Ebrahim Alkazi: The architect of modern Indian theatre

With the demise of the architect of modern theatre in India, Ebrahim Alkazi, India has lost the most revered guardian angel of the world of theatre and fine arts

Ebrahim Alkazi
Ebrahim Alkazi
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Girish Shrivastava

With the demise of the architect of modern theatre in India, Ebrahim Alkazi, India has lost the most revered guardian angel of the world of theatre and art. Like my generation of art & theatre enthusiasts, I too, had read about his great productions and heard of his towering vision of theatre, before finally one day meeting him accidentally at the Capital’s Triveni Kala Sangam.

I, along with some friends, was sitting in the Triveni terrace meadows one fine winter afternoon in the 1990s and there came a suave, well-polished and courteous gentle old man who handed over a paper to each one of us and requested us to attend an art lecture on the first floor of the Triveni building. Before I could recognise him, one of the attendants of Triveni told me he was Ebrahim Alkazi himself who came down to request the audience to come over in the art lecture hall. What a sweet gesture of him! And what an eloquent speaker on art he was! The memory of that evening imprinted on my heart!

This was suited-booted, well articulate, soft-speaking, wearing a French cut beard, the patriarch of Indian arts, Ebrahim Alkazi with his golden touch of brilliance and kindness. Unlike other Indian practitioners of theatre, like Habib Tanvir, BV Karanth, KN Panicker and others, Alkazi was more like an English professor in looks and articulation. My second meeting with him and watching a festival of his plays including, “Virasat”, “Teen Bahene”, “Royal Hunt of the Sun”, “Din Ke Andhere”, “Balde Tibbe” and others happened at the LTG Gallery under his independent productions Living Theatre in 1992.

Today’s Bollywood actor Sushant Singh (of “Jungle” fame) and Lokesh Jain of “Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Jariya Hun” are the products of Alkazi’s last repertory productions. And sadly, this event also marked his farewell from active Indian theatre scene.

Ebrahim Alkazi: The architect of modern Indian theatre

Ebrahim Alkazi (born 18 October 1925- died 4 August,2020) was the Founding-Director of National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi (1962-1977), taught some veteran actors and directors of today like Naseeruddin Shah, M.K. Raina, Prasanna, Om Puri, Ranjeet Kapoor, Ram Gopal Bajaj, Manohar Singh, Uttara Baokar, Neena Gupta, Anupam Kher, Bansi Kaul, Amal Allana, Rohini Hattangadi, Vijaya Mehta, Raj Babbar, Pankaj Kapoor, Satish Kaushik and many more. He was endowed with a rare vision of art conservation, theatre production, dramaturgy and strict discipline of teaching theatre arts who also envisioned to bring theatre from the proscenium auditorium to the live monuments in Delhi.

His 1963 production of Dharamvir Bharati’s “Andha Yug” staged for the first time iat Feroze Shah Kotla monument and then at Purana Qila monument featuring Amrish Puri, Om Puri, Surekha Sikri, Uttara Baokar, etc. and Girish Karnad’s “Tughlaq” in 1972 in Purana Qila again and Mohan Rakesh’s “Ashadh Ka Ek Din” remained some of his landmark and unmatched historical productions till date.

Ebrahim Alkazi: The architect of modern Indian theatre

Before coming to Delhi, Alkazi was in Bombay and an active member of the Progressive Artists’ Group with likes of M.F Husaain, FN Souza and Akbar Padamsee and others. Later he started his theatre career with Sultan Bobby Padamsee’s Theatre Group and then he joined theatre education at Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) London and became one of the most prominent theatre artistes in Mumbai in the 1940s and 1950s.

He had the longest stint of 15 years as the Founding-Director of NSD in Delhi. As director of NSD, he shaped the course for modern Indian theatre, establishing links between traditional vocabulary and modern idiom. In Bombay, Alkazi did powerful renditions of Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, Chekhov and August Strindberg.

Born to a wealthy Saudi Arabian father and a Kuwaiti mother, Alkazi was one of nine siblings who had a comfortable childhood in Pune. After the Partition, while the rest of his family moved to Pakistan, Alkazi decided to stay back in India. He was Interested both in fine art and theatre, as a student at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai.

The Maestro of Indian Theatre Ebrahim Alkazi was a true polymath, an artist, poet, theatre scholar, sets designer, teacher, painter, art collector and promoter and the result is the foundation of his present art gallery in the capital city Art Heritage at Triveni Kala Sangam. Each and every exhibition at this gallery marks the excellence in lighting, stage crafts, designing and decorations done by Alkazi’s able daughter Amal Allana, reflecting the brilliance of Alkazi and his theatre marvel.

A special exhibition called Opening Lines at the Art Heritage last year offered a rare glimpse into the art of Ebrahim Alkazi by opening up another facet into the fascinating life of this polymath, who otherwise is known as the doyen of theatre, creator of institutions and mentor to a generation of actors and artists.

Ebrahim Alkazi: The architect of modern Indian theatre

Besides being a leading theatre administrator and practitioner, Ebrahim Alkazi was also an ever- conscious theatre activist who could be seen actively participating in the movement after the murder of theatre activist Safdar Hashmi in Delhi. Noted theatre director of Asmita, Arvind Gaur said “ I always wanted to learn theatre and work with Alkazi sir but sadly, it could never happen. He was, undoubtedly the architect of the 20th century Indian theatre whose theatre works are a rich heritage for the coming generations.”

Eminent Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi shared his sentiments on the death of Ebrahim Alkazi in the following lines- “In the death of Ebrahim Alkazi the world of culture has lost a giant whose contribution to modern Indian theatre and visual arts has been immense. A path breaking master and mentor Alkazi Sahab trained and nurtured a galaxy of outstanding theatremen and visual artists. He should be counted amongst those who were architects of the twentieth century arts and culture of India. The Raza Foundation deeply mourns the passing away of a major figure and a friend of Raza Sahab.”

As it is said our body perishes, soul lives on, Alkazi died in body but his vision will ever live on.

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