The  legendary theatre personality, a poet, an actor and a revolutionary Habib Tanvir died at the National Hospital, Bhopal on  June 8, 2009 at 06.30 Indian Standard Time. His daughter Nageen was at the bedside.  Habib Tanvir was admitted to the hospital because of respiratory problems; the cause of his death was kidney failure. Almost every one associated with INSAF Bulletin has met Habib Saheb one time or another. On behalf of INSAF Bulletin, we express our deep condolences to his daughter Nageen and to his close relatives, Javed and Neeraj Malik, New Delhi and Abha Sur in Boston (Ed.).


SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) has issued the following statement:


Dear friends:


SAHMAT proposes to compile and publish a “memorial volume”on Habib Tanvir on the occasion of Habib’s birth anniversary on September 1 this year. The idea is to invite all those who have been his friends and associates, as well as those who have loved and supported his work to contribute to this volume. While a more considered appraisal of his contribution to the contemporary Indian stage should and will be done, what we are looking for at this juncture is a more personalized and warm hearted response.  It is in this connection that we are writing to you. You are free to use your own discretion about what you would like to write about, as long as it relates to some aspect of Habib’s life, personality, and / or work, as also Moneeka. You are welcome to write in English, Hindi or Urdu. We are not looking for condolence messages, more for personal anecdotes, or responses to plays, songs and writings. We would also welcome photographs, brochures, programs or even rare clippings from the press. While the length of the article is of course relative to the matter it contains, in practical terms it is advisable to keep it within 1000-1500 words. If you have already published a piece somewhere, that would also be welcome, with any additions or changes you might wish to make.


HABIB TANVIR (1923 – 2009)


Rahul Varma


India’s legendary playwright, director and actor Habib Tanvir passed away on June 8, 2009 at the age of 85. 


One of the most versatile artists of modern India, Habib Ahmad Khan adopted the pen-name Habib Tanvir when he began writing poetry at an early age.  Well-known for his probing, provocative and delightful plays, Tanvir without a doubt is one of the greatest stalwarts of the Indian stage.  


In 1955, Habib Tanvir moved to England where he trained in acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and in directing at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (1956). In 1956 he spent over eight months in Berlin in and was so profoundly moved by Bertlot Brecht (who had died the same year) that he quickly began to unlearn whatever he had learnt at the RADA. On returning back to India, he continued a trajectory of development diametrically opposite to what was pursued by other British-trained Indian directors. Tanvir was convinced that no socially meaningful and artistically interesting theatre was possible unless one worked within one’s own cultural traditions and context.  Habib Tanvir challenged the colonial mind-set that dominated the theatre scene at the time. He began his quest for an indigenous theatre by using traditional forms and techniques of folk artists of Chhattisgarh, creating a distinct Indian theatre working with tribal and urban actors, using local idioms in his plays to express trans-cultural tales and ideologies. This gave rise to a “theatre of roots”, which was marked by an utter simplicity in style, presentation and technique, yet remaining eloquent and powerfully experiential, with contemporary relevance. Tanvir’s work has come to be acknowledged as one of the best modern rendering of the ancient classic.


In 1959 Tanvir and his wife Late Moneeka Misra founded their theatre company called Naya Theatre, which is set to complete its 50th anniversary. He was adept with ancient classical Sanskrit theatre, Indian mythology and folklore, Shakespeare, Moliere, modern Indian playwrights, adapted writings of greats like Munshi Premchand and wrote original plays.  Some of his plays are Agra Bazar (1954), Shatranj Ke Mohrey (1954), Mitti ki Gaadi (1958), Charandas Chor (1975), Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya (1990), just to mention a few. His play Charandas Chor that was first produced in 1975 got him the Fringe Firsts Award at Edinburgh International Drama Festival in 1982.


Habib Tanvir first visited Canada in 1996 at the invitation of CERAS, and addressed a meeting titled “People’s resistance and Culture”.  The chair of the meeting Dr. Daya Varma, in his introductory remark, told the audiences of the dumb lecher’s role that Tanvir had played Mitti Ki Gaadi.  Speaker told the audiences that it was the most believable dumb lecher he had ever seen on the stage. With a smile, Tanvir at once enacted the same scene and sang the same song, and said Dr. Varma’s comments were a complement to his acting. Habib Tanvir’s theatrical engagement in Canada started with working with the Teesri Duniya Theatre for which he conducted various workshops, presented lectures and translated my play Bhopal into Hindi/Chattisgarhi as Zahreeli Hawa which he produced across India. 


In 2002, during his visit to Canada, Habib Tanvir read one of his Urdu poem titled “Khauf, which initiated the company’s newest play Truth and Treason, dealing with the so-called war on terror.  The play is written by me and will premier in Sept in Montreal under the direction of Arianna Bardesono.


I last saw Habib Tanvir in Bhopal in December 2008 – Feb 2009, workshopping Truth and Treason under his guidance. Dipti Gupta and Canadian actor David Francis took part in the workshops. Habib Tanvir’s involvement with this script is the greatest highlight of the development of this play.  Truth and Treason will be dedicated to Habib Tanvir.  


During his career, Habib acted in over nine feature films, including Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi(1982). He was a recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1969, Padma Shri in 1983, Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1996 and the Padma Bhushan in 2002. Tanvir was also a member of the Rajya Sabha from 1972-1978.


He joined the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) and became an integral part of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) as an actor. Later, when most prominent IPTA members were imprisoned for opposing the British rule, he took over the lead of the organization.


Through his life, he always responded to events around him, both through work and in an activist mode by taking part in marches, protests, and rallies. He remained an uncompromising enemy of parochialism, sectarianism, communalism and all other narrow-minded ideologies.


He loved children and had special fondness for our daughter Aliya who called him baba ji. 


He was wonderfully warm, affectionate and a voracious reader. He was very curious about the world, what people were doing, the new productions, etc.  He could not stop himself from living life to the fullest. Right till the end he was active and always making new plans. 


In my last meeting with him in December 2008, he told me that if health permitted, he would like to direct Truth and Treason in Canada. We didn’t get that opportunity, but we dedicate Truth and Treason to him. We celebrate his life with more meaningful theatres…


(Rahul Varma is the Artistic Director, Teesri Duniya Theatre,




Feroz Mehdi


He was the last contemporary of my father, Syed Mohammad Mehdi, alive from his IPTA and PWA days.


I was a young boy when I started knowing Habib Tanvir. Or rather started getting acquainted to Habib Chacha who was one of my father’s  many friends, all of whom had a common suffix ‘chacha’, meaning paternal uncle. Although I met Munish Chacha, Kaifi Chacha, Majrooh Chacha and Rashid Chacha the most, but Habib Chacha left a unique impression on me.


He was different from others. Very formal in his behaviour, always with a pipe in his hand and looked always more serious than all the other uncles. He used to come at our place almost always with his wife Moneeka and their daughter Nageen.


When he was a member of the Parliament, I remember he and my father used to discuss issues that should be raised in the Parliament regarding the state of theatre and art in the country. Very few things I remember in detail from those days. I must have been between 8 to 13 years old. But there were two songs that Habib Chacha once sang, or maybe twice, at our home. One was a urdu translation of the song “Where have all the flowers gone”.  At that time I did not know that it was a translation and so took it as his own song. The lyrics, composition and the style with which he sang was such that 40 odd years later I still remember it by heart.


I last met him at Rahul Varma’s place in Montreal a few years ago when he was invited by Teesri Duniya theatre company to do some workshops. I requested him to sing that song again. He did and I went down the memory lane, back to our small living room in Karol Bagh in Delhi, where I sat on the floor as Habib Chacha sang the song with his head shaking with the rhythm and his pipe in his hand.




We at the Coalition for an Egalitarian & Pluralistic India, here in Southern California, are saddened by this news and offer our condolences to the surviving family members and associates.  We have fond memories of Habib Tanveer and his family when he gave a lecture, titled “The Artist in Society” that included a performance with his wife and daughter as participants on 21 May 1995 at the Cerritos Public Library.




Daya Varma


Many years ago in late 1990’s Javed Malik, Habib Tanvir’s nephew was visiting Montreal. He had a pirated video print of a film by Sudhir Mishra. It was a very bad copy.  The film, I do not remember the name, is set in and around Lucknow University during the British colonial rule. There are three characters – all revolutionary planning to throw a bomb at a passing by British officer. Of course they do not succeed and one of them eventually betrays. This role is played by Habib Tanvir. If some one had asked me in the beginning that one of the three is going to be a traitor, I could have picked up Habib Tanvir because this designated role was on his face and his acting was superb.


It was Javed again. I was in Delhi and he invited me to a play by Naya Theatre where Habib Saheb was to stage his play Mitti ki Gaadi. In this play there is character- a lecher, devoid of any  intellect and from time to time appears on the stage singing “Mai raja ke sala (I am brother-in-law of the king) and dancing stupidly. Again this role is played by Habib Tanvir. His acting was superb. I told Javed after the play ended  that it will be very difficult for me to get out of the image of Habib as a moron. And it really was an effort.


Some times later, we invited Habib Saheb to Montreal on behalf of CERAS (South Asia Research and Resource Center). We organized a public meeting on May 5, 1996 and the topic was “People’s resistance and Culture”.  The topic was chosen in recognition of his role in Indian people’s Theatrical Association (IPTA) and Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA). I chaired the meeting and I could not help but refer to my impression of him as a dumb lecher reminding him of his role in Mitti ki Gaadi. He smiled. And to every one’s surprise he at once enacted the same scene and sang the same song reinforcing my previous impression which could really not be dispelled by his super presentation on the role of progressive artists in the struggle for India’s freedom and social justice.


I met him several times after that in Montreal, Bhopal and New Delhi.  And each meeting was a learning experience but my imagery of him as Raja ka Saala does not fade.


I know many people who have been deeply saddened at Habib Saheb’s passing away and together we would miss this legend of HABIB TANVIR.

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