Everything was unconventional about Ebrahim Alkazi, beginning with the spelling of his name. Born at a time when theatre was regarded as the easy resort of a snob with time and wealth to spare, he initially went about giving meaning and dignity to the craft before going on to redefine it. And when one thinks that his parents hailed from countries where theatre had very little presence, one begins to understand the genius of Alkazi. Born to a Saudi father and a Kuwaiti mother in 1925, his true calling lay in the world of drama, lights, pauses and action.
He rose to be the director of the National School of Drama (NSD) at the young age of 37, a position he kept for 15 years, easily the longest tenure for any director. He mentored, among others, the likes of Naseeruddin Shah, Anupam Kher, Pankaj Kapoor, Om Puri, Surekha Sikri and Rohini Hattangadi, all of whom went on to greater glory in cinema. Of course, he never needed to bask in their limelight. He earned it fair and square with epic plays like "Tughlaq", "Ashad ka Ek Din" and "Andha Yug".
He was renowned for his discipline and meticulous approach to the medium. Besides making innovations in set design, he gave theatre a bigger canvas, revolutionising it by establishing links between ancient themes and modern idiom. He was among the first to bring Greek tragedies to the stage in India besides introducing audiences to the best of Anton Chekhov and Shakespeare.
Known for his flamboyance, Alkazi was a versatile genius, moving from theatre to art, acting to direction, criticism to connoisseurship with the ease of a man to the manner born. Born in Pune, he started his career in art and theatre in Mumbai, which was against the norms as the city was known to be the heart of cinema in India. But then, there was nothing conventional about what Alkazi did. In the late 1940s, he went to study in England, and even tried to sell the works of artists such as F.N. Souza pushing a handcart all by himself. Gayatri Sinha, The Hindu’s former art critic, once wrote: “In a series of eight exhibitions titled ‘This is Modern Art’, held at Bombay’s Jehangir Art Gallery in the 1950s, he used prints and excavated nearly 30 Picasso original works in the city, to display and build his case.”
He quit theatre to concentrate on art after his resignation from the NSD in 1977. His collection of paintings, books and photographs eventually led to the establishment of the Art Heritage gallery in Delhi around the same time. His association with Art Heritage continued until 2012.
A Padma Vibhushan recipient, he graduated from St Xavier’s in Mumbai and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London. In his twenties at the time of Partition, Alkazi decided to stay in India after 1947 even as many members of his extended family moved to Pakistan. It was to prove India’s gain.
A modernist until the end, he breathed his last at a private hospital in New Delhi following a heart attack. He is survived by his son Feisal Alkazi and daughter Amal Allana, both noted names in the world of theatre.