August 02, 2020
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"I Was Recognised For My Genius"

Theatre doyen Ebrahim Alkazi has a new passion, photographs, and an old one, himself

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"I Was Recognised For My Genius"

AND now it’s photography that interests this Diaghliev of Delhi. On the eve of his first exhibition of a valuable personal collection of 19th century photographs that opened in Delhi on December 4, theatre titan, ace art impressario, one-time painter, occasional filmmaker, Ebrahim Alkazi, 71, is upbeat. Period photographs have been a consuming passion for nine years now. "130 years of history perished with the glass plates that were destroyed in the Bourne and Shepherd fire at Calcutta," he says. "These post-Mutiny Raj pictures are important. The imperial mindset of the photographer is revealing. Look at the way he photographs troops in all their regalia, look how lovingly he documents the naked display of imperial white man supremacy. Indians in the post-colonial era must see this. Realise how a photograph reveals as much about the photographer as it does about the subject photographed." Among these pictures nostalgia surfaces. Appropriate. Sepia memories are best relived among sepia tints.

Memories of a compellingly romantic Bedouin father who dhowed to Bombay to seek a fortune trading in silk, spices and condiments; of a Kuwaiti mother who could not only speak but curse with commendable felicity in Marathi, Gujarati, Arabic and English; of eight siblings each quirkier than the other; of an affluent Pune childhood; of Arabic tutors and tazia processions, Charleston dances and chaturthi processions. Of a home where sisters were taught at home, where the patriarch spoke only Arabic, where boys went to Jesuit school and came back to Quranic instruction. And where always there was the mixed medley of Um Kulsoom, the Barber of Seville and the plaintive strains of Tumne Mujhko Pyar Sikhaya. Vermillion smeared images of pianos and pandits, bearers and bhishtis, German Jesuits and Arabic spewing maulvis, suras and Sohrab Modi, guns and Gandhi. "They gave the throb to my childhood," he recalls.

And shaped the artistic temperament that made him eschew the family business in favour of art college in London. A short time in Mumbai was well spent though, making the acquaintance of the bohemian, boxwallah Padamsees whose Saturday soirees were presided over by the charismatic elder son, Sultan ‘Bobby’ Padamsee, freshly returned from Oxford, passionate about theatre. Bobby, who was to commit suicide at 23, proved to be a seminal influence on young Alkazi who joined his Theatre Group company. "His Othello in originality and imagination anticipated and surpassed Orson Welles’," he recalls. His head he lost to Sultan, his heart to his sister Roshan who designed costumes for all Theatre Group productions as she was to later for all Alkazi productions. The Arab suitor for her Ismaili daughter didn’t jell with Ma Padamsee, who before coming around to acceptance always referred to him as ‘that Arab’.

That Arab, by now 21 and married to Roshan, arrived in London using the Rs 25,000 loan he finagled from his father, hankering for the intellectual growth, mental stimulus that was to elude him at the art college he joined and promptly abandoned. "Too foetid. Non-serious. In that welfare state all unemployed men undecided about their vocation were at art school. I was hankering for rigour, discipline, severe training," he says. Which he found at RADA and the British Drama League where his creative genius bloomed. Characteristically, he went beyond his brief. Evenings were spent at the V&A and Tate museums, the London University library, poring over books on Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian, Sumerian, modern art, studying models and drawings of settings and costumes by theatre greats. Then, turning down job offers as County Drama Adviser from Barnes, offers from theatrical agents, he came home to Mumbai. In 1954. "I wanted to work towards serious, professional ‘Indian’ theatre. With Indians, in India," he explains.

Which is what he set about doing first from his fifth floor Napean Sea Road flat on the roof of which he built a 150-seat theatre. And next from the Bhulabhai Desai Institute which offered him rehearsal space. Brother-in-law Alyque, was in charge of Theatre Group in his absence. Says Alkazi: "He wanted to do West End, Broadway-style potboilers for readymade Parsi audiences. My purpose was to establish more purposive, meaningful theatre. Thus started Theatre Unit." Which did avant garde work in its time. Sometimes discovered, other times honed the genius of actors like Gieve Patel, Pheroza Cooper, Hamid Sayani, Derryck Jefferies, Usha Amin, Gerson D’Cunha, Manohar Pitale. Staged plays like Krapps Last Tape featuring Pitale and a tape recorder, a version of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, for which M.F. Husain painted the sets. It was a time of gestation, preparation. "I acquired administrative skills, learnt to employ ancient Indian arts like Iyengar yoga and Kathakali in the practice of theatre, communicated a sense of social responsibility to my troupers who learnt to value their group activity as professional, meaningful, relevant, transformative." Eight years and innumerable productions later, Alkazi’s name had become synonymous with serious theatre.

Serious theatre, quintessentially Indian, rendered in a contemporary idiom. Precisely what the Indian government was trying to foster through the newly founded NSD, the stewardship of which Alkazi had declined initially but accepted in 1964. Thus began a 14-year phase during which he was to rediscover ancient Indian dramaturgy, ancient Sanskrit plays only available in English translations which he ordered translated and staged in colloquial Hindi, regional plays which he often got students and faculty from the respective regions to translate and render stageworthy. Rediscover and relaunch playwrights like Mohan Rakesh who wrote Ashad Ka Ek Din, Adhe Adhure, Lehron Ke Rajhans; Dharamveer Bharti who scripted Andha Yug and Nadi Pyasi Thi; and Shanta Gandhi who wrote the popular Razia Sultan. Only Satyadev Dubey had staged these works at tiny studio theatres in Mumbai. Now Ashad played to packed houses at Purana Qila in Delhi, Andha Yug was staged at Ferozashah Kotla, also in Delhi, for a 1,000-strong audience that roared "Krishna Maharaj ki jai" when a desolate, blind Gandhari cast her terrible curse on a tragic, stoic Krishna.

A gasping literary scene got second wind. Rakesh once thanked him for "giving me a vocation as playwright". Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq premiered at the Purana Qila where Alkazi built a Rs 25,000 stage considered a masterpiece of stage design for its ingenious split levels. Jawaharlal Nehru came for the Andha Yug premiere, as did the entire diplomatic corps of the city. Burkhaclad ladies flocked to see Tughlaq and Razia Sultan. "In one sweep we’d made theatre popular, glamorous, relevant," he says with pride.

Noh, kabuki, tamasha, nautanki, bhavai, yoga, kathakali, exchange programmes with the Film and Television Institute, roadshows in Haryana with actors staging 24 plays in 21 days—Alkazi exposed his students to this and more. He gave the stage its Bernahardts: Uttara Baokar, Rohini Hattangadi, Surekha Sikhri, Seema Biswas. Its Occidental Oliviers: Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Anupam Kher, Manohar Singh. Its directorial geniuses: B.V. Karanth, Mohan Mehrishi. "I shunted awara bohemians from the profession. I sensitised them to the discipline critical to the practice of any craft. They were shutting down NSD before I arrived. When I left, it had reached a pinnacle," he says.

Yet Alkazi left NSD under a cloud. He resigned in 1977. "Acute but arrogant", purposive but authoritarian", "erudite but elitist", "sensitive yet gross"—Alkazi’s peers and detractors invariably qualify their assessment. Personal dislike is tempered by deep respect for his historical contribution to theatre. "Undeniably, he professionalised theatre," says Anuradha Kapur, professor of drama at the NSD. "One’s differences may be ideological vis-a-vis his characters’ sexual politics, motivations. But then he was a creature of his time." Art critic Suneet Chopra agrees: "He belonged to the Nehruvian dispensation. An era when leaders believed people failed them. Alkazi’s Tughlaq was a helpless visionary a la Nehru. When Prasanna directed the same play Tughlaq was the corrupt presiding deity who fostered corruption, started the rot. Failure to own up responsibility was a hallmark of the Nehru era." Alkazi, the man who can unabashedly declare himself a genius with an unselfconsciousness that’s almost endearing ("I was brilliant, my work was impeccable, I was recognised for my genius" are stock phrases) assumes no responsibility for his arrogance. "I’m arrogant, aggressive in terms of other people’s mediocrity. Good art is never about mediocrity." Nor does he own up to his political inertia during the Emergency: "Cheap sloganeering is not the work of academic institutions. Ask my critics to compare what we were staging then. Caucasian Chalk Circle, Andha Yug, all plays with a message and comment; with what the Badal Sircars and Utpal Dutts were doing then. We were never supine."

But 1977 is a distant memory now. The years since then have been spent in diverse pursuits: reclaiming his career as art impres-sario, promoting contemporary international art from New York, researching and publishing volumes on Company paintings, British water colourists, painstakingly documenting, photographing, expanding his own multi-crore art collection, making films on Rabindranath Tagore, Amrita Shergil and M.F. Husain. Period photographs are a new obsession. He continues to promote new artists in his Art Heritage gallery, mounting what artists aver are the most professional shows in the country. And sometimes reminisce about painters who have peopled his life, been his work. Husain, shy, reticent, fur cap and kurta pyjama-clad, deeply pious even in sensuous Khajuraho where he’d disappear for his quintet prayer routine, sometimes mid-conversation. F.N. Souza whose "often twisted work represents a voyeuristic twisted uncouth, vulgar aspect that’s an integral part of his persona", who "as a painter is often brilliant, other times pedestrian, even rubbishy". Occasionally he will bemoan the art scene: "Painters thrusting rubbish in the face of an illiterate, unprotesting public and media which thereby encourages them to produce more of the same. There’s no justification for producing bad quality work." Which is what critics said of him when he made his disastrous the-atre comeback in the late ’80s with three plays, Din Ke Andhere, Rakt Kalyan and a dismal Julius Caesar. "He shouldn’t have done it," comments Kapur. "The directorial datedness showed." Baokar agrees: "It saddened us. He was stuck in a time warp." Stylised hamming, superficial interpretations, restrictive blocking, accusations of directorial absence during rehearsal.... Alkazi’s defence is weak: "I had weak material to work with. Three weeks of rehearsal can’t compensate for three years of training." The failure was seen as Alkazi’s, not his actors’.

Mixed bag of achievements at 71. Both professional and personal. Padambhushans from the government, pannings from the media, love from paramour, loyalty from wife. The career like the marriage has not been an unqualified success. What’s common to both is the man’s capacity to elicit the positives, make the best of what he has. Theatre continues to be a passion, not the NSD. Ditto in his personal life. The lady writer he’s been with for over 40 years remains his passion. Yet Roshan remains the wife and valued business associate though they do not live together. "Roshan’s contribution to my life and work, her steadfast loyalty make her my biggest strength. My bedrock. At the gallery we run at Triveni, in plays I’ve done, for all of which she’s done the costumes, in the way she’s raised our children." And yet there’s the loved Other. Who must remain unnamed: "She’s my muse. The creative stimulus that’s integral to my life and work." Paradoxical? Yes. But then who said Alkazi is simple? Roshan, the wife of 50 years explains Alkazi best: "An enigma, that’s him. One can love him. Understanding him is different." Few people whose lives Alkazi has touched would disagree.

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