A few weeks ago I met Ebrahim Alkazi, the former theatre director, for a profile for Harmony magazine. This isn’t exactly my beat but I had some idea of Alkazi’s standing as a flagbearer of the theatrical tradition from the 1950s through the 1970s. Initially in Bombay and later in Delhi, he developed quite a reputation as a director who brought a new sense of realism and purpose to Indian drama, and as a teacher who nurtured some of the leading talents of the era – including Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Rohini Hattangady and Manohar Singh.
Though he walks with a barely noticeable stoop, there’s little else to suggest that Alkazi is 82 years old. He still comes to his office, the Art Heritage Gallery in the Triveni Kala Sangam basement, at 11 AM each day, after spending an hour at the Alkazi Foundation in Greater Kailash-II. His steady, clipped voice could easily belong to a man 25 years younger and he rarely pauses for breath. There’s a natural storytelling talent on view when he talks about his life, beginning with his boyhood in Bombay and Pune; he has an impressive memory for specifics and his descriptions are vivid. “When Alkazi described a performance, we could imagine it unfolding before our eyes,” theatre director Bansi Kaul, one of his students in the 1970s, told me on the phone later. “He was a great teacher, very charismatic.”
Though Alkazi retired from the National School of Drama (NSD) 30 years ago, he has remained active in the artistic sphere – collecting and documenting old photographs and paintings, conceptualising and curating exhibitions. Recently, he’s been busy with an exhibition of old photographs of Lucknow, from the time of the 1857 Mutiny. At our meeting he showed me an elegantly produced book titled Lucknow, City of Illusions, edited by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, and featuring a number of images from the collection he has built up over the years. Flipping through the book's pages, he analysed and explained the photographs, talking about the camera angles and other details of each shot – the exact geographical locations of parts of the city that were destroyed during the Mutiny - and in the process, gave me a firsthand sense of how he must have created imaginary worlds for his students back in his prime. “I developed a visual approach to the theatre,” he likes to say, “as opposed to just a literary approach. I was very concerned with how the stage would look, and with the overall design.”
What I found most fascinating about my conversation with Alkazi were his memories of the vibrant cultural scene in Bombay in the 1950s (something I often hear about from my mother and grandmother) and the not-so-impressive state of Delhi in the early 1960s, which was when he moved here to help set up a national school of drama. Delhi was an unsettling place in 1962, he said – “a peculiar, retarded, feudal world; like a village when compared to Bombay.” (Some would argue that hasn’t changed, 40 years on.)
In a few earlier posts, including this chat with Lalit Nirula, I’ve mentioned my interest in the growth of Delhi, especially south Delhi, over the decades. Alkazi had a few memories to share too. “Kailash Colony, where we set up our base in a shabby building owned by tent-wallahs, was so far out that no taxi would go there,” he said. Chuckling, he recounted one of his earliest experiences in the city: seeing two men hoisting a dead donkey onto a scooter by the side of the road. “This was my introduction to Delhi! It was surreal, like something out of a Luis Bunuel film.” [Note: Un Chien Andalou has that famous image of dead donkeys being dragged along on a piano.]
The upside of being in Delhi as a theatre-person looking for new opportunities was the realisation that the city’s ancient monuments would be fantastic sites. Initially, of course, he had to make do with more mundane settings. “There was an open space behind the tent-wallah’s house, we picked up stones and built a little makeshift stage there, lined with cowdung and with a thatched roof.” Later they would move to a more sophisticated venue – the Rabindra Bhavan building near Mandi Chowk – but those early days were heady ones.
The breakthrough came one memorable evening at the Ferozshah Kotla stadium, where he got permission from the Archaeological Survey of India to stage Andha Yug, a powerful drama set in the immediate aftermath of the Mahabharata War. “Pandit Nehru came to watch it, and naturally this meant a coterie of diplomats and huge crowds followed him.” So makeshift was the setting that at one point in the play, when a group of characters are required to move towards the audience, Nehru’s bodyguards came forward to counter the threat. It was an extremely successful performance on the whole, even though it ended with the Prime Minister gravely warning Alkazi to “watch out for snakes” when he staged his productions near old monuments!
Alkazi believes his greatest strength as a director was his desire to keep adding to his knowledge: “The thing to know is that you don’t know enough.” This is a remarkable philosophy for someone of his age and experience to adopt, but he still follows it tirelessly; much of his time is spent reading, researching, learning new things about his areas of interest. “He was always extremely well-read, a walking library,” director Vijay Kashyap, who worked with him on such productions as Tughlaq and Razia Sultan, told me, “and yet he never used high-flowing words – he explained everything in very simple language.”
His liberal background (fostered by his schooling at a Jesuit institute “that had a wide and comprehensive view of education”, and childhood exposure to a wide range of books and magazines from around the world, subscribed to by his father) and interest in a number of different forms also helped. While the NSD under his supervision primarily represented Indian theatre, it was open to traditions from other countries – for instance, he once got a Japanese director to stage a production in the classical Noh tradition. “We designed the stage in the Noh style,” he said, showing me an old photograph from his large and impressive portfolio. “The form is not very different from our own Kathakali, and we were able to explore that connection.”
One reminiscence followed another as Alkazi discussed his productions – including translations of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Shakespeare’s Othello – and his little bouts with critics: once, after a reviewer likened an actress’s performance to a “cackling hen”, Alkazi wrote a letter to the Times of India editor Sham Lal, ending by saying the critic’s writing was “like the cackling of a hen no cock would look at twice”. (The letter was published in its entirety.)
He also showed me an impeccably maintained collection of photographs from his theatre ventures: stills of the elegant set designs that he personally invested so much time and effort into; rehearsals with actors, including a young Om Puri wearing a Japanese mask; a long shot of the Purana Qila, where he discovered that Nehru had been right, there were indeed snakes around. (When he first went to the site, he recalls being told that he couldn’t use the ground because it was sacred. “It’s already being used as a public lavatory!” he retorted, “I’m only cleaning it up.”)
I need to visit the Alkazi Foundation soon to see more of those old photographs – some of them were superb. Will put some up here if I get access to them.
(Click pics to enlarge)