Memories with Habib Sa’ab
- April 17, 2023
For the Hindu
It is difficult to believe that Habib Tanvir is no more. Even though I hadn’t met him for a couple of years now, there was a comfort in knowing he is there. In all our trials and tribulations, there was solace in knowing that there was a man not too far away in Bhopal, who had relentlessly struggled all his life, but with a smile. Habib Sa’ab, as we all fondly called him, was an inspiration, a quiet strength.
I got the heart-sinking news as I was about to board the flight at JFK. I took the 16 hour flight to Delhi remembering all the wonderful times I had had with him. With every memory, the weight of his loss started getting heavier. He was a man who lived by his convictions, yet didn’t wear it on his sleeves; he was an angry man yet always smiled and he was touched by everything in the world yet created his own. Lately much has been written about his invaluable contribution to theatre. But sometimes the memory of the person over-shadows even the magnitude of the persona.
I knew him since I was a child as my parents were family friends. The world of artists then was vibrant as they frequently met and shared their art. I have vivid memories of not only watching his plays, but also the rehearsals. My father would often drop me at the open air theatre in Triveni, while he went to the exhibitions. I would watch with fascination the actors rehearsing and Habib Sa’ab, with pipe in his mouth, going up and down the stage. I used to love the humour in his plays even as a child, but understood the many layers behind it only when I grew up.
During my college days, one day I asked Habib Sa’ab if I could be part of his group. He laughed and told me that I’d have to speak and act like a Chattisgarhi and the rehearsals will not be less than 2 months. That was great! Being a Chattisgarhi was a challenge, speaking it was exciting and all I wanted to do was to experience the process! After my classes I would go to his little place in Ber Sarai and rehearse for Dekh rahein hain nain. I got really close to his family and actors that made me a part of their world in no time.
Now the memory of that play is fuzzy, but the conversations, singing with Nagin (his daughter) and his actors, chatting with Monica di (his wife), Habib Sa’ab’s hearty laughter… it all comes back. But that wasn’t my only theatre experience with him. I was to play Chameli Jaan in Moteram ka Satyagrah, a play he was doing with Jan Natya Manch, the street theatre group I was part of. But as luck would have it, I got jaundice just a couple of days before the show. I guess I was meant to only rehearse with the master, never perform!
His demise has created a deep sense of emptiness and it’s a scary reminder of the fading away of a generation whose enormous contribution to our lives and the world we inhabit will sadly be understood in its entirety, only when it is gone. But I feel blessed to have been touched by his humanity, his passion, his voice, his commitment and his life. His presence in what I am today is not screaming out loud, but I know that it is there. And for that I will always be indebted.