Photo by Rahul Varma

 

Actor, director, playwright, poet, intellectual and activist Habib Tanvir founded Naya Theatre, India’s first professional theatre that brought together tribal and urban artists. Tanvir created an impressive body of plays blending tradition, modernity and tribal creativity with critical consciousness and relevance. He has received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1969), the Padma Shri Award (1983), the Padma Bhushan Award (2002), nine honorary doctorates, and many more national and international awards. 

 

Sometimes it takes just a moment to realize that one is in the presence of greatness. Meeting Habib Tanvir was one such moment.

In 1992, I went to India to visit my parents.  My husband Rahul Varma, who runs Teesri Duniya Theatre in Montréal, had asked me to bring back the script of Habib Tanvir’s play, Jamadarin (The Sweepress). The main premise of the play is that a ‘sweepress’ wishes to enter a temple (whose grounds she sweeps each day) to venerate the deity inside. Despite her devotion to the grounds, the priest does not allow her to enter the temple as she is ‘of lower caste/an outcast.’ She remains on the grounds outside, thinking about and imagining the deity she wishes to worship. As the play proceeds, the sweepress brings five rupees of her hard-earned money and begs the priest to allow her to enter. He succumbs to his greed and allows her the entry, despite his earlier insults and threats based on her being from a lower caste.

The long tradition of the caste system has created huge divides in Indian society, adding the unfair complications of hierarchies in the everyday existence of many. Habib Tanvir wrote this play as a strong criticism of the caste system and to point out the hypocrisy of institutions that are dictated by monetary greed. Jamadarin was banned in certain cities at the time, yet Habib continued to perform it.

When I called Habib to see if I could take the script back with me to Montréal, it was early in the morning. I heard a very calm, deep-drawn voice on the other end. He explained that while he’d very much like to share the play with me, there was no written ‘script’ of this play. His troop was mainly from Chattisgarh (a state in Central India) and its members were largely illiterate. They depended more on the rich oral storytelling tradition that exists in India and in many other parts of the world. He explained that those who acted in this play often improvised the story as they went along.

I was taken aback and felt that I must see it for myself. Without hesitation, he asked me what my plans were for the evening. When he found out that I had none, he invited me to see the show. I took down the address he gave me, in an area of South Delhi I was familiar with, and headed there that evening along with my brother.  I thought I would be going to a theatre and was surprised to find instead several rows of small, government-built houses. One of these was Habib’s home. It was full of books with minimalist, low furniture. The home consisted of two rooms. Habib was working in one of them and the scent of tobacco emanating from his pipe filled the air. In the other, his wife, who apologetically excused herself, was resting.  My brother and I were ushered in by one of his assistants.

Habib looked up as we entered slowly. I remembered him from the movies I had seen, and immediately felt that the camera had well captured his presence. He was all I had witnessed him to be in the movies, small-statured and regal, with a commanding personality. He had an assistant working with him, and after greeting him, I sat down. He continued to smoke his pipe. I felt awkward and kept quiet for the first few minutes so as not to disturb him from the task at hand. He noticed my discomfort and assured me that he was just taking care of finances, mundane matters, and that I should not hesitate in sharing my interests with him.

This was my first meeting with Habib. He was in his 70s at that time, and regardless of his own accomplishments, he showed genuine interest in my life. For the next half hour we spoke about our interests: of politics and the political agendas of governments, of Montréal and theatre, and of people and stories.

My younger brother seemed unsure about what was going on. I had brought him to see a play, but instead we were chatting in the playwright’s home. Habib, reading his body language, asked us if we were ready to see the play. I was surprised at his query and did not quite understand what he meant. He then gestured to his assistant that he could accompany us to the ‘performance site.’

The stage was literally behind his home – a verandah that could not have been more than 14′ x18′ with just two walls and a huge rectangular mat spread out on the floor. On one side of this mat sat three musicians (one on tabla, one on harmonium, one with a percussion instrument), and a singer who would join the chorus as they sang certain parts of the narrative. The play began, and the three main actors performed brilliantly. As they acted, the stars came out and streetlights lit the stage. We soon realized that they were performing just for us!

Photo by Dipti Gupta

In all my life thus far, this was the most magical theatrical experience I had ever had. It was a stellar performance in Hindi and Chattisgarhi, with improvised dialogues punctuated by a few songs that the Jamadarin sang as she went about her day, hoping to be able to see the deity in the temple – without a single lag at any moment during the hour-long performance!

After the riveting show filled with great messages, my brother and I thanked the artists. We learned that they had all come to Delhi with Habib, from the interior of Chattisgarh. Many of them were farmers or had been doing small jobs, but were now being trained by Habib to perform. Their memory was incredible and they could recite several songs and dialogues. They all had dedicated their lives to bringing awareness of diverse issues affecting the downtrodden and the forgotten in a democratic nation. Not only were these actors from rural parts of India, they also varied in age, which made these productions even more dynamic.

After the performance, when we returned to Habib’s living space, I asked him why he had staged the entire show just for my brother and me. He replied, “You were sincerely interested, and for me, an audience of one or a thousand is as important.”

In later years, there were times when Habib’s shows were targets of fundamentalist groups in India and quite often he performed only for the security guards that were left on the premises. His respect for the principle that ‘the show must go on’ was undeniably a commitment to the arts, to politics, to bringing about necessary change.

Habib Tanvir was the director of the Naya Theatre Company, which he founded in 1959. Besides being a director, actor, composer and storyteller, he was also a member of parliament for six years. His work reflected a fusion of traditional and western theatre practices.

After this experience with him in India, my husband and I managed to bring Habib Tanvir to Montréal three times, where he gave workshops with members of Teesri Duniya Theatre. During one of these trips, I asked him what he felt was his driving force toward theatre. He said, “Theatre has the power of performance which can enthral, envelop [and] excite people, draw them in and change their future, impact their way of thinking, and incite them to tell their own stories, in their own language.”

 

 

 

Portrait of Margaret Heap by her husband, Serge Lalonde, 2018

 

This issue of Montréal Serai is dedicated to Margaret Heap, a lifelong advocate for social justice and peace who died on December 31, 2018 in Montréal. Committed to fighting poverty, racism and discrimination in any form, Margaret worked tirelessly and quietly on the sidelines, away from the spotlight. She was trained in history and conscious of all those who, by their unsung labour, are the makers of history.

She served the Québec labour movement for more than thirty years as a freelance translator and interpreter who was determined to set the bar high to ensure high-calibre translations in English.

Margaret also teamed up with Lorne Huston to translate several books, including one on Québec history analysing the shift from Church-run services to public services during the Quiet Revolution (Services and circuses: community and the welfare state, by Frédéric Lesemann) and a guide to dealing with domestic violence (Battered Women, by Micheline Beaudry).

Along with her six siblings, Margaret carried on the legacy of their parents, Dan Heap and Alice Heap, fervent peace activists who fought for the rights of Indigenous peoples, advocated for refugees and campaigned against poverty and homelessness.

She took part in the Québec student movement in 2012, volunteered her skills in the services of the Ligue des droits et libertés and other social justice causes, and penned many letters to the editor (in French and English), contesting expressions of racism, sexism and prejudice, and challenging readers to be aware of unconscious discrimination. Margaret held herself and others to account.

Margaret will be remembered for her probing and incisive mind, her stamina, her energy for reading, gardening, knitting, travelling and music, her steadfast commitment to social justice, and her deep love for her husband and family. She will be sorely missed.

 

Public-sector delegates working in health and social services pay tribute to freelance translator and interpreter, Margaret Heap, at the FSSS-CSN 44th convention on June 15, 2018. Shy at all the attention, Margaret remained modestly at the back of the room near the interpreters’ booth as hundreds of delegates stood and applauded her decades of service to the union. Photo © Marie Boti

 

 

Cover picture from Nilanjan Dutta’s original book of translations. The sketch is by the late Debangshu Sengupta.

 

Since human beings are eminently perishable, they seem to have an obsession for permanence. It is normal for people to yearn for what they do not possess or do not have a chance to possess in their lifetimes. But this holds good only for external things. It is another matter when they realize that they are already in possession of something that is indestructible, something that “weapons cannot tear, fire cannot burn” (Bhagavad Gita 2.23). That becomes a source of immense strength – the courage to endure the lows of life, and yet envision unattained heights. The realization of this inner strength is the recognition of the spirit. When the spirit takes over, all bodily pains recede.

The poems of Birendra Chattopadhyay (born in Dhaka, September 2, 1920; died in Calcutta, July 11, July 1985) celebrate this indomitable power of the human spirit. The decades over which his life as a poet spanned were marked by constant turmoil and transition in the society of Bengal. He was no mere observer, but one who identified himself with the forces that were consciously oriented towards bringing about a revolutionary change in society. Driven by this conviction, time and again Chattopadhyay broke the police cordon and suffered imprisonment. He wrote piercing poems and prose pieces that sprang from the pangs of a newly independent but partitioned country in the late 1940s and ’50s, and the tumult of the people’s movements in the 1960s. In the 1970s, his poems decried the massacre of radical youths in the strongest of idiom, and in the same decade, he raised a rare voice of protest against the Indian Emergency among the older intellectuals of Calcutta and campaigned wholeheartedly for the release of political prisoners. His towering presence was a regular feature and a source of assurance for the young protesters in every rally, including the “risky” ones. In the 1980s, his poetry raged against the acts of betrayal of the Left establishment (then ruling the eastern Indian state of West Bengal) but unlike many others, he did not lose faith in the ideology of the Left movement.

No wonder Birendra Chattopadhyay became a rallying point for a host of young poets as well as prosaic “activists” like me. The blend of revolutionary passion and romantic imagination made his poetry sublime. Throughout his literary life, he relentlessly  inspired and encouraged us to keep our spirit awake and unblemished without falling into the trap of spirituality.  “Hold your head high, even in hell,” he told us. Meanwhile, the poet became inflicted with life-threatening cancer and embarked upon a different battle, and it was during this phase that his poems found the most intense expression of death-defying spirit.

Shortly after Chattopadhyay left us, I translated a few of his poems into English at the request of revolutionary Telugu poets K.V. Ramanna Reddy and Varavara Rao. Later I translated some more, which were compiled in a book, Here Lies Your Motherland, in December 1985. Here are revised translations of some of the poems written from his deathbed.

 

 

Young Poets

Words have left me long ago
And yet, I want to say something more

Young poets! Come forward!
The world has not run out of words
By the sound of your footsteps
I would know the road I must tread.

 

Sad People

People who are sad
For human beings or a flower

They know life from hunger
And tell Death: ‘We will never recognize you.
There’s no place for you on our earth.’

If they see a dead bird on the ground
Around it they sing songs of rebirth
There’s sadness in it; but without sorrow
Can one take love to the heart?

 

You, Death

(To Dr. Bhoomen Guharay)

It is not true that Death doesn’t wait for anyone.
Often he has to.
He knows, victory will be his in the end. But
some small defeats, to the indomitable human will
He must suffer. Humans know they are not immortal,
but still they write poems, sing, draw pictures,
And then, Death sitting beside their bed,
begins to lose his patience and courage.

Death, you must learn to be patient and
give us time to get prepared.
Let us feel that the touch of your cold hand
is not a frightening story.
On that day keeping you in front
We shall start our journey not destined.
Then we’ll tell our dear ones frank and clear
‘He is insurmountable, but we haven’t lost the game either.’

 

To the Young Poets

From behind the clouds your faces are becoming clearer
I am happy. I can see some real human faces
and touch them.
Teach us to be fearless, so that we
can cross Death now blocking our way in front.

 

A Few Lines for B.C.

Why does he write his name

On stone
When the sun goes down?

The stone is washed away by the river
The water

Recedes, he knew it

He knows…

 

A Poem for My Daughter

Flowers do not bloom throughout the year
Birds do not sing throughout the year.

Still, dream remains. The people we know
Stay near.

Even if flowers do not, human beings remain.

 

 

Art Solomon, 1996 – Photo by Jody Freeman
[This tribute to Art Solomon is an adaptation of a radio documentary written for Radio Canada International in 1995, a year and a half before he died. Now, twenty years after his death, his words and actions and powerful spirit continue to give heart to those wounded and dishonoured by the violence and sleazy arrogance of the old white capitalist boys’ club and its “just us” system, as Art called it. His respect for women was deep and reverent, rippling outward in ever-widening circles. I first met Art in 1993 when he came to Montréal to speak at an international suicide prevention conference at the Université du Québec à Montréal.]

 

Imagine that we are all sitting in an auditorium in a Canadian university. It is 1993, and we have come halfway around the world for an international conference on suicide prevention. The key­note speaker is Art Solomon, who has been invited to share his insights and experience as a spiritual teacher in Canada’s Indigenous communities. A tall slim man not quite 80 years old, with light-flecked eyes shining out from under thick black eyebrows, Art Solomon brings an immediate hush to the auditorium. Art lights sage in a traditional sacred ritual, and as he gives thanks to the Creator, smoke from the sage spirals up, slowly reaching all of us with its sweet scent. Then, with humour and simplicity, passion and humility, Art speaks of the injustices suffered for hundreds of years by Indigenous peoples in Canada, and of the healing that is needed to restore balance within ourselves and within all Creation. The auditorium is transformed into a place of sacredness where all are honoured: the dead, the living, those yet to be born, the land and air and waters that sustain us. We all feel it. This is a deeply heartful man whose gentle presence has great power to heal and inspire.

Art Solomon was an Ojibwe elder. His mother was French-Canadian and his father, Ojibwe. Art and his wife, Eva, lived in northern Ontario and were married for 59 years. Their five daughters and five sons had 29 children and grandchildren. When Art was asked how he became an elder, he said simply, “People (from the community) make that choice and call that person out. There’s nothing formal about it.”

For the last 30-odd years of his life, Art worked tirelessly for his people and for world peace. He rarely received a salary for this work. Art helped inspire movements as diverse as the World Council on Religion and Peace, the Canadian Alliance in Solidarity with Native Peoples, and the American Indian Movement. He also helped create the Native Studies Department at the University of Sudbury in Ontario, and the University Prisons Programme.

When Art was asked how this all came about, it didn’t occur to him to take personal credit. “It started by itself,” he answered. “It really didn’t start anywhere.” His work in Canadian prisons began in response to what was needed. People asked him for help and he responded. Art’s prison work was initially with Native women, and his first book of poems and essays, Songs for the People: Teachings on the Natural Way, begins with the following:

“If this is poetry,
It is given and dedicated to the Native Sisterhood in the prison for women
At Kingston, Ontario,
To the women’s side of our Indian nations
And to all true women…
…We must walk in beauty and with power.”

Women hold an honoured place in Art’s vision of “setting things right.” In his subsequent book, Eating Bitterness, Art writes that women “are our source of spiritual power, they are our inspiration, they are our backbone, they are the heartbeat of our nations, and we must have a strong and true heartbeat to be a strong people. If our heartbeat is weak, we will be weak. Those are some of the reasons why we must give honour to our women people like it was long ago.” Women’s leadership role in restoring the harmony and balance between all living things is central to Art’s vision.

 

Urban deer – Montréal street art – Photo by Jody Freeman

 

Art Solomon’s love, dedication and wisdom earned him deep respect in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across Canada and beyond. In his home province of Ontario, the provincial government presented him with the Ontario Bicentennial Medal and named him a Member of the Order of Ontario for his longstanding contribution to the community. Queen’s University awarded him an honorary doctorate in Divinity, and Laurentian University granted him an honorary doctorate in Civil Law.

Art’s concern for peace and justice took him all over the world: to Switzerland in 1977, for the World Council of Indigenous Peoples’ conference; to the Island of Mauritius in 1983, for the World Council of Churches’ conference; to Nairobi in 1984 and Australia in 1988, for conferences of the World Council on Religion and Peace; and to Beijing in 1989, for the World Council of Churches’ conference.

His message couldn’t be clearer: we must care for the land, the water, the air and all living things, for we are all related. If we don’t take care of the earth, we don’t take care of anything. We must reverse the destruction and undertake a profound healing process to become whole again. We must learn from Indigenous peoples around the world, who, in Art’s words, are “the final teachers on this earth.”

When asked if there were something in particular he would like to share, Art reflected on the centrality of women. “When women take hold of their part and start to come together,” he says, “that will right the balance. We have to wait for that.”

Art Solomon trusted in that vision and tended it while he waited, carefully planting the seeds of heartfulness and harmony, fiercely protecting and nurturing the soil in which they grow.

His words call us to remember what it means to be whole. In his presence, we feel as if we are part of a great and abiding forest freshly washed with rain.