Ebrahim Alkazi who loved India

Ebrahim Alkazi who loved India

(In this touching note, Dr. Thomas Chunkath remembers his beloved guru, the theatre icon Ebrahim Alkazi. Dr. Chunkath, who retired as a director in the national broadcaster Doordarshan, was inspired as a young man to join the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi after Alkazi came to a theatre workshop that he conducted in Thrissur, Kerala. Dr.C.K. Thomas is currently serves as the Head of the Department of Film & Drama at Orange Film Academy& Research Centre.)

Ebrahim Alkazi was one of those rare people who became a legend while still alive. He played a decisive role in shaping modern Indian theatre and served as the director of the National School of Drama (NSD) from 1962 to 1977. He guided and moulded many of the best playwrights, directors, and actors of our era, including Girish Karnad, Naseeruddin Shah, Raj Babber, Raghuvir Yadav, Manohar Singh, Anupam Kher, Rohini Hattangadi, Surekha Sikri, G. Kumara Varma, and S. Ramanujam among others.

Born in October 1925 as one of nine children of a Saudi Arabian businessman and his Kuwaiti wife, Alkazi grew up in his family home in Pune. Instead of moving with the rest of his family to Pakistan following the Partition, Alkazi chose to remain an Indian. Deciding to study drama rather than follow in his businessman father’s footsteps, he joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London.

He was already acquainted with the theatre personality Sultan “Bobby” Padamsee, and his brother, the actor and producer Alyque Padamsee, and after returning from London, managed their English theatre company, Theatre Group, in the early 1950s. Alkazi found his life partner Roshan in the Padamsee family. The sister of Bobby and Alyque, Roshan was a gifted costume designer and worked with Alkazi in all his plays.

Alkazi’s experiments in modern theatre drew numerous persons and groups to him. Though known as the father of modern Indian theatre, Alkazi’s range of work was not limited to the stage. He played a pivotal role in developing the field of visual arts in India.

The Art Heritage Gallery, founded in 1977 along with his wife Roshan Alkazi, is one of the most important art galleries in India. Alkazi’s relationship with the visual arts also started in Mumbai. In the 1950s, Alkazi was closely associated with the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group led by M.F. Hussain, F.N. Souza, H.S. Raza, Akbar Padamsee, and Tyeb Mehta.  Painters, including M. F. Husain, collaborated with him in several plays. The 1950s and the 1960s was a time when a close interaction and give-and-take between artists and playwrights took place naturally.

Amal Allana, the daughter of Alkazi and the former director of the National School of Drama, accidentally discovered in 2016 the paintings of her father from the 1950s; a collection that including mixed media and acrylic works. Amal Allana commissioned the renowned art critic Ranjit Hoskote to curate the exhibition of these paintings. In 2019, the exhibition ‘Opening Lines’ showcasing Ebrahim Alkazi’s paintings, was held at the Art Heritage. By then, though, Alkazi’s memory was fading.

The playwrights and actors who were created and shaped by Alkazi are still active in all parts of India today, along with their disciples.

Ebrahim Alkazi was a representative of the cultural world of post-Independence India, particularly of the Nehruvian era. He was part of a generation that laid the foundations of India’s cultural institutions, firmly believing in secularist values and social progress. It is those foundations and values that hold the stage on which we stand with pride today.

Tributes in memory of Ebrahim Alkazi!