Ebrahim Alkazi, the father of modern Indian theatre. A centenary tribute

Ebrahim Alkazi

 Several prominent theatre personalities stood in a long  queue at the  Opera House in Mumbai lrecently  to get a signed  copy of  Amal Allana’s  book on her father  and the father of modern Indian  theatre Ebrahim Alkazi. It was a historic evening, a fitting  birth centenary tribute to the man  who also  made  so much  contribution to modern art movement and   creating a huge collection of  archival material  on photographic albums.

Opera House was the  appropriate venue. As   Amal  recalled in her conversation with Ranjit Hoskote,  Anna Pavlova , the famed ballet dancer, performed  in Opera House  years ago.  There was so much to talk  there on Alkazi so  Amal did not mention that  Anna had a  collaboration for a long time  with  Uday Shankar , the celebrated Indian dancer.

 It was also appropriate that  Rehaan Engineer, actor, and  Sonam Kalra, singer,  read out from the book in  gripping  theatrical fashion.  Rehaan is trained in  the royal  academy of dramatic art school in London where  Alkazi had his  education years earlier.

 In the audience was Sai Paranjapye,   prominent  director, writer,  and Alkazi’s  student in NSD National  School of Drama in Delhi.  She was there with her close friend Sharayu Doshi,  art historian and curator. Sharayu Doshi’s husband   Vinod had also played an important role in  promoting  experimental theatre in Mumbai.   Sai remains active at  age 85, her new Marathi play Iwalese Roap is  being currently staged in Mumbai.


   One missed Rohini Hattangadi, another Alkazi ex student, as she is touring  the U.S. with her very popular feminist play Char  Chaughi. She had played the main role in  Razia  Sultan  Balwant Gargi’s play directed by Alkazi in Purana Quilla in Delhi in 1974.

 It is interesting that Alkazi had his roots  in a remote area in Saudi Arabia from here  his father migrated  to Pune and did enormously well  in the spice trade.  His father had an artistic bent and gave the best possible education to  Ebrahim,  frequently  referred to last evening  as Elk.

 Alkazi had quickly  Indianised himself with his  study of Sanskrit  and other theatres.  The  theatre space  Alkazi built on the terrace of his building in Colaba was named Meghdoot, the  famous play of Kalidasa.  And as  Sai Paranjapye later said to me in a chat his first play in NSD in 1962 was Ashadh Ka Ek Din of Mohan Rakesh, based on  Kalidas’s work.

 On this terrace  early in his career he   did a memorable production of the Greek tragedy Medea with Usha Amin in a  powerful  role.  Rohini Hattangadi was to do the same role in   Mumbai years later.

   Amal Allana’s mother  Roshen, was a prominent costumer designer and author of a book on the history of Indian  theatre costume.   She was the sister of  Sultan or Bobby Padamsee of the well known Padamsee theatre family.

  Amal herself is a prominent theatre  personality and this is her first book which shows she is a very good writer. This is particularly  clear from the way she has dealt with the complex psychological relationship  between her father and mother after he got involved with Uma Anand  ( wife of director Chetan Anand of  Neecha Nagar film fame. )There was much tension, silence and lights would not be switched on even as darkness descended in the  evening  giving the  children an eerie feeling.  That is the kind of stuff for a Strindberg  kind of play, one thought after listening to  Allana.

  M.F. Husain was a close friend, he did a series of  drawins on the  play  Medea which pleased  Alkazi greatly. But when  Hussain did a drawing of    Alkazi, Roshen and the two children, he was furious

There is also a large dramatis  personae in  the book —including M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, Akbar Padamsee, Gieve Patel, Nissim Ezekiel, Alyque Padamsee, Girish Karnad, Manohar Singh, Vijaya Mehta, Kusum Haidar and Gerson da Cunha..

 It is sad that in the last fifty years one hardly got to see Alkazi  in public functions in Mumbai. The city had a claim on him in this respect. One reason for his absence was he had become a non resident Indian in the 1980 for 20 years but came back to India in the wake of the  racial tensions  after  the attack on the Twin Towers.

 After the function it was good to meet several people including Ramu Ramanathan, a highly creative writer, translator,  Sucharita Apte, who has done a lot of archival  research for   Allana’s book,   Shekhar Hattangadi, who  as the editor of  Mirror magazine  had struck a  chord with Nissim Ezekiel ,   Shekhar’s wife   Shaila Hattangadi,  Hindustani  vocalist, who personally knows  Amal  Allana.  Sucharita worked on the NCPA archives earlier and is now doing research for a book on  Baburao Painter, a prominent painter and film maker and mentor of V. Shantaram.

 One missed  the late  Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni, former art critic of Times of India and a creative writer in his own  right. He lived a little distance away from Opera  House, near French bridge. He had a unique insight into the world of   M.F. Husain and Souza and Gaitonde as also of   the literary world in English and Marathi.. He used to tell me that  some of the earliest meetings of IPTA used to be held in the house of his sister who lived on Pali Hill.  Jayant Nadkarni, Admiral, was his younger brother.

  There was a reference to  Harold Clurman,  the distinguished American  stage director, in the Opera House meeting. I fondly remember attending   a two day   discussion   organised by  USIS,  now American Cultural Centre, led by Clurman in 1975.. Those two days  were really fervent days  like  the title of his famous  book Fervent Years. There was a strong left wing side to Clurman and it was evident continuously in his  presentation. . Jayawant Dalvi and Mangesh Padgaonkar , prominent Marathi writers, used to work for USIS near Churchgate then.  I miss the  film screenings there as also special shows of American tv  news round ups which were very much valued in those  single TV channel, pre internet days.

   However, there was not much in common  in  the world view of Clurman and  Alkazi, Clurman was a major figure in the strong left wing cultural  movement that the U.S. had .  Alkazi did not have much to do with the left wing theatre movement in India, sadly when Habib Tanvir  died, Alkazi  declined to say anything particular, saying he had not seen much of his work. Tanvir was also trained in England and did most of his work in Delhi after early years in Mumbai.  The two were different in many ways,  Alkazi was the suited booted kind of  a man, given his huge closeness to the art world, one would expect him to dress informally, M.F. Hussain  in fact went barefoot,  but  there was that inevitable upper class  character in  Alkazi.  Tanvir  was always in his  kurta pyjama, a common man’s  clothing, and most of his artistes were  ordinary people from Chhatisgarh who he trained  to brilliant effect, using their language.   A comparative study would be interesting.

 Habib studied in a municipal school in Chhatisgarh and then in the government run Morris college in Nagpur.

 Alkazi  belonged to the Nehruvian dispensation. An era when leaders believed people failed them. Alkazi’s Tughlaq was a helpless visionary a la Nehru. When Prasanna directed the same play Tughlaq was the corrupt presiding deity who fostered corruption, started the rot.

 Alkazi was dismissive of the theatre of  his brother in law  Alyque  Padamsee. “He wanted to do West End, Broadway-style potboilers for readymade Parsi audiences. My purpose was to establish more purposive, meaningful theatre. Thus started Theatre Unit.” Which did avant garde work in its time. Sometimes discovered, other times honed the genius of actors like Gieve Patel, Pheroza Cooper, Hamid Sayani, Derryck Jefferies, Usha Amin, Gerson D’Cunha, Manohar Pitale. 

 The mothers  must have suffered in  both the patriarchal families. Husband and wife did not talk with each other for years.  Alyque’s father was also said to have a number of mistresses.

  Alyque Padamsee had recalled    –   Ours was a Kutchi business family. My father, Jafferseth, owned 10 buildings and also ran a glassware business. My mother, Kulsumbai Padamsee, ran a furniture business. Anything I wanted was there for the asking. We were eight children in all but I, being born after three daughters, was pampered most.

My parents were not on speaking terms for 20 years: My childhood was a sheltered one. But this also meant that a lot of things were not what they appeared to be. It was only when I was 18 that I realised my mother had not spoken with my father for 20 years. Much later, when I knew what it meant to fend for oneself, I realised what a cosy upbringing meant. Miss Murphy was a great influence: I attended Miss Murphy’s School and, later, Cathedral School in Bombay. Although we stayed in Bombay, we were sent to boarding house because my mother bore children at an amazing rate and found it difficult to manage all of us. Few could afford boarding school then. Among Gujarati families, it was only the Padamsees and the royal house of Rajpipla. At school, I learnt to speak in English. Later, our parents learnt the language from us. All that I am today is because of what I learnt at school. Miss Murphy, who ran the school, was an inspirational figure for m My brother Sultan initiated us into theatre: Sultan, my eldest brother, set the theatre trend among the Padamsees. Bobby, as he was affectionately called by Miss Murphy, banded together Ebrahim Alkazi, Hamid Sayani, Jean Bhownagiri and Deryck Je-ffereis.

So the Alkazi and Padamsee families were so very different from  much of Indian society but made a significant contribution to  our cultural life.

 Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist , culture critic and author of a book on public transport

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