Guru and Shishya: Habib Tanvir does a play with Janam

On World Theatre Day, we decided to share an extract from Sudhanva Deshpande’s Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi. In it Sudhanva narrates how they made the play Moteram ka Satyagraha, a play about a gluttonous man chosen by the British to go on a hunger strike against the nationalist strike called by the Congress.

In May 1988, a beaming Safdar walked in during a rehearsal to inform his Jana Natya Manch friends that Habib Tanvir had agreed to do a play with them.

They decided to adapt Premchand. The following weeks were spent working out, with Habib Tanvir, which story they should adapt. Safdar wrote the play in about a week once they agreed upon one. He and Sudhanva were relieved that this was done. However, the agonizing process of shaping the final script that was to follow can be gauged by a single sentence from the book: ‘But we hadn’t reckoned with Habib Tanvir.’ Habib sa’ab’s attention to detail was astounding, so was his ability to bring out the maximum comic potential in every dialogue and every scene.

But they were on a tight schedule. And the perfectionist Guru wouldn’t relent even as the day of the opening came closer.

July 1988. Guru and Shishya

Safdar had recently turned 34 when we began working on the play. He had a decade and a half of serious theatre practice behind him, including a decade of doing only street theatre. Habib sa’ab was 65, at the peak of his career, having created some masterpieces such as Charandas Chor, Mitti ki Gadi and Shajapur ki Shantibai in the decade and half before – not to mention his much earlier classic, Agra Bazaar – while some of his later outstanding plays, such as Dekh Rahe Hain Nain and Kamdev ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna, would be created in the half decade following. Safdar wanted to learn, and Habib sa’ab was keen to teach. I was the fly on the wall, soaking up what I could.

If Habib sa’ab had expanded the earlier parts of the play – which was all basically Safdar’s creation, suggested by Premchand’s story but not directly from it – a somewhat opposite move took place in the latter half. In the scene where Moteram is persuaded by the Magistrate and his feudal allies to go on a hunger strike, Premchand had some marvellous comic dialogue. Safdar added a little bit to it, which Habib sa’ab cut out. Again, in the final scene, where the young Congress worker lures Moteram with the fragrance of mithai to break his fast, Safdar had expanded on Premchand’s dialogues. Again, Habib sa’ab cut out the excess, and restored the brevity of Premchand’s dialogue.

‘Premchand is a master, Safdar. See how tight his dialogue is. He is miserly with words, but achieves maximum impact. Why should we meddle with it? Best to let it be.’ I should say, though, that his reverence for Premchand only went so far. The original story is called ‘Satyagraha’, as was Safdar’s draft, but Habib sa’ab changed it to Moteram Ka Satyagraha. He explained, ‘“Moteram” is such a perfect name for a petu [gluttonous – though without the Christian sense of sin attached to it] Brahmin. It immediately evokes an image. You know it’s going to be a humorous play. And you also know that the satyagraha is going to fail – how can someone called Moteram sit on a fast! Just “Satyagraha” is too dry – it could well be a serious story of a martyr. Premchand is a great short story writer, but not the best namer of his stories. When I did a stage adaptation of “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” long ago, I renamed it “Shatranj Ke Mohre”, which seemed more apt to me. The story is not about some expert chess players. The story is about these two men whose fate is controlled by forces of history, like pawns in a chess game.’

Habib sa’ab reworked Safdar’s draft meticulously. He fused shorter scenes to make longer, composite scenes; he eliminated some characters and made other characters perform those actions; and at a couple of places he wrote short scenes to show in action something that was only being described second-hand.

Then there were the songs. ‘Safdar was a poet alright,’ Habib sa’ab wrote, ‘in so far as his imagination was concerned, and some metres, in which he was adept. But he was familiar with only a few metres. However, his greatest quality was his lack of conceit and his self-awareness. He would say in so many words as he did during our work on Moteram that his mind would not work on the metre I had chosen for the song about the courtesan Chamelijaan, as much as to suggest that I went ahead and composed the song myself, which of course I did. The reason for this was his inadequate, weak background in prosody. Which made him commit mistakes even in metres he was best familiar with, such as the Pingal – the Alha Udal metre, in which he was on the whole most at home. That is one reason I deeply regret his passing away so soon. I had the gumption that in time I would point out to him these lapses in his handling of his metres in a manner that he would comprehend, for he had an extremely intelligent mind. I used to think of Niaz Haider, who during my initial years of poetry writing had given me such valuable tips about metre. We tried, but he was already so preoccupied with so many organizational matters, Party affairs, and other aspects of the play itself that I had to put off such an exercise for a future time, which unfortunately never came.’ Habib sa’ab had encountered Niaz Haider’s genius when the two collaborated – as well as fought – in Qudsia Zaidi’s Hindustani Theatre in the 1950s.

I remember two instances of Habib sa’ab pointing out to Safdar errors in his poetic metre. The first line of Safdar’s opening song was:

Premchand ne likha tha qissa, natak humne diya banaye
Premchand had penned a tale, we turned it into a play

Habib sa’ab changed this to:

Katha likhi thi Premchand ne, natak humne diya banaye

Similarly, in a song towards the end of the play, Safdar wrote:

Baasi roti hi kha lunga agar kahin vahi mil jaye
Stale bread gladly will I eat –
Tell me where it’s found

Habib sa’ab changed this to:

Baasi roti bin paani ke kha lun kahin vahi mil jaye
Stale bread without water gladly will I eat –
Tell me where it’s found

In both cases, the moment he sang the new lines, it was clear to Safdar that they sat better in the metre and flowed more musically off the tongue. In the second instance, they also accentuated the plight of the hungry, fasting Brahmin. When Kajal Ghosh and Devilal Nag refined the tunes, the effect was even more startling.

Astonishingly, all this happened in a space of merely 29 days, from the day of the first reading to the day of the final dress rehearsal. And except on Sundays, we would work only in the evenings. Fortunately, Mala had been able to get permission for us to work in the auditorium of Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, so we had a lovely working space. Thanks to Vibhaben, and the manager of SPV, Pathakbhai, we always felt entirely at home there.

On the Sunday before the first performance, the play was still nowhere near ready. Shehla, with Shivani Chander’s help, was still working on the costumes under Moneekadi’s supervision; Safdar had still not finalized the words of one crucial song that appeared in the play twice, in two different versions; the actors were still fumbling with the lines; the singers were still reading the songs; and the set had still not been coloured. Most importantly, I thought the climax was just not working. I worried that we had perhaps made the audience laugh too much earlier in the play, and that maybe therefore nobody would find the end funny. Is there something like laughter fatigue, I wondered. And if so, could the Chamelijaan scene be the culprit?

I was stage manager (besides doing two roles – Three-Nought-Three and the Congress worker), and had to liaise with Habib sa’ab to work out the rehearsal schedule. We were having tea in the school canteen. Safdar, who was refining lines for the final song, had half an ear on our conversation. ‘There’s only five days to go, Habib sa’ab. How on earth are we going to be ready?’

Habib sa’ab lit his pipe and was thoughtful. ‘You’re right, there’s very little time. But let me tell you a little trick I learnt when I was at the Old Vic. One of my teachers there used to say that if you don’t have the time to work to your satisfaction on every scene, work hard as hell on the opening and the closing. The middle takes care of itself. That’s what we’re going to do. Our opening works well. The end is a little flat. We need to heighten that.’

‘Do you think we’ve made the audience laugh too much earlier in the play, and that’s why the end seems flat?’

‘Hmm. That is an interesting thought. I don’t think making the early part less funny will somehow make the latter part funnier. But we know that laughter is contagious. So we need to do something extra at the end.’

And that day he cracked it. As the Congress worker lured Moteram into breaking his fast and the audience saw Moteram eat like a ravenous pig, the chorus stepped in and began singing the song, and one by one all the actors came on to the stage and just laughed at the sight of Moteram eating. So Habib sa’ab created an audience on stage which, by laughing its guts out, gave the cue to the real audience of the play, which, even though they had laughed a lot by now, still found the energy to laugh at their loudest yet and create a rip-roaring climax. …

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Also see Theatre of the Streets, edited by Sudhanva Deshpande. And our books on The Freedom Theatre of Jenin, Palestine, described through pictures (Rehearsing Freedom, ed. Johanna Wallin), and essays (The Freedom Theatre: Performing Cultural Resistance in Palestine, ed. Johanna Wallin and Ola Johansson).

Here’s our blog from last December on how Halla Bol was written: The Journey of ‘Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi’.

Featured image: Habib Tanvir in Charandas Chor, October 2002. Courtesy: Sudhanva Deshpande/Indian Cultural Forum.