Artist Arpita Singh vividly recalls when she first met Roshen and Ebrahim Alkazi in the early ’70s, after the couple saw one of her paintings and expressed interest in her work. “No one really bought art back then but when they showed such keen interest in my work, it was extremely encouraging,” says Singh. The Alkazis hosted her first solo in 1972 at Kunika Chemould Gallery in Delhi and remained patrons of Singh’s work.
Credited for revolutionizing theatre in India, Ebrahim Alkazi was also the doyen of Indian art who helped bring modernism in post-colonial India, and was one of the first supporters of several Indian artists such as Nasreen Mohamedi, A Ramachandran, Sudhir Patwardhan and Bharti Kher. Close to members of the Progressive Artists’ Group such as FN Souza, Akbar Padamsee and MF Husain – some of who painted and designed sets for his plays – it was theatre as well as art that had taken him to London in the late ’40s. Straddling the two worlds till then, in the Mumbai of the ’40s a young Alkazi would both take the stage as part of Sultan ‘Bobby’ Padamsee’s Theatre Group company, and also paint his ongoing preoccupations with Shakespeare and engagement with questions of primitivism and myth on his canvases. He had invited poet Nissim Ezekiel and Souza to join him in London to “invite modernism together and see great works of art”, and as the legend goes he saw a poster of “admissions open” outside the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and was immediately enrolled after an interview.
Back in India, theatre might have taken precedence but art was not neglected either. In the early ’50s, Alkazi curated a series of exhibitions titled “This is Modern Art” at Bombay’s Jehangir Art Gallery. Last year, Alkazi’s daughter, theatre person Amal Allana also presented an exhibition of Alkazi’s own works, from 1948 to 1971. “He thought of all the arts as related, that’s how he even taught theatre. If you wanted to do theatre, you had to know the arts. You had to be visually strong,” Allana had stated. Curated by Ranjit Hoskote, the exhibition titled “Opening Lines” shared how the visionary was experimenting intensely with multiple mediums, from poster paint to watercolour and carbon tracing, among others, and was also engaging with diverse genres, from the figure of Christ to landscapes and nude torsos.
When Alkazi set up Art Heritage in Delhi in 1977 with wife Roshen, the market for art was virtually non-existent but the gallery nurtured young artists and documented their work. “They would make sure that the work was only bought by genuinely interested collectors,” recalls Singh. Speaking about his contributions, Hoskote adds, “How can one hope to summarise Ebrahim Alkazi’s colossal achievement and contribution across several fields of creative endeavour, in a few brief words? Alkazi was a polymath who straddled the visual arts, theatre, photography, and the world of the gallery, the archive, and publishing. He combined the boldness of the visionary with the meticulousness of the system-builder. Alkazi was a seminal and pivotal builder of modern Indian culture, and we will miss him even as we celebrate his legacy.”