Tanvir's theatre of real

It is intriguing how friendships forged per chance become the world’s windows into outstanding personalities. Mahmood Farooqui’s recent translations of Habib Tanvir’s Memoirs is one such case where Farooqui - reviver of Dastangoi (an art form of Urdu storytelling) and director - opens up a multi-hued world that he aptly refers to, “a mouth-watering peek into life in the second quarter of the twentieth-century India”.

Habib Tanvir and Shashi Kapoor at the opening of the Cornerbook Store at Prithvi Theatre. File Photo

In his introduction, the translator initiates the reader into the many facets of this iconic personality of the theatre world who devised a form of popular theatre that succeeded the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), National School of Drama (NSD) and several others. Quite a parallel to Brechtian theatre, Tanvir’s plays spoke directly to the people and as Farooqui mentions, “got rural actors to the urban audience for the first time rather than the other way round”.

Mahmood Farooqui

Tanvir’s folk theatre is especially known for productions like Agra Bazaar, Charan Das Chor, Ponga Pandit, Jis Lahore Nahi Dekhya Vo Janmya Hi Nahi (He Cannot Claim to Have Been Born Who Hasn’t Seen Lahore) among others. “For the performance of Agra Bazaar, he brought actual potters, shopkeepers, paan-wallah, a tailor and others from Okhla,” informs Farooqui. “Once while Ramleela was being staged, the potter brought his own donkey who shat on the stage making people believe that it was very authentic.”

It is remarkable how Farooqui has been able to do justice to the iconic personality despite knowing him for just five years. He shares, “I was in touch with him when he started writing the memoirs (which he did when he was 81-82 years old). Somewhere in the middle, I was asked to translate them which I readily agreed to.” As a description, Farooqui succinctly states, “Tanvir Saab was a bon vivant. He was a great lover of life, food, women, conversation, jokes…many things.”

One of the most distinguished multilingual authors India ever saw, Farooqui avers, “A few years ago, Ramachandra Guha gave a lecture on the ‘Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual’. Tanvir was definitely in the leagues of Gandhi, Iqbal, Tagore and Gopal Krishna Gokhale who could easily write with ease in a number of languages.” He agrees to the fact that the book is definitely a chronicle of the man and the times he lived in as he traversed through Raipur, Nagpur, Aligarh, Bombay, Delhi and Bhopal. Heartened with the mention of our city, he opines, “Bombay provided a kind of ferment at that time as it had the greatest variety of people.”

Relating the time when Tanvir resided in Bombay for the brief period that he did, Farooqui informs, “Bombay was fundamentally the centre of cinema, art, literature as there was Miraji, Sardar Jafri, Balebhai, and Manto when Tanvir was there.”

Habib Tanvir: Memoirs, translated by Mahmood Farooqui, Ayesha Jalal, Viking by Penguin Books India, Rs 599. Available at leading bookstores

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