What were your growing up years like?
My family felt it was important for us to go to English-medium schools. I went to St Vincent’s in Pune, and I owe a great deal to the schooling I received at this Jesuit institution. The teaching here was meticulous, broad and open. On the other hand, my father who came from Arabia also brought with him a tutor from Saudi Arabia, who watched over us continuously. So there was the double advantage of being anchored in your own culture, but at the same time being able to adjust comfortably to cultures other than your own. I often took part in plays both in school, and college at St Xavier’s Bombay, and they laid the foundation of the work that has shaped my life ever since.
You have often said that moving from Bombay to Delhi in the 1950s was something of a culture shock. Tell us what Delhi was like when you first moved here.
I grew up in Bombay with a very wide view of the world. Our teachers were of a liberal outlook, and constantly encouraged us to explore the arts. Bombay in the 1950s, had a vibrant cultural scene—there were always plays, concerts, music festivals, cultural programmes that encouraged us to broaden our horizons. In contrast, Delhi was extremely feudal. A strange, backward, almost retarded world..
What was it like being Director of the National School of Drama (NSD) at that time? Are there any plays in particular which you remember staging?
I had a great set of students who were very ready to learn, so being the Director of the NSD was an absolute pleasure. Those were heady days. As for the more memorable plays, I’ve always had a more visual approach to theatre, rather than a literal approach. A lot of the plays we staged were near Delhi’s famous monuments. In particular, I remember Andh Yug which was staged at the Ferozshah Kotla Stadium. Pandit Nehru and his massive entourage were a part of the audience and he warned us that the area was riddled with snakes. He was right!
There was another instance when I got my students to do an elaborate Japanese Noh performance. We roped in a Japanese director to teach the students the nuances of designing the stage in a typical traditional style. Tughlaq, Razia Sultan, there are really too many to remember.
Tell us about the Alkazi collection of photographs. How did you come to acquire such a collection?
Well, it took plenty of effort, and years of long and meticulous work. The seeds of the collection were sown when I was at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in England. I’m glad I’m not possessive about the collection and able to share it with the world. Nowadays, people want to keep everything under wraps. You see, the arts is all about interconnectedness. The exhibition currently on at Delhi University is of a rare collection of photographs from Lucknow during the Mutiny of 1857.
I’ve got to ask, at 82, you still come into work at the Art Heritage Gallery every day. You’re seen inaugurating shows. What keeps you so sprightly?
My biggest asset as a director has been to keep adding to my knowledge. If I’m working it means I’m learning.
This piece first appeared in Outlook Delhi City Limits, December 2007.
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine