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An artist called Alkazi

  • A new exhibition opens up another facet into the life of Ebrahim Alkazi, who is otherwise known as the doyen of theatre and builder of institutions
  • Majority of these works have not been on public view since they were shown at exhibitions in the 1950s and 1960s

‘A Blind King’ (mixed media on paper), 1960s. Courtesy art heritage gallery
‘A Blind King’ (mixed media on paper), 1960s. Courtesy art heritage gallery

At the Art Heritage gallery, located in Triveni Kala Sangam, Delhi, it’s hard to tear one’s eyes away from a work titled Elopement. It’s unusual to find a mixed media workfrom 1949, a time when artists preferred the more classical mediums of oil and watercolour on canvas. It also shows the artist’s fascination with primitivism, neolithic drawings and Oceanic sculpture.

More such works can be seen as part of the exhibition Opening Lines, which offers a rare glimpse into the art of Ebrahim Alkazi. For viewers, it opens up another facet into the fascinating life of this polymath, who otherwise is known as the doyen of theatre, creator of institutions and mentor to several actors and artists. The majority of these works have not been on public view since they were shown at exhibitions at the Asian Institute, London, Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, and Shridharani Gallery, Delhi, in the 1950s and 1960s.

The show—spread across Art Heritage 1, Art Heritage 2 and Shridharani Gallery—also seeks to highlight the collaborations and friendships that shaped his visual vocabulary. Take, for instance, the Lovers series, which Elopement is part of—it was a response to a poem by Nissim Ezekiel. “Nissim and Ebrahim Alkazi were the closest of friends," says poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote, curator of the show. In fact, Ezekiel, together with Alkazi and his wife Roshen, established Theatre Unit in Mumbai. “Ezekiel was my guru, and as a teenager, I had heard from him about Alkazi’s artworks. But I lost track of this over the years, as nothing more was ever heard of them," adds Hoskote.

Self-portrait (acrylic on canvas), mid-1940s, by Ebrahim Alkazi
Self-portrait (acrylic on canvas), mid-1940s, by Ebrahim Alkazi

But then, two-and-a-half years ago, he got a call from theatre director and Alkazi’s daughter Amal Allana, about a portfolio of drawings and paintings that she had discovered in an old trunk. These included a self-portrait (acrylic on canvas) from the 1940s and A Blind King, mixed media on paper from the 1960s. An ecstatic Allana asked Hoskote to curate the show to mark Alkazi’s 94th birthday this year. “The works blew me away. I am not given to hyperbole, but there was nothing on the Indian scene like these at the time. His work was so much more advanced than that of his contemporaries, and so dramatically different," says Hoskote.

Alkazi was in his 20s when he made works such as Soliloquy, pen and ink on paper, in the 1940s, but his world view and response to larger global questions stand out. “He was working in such a committed and intense manner with primitivism, which we know to be a troubled concept as it tends to exoticize the subject, but it offered its post-World War II practitioners a way out of stifling Western artistic conventions. He was clearly aware of these debates and chose to make his own idiom around the key themes of the hunt, sacrifice and sexual communion," he adds.

Looking at Alkazi’s works, one can infer the possible influence of artists like Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, as also of art historian and scholar Robert Goldwater, who wrote Primitivism In Modern Painting. While there is an immense sense of movement in his line drawings—a response to his engagement with theatre—there is also a pull away from the dramatic. “And he does this by being extremely experimental with his medium. He made a highly unusual choice of using the scraper board, which, to me, affirms his engraver-like preoccupation with resist and substrate," explains Hoskote.

As the curator, he has had to don the mantle of a detective as well to identify the various mediums and techniques that Alkazi has used in his works—some of these range from markers and charcoal to roller printer ink, frottage and even carbon paper. “He is not translating from theatre to the visual arts, but both are independent of each other," says Hoskote.

An interesting work in the show is Re:Staging Medea/Performing An Archive, an 18-minute video work by Alkazi’s granddaughter and artist Zuleikha Chaudhari. In his theatre practice, Alkazi chose some very powerful female characters from Greek mythology, such as Medea and Antigone, and Chaudhari wanted to create an immersive work around that. The annotated video work features archival material, such as photographs of Alkazi’s 1961 production of Euripides’ Medea, 32 Medea drawings by the late M.F. Husain and Nalini Malani’s theatre collaboration with performer Alaknanda Samarth of Heiner Müller’s rewriting of Medea. “Artists like Husain or Tyeb Mehta would watch Alkazi’s plays or rehearsals in rapt attention and then create works in response to those. Trojan Women by Tyeb is another such example. The show presents a constellation of ways of looking at Alkazi," says Hoskote.

Opening Lines is on view at Art Heritage and Shridharani Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, Delhi, till 11 November.

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