Review: Enter Stage Right by Feisal Alkazi
The Batla house qabristan near Jamia in Delhi is a historic place. Luminaries such as the freedom fighter MA Ansari, the writer Qurratul Ain Hyder, Brigadier Usman, the lion of Naushera, former Vice Chancellors, agnostic Sufis, atheistic revolutionaries, all rub shoulders here with believing commoners. Still, it surprised me to discover Ebrahim Alkazi lying here, just a few feet away from my very pious father. One doesn’t associate Alkazi with Islam, or Muslims since he seemed to transcend all restrictive identities in his life. But I discovered that his Arab father ensured that, as a child, he only spoke Arabic at home, prayed five times a day, learnt the Quran and its exegesis from a mullah and even accompanied his mother to mushairas in Pune, round about the time that Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand were doing stints in that city too.
This book is such a rich and sumptuous feast that I had to put it aside every few pages so that I could digest all the abundance. Imagine growing up in a house where life was one big rehearsal at home, whether at Kulsum Terrace or at the original Meghdoot theatre on the terrace in Warden Road, where MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta and Krishan Khanna regularly dropped in, where international musicians and dancers such as John Cage and Merce Cunningham sashayed in and out, and where poets like Nissim Ezekiel were constant companions. Imagine a childhood where you spend two years in Chennai as your mother, an expert in western dance, suddenly decides, at 30, to learn Bharatnatynam from the one and only Balasaraswati, or that, at 14, you travel to Baroda and interact with KG Subramanyan and his Baroda gang of Bhupen Khakhar, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Neelima Sheikh, Jyoti Bhatt and others. Or that you travel to Italy and Greece with your connoisseur and art-erudite parents soaking in paintings and sculptures by Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, Titian, Botticelli et al and you watch Zeffirelli’s production of Othello in a Roman amphitheatre and The Trojan Woman in Greek at the Epidarus. This is the mother of all ‘cultured’ childhoods, with arguably the first family of Indian arts soaking in the best of Bombay and then of Delhi as it replaced the former as India’s cultural capital, of witnessing it all first hand. And this is just the start of it. Breezy times, told in a breezy way, the lightness of this extraordinary memoir filled me with a deep sense of envy and longing.
Feisal Alkazi begins his memoir with his enterprising Khoja Muslim grandmother Kulsum and her dedication to giving her children the best education she could, which included whisking them off to England by herself, and then whisking them back by ship, when the Second World War was round the corner. The eldest of them, the trailblazer Sultan Padamsee, well versed in Latin and Greek, was a prodigy and prodigal both, who left Christchurch, Oxford to return to St Xavier’s Bombay and shocked the city with his bold production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Artist, poet, designer, actor, director, with the “talent of Orson Welles and an impresario like Sergey Diaghilev,” the tall, flamboyant Sultan could shock with his nudes or with his openly gay poems or with his flamboyant attire, when he wasn’t mesmerising audiences with his brilliant productions. His contemporaries such Utpal Dutt with his Unity Theatre in Bengal, Prithviraj Kapoor and IPTA, were all breaking new ground in theatre at that time, but none possessed Sultan’s erudition or his command of the western canon. He dared to begin Othello after the murder, he mentored Ebrahim Alkazi, his sister Roshen and his brother Alyque alike with his Theatre Group, the first modern and avant garde theatre group in India, and possibly the most influential one. Sultan went out all guns blazing when he was just 23, a legend and a pioneer, who is still remembered with awe. He was working on Tagore’s Chitra and had Alkazi learn Kathakali for it before he took his own life when a sailor broke his heart.
Enter Ebrahim Alkazi, Sultan’s favourite protégé, son of an Arab wanderer, a kurta-pajama clad precocious student who lived in a shabby room in Mohammed Ali Road, diametrically opposite to the affluent and westernised Padamsees. Both had a shared interest in Art too, and Alkazi was closely associated with the formation of the Progressive Artists Group, comprising Husain, Raza and Souza, whose first exhibition he inaugurated. Alkazi married Roshan, they left their infant daughter Amal behind and went off to England to study the arts and theatre, which they did with elan, despite intense poverty. There, they soaked in the modern theatre movements, away from Shakespeare and Shaw, still the staple at RADA, and imbibed the great Russian and German theatre masters — Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Vakhtangov -- whose influence was spreading in England and the US. Roshan spent hours in museums and galleries researching art and costumes. Alkazi’s subsequent return to Bombay, his work first with Theatre Group and then with his breakaway faction Theatre Unit where he trained such stalwarts as Vijay Anand, Satyadev Dubey, Vijaya Mehta, Amrish Puri and Kusum Bahl is an inspiring story of perseverance and conviction. Already, Alkazi’s work had an impact beyond Bombay as he travelled around India, workshopping, teaching, training, designing modules. It was his production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone that inspired Karnad to write his first play Yayati, and Pandit Nehru had to ask Alkazi twice before he was ready to start the National School of Drama. Alkazi’s subsequent shift to Delhi to start the National School of Drama and his work there is a story relatively well known, and Feisal does well to tell this part sparingly.
The real strength of the book lies in the stories before and after the Ebrahim Alkazi saga. Feisal’s fun and stage-filled childhood in Bombay, the sudden shift to Delhi, the separation of his parents, his Modern School days with OP Sharma, Sudha Shivpuri and Ved Vyas as teachers, where he made friends with such later luminaries as Tani and Rajiv Bhargava, Pablo Bartholomew and Ram Rehman, Maya Rao, Anamika Haksar, Anuradha Kapur, Madhavi and Madhup Mudgal, opens up a new account of Delhi for us. The early days of Yatrik, of Defence Colony, of going to St Stephen’s in a kasai lungi and kurta, of Barry John and Ruchika’s formation where it was “de-rigeur to buy an outfit at Gurjari, read the first Indian English novels of Kamala Markandeya and to shop at the newly established Fab India” allow us to map a city, which we have now lost. This is the Delhi of Yamini Krishnamurthy’s celebrated revival of Kuchipudi and Indrani Rehman’s forays into Odissi, Habib Rehman’s marvellous new buildings at Rabindra Bhawan and of school children at Modern School singing in protest:
Bees saal baad bhi vohi haahaakar kyunDoodh ann, vastra ko gunjti pukar kyun
Even after 20 years why this agitation|The cry for milk, food and clothes in reverberation
The book is an ode too to the Padamsees, Pearl and Alyque, to Bombay’s English theatre, and Feisal’s other cousins, illustrious names many of them. But at its heart lies Feisal’s tribute to his redoubtable mother Roshen, who remained Alkazi’s mainstay as a costume designer despite her separation from him. Her struggle to bring up her two children and find her own niche as a costume designer, poet, artist and gallerist, first at Chemould at Cottage Emporium, and then at Art Heritage at Triveni, which Ebrahim and she ran together, comes vividly alive for us. Her friendships, her quiet mentoring of innumerable artists, her path-breaking histories of Indian costumes and her self-effacing but steel solid world of relationships are remarkable achievements in their own right. That she spent the last three years of her life at the hospital, and was still surrounded by friends, children and a remarkably busy social life is a tribute to the extraordinary emotional and social capital she accumulated.
But the book is more than a homage to the Alkazi-Padamsee family, or an account of India’s theatre, art and architectural history in the post-Independence period. It is also an account of Feisal Alkazi’s own theatrical journey where he held the mantle of being Alkazi’s son with a light touch. He formed his own theatre group when still in his teens and went on to direct over 300 productions. Like his father Ebrahim who believed that Theatre must be informed by social commitment and inspire social change. For Ruchika too ‘theatre is really the forum of debate, discussion and ideas. That’s how it becomes significant to the actors, the director and ultimately to the audience.’ And this is shown in full measure by the diverse engagements that Feisal brought to his work. Working with children, with the Chipko movement, with the victims of the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, with mental health issues at his NGOs Sajnivani and Ankur, with Kashmiri children, with physically challenged children, Feisal has spent an entire life bringing theatre to the marginalised and vice versa. Inter alia this story takes us to the civil rights and environmental movements of the 1980s, to mime, dance, to Barry John’s work with street children and with his Theatre In Education programs, to developing curricula, conducting workshops and using theatre as a medium of protest. Feisal’s multifarious life is a reflection of changing concerns of the Arts and the very model of an engaged Artist. Here one meets Ionesco’s Rhinoceros being performed around the Emergency, Alok Nath performing Pinter’s The Lover, Advani raising his voice against the banning of their play Bhutto, Safdar Hashmi and his assassination, the heady days of Sriram Centre basement theatre and the street theatre movement.
One encounters the birth and flowering of modernism in theatre and the arts in its full panoply through “a generation [which was] ready to change the world, to refashion it in our own image” where, in the words of another rebel, “it felt like a celebration. We owned the world—we thought, innocently.” Hippies, Bhavai, Yakhsgana, Sanskrit theatre, Jimi Hendrix, Beatles, RD Burman, Delhi’s first discotheque The Cellar, bohemianism, Naxalites, films at Max Mueller and the British Council, dancing, singing, working with the underprivileged, Alibaba and Cinderella and Kipling and Panchatantra redux, there is everything here one could dream of living up, or living down. Through his work with a diverse range of underprivileged and the needy Feisal repeats a formulation of startling simplicity, one which we sorely need to underline in our atomised and alienated urban lives. He states that “mental health professionals suggest that the wider the range of social roles we play, the better is our mental health”, whether as friends, relatives, caregivers, guardians, mentors or helpers. Feisal has lived this dictum and therefore his life, and its description, conveys a sense of fulfilment and purpose. Those were heady times and reading this book fills the reader with nostalgia and pangs of envy for a life well lived.
But I felt a little dissatisfied with the scant mention of two theatre stalwarts Bertolt Brecht and Habib Tanvir who get only one walk on part each. For all the modernism of Alkazi-Padamsee theatre, and undoubtedly it played central role in creating a national Indian theatre, there is one thing that this theatre misses, and one which its predecessor, the much-maligned Parsi theatre had in abundance. This modern theatre is one for the educated, by the educated, done in the educated, learned and polished way. Whether performed in English or Hindi or Marathi, it remains resolutely middle class. The masses find no entry in it. Parsi theatre may not have created anything “of consequence despite reigning supreme for 75 years,” as Karnad complained, but what it had in abundance was a rapturous embrace by the illiterate, the underprivileged, the urban and rural proletariat. It is difficult to imagine an Alkazi-Padamsee play being lapped up by the unwashed, something which Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre routinely accomplished. How does one create a modern theatre in a still largely illiterate country, which can speak to the subaltern? The question remains unasked and unanswered. But that is a small cavil in an account of lives so brilliant and artistically breathtaking that we must stand back and applaud.
Mahmood Farooqui studied at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge before reviving Dastangoi, the lost Art of Urdu storytelling. He is the translator of Habib Tanvir’s Memoirs (Penguin, 2013). His last book was A Requiem for Pakistan: The World of Intizar Husain (Yoda, 2017).