In 2009, actor Naseeruddin Shah wrote in Tehelka magazine about leaching himself away from “the Alkazi kind of theatre". He, more than any one of Ebrahim Alkazi’s students during the latter’s tenure as director of the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi, has been vocal about the shift in his views, on what theatre should achieve, how it should be presented, and Alkazi’s unbending ways as a teacher (read excerpt).

During Shah’s youth, though, when he moved from Aligarh to New Delhi to learn acting at the NSD, Alkazi was, as he says, “the ferociously dedicated ‘padrone’ of the theatre", a director who “dazzled" with his lavish productions and attention to minute detail. Alkazi, who lives in the Capital and will turn 90 this October, is still remembered for the visual splendour of his plays, although it’s been 40 years since he distanced himself from the stage.

There was a time, during his own university days, when Alkazi veered more towards painting. In his decision to use the stage to express himself visually, he was influenced—rather, pushed—by Sultan “Bobby" Padamsee. They became close friends and Alkazi started doing plays in Bombay (now Mumbai) during 1944-45 with Bobby’s Theatre Group. The short time that Alkazi, then a student at St Xavier’s College, knew Bobby—who died early, in 1946—proved to be a defining period in his life. Young and brilliant, with a shared interest in art, theatre and literature, both were energized by “a kind of new spirit" that was evolving in Bombay then, says Amal Allana, Alkazi’s daughter, a theatre director herself. “Everybody knew independence was around the corner, and (they were working) towards this bright future," adds Allana, who is working on a biography of her father, to be published early next year.

Bombay was then a cultural hub, attracting some of the finest creative minds—writers, actors, painters, film-makers. On one side, there was the lavishness of Prithviraj Kapoor’s productions with his travelling theatre troupe, Prithvi Theatre, in which Zohra Sehgal worked for some time; on the other was the leftist political theatre of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta), with its stalwarts such as Balraj Sahni, Dina Pathak and Habib Tanvir. There were radio plays on All India Radio (a few years later, Alkazi would do dramatized readings of M.K. Gandhi’s The Story Of My Experiments With Truth over 52 Sundays), and the artists who would form the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group were beginning to make a mark.

At the same time, says Allana, there was “this crowd in south Bombay, a more Westernized group, who were working in serious English theatre". Not the kind of frothy sex comedies that the British wives association was presenting at an amateur level in clubs, but plays by William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, etc. This group was aware of the cultural goings-on in Europe, both from the magazines and books they were privy to, as well as from refugees such as Rudolf von Leyden and Walter Langhammer, who escaped Europe to settle down in Bombay and work as critics, befriending Progressive artists, delivering talks and creating a fertile environment for the arts. By this time, Alkazi had come to know several Progressive artists; he was to play a crucial role later in the advancement of their careers.

Ebrahim Alkazi directed Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq at Delhi’s Purana Qila, 1972
Ebrahim Alkazi directed Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq at Delhi’s Purana Qila, 1972

Alkazi’s years at Rada, his introduction to everything that together made up dramaturgy, was the genesis of his years as an educator. It led him to believe that the time had come to teach theatre, evolve an educational system. “(He introduced the idea that) acting was a gruelling process, of the mind, body, voice, intellect," says Allana, who too studied under her father at NSD. At the drama school, for instance, students groaned at his insistence that they turn up at 6 in the morning for voice training, and yoga. A highly disciplined man himself, he set high standards and expected from his students a certain rigour in learning. A stickler for cleanliness, he could even be found cleaning the toilets at the school himself.

Shah writes in his memoirs, And Then One Day, published last year: “In Alkazi I had at last found an inspiring teacher—one who liked and appreciated me and didn’t make me feel like a fool, one who was interested in helping improve my mind, and pushed hard to make me realize the potential he perceived in me... Now I was under the wing of someone who could show me the way; he tried to teach us art appreciation, introduced us to classical music, to the myriad Indian theatrical forms, to serious cinema; he goaded us to read, to wake up early, to work on our instruments. I learnt that Eugene Ionesco and Anton Chekhov were not the only great playwrights apart from (Bernard) Shaw and Shakespeare. Reading things I could actually understand was a tremendous high. The fascination and admiration I’d had for Purveen (Shah’s first wife) got transferred many times magnified to Ebrahim Alkazi."

In 1952, when he had returned to Bombay from Rada, Alkazi had found his motivation for doing theatre differently, a far cry from the Theatre Group. “He was looking into the future. He wanted to do something meaningful. He didn’t want to waste his time," says Allana. While he started a school at the newly-created Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute—where artists such as M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and V.S. Gaitonde, too, rented studio spaces—he also created a theatre on the roof above his studio apartment, where he lived with his wife, Roshan, who worked on the costumes for his plays, and two children, Amal and Feisal. “It was a lively life for us children. We were listening to talks, meeting thousands of people, all our friends in the building too were thrown into some role or the other. When Medea had to stab her children and kill them, it was those poor children (who were brought in)," laughs Allana.

The move from Bombay to Delhi in 1962, to head the NSD, wasn’t easy for Alkazi. At 36, after he had built an audience for his work in Bombay, he suddenly found himself in a cultural desert, in a dump in Kailash Colony where nobody attended classes and nothing was happening.

In Bombay, Alkazi did powerful renditions of Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, Chekov and August Strindberg, basically covering the greats of theatre. When he moved to Delhi, he realized that the language of his presentations would have to change to Hindi. He began looking for contemporary Indian plays, and these were the grand spectacles that he would come to be known for.

Mohan Rakesh’s Ashadh Ka Ek Din, 1962
Mohan Rakesh’s Ashadh Ka Ek Din, 1962

Next, in 1963, was Andha Yug, an anti-war play written for the radio by Dharamvir Bharati, set on the last day of the war in the Mahabharat. With the situation in Vietnam escalating, and the wounds of Partition yet to heal, this play, which examined the moral dilemmas associated with war, tugged at the heartstrings. Alkazi chose to stage it against the ruins of the Feroz Shah Kotla, with then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the audience.

King Lear, 1964.
King Lear, 1964.

If Shah found his years at the Film and Television Institute of India more fruitful as an actor, Puri discovered himself as an actor at the NSD. In his biography Unlikely Hero, written by Nandita C. Puri, he acknowledges Alkazi’s sensitivity in realizing that Puri, who spoke no English, felt like a misfit in the school. Alkazi convinced him that the language barrier should not hold him back. “You are hard-working and a good student and if at all you get stuck for words in English, just continue to speak in Hindi. Don’t hold back," Alkazi told him. “But you must read the English newspaper aloud daily, listen to the news in English and talk to your friends in English too."

At 50, after building an education system focused on theatre, after attempting to create employment for actors by setting up the NSD Repertory Company, Alkazi quit the NSD and theatre (though he returned briefly in the 1980s with three plays). He set up the gallery Art Heritage with his wife in New Delhi, and built his collection of art, photographs and books.

“He always said, ‘I want to lead many lives’," says Allana. And he did. But that is another story.

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