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Feisal Alkazi turns into an interpreter of memories

The family memoir looks at the evolution of Indian theatre and art from the 1940s-90s through the lens of Alkazi-Padamsee family ties

The Padamsee clan: Jafferbhai and Kulsum with Sultan (standing, right), Roshen (standing, left), Shiraz (seated, centre), Zarine (seated, right). Photo: courtesy Alkazi Theatre Archives

"English theatre in Bombay was born on my grandmother’s horseshoe-shaped dining table in 1943. Literally. A group of young college students, among them my father, Ebrahim Alkazi, listened wide-eyed as my uncle, Sultan Padamsee, spoke of how they intended to form their own group, simply called the Theatre Group.” This is how Feisal Alkazi starts his book Enter Stage Right, published by Speaking Tiger. The memoir looks at the evolution of Indian theatre and art from the 1940s to the 1990s through the lens of Alkazi-Padamsee family ties. Alkazi has likened writing this book to opening an old cupboard filled with memories, with some familiar and easy to recount, while others, hidden at the back, reveal secrets he never knew.

The roots of Enter Stage Right were sown at a Diwali party hosted by author Paro Anand in 2018, when Renuka Chatterjee of Speaking Tiger suggested he write a family memoir. “I was gobsmacked by the idea,” he reminisces. But his wife felt it was a great idea, for Alkazi was always full of anecdotes about his family. And when he actually sat down to write the initial chapters, he was surprised at just how effortlessly the story was coming together.

“In 2019, when I had written a fair bit, I felt I needed to make a trip to Mumbai to spend time with my cousins. One of them, Ayesha Sayani, gave me open access to the long video interviews she had done with my mother, Roshen, aunt Candy, uncle Alyque (Padamsee) and family friends like Gerson da Cunha,” he says.

Ebrahim and Roshen on their wedding day, October 1946. Photo: courtesy Alkazi Theatre Archives
Ebrahim and Roshen on their wedding day, October 1946. Photo: courtesy Alkazi Theatre Archives

Alkazi finished the book in early 2020 but the pandemic delayed publication. In August, when his father—the doyen of Indian theatre, Ebrahim Alkazi—died, he added an epilogue. “Everyone in my family was a raconteur. One got to hear so many stories. Even if some of them took place before I was born, one tended to believe you had lived through them all,” says Alkazi. “And not much has been written about Bombay theatre between the 1940s and 1980s—decades which were crucial to the development of Indian theatre. While my father’s days at the National School of Drama (NSD) are well-known, not many know of how he got there, and of the Padamsees’ influence on him.”

One of the most significant figures in this context is Sultan, or Bobby, Padamsee, one of Ebrahim Alkazi’s closest friends, to whom the author dedicates the first few chapters of the book. In fact, it was while Padamsee’s infamous production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome was embroiled in controversy, for being too “salacious”, that his younger sister, Roshen, met Ebrahim. The two married years later, bringing together the Alkazi and Padamsee families.

'Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi/Padamsee family memoir' By Feisal Alkazi, published by Speaking Tiger
'Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi/Padamsee family memoir' By Feisal Alkazi, published by Speaking Tiger

Bobby is seen as pivotal to the evolution of English theatre in India. He had been at Christ Church College, Oxford, for just six months when World War II broke out and he had to return to India, which was in the midst of its quest for independence. In search of his own identity, Bobby turned to painting, poetry and theatre. “It was April 1942, and Bobby was nineteen years old. In the next three and a half years he lived the most intensely creative period possible for an artist. He wrote more than a hundred poems...he turned out artworks in watercolours, oils and crayons, and his biggest achievement was founding the Theatre Group, bringing a new meaning to theatre, by making it an integral part of our contemporary lives,” writes Alkazi.

That period was a watershed one for Indian theatre, with new sensibilities being ushered in for a new audience. Marathi theatre had just celebrated its centenary, and continued in its vibrant tradition. The early years of the 1940s also saw the establishment of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta) in both Calcutta and Bombay, with plays imbued with nationalistic fervour, dealing with issues such as the Bengal famine.This was about the time Prithviraj Kapoor’s travelling theatre company was presenting plays on social themes such as the need for communal harmony. And in 1943, Unity Theatre, headed by Utpal Dutt, was formed, moving from Shakespearean dramas in English to the plight of coal miners.

Alyque Padamsee in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman'. Photo: courtesy Alkazi Theatre Archives
Alyque Padamsee in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman'. Photo: courtesy Alkazi Theatre Archives

Alkazi alludes to all these movements in his book, offering context to the genesis of the Theatre Group founded by Bobby Padamsee, who wanted to bring part of the New York ‘Group Theatre’ movement of the 1930s to Mumbai—to give a voice to playwrights and actors who were shut out of commercial theatre. He managed to do this, with a group of theatre lovers like Ebrahim, until his death on 9 January 1946.

In the subsequent chapters, Alkazi goes on to talk about his father’s visit to England, soon after Bobby’s death, where he frequented places like Dartington Hall (which focused on the arts, social justice and sustainability) and interacted with personalities in the theatre and arts such as American theatre critic Harold Clurman and Michael Chekhov, a noted follower of the Stanislavski method. This would have a far-reaching impact on his own productions as he took theatre out of the proscenium. The book also sheds light on the rift in the Theatre Group in 1952, when Ebrahim broke away, set up his own theatre company and moved to Delhi to head the NSD in 1962.

The aspects that really touch a chord in Enter Stage Right, though, are the stories of the strong women in Alkazi’s life—whether it was his maternal grandmother, Kulsumbai, mother Roshen, or aunt Pearl Padamsee. Each of these women stands out for her courage in breaking the rules. Kulsumbai, after whom the family home in Mumbai, Kulsum Terrace, is named, grew up in a village in Saurashtra.

“Even though she didn’t know English, she undertook a long journey to England for her children’s education. The boys were put in one school and the girls in the other, and she stayed in the middle in a village touching Sherwood forest for some time before coming back to India,” says Alkazi.

Later, when the world was on the cusp of World War II, and ships were getting torpedoed, she journeyed to England to bring Bobby back home from Oxford. “She was a very gutsy woman, someone who wanted to make sure that her children’s stories would be different from hers. Her sisters were not like her and were happy to live a circumscribed life,” says Alkazi.

His mother, Roshen, too learnt to live life on her own terms. He terms her work on costumes for her brother’s and husband’s productions—from the age of 17 to 77—and on costume history, as formidable. Working with her in the back rooms of museums in Russia and Turkey was an enriching experience. Alkazi writes of the time she packed her bags and moved with her two children to Chennai to learn Bharatanatyam under the tutelage of Balasaraswati. “After her separation with my father (in 1963), my mother embarked on an independent career in the arts. She was a published poet, an art critic and a historian—as much a renaissance person as my father,” he says.

The book has an entire chapter dedicated to Pearl Padamsee, who was married to his uncle Alyque, though they later separated. He describes her as a person with a vibrant personality, “tiny in height but gigantic in talent”, someone who nurtured an entire generation of artists. A deeply caring person, she would regale Alkazi with stories and songs, send letters packed with news, becoming more than an aunt to them—a close friend. “Both my mother and Pearl were married to formidable figures, and yet they held their own ground. A lot of my work as a gender activist comes from my mother’s life, the choices she made and the readiness to take in the consequences head on,” he says.

Through the book, one sees Alkazi growing up in a vibrant environment, filled with art, theatre and literature. He writes about evenings in the 1950swhen his parents would host the likes of dance choreographer Merce Cunningham and musician John Cage at their home in Vithal Court, Mumbai. Or breakfasts with poet-playwright Nissim Ezekiel, and watching M.F. Husain and members of the Progressive Artists’ Group at work. The house doubled up as his father’s workspace, with the children completely involved in all his activities. “It was always such an adda, and we grew up around the art and theatre community. My friends, Ram Rahman or Malati Khanna, were children of artists. Every house was a studio, and we took it all in,” he says.

People often describe his childhood as “unusual”, but it was the only way of life Alkazi knew. And he imbibed his family’s priorities, of buying a Tyeb Mehta painting or prioritising spending on a book or a concert. In fact, the book seems to close on the end of an era of intense creativity, with a new discourse marking the beginning of an independent India, and the figures that shaped this period of optimism.

It is only apt that Enter Stage Right concludes at the very same table at Kulsum Terrace it started with. “My father was the last survivor of those who had gathered at the horseshoe-shaped dining table seventy-seven years earlier to establish the Theatre Group,” writes Alkazi. “With his going an age has ended forever.”

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