‘I don’t think Indian theatre is at a crossroads’: Amal Allana

The theatre director talks about her biography of her father, Ebrahim Alkazi, a pioneering force in Indian theatre.

Published : May 28, 2024 17:54 IST - 11 MINS READ

Ebrahim Alkazi with Amal Allana at Art Heritage gallery, New Delhi, in 2013.

Ebrahim Alkazi with Amal Allana at Art Heritage gallery, New Delhi, in 2013. | Photo Credit: E. Alkazi Personal Archives/ Art Heritage Photo Archives

The March 22 launch in New Delhi of the theatre director and art gallery owner Amal Allana’s biography of her father, the multifaceted Ebrahim Alkazi (1925-2020), was unusual in many ways. Allana organised a reading of passages from the biography (titled Ebrahim Alkazi: Holding Time Captive) in a kind of partial enactment, using two well-known theatre artists, Sonam Kalra and Rehaan Engineer. The selected passages referenced Alkazi’s personal and professional history: his relationship with Uma Anand; his wife Roshan’s depression and yet ceaseless support for him; their early years in war-torn London when penniless artists and poets like F.N. Souza and Nissim Ezekiel thronged to the couple’s tiny flat; Alkazi’s dramatic resignation from The Theatre Group in 1953, and later as head of the National School of Drama (NSD) in 1977.

Both the dramatised reading and Allana’s conversation with the art historian Naman Ahuja were disarmingly frank. We learnt of Alkazi’s strained relationship with his in-laws and, on a more humorous note, an incident where Alkazi attended a party in Delhi wearing only a shirt and briefs! Allana said that she had been named both Uma and Amal by her inclusive parents. All this to an audience that included Romi Chopra, Suneet Tandon, Gita Kapur, Nilima Sheikh, and many more luminaries of Delhi, all of whom would have worked with Alkazi at some stage.

Ebrahim Alkazi: Holding Time Captive has the same rigour and honesty, although a life as big as Alkazi’s will need several volumes to do it justice. It looks at the grit of a young, penurious Arab immigrant, who chose to remain in India when his entire family left during Partition. It looks at his relationships with his friends, which often seem better than his relationships with family. It is unflinching in the way it looks at Allana’s relationship with her parents and relationship of the couple. But there is much left out. For one, it only talks about the dead in detail. It also rushes through his later years, after he left the NSD and set up the Art Heritage gallery and the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts (AFA).

Alkazi did not give too many interviews in his lifetime. Therefore, unlike artists and theatre actors like Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapur whom he trained and mentored, he became a shadowy and legendary figure. For people like me staring at a new India and looking for heroes to show the way forward, this book is essential both as art history and a lesson on how to pick ourselves up and start anew after each setback.

Cover of Ebrahim Alkazi: Holding Time Captive

Cover of Ebrahim Alkazi: Holding Time Captive | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

I turned to Amal Allana for answers to the many questions I had while reading the book. Here are excerpts from some of her responses.

A very large part of the book is devoted to Alkazi’s theatre-building work. Do you believe that institution-building takes precedence over his contribution as a theatre director when one looks back at his legacy?

Talented both as a pedagogue and as a creative theatre director, Alkazi was an ambitious man, full of talent and new ideas. However, it is true that he felt that at that particular juncture of the nation’s history, his talents and energy could be best utilised in building a sound foundation for theatre practice by imparting professional training to students for the future.

Once in Delhi, he decided to devote all his efforts to training, which meant that he only did productions for the NSD with NSD students. Alkazi was aware that with student actors, only a certain level could be achieved. In later years, after he left the NSD, he spoke of the possibility of setting up a first-rate repertory of trained, mature actors, which would allow his directorial efforts to be realised with even greater impact. Although very keen on this project, he was all too aware that it would be impossible to support such a top-notch theatre company on his personal resources alone.

Another aspect of his creativity was his histrionic skills. After he arrived in Delhi, Alkazi, who had done most of the major roles in his own productions in Bombay—both tragic and comic—gave up acting altogether as he did not feel it was appropriate for him as director of the NSD to continue to nurture an acting career for himself. In fact, he turned down several good roles in films. These were among the kind of ethical choices and personal sacrifices that people like him made in the larger interests of nation-building.

Catalogue of Opening Lines–The Artworks of E. Alkazi (2019).

Catalogue of Opening Lines–The Artworks of E. Alkazi (2019). | Photo Credit: Art Heritage and Alkazi Foundation for the Arts.

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How did you begin this project? What drove you to it? How long did it take? How did you get access to his partner Uma Anand’s letters, for example?

As I have mentioned of my father should not go unrecorded, as he has been a major figure in India’s cultural field. I think it was around 2007 that I began putting together a tentative timeline of his theatre work. In 2015-16, I curated an exhibition on his theatre career called “The Theatre of E. Alkazi”. This prompted me to take another step forward by trying to construct the timeline for his art-related work through the Art Heritage gallery, which ultimately led to a book on his contribution to the art field, called Ebrahim Alkazi: Directing Art: The Making of a Modern Indian Art World (2016), edited by Parul Dave Mukherjee. A few years later, on suddenly discovering 100 of his early artworks from the 1940s, we mounted them in an exhibition curated by Ranjit Hoskote called “Opening Lines: The Artworks of E. Alkazi” (2019).

The material we kept unearthing and documenting for these projects became a kind of foundational base which I started drawing on for this biography. All this material allowed me to make connections between the two powerful areas of his preoccupations: theatre and the visual arts. Wading through a sea of material—his drawings, sketches, paintings, notebooks, diaries, catalogues, articles, interviews, letters, and photographs that spanned practically a century, and that were mainly located in his homes both in India and abroad—was a massive undertaking. I often wondered if I would actually be able to assemble and compile!

Tughlaq by Girish Karnad, directed by E. Alkazi, with Manohar Singh as Tughlaq. NSD, New Delhi, 1974.

Tughlaq by Girish Karnad, directed by E. Alkazi, with Manohar Singh as Tughlaq. NSD, New Delhi, 1974. | Photo Credit: Alkazi Theatre Archives

The book appears to be the journey of a king and a visionary. How do we look at the version of his detractors, especially the students who protested against him in his last days at the institution he set up, the NSD?

I think I have been fairly objective about my father to prevent this from becoming a hagiography. As I have said elsewhere, I am more interested in discovering the source of Alkazi’s ideas and the “process” of his work than in making an “assessment” of his contributions. This is for others to do. However, as we know, most strong people like my father, who have the ability to get things done, are usually in a hurry to implement their ideas, and that too, in an undiluted form. I think Alkazi’s terms in taking up any job, including the NSD, were fairly clear: if bureaucrats were unable to comprehend the far-sightedness of his views, he was willing to step down at any point. This is what he eventually did. The fact that he actually stuck to a government position for 16 years was rather commendable for an artist like him.

Alkazi rehearsing Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug at Purana Qila, New Delhi, in 1974.

Alkazi rehearsing Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug at Purana Qila, New Delhi, in 1974. | Photo Credit: Alkazi Theatre Archives

Many well-known people, not directly linked to the central biographical narrative, appear and disappear in the book. Was this deliberate? What was your aim?

I assume you are asking about my reference to groups of people. This has been done, for example, in some early chapters on Bombay, to give a sense of the cosmopolitan nature of the city, to which a large number of international artists gravitated. Then again, in the Dartington Hall chapter, I mention many artists dining together. This was part of a deja vu experience for Alkazi. These artists were like-minded, as they were primarily interested in creating a new global art form that would draw from world cultures and traditions. In mentioning these artists and others from time to time, my intention was to provide a cultural context for my protagonist… of giving the reader a general sense of the world Alkazi intellectually inhabited… of people who had a bearing on his thinking and ideas. There are other ways too in which I have tried to give a sense of Alkazi’s times. Capturing the flavour of that era was an important aspect of the book.

Antigone by Jean Anouilh, directed by E. Alkazi, Theatre Unit, Bombay, 1955.

Antigone by Jean Anouilh, directed by E. Alkazi, Theatre Unit, Bombay, 1955. | Photo Credit: Alkazi Theatre Archives 

Who carries on Alkazi’s directorial legacy in theatre, including people outside the family?

Alkazi did not establish a particular acting style, or gharana. There are no “disciples” in that sense to carry forward the guru’s tradition or legacy. Alkazi provided his students with a modernist “approach” to theatre that dovetailed into a way of living, of being and growing as an artist. He trained his students to have open and receptive minds and to be sensitive to the world around them. Many followed his advice and excelled in their art and became well known. Others may not have earned public acclaim but continue to live and work quietly, cherishing the insights and the path that he introduced them to. As he said: “The most profound art is the art of living!”

“ I think Alkazi’s terms in taking up any job, including the NSD, were fairly clear: if bureaucrats were unable to comprehend the far-sightedness of his views, he was willing to step down at any point. This is what he eventually did.”Amal Allana

Is India’s theatre movement at a crossroads today? If Alkazi were alive now, what interventions do you think he would have made?

No, I don’t feel Indian theatre is at a crossroads; it is not in a dilemma. Young theatre workers, like those in cinema and many other art forms, have clear, strong opinions and ideas of what they want to say and the way they wish to connect with their audiences. In many senses, they have arrived. Had my father been around he would have probably said: “Support them and promote them so that they are able to sharply and effectively articulate their views and connect with larger audiences.” He would probably have designed and conceptualised a very different syllabus for the drama students of today. His dictum was to constantly keep abreast of and renew one’s ideas to keep pace with changing times.

Also Read | Dismantling the gaze

Alkazi’s collection of photographs, now housed in the Alkazi Foundation, is invaluable visual history. Did he exhibit from this collection during his lifetime? What are the most significant highlights of this collection?

Alkazi’s collection of mid-to-late 19th century photographic works of India and South Asia, as well as his contemporary collection, have since 1996 been shown in major exhibitions across India and in museums across the world, in the UK, the US, and Europe. In India, the Alkazi Collection has had major shows at the various National Galleries of Modern Art in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru, the most recent being “A Cinematic Imagination: Josef Wirsching and the Bombay Talkies”, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, in Mumbai, which concluded recently. The foundation has published more than 15 volumes on works in the Alkazi Collection written by major photography scholars from across the world.

Alkazi and Roshen, 1948.

Alkazi and Roshen, 1948. | Photo Credit: Alkazi Personal Archives

Both this and the theatre material he collected over the years point to his legacy as an archivist. When did he begin to pursue this and what motivated him? How is the family continuing this journey of archiving cultural history?

Alkazi did not collect material on theatre. He documented and kept a fair record of his theatre work… primarily photographs of his productions. It was my mother who collected reviews and brochures of his plays, some newspaper articles, and his older paintings. She also kept his old notebooks and letters from their England and Bombay days. These are a part of our personal family archive.

It was in the mid-1980s that Alkazi began collecting vintage photographs of India dating back to the introduction of new technology in India. No longer looking at colonial India as picturesque or through the lens of Raj nostalgia, Alkazi invited Indian and international scholars to examine and analyse various aspects of the colonial gaze in the visualisation of India. The results were startling. British photography of India was not just a commercial enterprise carried out by businessmen but was used as an official tool by the British government to control and subjugate its colonised subjects. This was an entirely new reading of the photographs from a subaltern perspective. Thus, a new history began to be discussed and written about. It was this that gave the Alkazi Collection a certain distinctiveness and significance.

In 2015, when my father turned 90, we decided that we would build a small theatre archive (The Alkazi Theatre Archives) around my father’s theatre material. So far, we have succeeded in collecting some material on important theatre groups from across the country, which we have begun to disseminate through a series of annual exhibitions and a newsletter.

Ritika Kochhar is the founder of ArtRadio, an art-based podcast, and the author of three books that look at myth and gender.

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