Where East Meets West: Synthesis of Chhattisgarhi ‘Nacha’ and Brechtian Social Satire – A Brief Study of Habib Tanvir

and His Theatre “When I first saw Charandas Chor, in 1986, fresh with a doctorate in theatre from abroad, I instantly identified it as Indianized epic theatre’ and, uncharitably, wrote that ‘the constant reminders of Brechtian technique undermine Tanvir’s originality.’ Little did I know then – like many of us conditioned by Western education – that Tanvir developed this style independently”, says Ananda Lal, in his introduction to Twist in the Folk Tale, a collection of folk plays from different parts of India[1].While going through the biography of Habib Tanvir, we come to know of his experiences in Europe, where he was taught theatre by Duncan Ross, and where he got exposure to Brecht’s Ensemble theatre productions. And in spite of having a strong bond with Western drama and an intense admiration for the most ambiguous and perpetually fascinating figure of the 20 century European theatre, he never fails to remind us of his lineage, the classical and the folk theatre of India. The restoration of the folk theatre on the urban stage peaked during the 1970s, when we have productions like Chandrasekhar Kambar’s Jokumaraswami, a play based on the kannada fertility rite and many important plays by Heisnam Kanhailal and Ratan Theiyam. In kerala, we have kavalam Narayana Panikkar, whose use of popular performance forms like kathakali, kaliyattam and Theyyam took the Indian theatre world by storm. The beginning of this process dates back to 1953, when Rasiklal Parikh’s Mena Gurjari, directed by the legendary Gujarati female impersonator Jaishankar Sundari, was performed. It adopted the conventions and techniques of the folk genre ‘Bhavai’. But the theatre enthusiasts and researchers always give Habib Tanvir the special mention as one of the pioneers of the genre. He mingled the classical and the folk, revived many forgotten folk forms including ‘Nacha’ and revolutionized the theatre world by allowing his folk performers to present their skills in their own dialect. Tanvir’s admiration for the masses and Indian popular culture is evident from his early association with Parsi theatre[2]. The melodramatic extravaganza of the aforesaid genre forced many critics to look down upon the form, but Tanvir praised it for its intensity of passion, which had an appeal for the mass. The scholars never took it seriously, which is evident from the total absence of any research work on it, except Catherine Hansen’s Parsie Theatre. And yet, according to Tanvir himself, he learnt many a thing from it. Tanvir’s Sympathy for the people becomes clearer through the nature of his first important production, Agra Bazaar, written and produced as a tribute to a nineteenth century Urdu poet, Nazir Akbarabadi, who was always looked down upon by the Urdu literary historians, the ‘Tazkiranawises’, due to his simple style and colloquialism. Produced in the year 1953, Agra Bazaar deserves a special attention in the history of Indian theatre, along with two of its contemporary productions, the formerly mentioned Mena Gurjari and Shombhu Mitra’s legendary production of Raktakarabi. The poet himself never appears on the stage throughout the play, but his poems are recited by the Kite-seller, the Kakri-seller, the Melon-seller and other hawkers amidst the din and bustle of a street bazaar in Agra. The aristocrat publisher, the poet, the ‘tazkiranawis’ et al denounced the people’s poet as far as they can, but Mian Nazir becomes alive through the recitation of his poems by a Kite-Seller or the singing of one of his ghazals by a street boy or a prostitute and her love-sick client:

“ From her radiant face alone can issue the light I See, No one shed tears as I wandered in the wilderness, Except the blisters on my feet which wept openly… Ah Nazir, we advised you but you listened not, You perused the book of love too keenly.”3 At that time, no theatre School other than that of Ebrahim Alkazi was in India and National School of Drama has yet a decade to emerge. So, after obtaining a scholarship from the Government of India, Tanvir left for renowned overseas theatre schools like Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). But unlike Alkazi, he found the Rada schooling not suitable for an Indian theatre enthusiast, as it was based on the British method of training the actors. He left it for the Bristol old Vice Where he got acquainted with Duncan Ross, whose practical method of teaching, emphasis on the narrative and practical advice (“It must flow”) helped him immensely. He toured in France, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Spain, worked in a vineyard, in hotels, acquainted street singers, whores, refugees from Algeria and in Berlin saw the Ensemble theatre productions of many Brecht plays and the acting of the redoubtable Helene Weigel in Mother Courage and Her Children and that of Ackhard, Brecht’s son-in-law, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Ideologically leftist, Tanvir took no time to take Brecht’s “epic theatre” as his way[4]. Epic theatre is opposed to what Brecht called the “dramatic” theatre (most pre-Brechtian theatre, conventional, classical and bourgeois forms of drama, esp. tragedy) in tabulated form in his motes to the opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny[5]. To define the term in the simplest way, we can say that “epic” theatre moves in “curves and jumps”, rejects the linear development and evolutionary determinism of the dramatic theatre, and instead of appealing to the feeling of the audience, distances them from the play to promote critical thinking and the will to change society. Brecht ardently believed in Erwin Piscator’s words that the task of the theatre was “to intervene actively in contemporary events” and the audiences’ eyes are to be opened through a three-stage process : Kenntnis, Enkenntis and Bekenntnis (knowledge, understanding and conviction). Tanvir was not determined to follow all the performance codes of Brecht including the theory of alienation, but some of the non-literary elements of the epic theatre (as practiced by Brecht) like music, stagecraft, and décor and external aids like facial expression, muscle movement and body language were adopted by him, especially in two of his plays, the legendary Charandas Chor and Hirma Ki Amar Kahani. Ananda Lal reviewed them as approximation of the indianized “epic” theatre by welding “dramatic episodes with choric commentary and authentic Adivasi music and dance”[6]. In spite of having a western education and being so long abroad, Tanvir protested against the urban fad of what he called “pseudo-folk theatre” and denounced the “hands-in-pocket” manner of acting, hemming and demagogue of the Anglophone theatre of India. In spite of being an “exile”, Tanvir never fails to have a sound relationship with the rural performers of his state. Through his “Nacha” workshops he got actors and actresses like Fida Bai Markam, Madanlal, Thakur Ram, Lalu Ram, Govind Ram, Bhulwa Ram, Deepak Tiwari and others. He was not in pursuit of any particular folk from. He intended to give the folk performers sample opportunity to expose their skills. The performers brought the forms with them. Tanvir experimented with different performance forms like Pandavani (in Arjun Ka Sarathi) Punaram Nishad (Bhasa trilogy), Rajasthani Khayal form (Thakur Prithipal Singh) Chandaini form (Son Sagar), Dwarka and Mandala tribal performances style (Devi Ka Bardan) and so on. Tanvir’s decision of making them speak in Chhattisgarhi, in order that they become much more free and

deliberate, was a revolutionary one. They were free to improvise their movements but the content or storyline was supplied by Tanvir. Originally “Nacha” is a performance form consisting of dance, acting, songs, improvisations and musicianship, involving the audience and using instruments like “chikara’” (a string instrument), “manjira” (small cymbals), tablas tied to the waist, harmoniums and dholaks . But a form which was capable only of producing skits like Jamadarin or Munshi Munshinn became so strong after its synthesis with Tanvir’s knowledge of Brechtian theatre that it could produce plays like Charnadas Chor. We found the chattisgarhi culture represented to the world long before the emergence of Chhattisgarh as a separate state. The Chhattisgarhi “asmita” was satisfied when Charandas Chor was awarded the first prize in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1982. Tanvir did not have much problem with his actors performing in their dialects, as he, along with his fellow thespians, was “totally confident that they were speaking a human tongue to a human audience who could understand it”, without making any “difference between this audience and the village audience back home” . And if folk theatre is taken as the ultimate celebration of the body, which poses a threat to that of the “bhadralok”, the gentry, it should be noted that Tanvir never tried to discipline the bodies of his actors, “discipline” in a Foucauldian sense, obviously. As Foucault argued that “ power mechanisms… took charge of men’s existence, men as living bodies,”. and, concerning the bodies of stage actors, asks “whether it is enough to speak of the signs and messages inscribed on their bodies and not the materiality of the bodies themselves”, it is quite significant that Tanvir never intended to train the “bodies”, the unrestrained physicality of the folk actors. Through his productions of Shudrak’s Mricchakatikam (Mitti Ki Gadi) and Bishakha Datta’s Mudrarakshasm, he mingled classical Indian drama and folk, as, according to his claim, both of these genres challenge the basic concept of European drama, the three Aristotelian unities. In a way they reject the ‘dramatic’ theatre of Aristotle, becoming close to its contestant, the ‘epic’ theatre. Brecht’s the Good Woman of Setzuan was adapted by Tanvir as Sajapur Ki Shantibai. This play appeared on Calcutta stage several times. Of the various stage versions of the playTheatre Guild’s Bhalo Manusher Meye, Chaturmukh’s Bhalo Manush, Anamika Kala Sangam’s Hindi Setzuan ki Bhali Aurat , Chetana’s Bhalo Manusher Pala, and Nandikar’s Bhalo Manush and Shankhapurer Sukanya are important. But we, the Calcuttans had performers like Keya Chakraborty playing the role of Shen Te-Sui Ta, an academic and elite ,who read Brecht in her regular academic curriculum. In Tanvir’s production we had a gifted but illiterate actress like Fida Bai playing the role superbly. Tanvir directed many European plays also, plays by Moliere Brecht, Lorca, Goldoni, Shakespeare, Gogol and Gorky. For his fascination
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with Brecht and Lorca he has mentioned the epic, lyrical quality of both of them and their oriental elements, as Brecht was inspired by Chinese and Indian theatre (described in Brecht’s own essay Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting) and Lorca by Moorish and Gypsy theatre. Tanvir mentioned of their homogeneity as still to be perceived in our traditional theatres. Many of Tanvir’s plays deal with non-Indian themes, as Bahadur Kalarin deals with Oedipus complex (not welcome in the Indian subconscious, resulting in the failure of plays like Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming on Indian Stage), but he could make his folk actors realize it, without imposing it on them. Tanvir said “we need to dig into our roots and evolve our own forms of theatre that can adequately mirror our own special problems. In this too, Brecht is a great teacher. It is a paradox, therefore, that if Indian playwrights evolve a truly indigenous theatre, it will be a truly Brechtian theatre as well. In other

words it will be a theatre that not only would have imbibed the folk and classical traditions of India, assimilating music and dance forms into drama, but one that would be universal at the same time”[11]. In an article in International Theatre Information in 1976, Tanvir denounced the urban Indian theatre which represents a pale copy of the most worn-out western theatre traditions. He intends a cross-plantation of the rural and the urban cultures and in another article, he divided Indian culture into two broad streams, one of the exploited classes, and the other of the exploiting class. It can be said that he never failed to represent the culture of the exploited class through his theatre. A production like The Good Woman of Setzuan, a play consisting of Chinese characters, written originally in German, translated into American – English (by Eric Bentley) and adapted again into Chattisgarhi, according to his thought, gives the expected alienation effect which it deserves, rather than an European or an American production of the same play. It should be noted that the post-1960s generation of playwrights, despite being exposed to the post- Brechtian modern theatre, tried also to invent a form of their own. In spite of being acquainted with the performance style of Richard Schechner and Jerzy Grotowski, Badal Sircar invented his own “Third Theatre”, suitable for his Indian audience, being different from the “ third theatre of Eugenio Barba”. I intend to conclude with Charandas Chor, the most Brechtian of his productions, in which many twists are added to make the original folk-tale a unique one. The topsy-turviness of the world of Charandas Chor, where the cop, the guru, the Munim, the Mahajan, the minister and even the Queen – all are dishonest people and the thief is the only truthful person,is a typical Brechtian twist. It should be noted that Tanvir saw the performance of Ackhard in The Caucasian Chalk Circle in the role of Azdak, a drunkard of low origin and little education who became the best judge and whose reign was regarded later as “ Almost an age of Justice”. I think it certainly influenced the creation of the likeable rogue Charandas. It should also be noted that this play and Setzuan, which Tanvir produced, both were referred by Brecht as “Parables for the Theatre”. Tanvir referred to many historical figures who died for truth, persons like Socrates, Christ, Gandhi and others. His Charandas being an unheroic, simple man, gets caught up in his vows and though he fears death, can’t help it and dies. The inevitability of the tragedy shook the audience. “He died. Total Silence. Strange silence… Disturbed. The restive, urban, Delhi audience was moved.” The folk chorus sing songs like “The thief is a king, the king is a thief,/ The gods and the thieves, they dance cheek to cheek,” or “ There are so many rogues about, who do not look like thieves,/ Impressive turbans on their heads, softly shod their feet,/ But open up their safes and you will surely see,/ Stolen goods, ill-gotten wealth, riches got for free.” The Satnamis are allowed to sing (“ The truth is divine,/ Divine is the truth”) and about Charandas, chorus says “ Jokingly he made a vow never to tell a lie/ Even though he had to die/ For telling the truth”, which reminds us of another song sung in the course of the play: “ The Truth is greater than this world, the Truth can set you free, The Truth can even put you on par with divinity.” [13] Charandas becomes mythologised, along with the rural India’s view of life and the rural Indian theatre, simply by “ telling the Truth”.

1] Twist in the Folk Tale , ed. Ananda Lal ( Seagull, 2004).

2] Tanvir’s interview with Anjum Katyal and Biren Das Sharma in The Seagull Quarterly ( June, 1996), and Amar Theatre Bhavna, Habib Tanvir ( Natyachinta, January 2004). 3) Agra Bazaar, tr. Javed Malick (Seagull Books,2006) 4) Later named dialectical or Scientific theatre by Brecht (1938). 5] John Willett, Brecht on Theatre (Methuen, 1957), pp,33-42. 6] Ananda Lal in “ The Telegraph”, 2.12.86 ( “ Adivasi vitality with Brechtian overtones”). 7) For brief description of Nacha, see the relevant entries in Ananda Lal ed The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre (New Delhi: OUP 2003) it”. 8) Quoted by Javed Malick, Introduction to Charandas chor. tr. Arjun katyal (Calcutta: Seagull,1996), P.28. 9) Michel Foucault, The history of Sexuality Vol.I trans Robert Hurley, Harmondsorth: Peguin, 1978, p.89. 10) Foucault, Discipline and Purish (1978), trans. Alan Sheridan, New Y ork, Vintage, 1995 P.138. 11) Habib Tanvir: Ek Rang vyaktitva, Pratibha Agarwal (Natyashodh Sansthan 1993). 12] Tanvir in conversation with Anjum Katyal in The Seagull Quarterly (June, 1996). 13] All the quotations are from the translation by Anjum Katyal. PARICHAY PATRA.

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