The many worlds of Elk - Hindustan Times
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The many worlds of Elk

Mar 16, 2024 04:23 PM IST

A new biography by Ebrahim Alkazi’s daughter Amal Allana is a sharp spotlight on the father of modern Indian theatre

To write a tome out of the life of one’s father ought to be a challenging jostle. It could well have been so for theatre director Amal Allana, who has written the definitive expansive biography of her father Ebrahim Alkazi. What does she include, what has she left out, how does she gauge a human being entirely divested from his familial roles — and consequently since a daughter writes, is it a biography or a memoir? Allana finds a way in a multiplicity of viewpoints and formats, her own viewpoints being prominent but not overriding, for this really multi-rooted, versatile legacy of scholarship and cultural vanguardism.

A Blind King by Alkazi(Author) PREMIUM
A Blind King by Alkazi(Author)

Allana writes with winning candour. Her chronicler’s commitment to truths from her father’s life as she experienced them, and as the world experienced her father’s extraordinary creative and intellectual agency, is obvious from the first hundred pages.

Ebrahim Alkazi, ‘Elk’ in his close circles of friends and family, is a true cosmopolite in his daughter’s panoramic, way-finding style of recreating her father’s life. Allana is also inventive, phrasing some of the views of Alkazi, and that of his peers similarly integrated in West-meets-India, as dialogues in conversations. Allana even gives Francis Newton Souza, the enfant terrible of the Progressive group of artists, some dialogues.

The personal is richly detailed. Alkazi, who, for most of his adult life did not engage much with the Arab side of his family, comes alive as a “Maharashtrian Arab” in the book, the influences that his Arab lineage had on his life and vision evident. Allana is committed to the truth of her father as a family man, and she dwells on the relationship between her mother Roshan Padamsee and her father in great detail, including “the triangle” she says that formed when another woman, Uma Anand, became Alkazi’s romantic partner later in life. Allana suggests that it was their attempt at living their truths, and for Allana and her brother Faisal, her father’s affair even became an avenue for the idea of being free amid the established systems that we belong to. For Alkazi’s great work as an institution builder, Allana immerses into his writings and scribbles and also interviews of actors and artists whose dreams and ideas he helped actualise with distinct methodologies and processes. It is obvious actors didn’t as much learn the technical proficiencies of their craft under Alkazi, as how to cultivate an artistic temperament and world-view.

How the National School of Drama takes shape under Alkazi’s leadership is a book in itself, and Allana captures that history like a thorough chronicler. Over 600 pages, the portrait of Alkazi, Roshan and the children build-up, along with an entire milieu of like-minded, artistic minds who believed in a syncretic idea of Indian culture—Alkazi’s uncle Sultan, or ‘Bobby’ Padamsee, made him learn Kathakali for a performance There is as much world-building in the book as there are character studies—from the earliest art exhibitions that Alkazi curated, which often had framed magazine cut-outs of famous art inspired by the “Musée imaginative or “museum of the imagination” movement started by French novelist André Malraux, to his dedicated mentorship to actors such as Manohar Singh, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Neena Gupta, Raghubir Yadav and Pankaj Kapur.

Alkazi, who died at the age of 94, directed more than 50 plays. During his stint as head of the National School of Drama from 1962 to 1977, he changed contemporary theatre in India with taste-shattering and tradition-altering ideas, such as staging a play in Delhi’s Purana Qila, creative lighting design, costume (Alkazi’s wife, Roshan, was a costume designer by profession, but was involved in every aspect of Alkazi’s performative and creative life) and stage design elements. His legendary directorial ventures were Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Mohan Rakesh’s Ashadh ka Ek Din, and Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq.

Alkazi, born in 1925, was the son of parents from the Arabian peninsula, who had chosen to settle down in Pune — his father was a spices and silk trader. He grew up in a cosmopolitan milieu among Maharashtrians, Jews, Parsis and Anglo-Indians. He went to school at St. Vincent’s. When he was 17, Alkazi moved to Bombay to attend St. Xavier’s College. Here he joined Sultan Padamsee’s Theatre Group and later married Sultan’s sister, Roshan. Seeing young Alkazi’s interest in theatre, his wealthy father sent him to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. During this period he won the British Drama League Award for Work of Outstanding Merit, and the BBC Award for Broadcasting. He returned to India in the 1950s. Alkazi was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan in 2010.

As we near Alkazi’s centennial year in 2025, Allana’s densely populated biography-cum-memoir, titled Holding Time Captive, based on a scribble that Allana serendipitously discovered the day Alkazi died, reminds us of a cultural heritage that did not find its propulsion from ideas of nativity and nationalism. Its inspiration was pluralism, dialogue and cosmopolitanism. Alkazi’s remarkable life in the arts—there are chapters also about his own work as an artist, innovative works inspired by literary forms, mythology and anthropology—is one of great courage and questing. Unlike the popular belief that in the early days of post-colonial India, we were a sad and diffident nation and that we are only now a confident lot, Allan’s book draws out a lost brand of courage and confidence—that of seekers, who combined defiance, adaptability, rigorous creative work, institution-building, and global influences to forge new languages and identities.

Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based writer and critic.

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