“See these photographs from the period post the Uprising of 1857. Observe the perspective of the British photographers as they project the superiority of the colonisers through the pomp of their troops, their architecture, their regalia.”
Ebrahim Alkazi was walking me around his home studio in Delhi’s Greater Kailash II, showing me archival photographs painstakingly collected from flea markets of Bombay and auction houses in London. It was a balmy March morning in 1995. I was a rookie journalist on an assignment to interview one of the legends of modern theatre in India. We were doing a series on creative people in their sunset years, exploring thoughts on a life well-lived and more abstract notions of happiness, creativity and lastly death.
Alkazi, who died on August 4 at the age of 94, was 70 at the time. He had directed over 50 plays. During his stint as head of the National School of Drama from 1962 to 1977, he changed the face of contemporary theatre in India with a sweeping perspective that included staging a play in Delhi’s Purana Qila, creative lighting design, rich costume and stage design elements. He also brought rigour and discipline to training. His noted directorial ventures included Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Mohan Rakesh’s Ashadh ka Ek Din, and Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq.
When I interviewed him, though, his focus was on Art Heritage Gallery, which he had set up in 1977 in Delhi. For many years, he had been chronicling the story of India’s photography journey starting from the 19th century. His exhibitions travelled to the UK, France and many other countries.
The son of parents from the Arabian peninsula, who had chosen to settle down in Pune. Alkazi was born in 1925. He grew up in a cosmopolitan milieu among Maharashtrians, Jews, Parsis and Anglo-Indians. He went to school at St. Vincent’s.
“I was taught about equality early in life,” he said. “Not through words, but actions. Some of my mother’s best friends were vegetable sellers from whom we all learnt about Maharashtra’s culture. Similarly, we were taught that nothing was unclean. To this day I clean my lavatory bowl.”
He added: “That is something I taught my students as well.”
When I met him, he didn’t have any students anymore but he hadn’t stopped his mission. He aimed, he said, “to make as many people aware of their creative potential as I possibly can. I see tremendous potential talent in the field of theatre and art.”
When he was 17, Alkazi moved to Bombay to go to St. Xavier’s College. Here he joined Sultan Padamsee’s Theatre Group. He would later marry Sultan Padamsee’s sister, Roshen. Seeing young Alkazi’s interest in theatre, his well-to-do father, who made his fortune through trading in silk and spices, packed him off to 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.
Among the talents he nurtured were Manohar Singh, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Neena Gupta, Raghbir Yadav, Pankaj Kapur. Alkazi was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan in 2010.
Through our conversation, it became apparent that Alkazi wore his achievements lightly. “You are ultimately what you are in the darkness of the night in your room thinking of yourself,” he said. “In your utmost loneliness, you realise what you are – just an ordinary being trying to understand life.”
He added: “As one grows old one comes to terms with certain aspects of life. At the end of it, what does one leave behind? Nothing but just a memory. You live in the minds of others, in the memories of others.”