Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Tanvir's Naya Theatre works almost exclusively with folk actors. However, even his occasional productions with urban actors and for groups other than Naya Theatre -- such as, Dushman (Gorky's Enemies) for the NSD Repertory or Jisne Lahore Nai Dekhya Wo Jamyai Nai (Asghar Wajahat) for the Sri Ram Centre Repertory -- are marked by the style that he has developed through his work with the folk artists. Nonetheless, the theatre that Tanvir had developed was not a "folk theatre" in the strictest sense of the term. He is a conscious and highly sophisticated urban artist with a modern outlook, sensibility and a strong sense of history and politics. His interest in folk culture and his decision to work with and in terms of traditional styles of performance was itself an ideological choice as much as an aesthetic one, whether Tanvir himself was fully conscious of it as such or not. There is a close connection between his predilection for popular traditions and his left-wing disposition. His involvement with the left-wing cultural movement, an association which he maintains (no matter how loosely) to this day, already meant a commitment to the common people and their causes. His work in the theatre, in style as well as in content, reflects this commitment and can be seen as part of a larger (socialist) project of empowerment of the people.

Tanvir's fascination with the "folk" is not motivated by a revivalist or an antiquarian impulse. It is based, instead, on an awareness of the tremendous creative possibilities and artistic energies inherent in these traditions. He does not hesitate to borrow themes, techniques, and music from them, but he also desists from the impossible task of trying to resurrect old traditions in their original form and also from presenting them as stuffed museum pieces. Notwithstanding a popular misconception, his theatre does not belong within any one form or tradition in its entirety or purity. In fact, as he is quick to point out, he has not been "running after" folk forms as such at all but only after folk performers who brought their own forms and styles with them. The performance style of his actors is, no doubt, rooted in their traditional
nacha background, but his plays are not authentic nacha productions. For one thing, while the number of actual actors in a nacha play is usually restricted to two or three, the rest being stop-gap singers and dancers, Tanvir's production involve a full cast of actors, some of whom also sing and dance. More significantly, his plays have a structural coherence and complexity which one does not usually associate with the "simple" form of the nacha. Another important difference is that while in the nacha songs and dances are used largely as autonomous musical interludes, in Tanvir's plays they are neither purely ornamental in function nor are they formally autonomous units inserted into a loose collection of separate skits. On the contrary, they are closely woven into the fabric of the action and function as an important part of the total thematic and artistic structure of the play.

In other words, Tanvir does not romanticise the 'folk' uncritically and ahistorically. He is aware of their historical and cognitive limitations and does not hesitate to intervene in them and allow his own modern consciousness and political understanding to interact with the traditional energies and skills of his performers. His project, from the beginning of his career, has been to harness elements of folk traditions as a vehicle and make them yield new, contemporary meanings, and to produce a theatre which has a touch of the soil about it.

This rich interaction between Tanvir's urban, modern consciousness and the folk styles and forms is perhaps best exemplified by the songs in his plays. Tanvir's excellent adaptations of A Midsummer's Night Dream (Kamdeo Ka Apna, Basant Ritu Ka Sapna) and The Good Woman of Szechwan (Shaajapur ki Shantibai) could not be possible without this interaction. In these plays, he has worked close to the original text and written songs which reproduce the rich imagery and humour of Shakespeare's poetry and the complex ideas of Brecht. Despite this fidelity to the original texts, not only has Tanvir given his poetic compositions the authenticity and freshness of the original but has also fitted his words to native folk tunes with remarkable ease and skill.

One of the most outstanding examples of this kind of interaction is Tanvir's Dekh Rahe Hain Nain, based on a story by Stephen Zweig, in which he has successfully represented a complex theme without compromising the vitality and creativity of his folk actors. It was the moral dilemma embodied in the protagonist, a courageous warrior, who is tormented by the guilt of having to kill his own brother, which had attracted Tanvir to Zweig's story. However, in writing the play, he went beyond the story and invented new events, situations, characters and added dimensions and nuances which significantly enriched the story and made it more poignantly relevant for us today. The result is a play that traverses a complex gamut of motifs from the abstract, almost metaphysical, quest for inner peace to the concrete, material problems of the ordinary people in wake of a war, economic inflation and political corruption; from an idealist impulse towards renunciation of political power and towards an absolute solitude to an urgent sense of the necessity to get involved with others for a shared endeavour to change the world.
Tanvir is quite careful not to create a hierarchy by privileging, in any absolute and extrinsic way, his own educated consciousness as poet-cum-playwright-cum-director over the unschooled creativity of his actors. In his work, the two usually meet and interpenetrate, as it were, as equal partners in a collective, collaborative endeavour in which each gives and takes from, and thus enriches, the other. An excellent example of this non-exploitative approach is the way Tanvir fits and blends his poetry with the traditional folk and tribal music, allowing the former to retain its own imaginative and rhetorical power and socio-political import, but without in any way devaluing or destroying the latter. Yet another example can be seen in the way he allows his actors and their skills to be foregrounded by eschewing all temptations to use elaborate stage design and complicated lighting.

Thus in contrast to the fashionable, folksy kind of drama on the one hand and the revivalist and archaic kind of 'traditional' theatre on the other, Tanvir's theatre offers an incisive blend of tradition and modernity, folk creativity and skills on the one hand and modern critical consciousness on the other. It is this rich as well as enriching blend which makes his work so unique and memorable.

Javed Malick teaches English at Delhi University, and is a theater critic.

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