On the second day of the Pune International Literary Festival, two flamboyant characters with links to Pune emerged from the pages of their biographies. The session, titled Gurus, Villains and Heroes featured Manbeena Sandhu, who has written the biography Nothing to Lose, and Feisal Alkazi, who has published a memoir titled Enter Stage Right.
The former is about Ma Anand Sheela, who was personal secretary to Osho, and the latter revolves around Ebrahim Alkazi. The session was moderated by Sutapa Basu, who has written on Padmavati and Genghis Khan.
Sheela, who had become a follower of Osho when she was 16, was one of the faces of the movement. She was at the Pune ashram for a while and, famously, set up a commune in Oregon in the US. In 1986, she was imprisoned for 39 months on charges including immigration fraud, wiretapping and poisoning. Now, she runs care homes in Switzerland.
“My belief is that every human being on earth has shades of goodness and malice. We all have dark and light shades, as well as lust, anger and ego to some degree. I believe that my protagonist is no exception and she has different shades to her personality and different roles come out at different times,” says Sandhu.
The writer has spent time with Sheela in Switzerland in 2019. “I saw her taking care of her patients so tenderly and very efficiently, with everything arranged meticulously in her care home… I could glimpse the Sheela of the yesteryear… there is a lot that we can learn from her life and she imparts wisdom very casually as she goes about her day,” added Sandhu.
Ebrahim Alkazi, on the other hand, is globally revered as a theatre director, actor and a teacher to other performers. Identified strongly with the Delhi and Mumbai art circles, he was, little known to his admirers, born in Pune and it was here that his flair for the stage was spotted when he was a school boy. Feisal, his son and a theatre director, travels down family history and, in the process, charts the story of post-Independence theatre in India.
“He was a guru to many in the theatre and cinema worlds and a hero to several. To a child, the parent is very rarely a hero. We see all the other dimensions of the person, including emotional situations,” said Feisal.
At the session, he spoke about recreating, in his book, the rich cultural legacy of independence-era India and the flourishing art and theatre scenes in Mumbai and other parts of the country. “It was a moment in Indian history, just before Independence, when many artists were looking for the way forward,” said Feisal.
The other dramatic personae of the book includes Sultan Padamsee, a genius on the stage and art, who died by suicide at a young age. He had presented Othello backwards, starting with the murder of Desdemona and in 1942, raising eyebrows in Mumbai for daring to tinker with William Shakespeare.
“If my father had not met the Padamsees, I am not sure he would have gone into theatre because he was very keen on painting,” said Feisal, underlining how great things in history are, often, the outcome of small chances.
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