History of a theatrical kind

Currently showing at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) is a remarkable exhibition with a provenance that dates back to 1925. That was the year the exhibition’s subject, the legendary Ebrahim Alkazi, was born in Pune into the family of an Arab spice merchant.

Titled ‘The Theatre of E. Alkazi — A Modernist Approach to Indian Theatre’, the showcase is a retrospective of the life and works of Alkazi. The driving forces behind it have been his daughter, Amal Allana, a theatre doyenne in her own right, and her husband, the stage designer Nissar Allana. The exhibition continues till later this month, when Alkazi will turn 91. And in a sidelight of curated talks, Allana provides us rare insight into the man single-handedly credited with overhauling the National School of Drama into a legitimate national institution during his long tenure as its director from 1962 to 1977. Of course, before that, Alkazi had an eventful innings in Bombay. Under the aegis of the Theatre Group and the Theatre Unit, he galvanised the English theatre scene in the city.

Memory lane

The exhibition had its first airing in January at Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam, where the Alkazi family founded the Art Heritage Gallery in 1977. In this Mumbai outing, the archival material is distributed to the semicircular galleries arranged around the central stairwell at the NGMA. Mock-ups of posters of Alkazi’s celebrated productions adorn the walls of the entrance hall. If cinema hadn’t swamped popular culture with its excesses, and theatre had been much less niche, some of these imprints could have well been the iconic images of their times. For instance, the stricken countenance of Usha Amin on a poster for Medea (1961), or a fetching Alaknanda Samarth pinned to the floor as a man looms ominously over her in Miss Julie (1960), or Rohini Hattangady conferring with Naseeruddin Shah in pitch-dark make-up in Sultan Razia (1974). The original photographs were, of course, in black and white. In these reconstructions, they are overlaid with anachronistic colours and typefaces that could perhaps warrant a rethink. As with any institutional display, the occasional tackiness doesn’t really detract from the substance. Peering closer, the initials of Alkazi’s Theatre Unit, arranged into a pitchfork, become an unmistakable monogram of quality.

Discovering a legend

Panels emblazoned ‘The Alkazi Times’ present the signposts of Alkazi’s life as news clippings, interspersed with actual microfiche footage — ascensions of kings and Prime Ministers, declarations of war and independence, and even snapshots from theatre history. It is certainly monumental in scale, full of information about Alkazi’s genealogy, childhood, education and illustrious career. While there is the slightest whiff of propaganda, it is whittled down by Allana’s skills as a self-effacing raconteur during the talks. Her accounts are peppered with heart-warming personal anecdotes that give us a measure of the real person behind the bronzed persona.

We learn of how Alkazi came to take up the reins of Theatre Group after the untimely passing of Sultan ‘Bobby’ Padamsee, the young genius who was one of his formative influences. One of their earliest collaborations was Padamsee’s version of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé . The play was barred from performance at their alma mater, St Xavier’s College, because of its risqué material and Wilde’s festering notoriety as a gay felon even in India. It was ultimately performed at the very venue that is now housing the exhibition. Allana is thus able to touchingly fashion the showcase as a homecoming soirée . Later, there is a piquant episode at England’s Dartington Hall. As a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Alkazi had requested Dartington founder Leonard Elmhirst the princely sum of £4 so to return to India by ship. Elmhirst graciously complied. The letters exchanged still exist, and have been preserved (though they are not part of this exhibit).

The galleries themselves, chock-a-block with photographs, come across more like a feat of collation than curation. Yet, within this preponderance of imagery, there are stories that can be pieced together. The clarion call of Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug (directed by Alkazi in 1962) sounded off from the ramparts of Feroze Shah Kotla changed the manner in which Hindi theatre was presented. Its political echoes found resonance in a country undergoing massive blood-letting. Nehru and his mandarins all attended one of the earliest stagings, and the play placed Alkazi firmly on the national stage. His earlier work, though innovative, appeared to cater to the bourgeoisie.

Experiments in theatre

In the NSD years, we see a coalescing of a strident western approach to drama with the ‘theatre of roots’ in India — traditions lying on the cusp of an imminent decrepitude. This amalgamation may have led to the derivative mongrelisation we observe so frequently in today’s contemporary theatre. Yet at that time, it must have provided an active ferment for experimentation.

The photographic stills, it must be said, are mostly posed publicity shots. They capture the calculated repose of a burnished generation of actors, many recognisable faces among them. Some, grainier in texture, but with more character, appear to have been taken mid-performance. The living breathing form, theatre’s raison d’être , is almost always absent, raising questions about the kind of archiving that would best serve theatre. In an upstairs gallery, video clips of a Hindi adaptation of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba , featuring Zohra Sehgal, are looped in perpetuity. They do provide insight into his working, but are woefully inadequate as a show reel for a man whose career spanned decades. Film, in any case, can never capture the truthfulness of a live form.

Such a display of theatre royalty comes inextricably linked with the idea of privilege, that of wealth, class or language perhaps, but primarily of pioneership. Being the first off the stumbling blocks with his revolutionary ideas for theatre, Alkazi forged new ground at every step. Certainly, the politics of language added lustre to this glory. The power of English as an aspirational tongue has dimmed somewhat in recent times. Its colonial baggage has hopefully been obliterated. One can only speculate about how much these notions were amplified in the late 40s and 50s in a country just delivered from British rule.

Constructing a timeline

Yet, the imprimatur of excellence that Alkazi brought to his works does not need to be rationalised to be made sense of. In order to recreate history, it is important to bring together all the elements that went in the making of an epoch. Nissar Allana has recreated miniature facsimiles of sets from Alkazi’s plays and of the venues he nurtured himself, like the Meghdoot terrace. These are reproduced assiduously from photographs. In one reconstruction, Macbeth’s scope is enhanced in an outdoor set that exudes both Greek grandeur and an artistic sparseness. That those were heady days is an idea one cannot escape from, when we look at how close to penury theatre practitioners operate in these days.

In one section of the gallery, we witness examples of Alkazi’s prodigious art, often reduced to merely a biographical footnote when talking of his career. In a few glass panels stocked with personal effects — letters, handwritten notes, certificates, scenography sketches — we catch stray glimpses of the meticulousness of a true master. These telling nuggets are perhaps thin on the ground at the NGMA, but the leisure of time and a slackened pace at the exhibition could well allow a determined visitor to unearth each one.

The writer is a playwright and stage critic

‘The Theatre of E. Alkazi — A Modernist Approach to Indian Theatre’ will show until October 18 at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Fort. Amal Allana’s curated talks will take place next on October 7 and 16 at 3 p.m.

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2022 10:41:04 am |