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Theatre is revelation


A conversation with the multi-faceted Ebrahim Alkazi.

My autobiography is written into my productions, in the lifeblood of my students!

Photo: Anu Pushkarna

Creative expressions: Ebrahim Alkazi’s (right)“Tughluq” was staged at the Purana Qila..

Look at the spare frail man surrounded by paintings in Art Heritage, his gallery in New Delhi. Is he the renowned director of the National School of Drama who shaped it into the country’s premiere theatre institution? Groomed some of our best theatrepersons: Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Manohar Singh, Ratan Thiyam, Surekha Sikri, Uttara Baokar, B.Jayashree, Rohini Hattangadi? Why, his spectacular productions — of Sophocles and Shakespeare, Dharmvir Bharati and Girish Karnad — are the stuff of legends!

Son of an Arab immigrant schooled in Pune (St.Vincent’s), Bombay (St.Xavier’s) and Royal Academy Theatre (London), Ebrahim Alkazi was associated with the Progressive Artists in Bombay (M.F.Husain, F.N.Souza, S.H.Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta) who were later to paint from his plays and design his sets.

Alkazi has exhibited his own paintings, became a noted art connoisseur, collector and gallery owner, but is remembered more as a Natyacharya who “sculpted” his actors.

His magnificent vision and martinet discipline revolutionised and defined contemporary Indian theatre. His professionalism in research, analysis, technical perfection, attention to minutiae, and imagination achieved international standards. Accused also of westernising Indian theatre, the thespian, now 82, weathered storms without bitterness. Excerpts from an interview.

As an art collector and connoisseur you have talked and written on modern art. Why are you silent about theatre?

I’m suspicious of people who write about theatre. Theatre is revelation. It is creative expression emerging in performance.

It emerges in dynamic relationships between text, stage space, characters, actors’ bodies, all related to conflict, depicting the movement of a human being from darkness to self-discovery.

You mean trauma?

(Smiling) No, action. The character realises he is not what he thinks she is. The actor discovers him through stages of change, revelation, transformation.

Say Alkazi and people think of magnificent backdrops, haunting even in photographs. How did you think of plays in multi-levelled monuments like the Purana Qila?

When Nehruji came to one of those plays he said, beware of snakes! People want to fit theatre into available space, not create a fitting space for the play.

For a dynamic approach to the flow of action I use three-dimensional elements, and raised platforms. Space itself expands with intensity of performance. There’s little dynamism in rectangular indoor picture frame theatres, unless you know how to use lighting, and the space in front of the cyclorama.

Didn’t you set impossible standards for your students at the NSD? You insisted on starting to train at 5.00 a.m, and were up before them.

I said 4.00 a.m.! I don’t expect, but demand it. A single false move spells death to the trapeze artiste turning somersaults in the air. How can you presume to be an actor unless you prepare your mind, body and soul to put yourself into every kind of situation? How can you reveal to audiences truths you don’t understand?

What goals did you set for yourself when you became the director of NSD in 1962?

I wanted to educate myself and expand my field of experience by working in Hindi. My staff dismissed “Ashadh Ka Ek Din” and “Andha Yug” as lacking in action. Action is not rushing around. It’s inward growth.

You found a new language to express that growth. Was it difficult for your students to grasp it?

When NSD was at a ramshackle rented house in Kailash Colony, I got the students to dig and build platforms for a theatre in the backyard. When you create your environment you feel at home in it.

Students never had a problem. The director, the teacher, has to find 10 different ways to approach 10 actors and get them to work together, find their own solutions, and untangle the extraordinarily intricate web of life. Exhausting? Not at all. Exhilarating.

With such love and concern for your students, how could you leave the NSD? Don’t you have any thoughts about the institution you built in this its 50th year?

Never left anything, just continued investigations at another level. If you have objectivity you can savour the drama of life and discover truths anywhere. What are paintings but dramatic investigations into life?

Yesterday my heart sank when I got a letter from the Income Tax Commissioner. Would it launch a 20-year legal battle? But the Commissioner said that he happened to see my exhibition of pictures of the 1857 Mutiny and was deeply moved!

My autobiography is written into my productions, in the lifeblood of my students! Why do you think my actors have affection, even reverence for me? I’ve shaken them to their depths, given them something they’re savouring now, to share with others. But nowhere in the world can you make a living out of theatre alone. That’s why NSD should train actors for television, radio and film. How fantastic if they can bring the kind of intensity generated in theatre training to other media!

With market pressures and the onslaught of other media what kind of aesthetics can theatre forge for itself?

Go beyond inanities. Educate audiences, not with sermons, but with a dramatically powerful presence. My open air-theatre posed challenges, but drew nourishment from mother earth, created a living environment with the vigour of the pipal tree, its branches through wind, rain and the flight of birds.

I did “Medea” on the sixth floor terrace (no lift!) with sky and sea for backdrop. Barefooted M.F. Husain dropped in with a sketchbook. Page after page filled with drawings of the performance! “For you!” he smiled. After an Ibsen play (“Ghosts”?) a woman burst into sobs: “I saw the whole of my life passing before my eyes.” It may sound sadistic but such moments elate me.

Is a certain mythic quality essential to make a play unforgettable?

Everything has a mythic dimension. People who worked with me have discovered depths in themselves. Many playwrights acknowledged that they discovered themselves through my production. Mohan Rakesh was taken aback when I said that “Ashadh Ka Ek Din” imaged his own story and guilt — when his Kalidasa turns his back on the village and lover to satisfy his ambitions in courts. I warned him, don’t go for what you think is poetic language. What’s true to character is dramatic language.

What are your own moments of revelation and discovery?

Years ago, I read Mahatma Gandhi’s My Experiment with Truth on the radio. Strangers would come up to say, “You changed my life”. I did a running commentary from Teen Murti Bhavan after Panditji passed away. I can still see his bedroom, the impression of his head on the pillow, and Robert Frost’s poem on the table. My father came from Saudi Arabia to Bombay. As an orphan going out into the world, he recreated something 2000 years old from that poem. He subscribed to the progressive Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram. Sometimes I rode with him when he registered his presence every week at the police station. He had to, as a non-Indian. I think I have that sense of insecurity.


Who doesn’t? That’s all right. It makes us creative.

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