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Act of love

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Classical vocalist Nageen Tanvir has gone from a ‘reluctant heiress’ to all-guns-blazing mode to keep her father’s legacy—Naya Theatre—alive, writes Aakanksha Bajpai

To commemorate the 104th birth anniversary of late actor Zohra Sehgal, the Zohra Sehgal Festival of Arts was held at India International Centre of Arts in Delhi recently. The last act of the event was Charandas Chor, a play staged by Nageen Tanvir, daughter of late legendary playwright, poet, director and actor Habib Tanvir, who founded the theatre, company Naya Theatre, in 1959 in Bhopal. In 1975, Habib had adapted the story that was originally penned by Vijaydan Detha, a noted writer from Rajasthan; since then, around 2,000 shows of the play have been staged without revising the script.

“The plot of Charandas Chor deals with corruption and dishonesty. A folk story turned classic, the subjects it examines remain relevant to our society even today,” says Nageen, adding that the play was considered her father’s masterpiece. Interestingly, the play was also adapted into a children’s movie by noted filmmaker Shyam Benegal.

Along with Charandas Chor, Nageen has managed to mount quite a few of her father’s plays—under the banner of Naya Theatre—since he passed away seven years ago. Indeed, the 52 year-old has breathed new life into the theatre company, founded by her father and mother Moneeka Misra, a dramatist in her own right. “We did a play called Konark based on the Sun Temple in 2011, and Vaishali Ki Nagar Vadhu in 2013, based on Acharya Chatursen’s novel on Amrapali.”

Drawing mainly on the talents of folk artists from Chhattisgarh, Naya Theatre thrived for 50 years. A unique performing art that uses folk artists in their truest form, the artists perform in Chhattisgarhi and Nacha style, a Chhattisgarhi style of secular drama. With this approach, Habib got them to perform Shakespeare and Brecht as well as Sanskrit classics and his own plays.

“Naya Theatre is considered the brainchild of my father. But the truth is, it was founded by my mother, and it was my father who left Hindustani theatre and joined my mother. Initially, my parents met six folk artists who had come to Delhi and they launched the theatre troupe in a garage in Connaught Place. The history of Naya Theatre is, therefore, closely linked to my parents’ courtship as it all happened at the same time,” reminisces Nageen, whose first play was Agra Bazaar, where she played the role of a monkey.

Interestingly, Nageen is an accomplished Hindustani classical vocalist, who has trained since the age of eight. Singing rather than theatre is admittedly her primary passion, so inheriting her father’s legacy put her on the horns of a dilemma. “After my father passed away, the theatre company automatically came to me. There was a big question as to what would happen to Naya Theatre as I was not really interested in carrying the legacy forward,” confesses Nageen, an exponent of the dhrupad who performs regularly both in the classical and folk music genres.

Despite her initial reluctance, Nageen decided to give Naya Theatre her best shot. “My father was an institution in himself and when he died, we [Nageen and the actors] had so many questions and so many doubts. I was ridiculed and many people in my group thought I was being dominant; it was difficult to step into my father’s shoes,” she shares. “However, since the past two years, things have been falling into place.”

There are other challenges, not least of which is recruiting fresh and young talent. Nageen realises she may have to reinvent the craft. “My old actors have died, four have retired and now I am looking for at least seven to eight actors. I am looking for talented actors who can be moulded and who are versatile. I am looking for actors who can sing, dance and act. I will train them, not only in the drama style of Naya Theatre but in the musical aspect.”

Of course, this is easier said than done, as she readily admits. “Culture is a language and I am not happy with Chhattisgarh becoming a separate state. Also, technology has reached the remotest corners of India and language and the arts are the first to get corrupted. Everything is changing and there are very few people left who know their culture.” Still, Nageen remains resolute. “I am determined to revive as many of my father’s plays as I possibly can,” she affirms. “I might even ask theatre people to direct new plays for us.”

Photo: Aakanksha Bajpai
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
August 2016