“Oh god, it’s a page turner!” That was the cry from various family members on reading the first draft of Feisal Alkazi’s family memoirs published earlier this year. Titled Enter Stage Right — The Alkazi/Padamsee Family Memoir (Speaking Tiger, 2021), it is an irresistible, exciting read. The narrative details are gripping, the pace exciting, and viewing the times described in the book of the two families in pre- and post-Independence India through the lens of Feisal allows us to enter a world that we can relate to from stories that our parents and grandparents told us of the times they lived through.
Both names are legendary; the Alkazi and Padamsee clans contributed hugely to the formation and recognition of modernism in both Indian theatre and art. It all started when Bobby, or Sultan, Padamsee, the eldest Padamsee brother — the two families had 17 siblings between them, several of whom would distinguish themselves in theatre and the arts — had to return to Bombay after just six months as a student at Oxford due to the outbreak of World War II. What followed was a period of creative efflorescence as
Bobby penned more than 100 poems, drew, painted watercolours and, one day in 1943, gathered a group of keen college students around his mother, the Padamsee matriarch Kulsumbai’s, horseshoe-shaped dinner table weighed down with mouth-watering Khoja cuisine. Bobby announced a plan to launch their own theatre group, the aptly named Theatre Group, as an alternative to commercial theatre, inspired by the group theatre movement of 1930s’ New York. One of those in attendance at that dinner was the young Ebrahim Alkazi.
The group would flourish over the next few years, and court controversy with productions like an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, in which Bobby’s 19-year-old sister, Roshen, performed the risqué dance of the seven veils. Bobby would die by suicide aged just 24 in 1946, but the group went on, reaching its zenith in the coming decades, and three of his disciples married his sisters
to found a cosmopolitan clan — including Ebrahim, who married Roshen. These were heady times of enormous intermingling, set in the dying days of the Raj and the dawn of Nehruvian India. The search for a new way of living creatively through a rich cultural life that was looking for a unique national identity drew in a very intense and close-knit community and family theatre with a galaxy of close friendships between authors, poets, painters, musicians and actors. As Feisal comments in the memoir, “Going to London together in 1947, there was a Roman Catholic like [F.N.] Souza, a Muslim like my dad, a Jew like Nissim Ezekiel, great friends like Krishna Paigankar and Akbar Padamsee, the idea that they were from different communities was not in anybody’s mind at all… we were always in and out of each other’s houses as well, in my family it was all the artists as well as the theatre people. We grew up with that — it gives a human angle to all these great giants that art historians write about.”
After training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in 1947, Ebrahim returned home and rejoined Theatre Group. However, following a rift with others in the group, he left and founded his own Theatre Unit company at the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute in the 1950s. The Institute played an important role in nurturing modern Indian art and drama, and Ebrahim
found a space for uninhibited creativity there, before he moved to Delhi in 1962 to head the National School of Drama for 15 years. Over the years, his contribution to widening the scope, subject matter and audience for Indian theatre would be extraordinary, as would those of his brother-in-law Alyque Padamsee, Mahesh Elkunchwar, and Safdar Hashmi. Alyque, known for directing productions ranging from the English version of Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq to Jesus Christ Superstar , has also been called the father of Indian advertising, and played Jinnah in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi . His first wife was Pearl Padamsee, a stage and film actor, director — her oeuvre included Godspell , the first big musical produced in Mumbai — and producer. Their daughter, Raell Padamsee, runs her own production house, ACE, in Mumbai.
Home to stage
The rich family legacy also continues through Ebrahim’s son Feisal, who started devising plays with friends in Barry John’s Music Theatre Workshop in the early 80s. Although theatre is his first love, Feisal wears many hats — theatre and television director, author, educationist, counsellor, filmmaker and founder of Ruchika Theatre. His works include Noor , a sympathetic, gendered lens on Noor Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal; A Quiet Desire, the story of Rabindranath Tagore and of his brother and sister-in-law Kadambari; the adaptation of Kipling’s The Jungle Book into a coming-of-age story, retitled Yeh Bhi Jungle, Woh Bhi Jungle , in which the character Mowgli epitomises every important transition of adolescence in his search for identity.
Along with his sister, Amal Allana, and her husband, Nissar Allana, Feisal has strongly believed in the mixing of generations in creative work. “I make it a point that the infusion of the next generation in all the years of Ruchika is so crucial. All our kids are there and the people who started it... to keep the generations going and learning from each other.” Radhika, Feisal’s wife, an accomplished actress and arts educator, says, “It was so new to me, this world — in the family, in the home, in the drawing room — your furniture would be on stage, your clothes would be on the stage.” When Zohra Sehgal worked with Feisal in the Ruskin Bond serial Rusty , she found herself wearing a costume that was from Radhika’s trousseau. Feisal recalls her saying, “Hamare gharon mein aise hi chalta hai” (This is how it is in our homes).
The story of these two families, who played such a vital role in the history of theatre and art, is an imperative chapter in the country’s socio-cultural history.
The writer is a Delhi-based artist, arts educator, curator and researcher.