Ebrahim Alkazi: The final bow

One of India's tallest theatre legends, Ebrahim Alkazi, breathed his last at a New Delhi hospital, following cardiac failure on Tuesday. The “otherwise sturdy” nonagenarian theatre doyen, art connoisseur and collector had been hospitalised for over two days due to multiple age-related complications aggravated by memory loss, his daughter (also a much-respected director of Indian theatre and costume designer) Amal Allana told the media shortly after.

“The family had all gathered around his bed when he passed away,” she informed. Her brother and fellow theatre director Feisal Alkazi spoke of the great void his father's demise had left in the world of theatre and art. “It is rare to come by a legacy that has influenced so many generations for over seven decades,” he said, underlining how Alkazi had been active in theatre even before Independence.

“A perfectionist in everything he did, whether theatre, painting, as an art connoisseur, or as an educator, look at how his works continue to inspire several of our established actors who in turn have kept that legacy alive,” he observed.

Born in Pune in October 1925, to a Kuwaiti mother and Saudi Arabian father, Ebrahim Alkazi directed more than 50 plays and also groomed leading actors, including Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Rohini Hattangadi, Jyoti Subhash, Surekha Sikri, Nadira Babbar and Pankaj Kapur. “It is not for nothing that each of his proteges is known for their formidable craft, in which one can see glimpses of their teacher's signature style,” the late playwright Girish Karnad had told this writer in 2005. “If I wanted to take a name that embodies the best of Indian theatre, it can't be anyone but Ebrahim Alkazi,” he had categorically said.

Karnad's views found an echo in octogenarian playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar, who expressed sadness over Alkazi's passage. “This was a man so ahead of his times that it will take several more generations to catch up to him. His farsightedness, a sharp understanding of the socio-political and socio-cultural tapestry of Indian society made him imbue adaptations like Brecht's Threepenny Opera with a believable Indianness that made it seem like an original independent work.”

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter to condole Alkazi's death saying, “Shri Ebrahim Alkazi will be remembered for his efforts to make theatre more popular and accessible across India. His contributions to the world of art and culture are noteworthy too. Saddened by his demise. My thoughts are with his family and friends. May his soul rest in peace.”

Veteran actor Jyoti Subhash was emotionally overwhelmed, remembering how such recognition was nothing new to her teacher Alkazi. “Among his connoisseurs and patrons was the late PM Indira Gandhi, who would come to see several of his productions, some of which I have had the privilege to be a part of,” she recalls. “I had read an article on him and watched his Ashadh Ka Ek Din and that's how I got into Delhi's National School of Drama,” adding, “I came from an only-Marathi background, while Alkazi, who had roots outside India, had not only struck roots here but went on to create a mountain of a legacy in Indian theatre that few can match. He opened up my mind to vistas in Western and Japanese theatre which I didn't even know existed. He not only exposed us to their theory but made us practically bring in influences of these genres into our work.”

Coming back to Indira Gandhi, she remembers how the late PM's support gave a fillip to Alkazi's experiments in theatre. “To cite an example, he invited a Japanese director to work with the cast and crew for his adaptation of Ibrage, a Japanese play in which though we spoke Hindi, we mimicked the Japanese Noh Kabuki style of dialogue delivery.”

Her fellow actor in that play (the mausi who turns into a demon in the king's court), Rohini Hattangadi, had barely finished her BSc when her father noticed an ad for a scholarship to train in theatre. “He had watched Alkazi's plays like Caucasian Chalk Circle and Jasma Odan and was excited that I would get to train under him since I was already doing a bit of theatre. Everything I know about set design, lighting, music, writing and acting is a legacy from that training under Alkazi. He could be quite the taskmaster and very strict about his exacting expectations. Though we then found them a bit too much, years later, I have come to realise what a world of difference it has made to my craft and approach to a role.”

Theatre doyenne Sarita Joshi agrees that Alkazi must have been quite the teacher. “I've watched so many of his plays. Some, like Tughlaq, I've seen directed by others too. But with Alkazi's work, you could see his signature mark on everything about the production. This man was awash in theatre. So much thought would go into everything, including every single pause that an actor took that it stayed with you long after the play was over,” she says, regretting not having worked under him. She also mentioned the Noh Kabuki style he brought in, which entailed the stretching of the first syllable of a word, to make it sound like Japanese. “Nobody had thought something like this could be done.”

While Naseeruddin Shah said he was too disturbed to comment, others like Nawazuddin Siddiqui called Alkazi “The true architect of the Modern Indian theatre”. “The Doyen who possessed extreme knowledge in all the aspects of ART. The magician who nurtured many greats of theatre,” he tweeted, adding, “May your brightest spark from the heaven keep us enlightened.”

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