Revisiting the story of Ebrahim Alkazii and his production of Andha Yug

Ahead of his 90th birthday, we revisit the story of Ebrahim Alkazi, the director with an eye for spectacle, and his production of Andha Yug that changed Hindi theatre forever.

Updated: October 11, 2015 9:00:45 am

It was 1963 and India had just lost a war. A man from Bombay turned the ruins of Ferozeshah Kotla into a stage for an epic play about the cost of violence. Ahead of his 90th birthday, we revisit the story of Ebrahim Alkazi, the director with an eye for spectacle, and his production of Andha Yug that changed Hindi theatre forever

What is the right way to tell a mother that her sons are dead? Actor Mohan Maharishi found himself in the role of Sanjay, the messenger of the Mahabharata, who carried the news of the rout of the Kauravas to their parents, Dhritirashtra and Gandhari. “I did not have the emotional resources for this task. I was not able to get what Mr Alkazi was asking for. He was tense. He was always coming around and shaking us up,” says Maharishi about training under the formidable Ebrahim Alkazi. “He was a very exacting man, even with himself. And when he criticised you, he tore your performance to pieces.”

One day, Maharishi recalls, “It happened”. He became the character. “Kaisey kahoonga main… how will I tell the parents? The rehearsal floor was rough but I was asking to be murdered. I came down the ramp. Ashwatthama rushed at me with a naked sword but, instead of defending myself, I slid on the floor and held his feet. ‘Kill me, kill, kill, kill… and spare me the anguish of meeting Dhritirashtra and Gandhari’,” says Maharishi. Alkazi was watching, he had suddenly become quiet. “When I slid, I bruised both my knees and was bleeding but I did not want to live. Ashwatthama does not kill me and I reach the palace of the Kauravas with the gruesome tale of death and devastation,” says Maharishi.

Actress Meena Pethe plays the grief-crazed Gandhari in the 1963 production of Andha Yug, performed on the ramparts of the Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi Actress Meena Pethe plays the grief-crazed Gandhari in the 1963 production of Andha Yug, performed on the ramparts of the Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi (Courtesy: Alkazi Foundation for the Arts)

“Coming out nicely,” said Alkazi.
“That was enough,” says Maharishi, now 75 years old.

It was 1963 and Alkazi had decided to stage a big play. The Second World War had ended two decades ago, the Cold War was raging and the atom bomb was the new shape of fear. India had just lost a war with China. Alkazi chose Andha Yug, Dharamvir Bharti’s drama in blank verse, which is set on the last day of the Kurukshetra war. Ashwatthama strides in rage, prepared to use the ultimate weapon to annihilate mankind. “Against the battlements of Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi, he would present his war epic to bring out the sense of ruin and the aftermath of violence,” says Alkazi’s daughter and theatre director Amal Allana.

Alkazi, famous in Bombay for English-language plays, had arrived in Delhi the year before as head of the National School of Drama (NSD). “The city is a cultural desert,” he wrote back to his family. He intended to knock down a few walls in the capital and Hindi theatre — Andha Yug would be his battering ram.

Alkazi will turn 90 on October 18 this year, and celebrations are set to include an exhibition and a book on him, Directing Art, in January 2016, curated by Amal and designed by theatre designer Nissar Allana. Hundreds of photographs, posters, brochures, catalogues, ticket stubs, letters and notebooks chronicle the thespian’s journey on stage. Among theatregoers, Alkazi is a legend. At the NSD, his myth is as solid as the white dome atop Bahawalpur House at the centre of the campus. Between 1962 and 1977, when he was the director, NSD churned out the “Alkazians” — Om Shivpuri, Sudha Shivpuri, Uttara Baokar, Surekha Sikri, BV Karanth, Ratan Thiyam, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Rohini Hattangadi, Kirti Jain, MK Raina and Anupam Kher, among others.

Things would have been different if Andha Yug had failed.

Ebrahim Alkazi would stage the play again at Purana Qila as well Ebrahim Alkazi would stage the play again at Purana Qila as well

Bharti wrote just one play in his career. It opens with the sound of a conch shell followed by the chorus introducing the epic purpose: “This is a story of blind people, or is it a story of light told through the blind?” “It is a strange war,” they intone, “Who is the winner when both sides lose?” Alkazi presented the protagonists as primitive warriors who are culling out a kingdom from the jungles and fighting for land. A platform signifies the empty palace of Hastinapur, where Dhritirashtra and Gandhari, wait for news of their sons. Bharti extracted his larger-than-life characters from the Mahabharata but Alkazi propelled them against a landscape that showed the futility of war.

Plays were — and are — held in auditoriums but Andha Yug belonged amid carnage. “Alkazi would say, ‘You can’t do Andha Yug as a drawing-room play, as some people were doing on a small stage’,” says Maharishi. They took it out of the proscenium theatre and staged it on an 80 ft wide space in a 14th century fort. The stones that make up Ferozeshah Kotla had darkened with age and the looming walls stuck out like teeth in an open maw. “Each one of us learnt a lot in that production. We realised we had to work on ourselves more than anything else. As the crumbling fort lit up around us, we built our presence until we occupied the stage so completely, so totally with our bodies that nothing else existed but our meaning,” says Maharishi.

Alkazi designed the sets — banners fluttered from the ramparts even as human dignity lay in tatters on the battlefield; the Pandavas were less guilty than the
Kauravas, but neither side was innocent. At the centre of the stage, like a dystopian sun, was a giant wheel with its spokes hanging loose. It looked down on a crazed Ashwatthama, who was slashing at anything that lived or moved. Silhouetted against it, Yuyutsu, the Kaurava brother who had defected to the Pandavas, spoke of his disillusionment. Each character confronts the immense truth that the war had been the result of his moral choices.

More than 50 years after Alkazi staged it, Andha Yug is studied by directors who want to experiment with unconventional locations. Off-site theatre, or staging plays in venues other than the hall, challenges new-age theatre makers with conflicting dynamics of the story, place, action and acoustics. All conversations about off-site plays invariably lead towards Andha Yug. “It brought a kind of khyati (fame) and swikriti (acceptance) to Hindi theatre because it was doing a lot of new things in terms of treatment and style,” says director and actor Ram Gopal Bajaj, who played Yuyutsu in the production.

Hindi theatre, which is 400 years old, had largely enjoyed popular rather than elite patronage. From the mid-19th century, it waited in the wings except when thespians such as Bhartendu Harishcandra and groups such as IPTA and Prithvi Theatre pushed it centrestage. Only after Independence, in the new burst of nationalistic fervour, did Hindi theatre come to the forefront with the work of playwrights like Upendra Nath Ashk and Jagdish Chandra Mathur. They were followed by the arrival of a number of theatre groups and directors, such as Habib Tanvir in Delhi. In 1954, Tanvir’s Naya Theatre produced the musical Agra Bazar, based on the life of popular 18th century Urdu poet Nazir Akbarabadi, which was a hit. But, it was in the 1960s, with Alkazi, that Hindi drama became a phenomenon. He staged Oedipus Rex (1964), King Lear (1964) and Moliere’s The Miser (1965) in Hindi. “In his 16 years at the NSD, he was involved in numerous productions that made the public culturally aware,” says Amal.

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Born into an Arab family — his father was a spice merchant who came to India in the 1920s — and growing up in a family deeply interested in art, Alkazi learnt Arabic and English. Bombay, during his formative years, was a throng of cultures — from Arabs, Pathans and Chinese to Parsis and Goans. Alkazi is one of nine brothers and sisters and his father moved the family to Pune, where the climate was better, and would travel from Bombay to be with them every weekend. Alkazi studied at St Vincent’s High School in Pune, where the Fathers found that he had an aptitude for drama.

When he arrived in Bombay for his graduation at St Xavier’s College, Alkazi met Sultan Padamsee, Alyque Padamsee’s eldest brother. WWII had broken out and Sultan had returned to India from Oxford to complete his graduation. Full of avant garde ideas, he began staging plays that Bombay had never seen the likes of. He was a poet, writer and director. Alkazi and he formed a theatre group called the Theatre Group, entirely with young people. When Padamsee died suddenly, it became evident that Alkazi would take over. Till then, he was just an actor. After finishing college, he decided he must learn better.

In 1948, he went to England, and enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. The British Drama League cited him for the merit of his works and he won the BBC Broadcasting Award in 1950. Theatre agents swooped down on him, but Alkazi returned to India and went on to start a group called Theatre Unit.

One day, back in Bombay, he climbed up to the terrace of the building where he stayed, and asked the landlord, “Can I build a theatre here?” The landlord was taken aback but agreed to it. The theatre was called Meghdoot. “He loved designing theatres. He had, on one side, steps going up and, under the steps, all wooden, were the green rooms, one for the men, one for the women. On one side, he made a foyer and a lobby where people could sit and have a cup of coffee. It was all open to the sky and one could see the sea. He wanted us to perform Greek tragedy against the sky and the sea. He was a man of great vision but could always materialise his ideas with simplicity,” says Amal.

He lived with his family in a tiny studio apartment in Kemps Corner. He designed the flat as one large room, without any walls; in one space, there was a library and a study table; behind a cupboard was Alkazi’s bedroom; on the other side, there were two beds for the children, Feisal and Amal. There was a tiny kitchen and a tiny bathroom. “During rehearsals in the evenings, the furniture would be pushed aside. In that space, we had plays, and games, and even our birthday parties,” says Amal. He was a demonstrative father. “He would clown around, pick us up, tumble us around. He cracked a lot of jokes — a lot of bathroom humour,” says Amal. When the children’s friends came over, perhaps to organise a fete to sell their old toys, Alkazi would say, ‘I am the chief guest. Hold a ribbon.’ “He was always acting-acting,” recalls Amal.

Alkazi also edited the Theatre Unit Bulletin, a monthly journal, featuring articles on all the major arts. “My father was trying to educate people. He said theatre people should know as much as possible,” says Amal.

Across the road, he rented an open-air theatre at the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute, which housed studios of MF Husain, VS Gaitonde and Akbar Padamsee. “He was interested in an interaction between the arts. Actors were taken to the studios and artists like Husain were invited to discuss their paintings with the actors,” says Amal.

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Bombay had loved Alkazi’s theatre and there had been a lot of it. He had run through the canon of world classics — from Aeschylus and Sophocles to Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekov — by the time he was 29. That was when the central government approached him to head NSD. Alkazi refused.

In India, musicians went to gharanas to study and dancers enrolled in gurukuls. For the first time, theatre had an institute. The offer to head NSD made him think about a national platform and Alkazi began to prepare himself. “But he didn’t want to learn at the cost of the exchequer,” says Amal. He started a theatre school in Bombay and began to teach and stage Hindi adaptations of plays such as Antigone and the work of playwrights such as Moliere. Eight years later, at the age of 35, Alkazi arrived in NSD.

“I immediately picked up the broom and started cleaning the toilets,” he is fond of recounting. “No classes were going on. Everything was sleepy, musty and dirty.” Maharshi and Bajaj were a part of the first batch of students under him. “He was a young man, much shorter than me. He dislikes people who are taller than him. I remember, he used to playfully hit me in the stomach and say, ‘Stand apart, you dominate me far too much, stand apart’,” says Maharishi. “He taught Western drama and, when he read King Lear, Oedipus Rex or Agamemnon, we listened, mesmerised, to an actor in full spate.

No doubt about it, we were his disciples,” says Maharishi.

Most students of Alkazi’s first batch were born before Independence and had been a part of amateur or folk theatre groups before joining NSD. “His task was to get us rid of our smallness and pettiness and limitations because, to be able to do Andha Yug, we required something from inside, a kind of an explosion that made the larger-than-life characters enter our bodies, minds and thoughts,” says Maharishi.

They staged Ashad ka Ek Din on a stage made with cow dung and clay on the verandah of NSD. A few other plays followed before Alkazi told them about Andha Yug, which many believed Bharti had written for radio and was impossible to stage due to its long speeches. “Alkazi fell directly on the text. He taught us to read a text as sounds and not just words. We could mark the words in the text, where the nasal sound was important, and use it to magnify our voices,” says Maharishi.

Zohra Sehgal in Ashad Ka Ek Din Zohra Sehgal in Ashad Ka Ek Din

They practised with passion. Alkazi’s jacket and tie would come off and, in his shirt sleeves, he would take over the production. “He would let us off late at night and, sometimes, early morning. After rehearsal, there would be no conversation. He would drive away in his grey Standard Herald and we would be left hungry and with a long walk back — there was almost no public transport — to wherever we stayed, which was usually very far,” says Maharishi, the actor chosen by the cast to approach Alkazi about the punishing, almost inhuman, schedule. “I went to him and he threw me out. We decided to protest,” says Maharishi.

What he didn’t know was that Alkazi always carried his resignation letter in his pocket. “As news spread that Mr Alkazi had resigned, all the girls started crying. There were impassioned speeches in his support. Of course, we wanted him to stay on and teach us,” says Maharishi. Alkazi reconsidered and took back his resignation.

After Alkazi’s appreciative three words for his Sanjay during the rehearsal for Andha Yug, Maharishi wanted more. The second day and the third, he turned up with bandaged knees and let it rip. “I was having trouble climbing, but I forgot all the pain,” he says. “Then, Alkazi took me aside and said, ‘You have elevated the play. But don’t do it everyday with such intensity. Now, keep it for the final. If I see you doing this again, I will be very harsh with you. I will send you to the hospital and forget about you,” he says.

With Andha Yug’s success, Alkazi became an icon before he was 40. The director would stage it again, at Purana Qila, where he would also present Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq, but neither would achieve the spectacular force of the 1963 production. “He ushered in a kind of a modernism into theatre with his foreign and Indian dramas and, in the creation of spectacle and splendour, he was unmatched,” says Kirti Jain, a former student and theatre director.

Manohar Singh in Tughlaq Manohar Singh in Tughlaq

Some scenes of Andha Yug stand out like paintings. Yuyutsu, all alone on a large stage, silhouetted against a bare wall, lamenting: “My only fault is I sided with the truth”. Or Gandhari, dressed in black and with a black blindfold, turned into a wild, angry woman as she lifts her hand to curse Krishna. These were the images created by Alkazi the painter, who was friends with the Bombay Progressives and had initially planned to study at the Royal Academy of Art in London. His sister Munira Alkazi was one of the first women painters of the Arab world and Akbar Padamsee was a cousin of his wife, Roshan. Alkazi was painting regularly till the 1960s, his subjects comprising abstract landscapes, nudes and figures of Christ.

After he quit NSD in 1977, at the age of 52, it was to art that he returned. He set up a gallery called Art Heritage with his wife and began to exhibit new artists and collecting them. The gallery has held more than 600 exhibitions, published works of artists and organised talks. He ran up a new group called The Living Theatre between 1992 and 1996 and trained about 30 actors. In the ’90s, he returned to direct the NSD Repertory in three plays — Julius Caesar, Din ke Andhere Mein with Zohra Sehgal and Rakt Kalyan. The last few years have been quiet. Alkazi spends time in his library with books, paintings and photographs, stepping out occasionally to attend art exhibitions.

Zohra Sehgal in Din Ke Andhere Mein Zohra Sehgal in Din Ke Andhere Mein

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Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru watched the first show of Andha Yug with his family. Ministers and bureaucrats turned up as did litterateurs and critics. From the well-heeled to the rough shod and gate-crashers, public attention turned towards a Hindi play being staged at a tourist site. “This fort is known for cobras, not theatre,” said Nehru. “We didn’t meet any,” replied Alkazi.

The story appeared in print with the headline A Battle Not Scene Before