Alkazi: A guiding light of theatre in India

Updated on Aug 09, 2020 03:03 PM IST

Teacher. Director. Idol. Man with a fiery temper. These are the facets we know. Days after his passing, we spoke to former students for a more intimate take on the trailblazing former head of the NSD.

Hindustan Times | ByZara Murao & Vanessa Viegas

We know Ebrahim Alkazi as the man who headed the National School of Drama for 15 epoch-making years, teaching the likes of Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Rohini Hattangadi; who brought modern Western classics to the Indian stage and professionalised theatre; who established the Art Heritage gallery with wife Roshen in New Delhi; and who left behind a trove of art, photography and books, now looked after by the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts.

While at the NSD, Alkazi staged some of the most significant plays of the times: from Indian playwrights like Mohan Rakesh and Girish Karnad to Sanskrit classics like Kalidasa and Shudraka, from Greek tragedies to Shakespearean dramas and 20th century European playwrights like Bertolt Brecht. It wasn’t just the plays, it was also how and where he staged them.He commandeered the stone ruins of Purana Qila in Delhi, and made his students dig up a backyard to create a performing stage.

But who was he behind the scenes? Days after his death on August 4, aged 94, we spoke to five of his former students — one of them his daughter Amal Allana — about their most prominent memories of the man. He was warm (despite his famously fiery temper), funny (‘always teasing’ students say) and loving, they said. He was always there if you needed him – to lean on at a parent’s funeral; to celebrate the opening of a play; to cheer you on at a felicitation. He didn’t care for applause or fame, only wanted his students to recognise their worth. Dig, dig deeper, excavate, as he would say.

‘He was a loving man; a man who loved life’: Amal Allana, 72, daughter, NSD chairperson

At 17, I decided I wasn’t going to get my Bachelors degree. I would join the National School of Drama. My father was very upset. He was insistent that I get a degree. NSD was a diploma, and in those days you didn’t have to be a graduate to join. But once I became his student it was tremendous pressure. I had to work harder than anybody else. I was always singled out. But I enjoyed every bit of it because it was so practical-oriented. We were always doing something.

His teaching approach was about how you approach life, how you see yourself in the world, how you connect yourself to the work you’re doing. The whole idea was that life and art are one. Students were absolutely in awe of him, he was full of fun and cracking jokes often. He was very loving. He would call them all over and we’d have lunch. Theatre is something very family-like, you share the same emotions you might in a family.

I think one thing that became very clear to me, studying under him, was that art required discipline. It was not this Bohemian thing you could get up at noon and do. My father woke at 5 every morning. He studied and read. It was very, very hard work. He taught us discipline because he knew we were all going to be pioneers. There was no infrastructure for theatre then, it’s not as if you could walk out with a diploma and there were jobs waiting for you outside.

Everybody had to find something for themselves when they got out and he was very conscious of that. So you needed to know lighting and stage design and make-up and how to build a stage. He knew we would be doing all this while probably holding another job. He was teaching us to cope.

My father was always very busy, but in a focused, unhurried way. If he was having breakfast, he was enjoying it; if he was making slides and shooting photographs, he was doing just that. If he was doing rehearsals he would never allow himself to be disturbed, even as director of the NSD.

He wanted to enjoy life. He noticed the seasons, he noticed the time of day, the light that hit the trees, because he was really looking. There’s a lot to learn in that.

‘To watch him was to learn’: Naseeruddin Shah, 70, actor, director

He was the first teacher in my life whose classes I actually looked forward to. It is because of him that I became aware of the process of learning.

I learnt an enormous amount about staging even from the way he would position actors. Just to watch him was to learn. To be able to distinguish emotion from sentiment and to leave nothing to chance, I learnt that too.

I learnt from him to have total integrity as a person.

He had this ability always to see the totality of things and there was this personal responsibility he felt in doing everything the right way.

After a performance of a student production, when he came to my room in the hostel to congratulate me, that will always be my favourite memory of him.

‘He turned me into the most handsome man in France’: Satish Kaushik, 64, actor, director, producer

I remember doing Danton’s Death by Georg Büchner at NSD in 1977 and Alkaziji had given me the role of Hérault de Séchelles, once known as the most handsome man in France. After a few rehearsals, I went up to him and said, please give me another role, I don’t have the face for this one.

“Idiot. You’re an actor,” he snapped. “Make the audience believe you are France’s most desirable man.”

My classmates laughed as I practised; I too laughed at my own attempts, but by the time opening day arrived, I was standing differently, walking differently, smoking a cigarette in a different way, and the audience never questioned my place in that role. By the final scene, at the guillotine, I was the most handsome man in France.

That was the power of learning under Alkaziji. You learnt what went into staging a play. But you also left with an understanding of life, language, and how to face the world.

We were so in awe of him that we even envied each other the times he scolded us. If he scolded you, it meant he believed in you, and we all wanted that.

He never stopped teaching us. Every minute with him, you were learning. He came up to me when I was reading a book once, and it was a bulky Chaplin biography. He said, ‘Don’t go past page 300. It’s his journey to Chaplin that matters. Everything that came after that – it doesn’t matter.’ That was also his attitude to fame and applause.

I remember little things. How he walked like a panther along the corridors at NSD, always with a pen in one hand. The terror with which I crept past his office if I was late. The power of a good word from him – that is the power of a man born to teach. He took a Hindi-speaking boy from Karol Bagh — we got the English newspaper once a week at home, on Sundays — and with his training and the commitment he inspired in me, he made me who I am today.

When I came to Bombay in the ’70s, I had that confidence — that I am an actor, because Alkaziji said so. I had the confidence to try my hand at direction, production and screenwriting.

When the film Brick Lane premiered at Leicester Square in London in 2007 and I spoke before a crowd, when I went with the film to Toronto to Busan to the United States, everywhere I remembered him and thought, it is because of him that I can do this.

‘From art to poetry, he was my window to the world’: Anupam Kher, 65, actor

Apart from acting, Alkaziji taught us about life, aesthetics, discipline and how to dream big.

He taught us how perfection can be achieved, because he himself was an embodiment of all these qualities.

When you are a 20-year-old boy and you go to drama school, you are not only looking to somebody to teach you to act, you are also looking to them to teach you about life and we couldn’t have asked for a better teacher.

This was especially true for a person like me who came from a small-town lower middle class background.

He gave me a complete tour in those three years of what life was about, how to think, how to talk about painting or poetry or world literature, how to learn. He shaped me. He was my window to the world.

It was nice to be terrified of him too. It is like being terrified of a strict father, because you always knew that he loved you.

And I agree with him, in the performing arts you need to have a gurukul system, a guru-shishya parampara, and you need to dedicate your whole life to it.

‘He was always there, cheering you on’: Shobha Deepak Singh, 75, Director of the Shriram Bhartiya Kala Kendra, New Delhi

He never once called me Shobha. It was always Shobhaji, from the first time we met, even when he was in a hurry.

I was his oldest student in the first batch of Living Theatre [a theatre training course that Alkazi founded after leaving NSD]. I’d seen all his plays while he was [the director] at the NSD. I never thought that he would advertise to teach a course, so I was delighted when he did, and I joined the direction course.

Most of his students moved to Bombay for their acting careers. I stayed on in Delhi and we remained close through all these decades.

In class, he was always making us laugh over the silliest things, doing impressions and re-enactments. He would make us laugh with his anger too. We knew he didn’t mean it, and the next second he would be affectionate again.

He gave us a new confidence, even those of us who were already established in our careers. I was 49 when I met Alkaziji, but until I met him, I never thought I could write, or be a photographer. If he saw that you could do something well, he didn’t just encourage you, he would ask you to write for his Living Theatre group. He made you the group’s official photographer. That’s why so many of us feel like we lost a father this week.

In 1996, he organised an exhibition of my photographs at the prestigious Shridharani gallery. And you know what he called it? Shobha Deepak Singh’s Images from The Living Theatre: A Survey of its Productions Through Her Photographs. I still have the exhibition card.

I remember he said to me once, try and pull your dance productions out of their traditional cast and look at things anew. The first production I did after that was called Chakravyuh. And where I would normally have dressed the Pandavas in white and the Kauravas in black, this time they were all dressed in shades of grey. My mother [noted patron of the arts Sumitra Charat Ram], who belonged to another generation, said, what are you doing – but the audience loved it. People responded to the element of modernity. Alkaziji influenced how I organise things, manage my time, use the stage.

When my father died, Alkaziji was there at the cremation. These are also the things we remember him for. And he did this for so many other students: he was there at openings, events, felicitations.

He was someone who saw the potential that could, in his words, be excavated from within you, and made sure you saw it too.

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