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Theatre doyen Ebrahim Alkazi remembered through an exhibition

That theatre legend Ebrahim Alkazi was also an artist is a forgotten truth that finally comes to light in an exhibition in the Capital.

Written by Vandana Kalra |
Updated: October 15, 2019 9:05:24 am
Ebrahim Alkazi

Around two years ago, when theatreperson Amal Allana found a portfolio of her father, theatre legend Ebrahim Alkazi in an old trunk, she was ecstatic. She had heard him talk about exhibiting these paintings in the late 1940s in London, and Mumbai in the ’50s. “I did not even know that these works were still around,” she says, sifting through the numerous mixed media compositions that include a self portrait from the 1940s, and Soliloquy in pen and ink, where Alkazi turns to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In the exhibition titled “Opening Lines” the audience will be introduced to a rather forgotten forte of the veteran, who is credited for revolutionising theatre in India. As director of National School of Drama (NSD) from 1962 to 1977, he shaped the course for modern Indian theatre, establishing links between traditional vocabulary and modern idiom. “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,” says Allana. She recalls the visual grandeur of his productions and how as a child she often saw him draw. “As it often happens with people from a hybrid practice, his incredible work in theatre overshadowed the earlier part of his career. He played a formative role in what we have now come to think of as post-colonial Indian art… He could more than hold his own alongside others artists from that generation,” says Ranjit Hoskote, who has curated the exhibition that opens at Triveni Kala Sangam today.

Over 100 works that are on display are divided into two distinct chronologies — the late ’40s and early ’50s, and the ’60s. Depicting his quest for modernism, talking about the first set, Hoskote says, “These were painted when Alkazi was in his early 20s. These were highly confident works that reflect his incredible engagement with questions of primitivism and myth, and his ongoing preoccupation with Shakespeare. These are anchored in the Indian context but engage with questions preoccupying poets, painters and theatre-makers of the time.”

A noted art connoisseur and collector, he was close to the members of the Progressive Artists’ Group such as FN Souza, Akbar Padamsee and MF Husain — some of who later painted and designed sets for his plays. During this period, Alkazi straddled the worlds of art and theatre. “He was not a hobbist but a full-fledged visual artist. He had still not made a definitive decision for theatre as against visual art. What this exhibition will reveal is that it could have gone either way…. We are looking at the question of how someone can have multiple practices and how the commitments you make, institutions you work with, take your life in one direction or the other,” says Hoskote.

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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. Interested both in fine art and theatre, as a student at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai he joined Sultan “Bobby” Padamsee’s Theatre Group company. Though he headed to London in the late 1940s to pursue art, he eventually joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. “The story goes that he saw a poster of ‘admissions open’ outside the Academy and went for the interview and was enrolled instantly,” says Allana. Those were years of inquiry and experimentation. In the exhibition are letters exchanged between Alkazi, his wife Roshen, Souza and poet Nissim Ezekiel, among others. “They show the great energetic embrace of the world that these young Indian men demonstrated when they went to London,” says Hoskote. In a letter to Ezekiel, Alkazi analyses English theatre and how there is need to move to the vernacular in India, else “it will be death of theatre”.

After he returned to Mumbai in 1951, he established Theatre Unit in Mumbai with Roshen and Ezekiel. He also curated a series of exhibitions titled “This is Modern Art” at Bombay’s Jehangir Art Gallery. In 1977, he and Roshen established Art Heritage gallery in Delhi to promote established as well as young talent. “He was a true nationalist, wanting the best impulses of his country to come to the fore,” says Hoskote.

In the second part of the show are works exhibited when Alkazi’s professional inclination towards theatre had become evident. Some of these featured in an exhibition with his sister and artist Munira Alkazi at Shridharani Gallery in 1965, when he was the director of NSD and had to his credit plays such as Andha Yug (1963) and Miss Julie (1960). Here, Alkazi paints more stark depictions in charcoal and continues his engagement with the Christ figure. “The first phase was more quirky and experimental. This was far more classical and had gravitas. It was like a survey of different genres, demonstrating his engagement with each, including landscapes, seascapes and nude torsos,” says Hoskote. Alkazi’s granddaughter, artist and theatre director Zuleikha Chaudhari has also used material from his production of Euripides’ Medea and Nalini Malani’s Medea to create an installation.

Meanwhile, Allana mentions that the memories of 93-year-old Alkazi might now be cloudy, but his voice will be heard in archival videos playing in the gallery.

The exhibition is on till November 11.

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