“So what is it you'd like to know about my dreary life?" asks theatre veteran Ebrahim Alkazi, twinkle in eye. This is irony, and he knows it; you'd be hard-pressed to find a life more eventful. From the 1950s through to the 1970s, initially in Bombay and later in Delhi, Alkazi was a flagbearer in his field, a director who brought a new sense of purpose to Indian drama, a teacher who nurtured some of the great talents of the era. And though he 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.
What he's currently busy with is an exhibition of old photographs of Lucknow, from the period of the 1857 Mutiny. The exhibition has moved from Delhi to Mumbai and will go to Lucknow in September. "We try to reach as wide a public as possible," he says, going into his office and emerging with an elegantly produced book, Lucknow, City of Illusions, edited by Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones. Flipping the pages, he analyses and explains each photograph, talking about the camera angles and other details of each shot – and in the process, giving us an idea of the unerring visual sense that made him such an influential theatre director. "I developed a visual approach to the theatre," he often says, "as opposed to just a literary approach. I was very concerned with how the stage would look, and with the overall design."
Though he walks with a barely noticeable stoop, there's little else to suggest that Alkazi is 82 years old. Dressed in a sharp suit, he still comes to his office, the Art Heritage Gallery in the Triveni Kala Sangam basement, at 11 AM every day after spending an hour at the Alkazi Foundation in south Delhi's Greater Kailash. 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; he has an impressive memory for specifics and his descriptions are vivid. I see what theatre director Bansi Kaul, one of his students in the 1970s, means when he says, "When Alkazi described a performance, we could imagine it unfolding before our eyes. He was a great teacher, very charismatic."
Given his sense of discipline and structure, it isn't surprising that Alkazi prefers to tell his story chronologically, rather than have a free-flowing chat. He was born to Arab parents in Pune and schooled at St Vincent, a Jesuit school, and those early years played a major part in his development as a person. "The Jesuits had a wide and comprehensive view of education," he explains, "They picked up our specific talents and encouraged us to hone them. The school's principal, Father Rifkin, was in charge of the library and he knew exactly what every student was reading."
Home life was also conducive to the expansion of mental horizons. His father, a Bombay-based businessman, was a liberal and young Ebrahim had exposure to a wide range of books and magazines from around the world. He fondly recollects reading the Cairo-based magazine Rouz-al-Yusuf, to which the great writer Naguib Mahfouz (later a Nobel Laureate) would contribute. "I hardly had a holiday in my early life," he says, "Never an idle moment. After school a tutor from Saudi Arabia – incidentally he was later a cultural attaché in Delhi – taught us Arabic." He speaks with some pride of the communal living that he was accustomed to as a youngster. "In our community there was no master-servant relationship," he says. "Everyone ate together and the domestic help were given a share in the family businesses. I have treasured these values of equality all my life."
It was at St Xavier's College in Bombay in the 1940s that Alkazi took his first strides in theatre. According to him, Sultan Padamsee, his friend and later brother-in-law, was a director on the scale of Orson Welles. "He started the Theatre Group, but he then died at a tragically young age and a great deal of responsibility fell on my shoulders." Alkazi flung himself into acting and directing, and subsequently spent three years at the Royal Academy of Theatre in England, which gave him plenty of exposure to the possibilities of theatre. "But I wanted to come back and work in India." He did, and founded the Theatre Unit in Bombay. "I wasn't interested in plays that had been successful on Broadway or the West End," he says, "Instead I wanted to encourage Indian playwrights and deal with subjects that were relevant to the Indian scenario. In fact, Alyque Padamsee and I fell out over this issue." Here was a man who was clear about what he wanted: Kirti Jain, another of his students and a former director of the NSD herself, concurs that he was a director "who needed to make the decisions", to be in charge of all aspects of the production.
Bombay was a vibrant place in the 1950s if you were part of the cultural scene. Alkazi speaks of spending time with M F Husain, Tyeb Mehta and Usha Amin; of Mulk Raj Anand who founded Marg, a magazine for the arts; and of Raja Rao, who wanted to set up a Parisian café in Bombay. He recalls working at the terrace theatre of the Bhulabhai Desai Institute, and later renting a fifth-floor flat for Rs 150 a month near Breach Candy Hospital and setting up a theatre there: "The audience would enthusiastically walk up six flights of stairs to see a play!" Simultaneously he became interested in collecting art – at one point he even managed to get together 47 original ceramic works by Picasso.
A turning point in his life occurred in the early 1960s when the chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi asked him to come to Delhi and to help set up a national school of drama. This meant stepping out of his comfort zone but it was also a challenge. "I'd always wanted to do plays by Hindi writers, and this was my chance." However, back in 1962 Delhi was an unsettling place – it felt like a village compared to Bombay. "It was a peculiar, retarded, feudal world," he exclaims, talking in particular about the southern parts of the city. "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." Chuckling, he recounts one of his earliest experiences in the city: seeing two men hoisting a dead donkey on 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!"
The flip side was that he realised Delhi's ancient monuments would be fantastic sites for theatre. "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. We played to full houses." Later they would move to a more sophisticated venue – the Rabindra Bhavan building near the Mandi Chowk – but those early days were heady ones.
Alkazi began reading a great deal of Hindi literature and plays. He was especially taken by Mohan Rakesh's Ashad ka Ek Din, based on the life of Kalidas, and Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug, a powerful drama set in the immediate aftermath of the Mahabharata war. "I was told that these were simply radio scripts, not real plays, but I was convinced they would work in the right setting and with the right direction." He would have reason to feel vindicated later on when both plays were prescribed for a B.A. course.
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. "Pandit Nehru came to watch it, and naturally this meant a coterie of diplomats and huge crowds followed him." Needless to say, it was an extremely successful performance, though one that ended with the Prime Minister gravely warning Alkazi to "watch out for snakes" when he staged his productions near old monuments!
What would he say was his greatest strength as a theatre director? "My intellectual humility," he replies, referring to his constant desire to add to his knowledge. Alkazi's son Faisal, himself a prominent theatre director and educationist, adds that his father has been striving for perfection as long as he can remember. "There has been a professional stamp to everything he has done," says the younger Alkazi, "and he always taught us to do our work without cutting corners."
Alkazi's liberal background and interest in a number of different forms also helped. While the NSD under his supervision primarily represented Indian theatre, it was also 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 style of the Noh," he says, showing us 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 quickly follows another as Alkazi discusses 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 speaks about some of the actors he worked with and his handling of them. "Actors tend to get conceited very soon," he says, "and it's important to know how to keep them balanced." There were some performers, he says, who were brilliant but too low-key for the theatre – Pankaj Kapur, for instance. "His talent really came out later, on the big screen." It's common to find theatrepersons who are resentful or even dismissive of cinema, but Alkazi is pragmatic in this regard. "I think movies are a very important medium," he says, "and I've always encouraged film appreciation."
A mildly cantankerous side emerges when we discuss corporate sponsorship for theatre. "It's a beautiful, velvet glove," he says, "they pick up popular actors and thematic plays and often do a good job within a certain sphere. But would it be possible to get sponsorship for a hard-hitting play that's critical of the media, for instance?" Since we're on the subject of money, I ask him about something he's more closely involved with today: the Indian art scene, which has by all accounts been burgeoning, what with a number of works fetching hefty sums at auctions. Alkazi is sceptical. "There's a whole lot of colossal rubbish being produced and sold in the name of art," he says, "and when it comes to the good work that sells well, most of the money doesn't even go to the artist."
We've been taking for a while and he asks if we'd like to have coffee. "I take lots of sugar," he says jovially, which is hardly the thing you expect to hear from someone his age. This is my cue to ask him how he stays fit, and so particular about his daily routine. "I eat very little," he says. "Besides, when you have a strong passion for your work, the energy comes very naturally. I consider myself fortunate to have spent my life doing things I enjoy."
Importantly, he wears his considerable erudition lightly and is eager to keep learning, even at this stage of his life. "He was extremely well-read, a walking library," says director Vijay Kashyap, who worked with him on such productions as Tughlaq and Razia Sultan, "and yet he never used high-flowing words – he explained everything in very simple language. I learnt everything from him." But as Alkazi himself is fond of saying, "The thing to know is that you don't know enough."
His wife Roshen Alkazi has run the Art Heritage Gallery for over 40 years, but she hasn't been keeping well for the last few years. When I ask for details, Alkazi shows reticence for the first time; it's something he'd rather not talk about. "She made it a point to inspect every single painting," he says, deflecting the subject, "and I felt it was necessary for me to be involved too." He is also measured when talking about his children: Faisal has lately done a lot of work with handicapped youngsters, he says, and his daughter Amal Allana is the present chairperson of the institute he helped get off the ground decades ago, the NSD. "She is a director of great originality," Alkazi says, a note of quiet pride in his voice. Was he a hard act for his children to follow? "Well yes, in any artistic field, it tends to be difficult for the second generation," says Faisal. "But it wasn't bad in our case, because I became a director after he retired – so there weren't too many comparisons."
Our meeting ends on a nostalgic note as he shows us an impeccably maintained collection of photographs from his theatre ventures. There are striking shots 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 Alkazi 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."
One senses that he wouldn't run out of anecdotes to relate, even if we spent several more hours talking. But he's the picture of courtesy, inviting us to visit him at home and hear more stories. "Do you want me to powder my nose?" he asks while posing for the photographer, a theatre professional to the last.