The claps started as a ripple and became a roar. The sound rose to the ceiling, hit the wings and thundered in the green room where Nageen Tanvir, 51, sat with some actors. When she came out to the stage, Nageen saw the hall was on its feet, up to the balcony, and applauding with gusto. This was just as it used to be long ago, when her father, Habib Tanvir, was the head of Naya Theatre.
The show of Charandas Chor was held in Delhi in April as part of the Zohra Segal Festival of the Arts. Every theatre has a story, and Naya Theatre is scripting its revival. Charandas Chor, one of the group’s masterpieces, was performed outside Bhopal after many years. The group had been silent for so long that it seemed to have died with its founder. The successful show was Nageen’s way of announcing a comeback. If she had screamed, she couldn’t have been louder.
Ever since he set it up in 1959, Habib was Naya Theatre. A giant in person and in the arts, he was a playwright, actor, singer, stage manager and a poet in Hindi and Urdu. Actors were from Habib’s native Chhattisgarh and spoke, sang and danced in the local dialect in robust productions of Agra Bazaar, Mudra-Rakshasa, Hirma ki Amar Kahani, Bahadur Kalarin and Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan. Charandas Chor drew full house every time for three decades and was staged all over India and Europe. A range of artistes from across the country were involved with Naya Theatre, one of the most important groups of post-Independence India.
When Habib died in 2009, his daughter Nageen was handed the mantle. Nageen lacked her father’s stature and vision and was more a brilliant musician than a path-breaking theatre person. “When the head goes, then the person who takes over needs a little time. Everybody needs to do mental and emotional adjustments,” says Nageen. It has taken her more than six years to introduce the group’s second act. The current head of Naya Theatre, Nageen, talks about the tests and the triumphs:
You’ve been a part of Naya Theatre since childhood. Were you groomed to run the group?
I was not prepared for it. It fell on me suddenly and I was not happy about it. I kept blaming my father after he died that he had left a burden on me. I could not look after the shows, accounts and the rehearsals, and help artistes in their performances and psychologically. I was fooled left, right and centre. My father was the oldest in the group, in experience as well as in age. I was not experienced and I was their age group. I took the advice of friends who gave me three options – wind up, quit or transform. I thought for over a year and I decided to transform.
What were the transformations that you have brought about?
I cannot run it the way my father ran the group. He could sketch and sing; he was a damn good actor. He could understand actors’ psychology. I have different skills. The needs of the actors have changed. Naya Theatre is the only group in India that gives artistes housing and travel allowances and pays their electricity and medical expenses, among others. Complacency has set in among artistes. I decided to break that. I have strict rules on allowances — we pay a certain amount and the artiste pays the rest. Previously, artistes had families in villages and took leave twice a year, on Diwali and Holi. Families live with the artistes now but I am strict about attendance and professionalism.
After years of absence, Naya Theatre has returned with two big shows outside Bhopal this year. We were invited for Charandas Chor by the Zohra Segal Festival of the Arts. In January, we staged Kamdev ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna, a cultural translation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at Sangeet Natak Akademi, and we had a standing ovation.
What are your plans for Naya Theatre?
My father had wanted to produce Konark, written by Jagdish Chandra Mathur, but could not. So, we did it. It is the story of the sun temple in Konark, whose shikhar is not fitting in the cupola. It is up to the stone carvers to devise a method to get it to sit properly. But a revolt is brewing around them and, soon, they may have to fight with the very stones that they create wonders with. The other new play we have is Acharya Chatursen’s Vaishali ki Nagarvadhu, about Amrapali, a courtesan who refuses to be accessible to every man in the kingdom. I see it as a play on gender, because it is about the status of women, but the story is also about peace, ecology and climate, and how all these elements are linked.
Vaishali ki Nagarvadhu is a 2014 play. Why haven’t you staged it more often?
We have not had shows since 2012. Between 2009 and 2012, we had lots of shows. In 2013, there were only seven. People think Naya Theatre is dead or that Nageen Tanvir is incapable of running it. By 2012, the grants slowed down. The economy plummeted and large productions became too expensive to travel with. Vaishali ki Nagarvadhu has been staged only three times. Now, for the sole purpose of getting shows, we have set up a website http://www.nayatheatre.com. I have calculated and found that no play has less than 20 people, even with actors doing double or triple roles. My father was a man with a big canvas. There are so many characters; we have actors as well as dancers and singers in our shows.
Will Naya Theatre retain its thrust on socio-political plays or do you prefer a variety?
We will keep the old productions, such as Kamdev ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna and Charandas Chor, and revive one or two others. We will invite guest directors to create new productions. There has to be change, otherwise we will stagnate like a pond. My father got a kick from theatre. He used to believe that theatre was a tool for social change. I want to go with the times. I believe that plays should have a political bent, but subtly. My father was a taskmaster. I have seen him rehearse for 12 hours. He has missed many flights and trains. In keeping with tradition, I work very hard on the actors before a show.
Your troupe has lost some of its oldest and finest actors to age and illness. How do you plan to source actors?
I am recruiting new blood. Bhopal has a large community of labourers from Chhattisgarh who live in migrant colonies. I have started going to slums to look for actors. My father was very strict. He could make actors out of non-actors. Unfortunately, the new generation does not seem to be very talented, but we are putting on track a means to work on that. We need actors with good voices and virtuosity to perform all kinds of songs. They can be moulded into Naya Theatre’s dramaturgy. My vision of Naya Theatre is also as a pivot for young theatre practitioners who attend workshops and create plays here. The struggle is still on.
Did the responsibility take a toll on you?
I get excited about theatre and I know a lot about it. I have seen a lot of theatre too, from the National Theatre in England and German productions, to kathakali and nautanki. But, my soul is in music. In a play, if there is good music, my mind automatically moves towards it. I have been trained in Hindustani classical music since I was eight. I like singing semi-classical, ghazal and Chhattisgarhi tribal songs. At a time when I was stressed about Naya Theatre in 2014, a friend introduced me to Japanese Buddhism. It’s about faith and it’s good. It taps your inner energy and I began to change my attitude. I face problems, which would have felled me before, more courageously now.