Akbarabadi. For the play, he used folk artists from Okhla village in Delhi and students of Jamia Millia Islamia. It was a play not staged in a confined space.
His dramas evoked a real sense of the bazaar, street or market. The art of using folk artists bloomed with his later work in his native Chhattisgarh.
I reckon his stint in Europe saw him come back empowered. (Brecht became a big influence.) His dramas became more localised. He believed in the story of one’s roots, in the idiom of one’s milieu.
Looking back, Habib’s oeuvre seems like the poetry of one’s roots. Through the language of the village, he connected with the world.