Mumbai Mirror / Updated: Aug 5, 2020, 14:09 IST
Thespian Gerson da Cunha remembers the life and times of Ebrahim Alkazi — the ‘father of modern Indian theatre’.
It was Mumbai in 1961, a month before Christmas. I had agreed with many misgivings to do my good deed for a suburban parish of Bombay. The priests said they needed assistance with a play they were producing to raise funds for their school. At the end of a chilly drive to Chembur, I saw a rehearsal that bore sure markings of an impending disaster. I told the good fathers that the production was beyond my powers of salvage. They needed somebody called Ebrahim Alkazi.
I was fresh from playing Pozzo in his production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It was a memorable show in the opinion of many, including the media and a sophisticated international audience. It had opened a world theatre festival in the city. Later, it ran long and successfully to small audiences on Alkazi’s terrace theatre near Kemps Corner (you got a free cup of coffee after a six-floor climb). I pleaded for his saving grace in Chembur. After all these years, I don’t know why he agreed to help. But he did.
Touch, invention, management
Within days, he was at a rehearsal arranged for him, Roshen Alkazi and I. The priests had conceived a Christmas pageant titled The Prince of Peace, a sequence of scenes based on the first few chapters of the New Testament. He watched the rehearsal in total silence. On the way back, he made no reference to what he had seen but asked me to visit him a few days later, then fell asleep.
When we met, he had already built a cardboard model of a simple, three-tiered set. Roshen had done sketches of the main costumes, all to be made up in her favourite hessian, banishing the satin and fake velvet that had unnerved us in Chembur. He had chosen music, Vivaldi’s Beatus Vir among other choral selections.
“What about the text?” I asked fearfully, touching the most sensitive spot of the enterprise. He said, “The actors will not utter a word. I have worked out a pattern of mime and movement for them, which they will execute while you and I read the matching verses from The Bible.”
The production was a spectacular success. The shows ran to full houses and crowds travelled 20 miles from south Bombay to see it. Press notices were glowing. The school benefited handsomely.
We had experienced the touch, the invention and the management typical of Ebrahim Alkazi. He had seen at once that his parish cast was so concerned about lines and diction that everything else was lost. As soon as they were released from speech, they were suddenly transfigured. They donned a natural nobility and grace, as he had sensed they would. He had elected to use some of the best writing in the English language, the words of the Bible. He had also worked like lightning. He had recognised a challenge in the theatre and an opportunity to help. Cues were never to be missed. These qualities, merely glimpsed in ‘The Prince of Peace,’ would soon move centre stage, in the drama of his deeds to nurture a straying national theatre in India.
Volpone by Ben Johnson. Dir: E Alkazi. E Alkazi as Mosca, Theatre Unit, Bombay, 1959
Decisive times, a decisive force
Alkazi’s achievements, judged 60 years and more since the early days, are extensive and decisive. As thinker, producer, director, actor, manager and designer of stagecraft, he ranks with the major players in the theatre after Independence, ranging from Prithviraj Kapoor to Shivram Karanth. But one achievement places him in a balcony box by himself.
“No one else has spawned so many generations of actors,” says Naseeruddin Shah, a considerable figure of stage and screen in his own right. He was referring to Alkazi’s resuscitation and leadership of the National School of Drama in the 1960s into the late 1970s.
Alkazi came on the scene at a moment of significance and opportunity. Political freedom in India found echoes in a break for freedom in many fields. Theatre began moving away from classical Sanskrit drama forms and the style borrowed from English proscenium arch theatre, overtaking Parsi theatre and its frankly commercial vehicles. These were in retreat but very much alive. It was at this point of ferment in the late 1940s, as the theatre’s artistic and audience potential were being recognised, that Sultan Padamsee, Ebrahim Alkazi and the Theatre Group dawned on the Bombay scene.
Sultan Razia by Balwant Gargi. Dir: E Alkazi. Rohini Oka as Razia, Naseeruddin Shah as Jamaluddin Yakut. NSD, New Delhi, 1974
The Bobby Padamsee connection
Alkazi’s first contact with the theatre came after school in St Vincent’s, Pune, when he joined St Xavier’s College in Bombay. Here, the Shakespeare Society met once a week, directed by Sultan ‘Bobby’ Padamsee, a towering figure just back from Oxford after dodging the German submarines on the way . Soon, Alkazi found himself cast in Padamsee productions: ‘Othello’ (opening on the bedchamber scene with Othello slaying Desdemona, and then proceeding in flashbacks), Macbeth and ‘Twelfth Night’. Later would come Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome’ and Lajos Biro’s God and Kings.
Here was a Poona youth, feeling a bit of a yokel, cast among the sophisticates of Bombay. Yet there was no reason for the discomfort. He was brought up in a family of affluent Arab merchants. His father never learned an Indian language or felt at home in English but Alkazi had been sent to a prestigious Jesuit school. He shared a reasonably similar background with his fellow ‘Shakespeareans’.
By the age of 23, this man had stood on its head the artistic life of a very cosmopolitan city, and not just in theatre. Poetry, prose, painting, criticism and an active salon of young thinkers and creators were all part of Padamsee’s disruptive sweep. Sadly, the flame burned too brightly to last very long.
Antigone by Jean Anouilh. Dir: E Alkazi. Kusum Behl as Antigone and M.Chitnis as Creon, Theatre Unit, Mumbai, 1955
‘Antigone’ and departure
In 1952, I acted in Alkazi’s wonderful production of Anouilh’s Antigone. Alkazi elicited two of the finest performances that I have seen anywhere from his principals, Pheroza Cooper (Anitgone) and Hamid Sayani (Creon). Alkazi himself was the Chorus. It was a carefully graded exercise of rising intensity of performance in this new version of the Greek classic. It was an instructive technical and emotional experience for us all.
Pheroza was a composed young woman. We watched attentively as Alkazi provoked her with examples and parallels to heights of fury and violence at a great distance from the serene person we knew. It was also my first experience of a production where movement was more choreographed than just ‘blocked’.
Not long after Antigone, Alkazi’s restless need for stimulus took him from Bombay to the stirring art scene in London. He had read avidly about it, now he packed his bags and left, with a loan from his father. A close friend gave him a book to read on the voyage to England. It was Mordecai Gorelik’s New Theatres for Old. Alkazi had planned to study art in all its forms in London. Gorelik changed that. His vision and passion for the theatre, excitingly conveyed in the book, had shaken Alkazi’s resolve well before the ship docked in Tilbury.
One day, passing the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he decided to walk in and take his chances. He did so well in an audition and interview that the head of the RADA offered him a freeship, given his empty pockets. His performance as Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest was, for a while, the talk of RADA for its animal physicality.
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen. Dir: E Alkazi. Hima Devi as Hedda Gabler and M Chitnis as Judge Brack, Theatre Unit, Bombay, 1958
The return: performance and training
Despite being offered a drama adviser’s job in a London County and the desire of a leading agency to have him on their books, he reserved two passages to India (“I was homesick”). After spending some three years in London, Alkazi sailed home with Roshen.
He was now free to create the community of theatre that he thought necessary and possible in India. He had seen the ‘Vieux Colombier’ functioning in Paris, studied the work of Michel St Denis and, in particular, the thinking and approach of Stanislavsky, his Moscow Arts Theatre and the devoted way of life of its members. In Bombay, he set up the Theatre Unit School of Dramatic Arts.
With very little money and no job, he trained interested young people gratis. Theatre in English and the European tradition was a poor relative of Indian language theatre in the city, being amateur in the true sense (amateur equals to he who loves). Perhaps it was this that kindled the passion that resulted in the high quality of Alkazi’s work in these productive years, a kind of theatre that transcended the bounds of language and box office.
The Alkazi school, named the Meghdoot Theatre, was perched on a terrace above his fifth floor flat. It presented numerous productions of high quality, among them Euripides’ Medea, Ben Jonson’s Volpone and several Molieres, notably Tartuffe, in which he also acted the name role and was a huge success. Alkazi’s philosophy was derived from the many sources to which he had been exposed in Europe.
Miss Julie by August Strindberg. Dir: E Alkazi. Alaknanda Samarth as Miss Julie. Theatre Unit, Bombay, 1960
A new chapter: The NSD
Alkazi was offered the post of director, National School of Drama, under the Ministry of Education and Culture in 1962. He accepted, he says, because he longed to test himself in a national arena. He wanted to work in Indian languages, especially Hindi, his palate stimulated by the Marathi theatre of his Pune and Mumbai days.
He had earlier formulated the concept of a national school at the behest of Ashfaque Hussain, then secretary in the Ministry of Education. Over fifteen years of stewardship (1962-77), Alkazi built a national institution with an international reputation. Before him, it had been marked for closure. Notably missing had been the right syllabus, premises, faculty and, most of all, a philosophy or vision. It was a perfect situation for Alkazi and his insatiable appetite for challenges. He ended up building a remarkable institution on certain principles and concepts, many of them brought from Bombay.
Looking back on those years, Alkazi says, “I had always wanted to work with people professionally trained in the same kind of school.
In Delhi, unlike Bombay, Alkazi had to work in Hindi and the Indian languages. He taught himself how to function in them — not just in bazaar pidgin, but as a director of speech would need to know them. Alkazi also encouraged and re-launched playwrights in Hindi like Mohan Rakesh, whose Ashad Ka Ek Din he presented at a watershed time in Hindi theatre. He produced Mohan’s Adhe Ahdure and Lehron Ke Rajhans. Dharamveer Bharati’s Andha Yug was performed at Ferozshah Kotla in Delhi for a thousand people, from whom a roar of ‘Krishna Maharaj ki jai’ was heard when Gandhari uttered her famous curse.
Suryamukh by Lakshmi Narain Lal. Dir: E Alkazi. Om Puri, NSD, New Delhi, 1972
Resignation and return
Alkazi resigned from the NSD in 1977, a casualty of the bureaucracy and the lobbies he had successfully skirted for many years. Accusations of ‘Westernising’ the NSD, of being ‘power hungry’, of playing favourites and games, of ‘vaulting international ambition’, of an ‘inadequate national social conscience’ finally took their toll.
In the early 1990s, he decided to go back to what he knew and had left the preparation and training of actors. Using students as he had always done (but now they were his own, not the NSD’s) he presented Din ke Andhere, Rakta Kalyan and Julius Caesar.
The Alkazi’s National School of Drama fulfilled its mandate uniquely and well. It has produced people of the greatest stature to prove it — directors like Ratan Thiyam, Pankaj Kapur, Ram Gopal Bajaj, Mohan Mehrishi, BV Karanth, Jaydev Hattangady and Sai Paranjpe; actors like Uttara Baokar, Rohini Hattangady, Surekha Sikhri and Om Shivpuri, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Anupam Kher, Manohar Singh and Raj Babbar, to name only a few.
His two names
As a person off stage, Alkazi was often astonishing, a man ‘of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,’ given to clowning and pranks. A Padma Bhushan and other honours did little to change him. Did the years change the artist? It is hard to tell but the evidence has been at hand.
At the age of 79, he busied himself with being a painter and sculptor, a photographer and collector, an impresario and promoter, successful as always in many terrains. But a true assessment of Alkazi will be based on his work in the 30 years after 1947, when the curtain went up on free India. In diplomat Salman Haidar’s words, “His theatre was a communion between an art and a mores.”
Finally, I must end on a personal note: I have spoken to many NSD students and those familiar with the Alkazi years in Delhi. Quaintly, throughout our many conversations, the young as well as the older ones, all quite at ease, referred to him, only and always as ‘Alkazi sahib,’ which must mean something. I, on the other hand, keep thinking of him as ‘Elk,’ our peculiar name for him from half a century ago in Bombay.