- Tanvir ka Safarnama (Tanvir’s Travelogue) directed by Ranjan Kamath
The Safarnama (safar = travels, nama = memoirs), a medieval genre of travel writing first penned by Naser-e Khosraw (1003–ca. 1088) in Persia, has been present in the literary milieus of South Asia since at least the fourteenth century, when conservative Islamist judge and inveterate traveler Ibn Batuta visited the subcontinent. The accounts are riven with literary flourishes, keen observation of local minutia, poetic relations to facticity, traces of self-aggrandizement, and doses—if fleeting—of self-deprecation by their charming and sometimes flamboyant authors. It is these traits that Ranjan Kamath culls together in his documentary on the Indian director, playwright, actor, and lyricist Habib Tanvir (1923–2009) in his documentary Tanvir ka Safarnama. Filmed in the last years of its subject’s career, the film captures the incessant and compulsive forward propulsion of Tanvir’s life, often to sorrowful conclusion as with the life and health of those that surround him. One senses that to stop, to pause, to be still would be to give in to the stasis of mortality. The leitmotif of the film too delivers us through smooth, noiseless, air-conditioned travel coaches to the noisy clatter of second-class train compartments to the relentless urban din of Kolkata trams as an incomplete and somewhat irreverent itinerary of Tanvir’s extraordinary life in Indian theatre, and indeed of theatre in India itself since independence.
The film starts with the octogenarian Ramcharan,1 a veteran actor of the Naya [New] Theatre with impeccable comic timing, in his village delivering rapidly an invitation to watch the upcoming performance, whether the presentation is to your liking or not. From there we journey to the Bonn Biennale, where actors speak of simultaneous translation and comedy and their [End Page 315] reception among foreign audiences. Kamath thus sets up for us the central dialectic guiding his exploration of Tanvir’s formidable oeuvre in the theatre—the generative tension between the rural and the urban, the folk and the classical, the vernacular and the hegemonic, the local and the (inter) national. For Tanvir’s career embraces and exceeds each of these polarities to create a complex performative vocabulary that rehearses and represents the major debates in the history and status of aesthetics in modern, postcolonial India. Tanvir himself strongly abjures what he sees as false oppositions, instead seeking the “connection between Great Traditions, the Classics, and the little traditions, folk, which scholars forcibly divide” (6:10). The last frame of Tanvir ka Safarnama has Tanvir, bent over, surreptitiously lighting his trademark pipe behind a tree, sheepishly asking the director, “You shot?” (77:00); in the background, as the titles roll, we hear “Aadminama,” Nazir Akbarabadi’s ode to humanity, in all its complexity and fallibility, sung poignantly in Tanvir’s Agra Bazaar: Acha bhi admi he kahta hai y Nazir / Aur sab me jo bura hai, so hai who bhi admi (Man also the best of the best we have/And the worst and the meanest too is man) (Tanvir 2007). Indeed, that is what this film is—a candid, somewhat fleeting record through carefully edited visuals and soundbites, of the habit and eccentricities of an aging man.
In this fast-changing cinematography, Germany, specifically the East Germany of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, holds a particular resonance for Habib Tanvir. Not only were the “best years of my life spent here in Germany, especially Berlin” (1:56), but also, “I found Chattisgarh, my motherland, through Europe” (4:39). Tanvir frequently and fondly recounted that on his return he had to unlearn his training at the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts from 1955 to 1957 to arrive at his present hybrid idiom. It is the techniques of epic theatre, including acting to highlight verfremsdung (inadequately translated by John Willet as “alienation”), musicality, and nonrealist and elliptical narrative, that helped Tanvir articulate most his own experimentations with style, through much trial and error and early criticism, which “now that it is a success I can say it” (9:19). He founded Naya...