It was Sultan who seduced him away from painting into theatre. "You can't do everything," he says dismissively about those early years as a painter. "Besides, painting is so two-dimensional compared to the theatre, which is a living art where everything, the sets, actors, script, movement all comes together," says Alkazi, who once brought B.K. Iyengar, then an unknown teacher from Pune, to teach his actors yoga. "It was wonderful, all that joyfulness and dedication, wanting to achieve the highest standards." All his friends in the art world—Vasudev Gaitonde, M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee—wanted to share in this exciting new world, pitching in by painting sets for his productions. And when he moved to Delhi, as director of the
NSD where he served famously for 15 years, "many artists moved with me".
It was this "long, affectionate connection" with the artists that was the seed of his priceless art collection, arguably the largest private collection of Indian art anywhere in the world. Alkazi insists it wasn't greed that drove him to start his collection, but a genuine desire to help out his artist friends. "There were so few art buyers in those days, most artists couldn't even afford to rent gallery space for exhibitions." As the son of a rich Arab trader who had settled down with his large family (nine children) in a mansion in Pune, Alkazi decided to play patron. He rented gallery space for the struggling artists. And when he noticed that Tyeb was always sidelined at these exhibitions ("there was so much politics, the resentment and jealousy among the artists was unbelievable"), Alkazi rented an entire gallery wing for Tyeb's first exhibition. The artists repaid him in kind, not only painting his sets for free but gifting him their drawings and paintings. Again when F.N. Souza, after a brilliant debut in London, migrated to the US and fell on hard times, it was Alkazi who came to the rescue. He was not the first—that role fell to an American collector who paid Souza 500 dollars a month to produce paintings for him. "But Souza sent him all rubbish," recalls Alkazi, who prides himself on his fine, discerning eye for art. When relations between the artist and his American patron strained, Alkazi stepped in, agreeing to buy Souza's paintings. It wasn't easy for Souza to dupe his new patron. "I knew what I wanted," says Alkazi, "I wouldn't settle for anything less."
The collector in him was roused too. With photography having reached India less than a year after it was invented in 1839, and nearly every Briton—visitor or resident—returning home from India with a personal album or two, Alkazi could finally start a collection that was endless. His first forays were to Portabello Road, where he found people selling old photos from barrows in the flea market. But the stall-owners proved well-informed and well-stocked. "You could ask them for anything, British uniforms of a particular regiment, for example, and they'd come up with it." Slowly, he got the hang of it. "You develop an eye for the unusual, pick up something that serves your purpose or rounds off a collection." Slowly, he began to acquire a reputation among dealers as this bloke who specialised in India photographs. They brought him anything that may interest him. Brought him entire albums before dismantling them to sell as individual photographs. On the other hand, he found London's auction houses "very intimidating, I did not even know how to bid". He's come a long way since then, thanks to his passion to acquire old albums intact, before they are dismantled by dealers. The personal album of a Kanpur civil surgeon, John Tressider, for example. He wanted it, he says, because he was drawn to the amateur photographer, a Mutiny survivor, who documented the people around him, both his British friends and Indian "acquaintances". There was fierce bidding for that album, but it was Alkazi who won it. The English aristocracy, he avers, "are too kanjoos (miserly). They have neither the money nor the nerve for this. But they have a long tradition of collecting, they have the finesse to preserve their collections".
So, why does he want to bring home his collection, over 80,000 rare photographs in all, now lying scattered in his two centres in London and New York, back here to India? That too, even while "people think I'm mad when I expect them to handle my collections with care", where he dreads being chased by publishers who want to publish coffee-tablers "of pretty pictures without context", and friends who will want to gape at his pictures wondering how much they cost. Because, says Alkazi, "these photos were never meant to lie in boxes". He wants to throw open his collection to select scholars, to open a private research institution that offers its priceless archives that is unlike any other in the country. His foundation also plans to publish books, not mere coffee-tablers but scholarly books that put the photographs in their right context. The first of the series, Lucknow: City of Illusion, is already out, showcasing the photographs of Felice Beato, "the grandfather of war photography."Mermaid Gates, Lucknow, photographed by Samuel Bourne
There's another reason why Alkazi is hurrying to bring his vast collection home. It's a fear that it will end up where he picked it up from: the marketplace. "Death taxes abroad are so high that many families are forced to sell off their inherited collections. Even the library of Sir Kenneth Clark, who headed the National Gallery in London, was sold off because his children couldn't afford to keep it." The Foundation, Alkazi hopes, is the only way to ensure that his life's endeavour won't crumble into anonymity after him. Like all great artists, the collector is rooting for immortality.
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT