On the birth anniversary of Imtiaz Ali Taj (1900-1970) that falls on Oct 13, one of his major contributions — of getting the works of the playwrights of the 19th and 20th century collected, edited and then published — can be recalled and eulogised.
When Habib Tanvir visited Pakistan in Benazir Bhutto’s first tenure in office about 28 years ago and his play Agra Bazaar was to be staged here but could not due to the opposition on the street against him being an Indian, he expressed his desire to get the copies of Parsi plays collected and edited by Taj. When inquired, he said he had heard in India about the fabulous work that Imtiaz Ali Taj had done in building up the repertoire of stage plays, particularly in Urdu language. He wanted to not only go through it but also keep a set permanently with him for purposes of reference. He seemed to want to keep the whole set in his personal collection as a prized possession.
On that particular trip, he was not able to get the set of books because it was probably out of print. But the entire set was delivered to him at his house in Delhi as a gift some time later.
Habib Tanvir can be called the father of modern theatre in India. There was obviously a dilemma for aspiring theatre enthusiasts in the subcontinent. They did not want to continue with the heightened traditions associated with Parsi theatre and found the western theatre traditions too cold and alien to the Indian temperament. He may have seen some of the Parsi plays being performed in his early days. Gradually, with the introduction of more realism in theatre across the subcontinent, particularly with the advent of the talkie, the rage that was Parsi Theatre fazed. The era gradually passed with lesser number of plays being performed with each succeeding years, till it became really unfashionable to be seen doing anything with this type of theatre.
The folk plays as well as the Parsi theatre plays were written but the scripts were not meant to be published as such, and may have been used as working drafts for the directors and actors. As it were, some of the actors were not literate and they only learnt by heart, and acted and delivered from memory.
These scripts must have been like the screen plays which serve a purpose and then are lost to history, unless special care is taken to preserve them. In case the film becomes a roaring success, the film script is recovered, dusted and at times published for the general public as an example of what a screen play is supposed to be.
The same is the case with film songs which are hugely popular and hummed by all and sundry. But few think of collecting the lyrics of the songs on a systematic and regular basis. The regular poets always look down upon these lyrics of film songs and do not even consider those who have written them as poets but as mere versifiers, lower in the literary hierarchy.
But in theatre, unlike for example England where plays were considered to be part of literature when the subject started being taught at the university level by the beginning of the 20th century with Shakespeare heading that pack, plays here were and probably still are not considered to be work of high literature. The munshis (secretaries) who scripted these plays were not placed on the same level as poets and early prose writers and dismissed as mere entertainers not fit to be discussed and written about as other forms of literature were.
This dichotomy has persisted in our culture, and the people associated with films and theatre are not placed on the same level as poets and short story writers. Some of the plays of Agha Hashr, the most popular of the Parsi Theatre playwrights, were published, probably on a regular basis and could be reclaimed. But the number of plays performed was staggering and no one took the trouble of cataloguing and preserving them.
Taj’s interest in theatre led him to compile the history of our own theatrical traditions. And he painstakingly collected the plays of munshis and had these published when he was the moving spirit of Majlis-e Taraqqi-e Adab, Lahore, a state funded institution for the publication of classics. The original plan envisaged the publication of 100 plays in 30 volumes but only seven could be published in his lifetime.
The seminal work was carried forward by Viqaar Azeem and 13 volumes were eventually published on the roadmap drawn by Taj. The most informative aspect of the work is that, in many cases, the year and venue of production too was mentioned along with the name of the theatre company.
To collect the plays of Seth Behram Ji Firdoon Ji Marzabaan, Narvaan Ji Meharvaan Ji Aaraam, Mehmood Mian Ronaq, Vinayak Parsaad Talib Banarsi, Hussaini Mian Zareef, Alif Khan Hubab, Kareemuddin Murad, Hafiz Muhammed Abdullah Fatehpuri and many plays of lesser known playwrights like that of Syed Abbas Ali and Nazeer Beg (though there are some plays whose authors could not be identified with certainty) and to have these published was one of Taj’s major contributions.
The research and publication of these 13 volumes must have required great patience and dedication which was obviously demonstrated by Imtiaz Ali Taj. It gives us ample understanding of the kind of theatre that was so popular and was staged and produced by big companies with huge investments.
Will it be too much to expect of the Majlis-e Tarraqi-e Adab to continue with the gigantic project and complete the remaining 17 volumes? The publication of 13 volumes is a proof of the dedication of Imtiaz Ali Taj; the publication of the rest can only be a tribute to that indefatigable effort.