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Ebrahim Alkazi (1925-2020): For the grand old man of Indian theatre, the world was a stage

Written by Dipanita Nath
| Pune |

Published: August 5, 2020 1:44:57 am

Theatre legend Ebrahim Alkazi (File photo)
In the early decades of the republic, as India was building institutions, the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi was headed by Ebrahim Alkazi. “When he first came to work, he found the bathrooms were filthy. He put up a notice saying, ‘Please don’t throw paan spit in the sinks’. Nobody bothered and, after two days, he came with detergent and a mop and cleaned the place himself. The staff then realised that he meant business,” said theatre director M K Raina. “He said to me, ‘Remember, if you do good work, muck will be thrown at you. You don’t stand back. You lead from the front.”

Alkazi passed away in Delhi’s Escorts hospital on Tuesday. He was 94. The entire theatre community of India would be mourning his death.

“He was comfortable and not in any kind of pain. He had a very good constitution. He had heart fibrillation and his breathing was uneven, so his body could not maintain it due to his age,” said Amal Allana, Alkazi’s daughter and a former chairperson NSD.

Alkazi, who was born in Pune, trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and produced and directed a wide range of plays in Mumbai and Delhi. He was still in his twenties when he received awards such as the British Drama League Award for Work of Outstanding Merit, and the BBC Award for Broadcasting. Later, he was honoured with the Kalidas Award, the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, and Padma Vibhushan.

“Modern Indian theatre has been touched and shaped by him in ways difficult to count. He was a genius, a colossus,” said Anuradha Kapur, a former director of NSD. Theatre in India has traditionally been an art form that has been passed on informally in a group or by a guru. With NSD, theatre became for the first time a discipline that was to be mastered with academic precision and techniques.

Among Alkazi’s students were Om Shivpuri, Sudha Shivpuri, Uttara Baokar, Surekha Sikri, BV Karanth, Ratan Thiyam, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Rohini Hattangadi, Kirti Jain, M K Raina and Anupam Kher.

“I used to do as he told me. He was a guide who held our hands and taught us to walk. I want to go to Delhi for his last rites but cannot due to the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Baokar.

Alkazi’s directorial productions aligned with the ambitions of a country in motion and reinforced its quest for a cultural identity. The stories were drawn from history and mythology but presented to international standards.

In public imagination, Alkazi was a creator of grand spectacles — Andha Yug at Feroz Shah Kotla, which was attended by Jawaharlal Nehru, and Tughlaq at Purana Qila — but he was a proponent of intimate theatre. Ashadh Ka Ek Din was staged in the aangan of NSD’s old premises in Kailash Colony, while Waiting for Godot and Oedipus Rex were performed for audiences of about 80 at Rabindra Bhavan.

“He preferred to play to intimate audiences and was not interested in numbers more than 300. He felt that intimate shows offered the most powerful experiences,” Feisal Alkazi, the master’s son and a theatre director himself, said.

After leaving NSD in 1977, Alkazi established Art Heritage in Delhi with his wife Roshan Alkazi to encourage artists and scholars, and mounted more than 500 exhibitions.

Until before the pandemic put a stop to performances, Alkazi’s Meghdoot theatre was a bustling hub of plays, music, and dance in the capital. The world was a stage for Alkazi and, when it wasn’t, he built one.

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