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Building a portrait of Ebrahim Alkazi

Amal Allana balances warmth with objectivity in this book about her father, the polymath Ebrahim Alkazi

Ebrahim Alkazi with Yayoi Kusama and Bhupendra Karia at the opening of her show at CICA, 1989 Courtesy: The Alkazi Collection of Art
Ebrahim Alkazi with Yayoi Kusama and Bhupendra Karia at the opening of her show at CICA, 1989 Courtesy: The Alkazi Collection of Art

Ebrahim Alkazi is known to most as an institution builder and a mentor with a larger-than-life persona, who changed the lexicon of Indian theatre. He brought a unique style of modernism to the arts, refusing to view scenography, photography, theatre, and more, in silos. Rather, he believed in a cross-pollination of mediums, ideas and practices as could be seen in the National School of Drama—the first professionally oriented theatre institution in the country—and later in the establishment of visual arts organisations such as Art Heritage and the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in New Delhi, Centre for International Contemporary Art and Sepia International in New York.

A new book, Ebrahim Alkazi: Holding Time Captive, authored by his daughter and veteran theatre practitioner, Amal Allana, looks at all of this. But it goes beyond just viewing the colossus that Alkazi was. The pages of the book have a ‘behind-the-scenes’ flavour, allowing the reader to get a glimpse of how Alkazi, who hailed from an Arab family, evolved into the modernist that he was. The narrative alternates between personal and objective, with Allana never letting her close association with her father blindside her. Some of the most touching chapters are the ones dedicated to Alkazi’s relationship with his wife, Roshen.

It won’t be wrong to say that the book, Ebrahim Alkazi: Holding Time Captive, is not just a book about one man. Rather, it is a story about the development of the arts in post-Independent India, as viewed through the lens of his life. One also meets significant personalities such as F.N. Souza and Sultan ‘Bobby’ Padamsee, who had an impact on both Alkazi and the culture scene in India.

When Allana set out to tell her father’s story, she was surprised to come across a paucity of material on a personality of his stature. This was partially due to his reclusive nature. “I realized then that the considerable cultural impact Alkazi had made was made by him directly—live, in either one-to-one interactions, or with audiences both large and small. In which case, should Alkazi’s inspirational thoughts, ideas and life be allowed to fade away like an ephemeral theatre performance?” asks Allana in the introduction to the book. Ebrahim Alkazi: Holding Time Captive is, then, also a course correction. For the book, she didn’t just rely on memory or testimonials of friends, relatives and associates, but engaged in meticulous research.

Also read: Ebrahim Alkazi (1925-2020): The architect of modern Indian theatre

So, in the book, one gets to see Alkazi, the painter, based on the magical discovery of hundreds of drawings and paintings that were once wrapped in a bed cover by his wife Roshen and stowed away in a trunk. Allana travelled to her father’s homes and workspaces in cities such as Kuwait, London, Delhi, Mumbai, and more, unearthing old notebooks, sketches for sets, sources of music, old reviews, copies of the Theatre Group and Theatre Unit Bulletin that he had brought out between the 1950s and ’60s, exhibition catalogues, and more. “Patterns emerged as we correlated his life to his work,” writes Allana. In an interview with Lounge, she reflects on the process of putting the book together and on Alkazi’s philosophy of Modernism.

When the subject of a book is someone this close to you, how challenging is it to write about him?

Yes, it is challenging. On the one hand, there is a surfeit of material that one has accumulated, observed or simply imbibed over the years about the person. But one cannot use this simply because one has been privy to their private life. The act of writing requires a re-examining of one’s entrenched observations.

Also, in the instance of this book, I had decided to write chapters/sequences as if they were actually happening, and therefore gave my father and the other character ‘dialogues’. This compelled one to substantiate the use of situations, dialogues, responses— and locate evidence that these things were actually said or done in order to give the biography credibility. So, despite the fact that I knew my father, and was familiar with his thoughts, vocabulary, and responses, there was a fair amount of archival research that one did.

'Miss Julie' by August Strindberg, dir. E. Alkazi, Alaknanda Samarth as Miss Julie, Alkazi as Jean, Theatre Unit, Bombay, 1960 Courtesy: Alkazi Theatre Archives
'Miss Julie' by August Strindberg, dir. E. Alkazi, Alaknanda Samarth as Miss Julie, Alkazi as Jean, Theatre Unit, Bombay, 1960 Courtesy: Alkazi Theatre Archives

Did you require some distance to be able to view connections between the various chapters in Alkazi's life?

I found that the moment one relied not just on memory, nostalgia or emotional bonds with the person, and started to question what one supposedly knew about him, he automatically became ‘once removed’, thus creating a distance between oneself and him. The fact that I am a theatre director as well, who grew up in the 1970s, I was fascinated by the Brechtian ideas of ’alienation’. This allowed me to position myself as a narrator/observer on a shifting parameter, so that one vacillated between being emotionally engaged with the content, while assuming a more detached approach to the material.

Also, as an artist, the art that one creates is at once very personal, but at the same time gains an independent life of its own. In the instance of this biography, my father simply stopped being mine the moment he became ‘Ebrahim’ riding on a bicycle and wheeling out of his Poona [now Pune] compound in the very first page of this book! By freeing himself from me, he somehow assumed a life of his own. My job, as the narrator, was simply to follow his lead, as he rode out into his future.

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How does the personal meet the public in the book?

Being a public personality, the image of Alkazi in the public imagination has tended to be rather uni-dimensional. Adjectives such as ‘authoritative’, ‘demanding’, ‘meticulous’, ‘disciplined’, and ‘unrelenting’ have generally been used to describe him, thus making him even more untouchable and remote.

One of the ideas of writing this book was to dispel such cliched notions and present a more human and vulnerable person—one who, though brilliant in many ways, suffered several setbacks, was often defeated by circumstances. He was a person, who was at times, blind to his own shortcomings. As a daughter, while I was privy to those setbacks, I also was witness to his ability to pull himself up by the bootstraps and bounce back with energy and a renewed sense of purpose. Hopefully my approach has resulted in a more nuanced delineation of his character.

In the course of writing the book, were there aspects that came as a revelation to you? Was the writing of the book cathartic in some ways?

Cathartic? I don’t know yet. But there were several instances when I was unable to narrate painful moments. There were instances when I stopped writing for days. However, yes, there were revelations. One of my major interests in writing this book was to locate the foundations of Alkazi’s world view. Where did Alkazi’s ideas on art arrive from? Secondly, I needed to discover the source ideas on which he developed his own brand of theatre pedagogy.

Interested in both theatre and the visual arts, my father had, in fact, gone to the UK to join art school. Finding instruction inadequate at two art schools, he said, “I shall pursue my art studies on my own and concentrate on theatre studies at RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art],” With no further leads as to what kind of art he pursued during this time, it came as a total revelation for me to literally discover an old trunk, 65 years later, with 100 of his paintings and drawings done in that period. They had been carefully preserved, wrapped in an old bedcover and stowed away by my mother.

Could you elaborate further on the art that he created?

These drawings by Alkazi were absolutely extraordinary as they showed the impact of both African and Oceanic primitive art on his creativity. That became the clue for me to trace the link to exhibitions that Alkazi might have visited in London at a new institution like the International Centre for the Arts (ICA), established by Herbert Read and Roland Penrose, where their foundational exhibition, 40,000 Years of Modern Art, connected modern art to that of the primitive times. Alkazi’s ideas on the history and genealogy of modernism, as well as his ideas on curation and exhibition design took root, and developed, as a result of such encounters. There were more instances when one thing led to another, making the compiling of this material an exciting process—like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.

'Murder in the Cathedral' by T. S. Eliot, dir. E. Alkazi, set design by M.F Husain, Theatre Group, Bombay, 1953 Courtesy: Alkazi Theatre Archives
'Murder in the Cathedral' by T. S. Eliot, dir. E. Alkazi, set design by M.F Husain, Theatre Group, Bombay, 1953 Courtesy: Alkazi Theatre Archives

You mention that there is surprisingly little material available about the life of a polymath of his stature. Why is that?

I think many were intimidated by the range of material with which Alkazi worked. The modernist art, which he was creating in both theatre and painting, had their sources in multiple cultures as well as mediums. It was a complex interwoven cultural mix that was perhaps difficult for ‘drama critics’ or ‘art critics’ to describe. It is only in the last 10 years that art forms, which are culturally diverse and use multiple mediums, are critiqued with some clarity. Alkazi was pursuing his very own brand of modernity in Indian theatre, being among one of the first few practitioners to attempt such an approach. This was one of the important reasons for me to uncover Alkazi’s sources of inspiration, so that his work would become more approachable.

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How did the experiences as a child—of viewing the interweaving of various cultures—impact his outlook as an adult?

Alkazi was a sensitive child, responding to the colour, lights, music, food and spectacle of annual rituals happening around him during religious festivities in the town of Poona [now Pune], where he grew up. Neighbours, who lived within the same compound as the Alkazis, comprised a cross section of Catholics, Jews, Parsis, Memans, Khojas, Hindus, while the Jesuit Fathers at St Vincent’s School were Swiss, German and Italian. Such an intermingling of cultures bred a sense of tolerance and respect, allowing people from all communities to share and celebrate life within the same space.

The tranquil harmony of his childhood seemed to be banished forever as Alkazi relocated to Bombay [now Mumbai], where violent shifts in the equation between Hindus and Muslims began to disturb the equilibrium within society, forcing his Arab family to reluctantly leave India. At the same time, the devastation and massacre of millions during World War II compelled young Alkazi to search for a worldview that sustained a humanitarian view of the universal brotherhood of man. All great art is sustained by such beliefs, and this led Alkazi to believe in the efficacy and ability of art to heal wounds caused by hatred and despair. Inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, and institutions like Dartington Hall, Alkazi built one institution after another, broadly based on the idea of an interdisciplinary approach being taught through a multi-cultural syllabus.

He was known as an institution builder—be it the National School of Drama or the Centre for International Contemporary Arts (CICA). How did both of these reflect his style of Modernism?

Modernity for Alkazi was not an ‘ism’ or a style. It was an approach -- a new way of looking at the world in relative and not absolute terms. He firmly believed in the constant need to reevaluate one’s ideas, actions and thoughts. To be modern was to be contemporary—it was to be open, it was a question of renewal and rebirth.

When he came to Mumbai from Pune to attend university, he met Sultan “Bobby" Padamsee and his sister, Roshen, and became involved in his Theatre Group. How did this association lead to Alkazi’s belief in cross-pollination of art forms?

This was an exciting period in the arts in Europe, where the boundaries that defined and separated one art form from the other were questioned. The idea that it was possible to create a Gesamptkunstwerk, or ‘total work of art’, was being experimented by groups both large and small. Designers like Adolph Appia (1862-192) and Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966), dancers such as Isadora Duncan, brought together the skills of composers, dancers, painters and designers, creating an ensemble and staging ‘total theatre’ productions, where the rules of classical ballet, Western music, and opera were circumvented and re-examined. These were brought together in startling new modernist performances that could neither be described as operas or ballets, but were a combination of several mediums, thus inspiring Bobby and Roshan Padamsee with a new brand of experimentation. They introduced these new ideas to the young and impressionable Alkazi. He absorbed them in a way, which was different from Bobby’s.

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How did his photography collection showcase his myriad interests, and how significant is it to understand the evolution of art and culture in post-independent India?

In the early 1950s Alkazi showed an interest in Modernity by mounting a series of exhibitions in Bombay, which he called This is Modern Art. It covered works from the Impressionists to cubists like [Pablo] Picasso. In later years, Alkazi returned to re-examine modernity, but this time his emphasis was on uncovering the history and evolution of Indian modernism. By systematically going back to a watershed moment like the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Alkazi looked at and studied the impact of Western art on Indian artisans. A little later, he discovered a wealth of material of British and Indian photographers, from the 1850s onwards. This excited him. To him, photography was not just a new ‘art’ form that Indians took to as new technology arrived in India. But he began to understand it as a means of domination, both commercial as well as as an instrument of governance used by the British authorities to control its subjects. Art in this instance was being used as a political tool in colonising a people . All these aspects of art, not just its aesthetics, were of growing interest to Alkazi.

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