At author Paro Anand’s Diwali party in late 2018, when Renuka Chatterjee of Speaking Tiger Publishing approached him and said that he must write a family memoir, he was “shell-shocked”. “I’ve written a number of books but it never occurred to me to explore my family in one. I discussed it with my wife who felt it was a great idea,” theatre director Feisal Alkazi tells IANS while talking about his latest book ‘Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi/Padamsee Family Memoir’, which was released at the ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF).
Known for theatre productions including ‘The Women’, ‘The Father’, ‘Female Parts’, ‘Rashomon’, ‘Letter’s Home’, ‘Night Mother’, ‘Odhn’ and ‘Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma’, Alkazi says that the first five chapters where he wrote about his grandmother, parents’ childhood and uncle Sultan Padamsee’s (Bobby) suicide came effortlessly. “I then decided to go to revisit my grandmother’s place in Mumbai where I grew up and meet my aunt from the US. My cousin Ayesha Sayani, a filmmaker who had done several interviews with Alyque Padamsee and my mother. For me, it was important that the book was not just a record but emotional and touching,” says Alkazi.
Sharing 22 chapters with close friends, his sons’ girlfriends in order to get an insider-outsider viewpoint, 2020 was also the year when Ebrahim Alkazi passed away. “I put that in the book too. The pictures were already organised as we had done a major exhibition on my father’s works a few years ago. I advised the publishers to use visuals extensively.”
The director-writer says that he came across several interesting facts about the family while researching — some of them are part of the book. “My aunt told me that my grandmother’s eldest and youngest brothers were gay. Also, it is the first time that Bobby’s story — that he committed suicide — has come out on record. Of course, there are many which I didn’t delve deeply into, including my parents’ separation. People can always read between the lines,” says Alkazi, who has also written two theatre scripts ‘Noor’ and ‘A Quiet Desire’ besides directing over 200 plays.
The director of Delhi-based Ruchika theatre group, which works extensively with children including those with special needs, attributes this to the fact that his parents belonged to the Montessori school of thinking. “And I had the luxury of studying at Modern School at a time when art was as important as academics and sports. I really flowered as an artist there — not just theatre but also visual art. An artist like Devyani Krishna was in charge and some of the best art practitioners would visit. There was an immense exposure to the arts — at home and through education. I have done more than 100 plays with children and teenagers across the country. It is so fascinating that you can enrich the world of the child so much through the experience of art. The process of art making, be it the heritage education work, theatre work, art workshops, library workshops or teacher training has been very close to my heart,” says Alkazi, who also heads ‘Creative Learning for Change’, an NGO that designs, carries out and documents innovate educational projects in gender, environmental and heritage education.
Ask him if being a son to a legend like Ebrahim Alkazi was ever a ‘burden’, and he asserts, “Not at all. I loved it. Moreover, my work is quite distinctive. I was always interested in working in my own space,” says the director who also taught at Jamia Millia Islamia for a few years.
During the recent lockdown, Ruchika theatre group created an online programme every Friday for 39 weeks. From an hour long theatre performances to music concerts, all involving people from his group, they also opened the arena for visual artists and photographers. “We managed to create a strong community of around 100 people who would watch the productions online every week.
Interestingly, during this period, I picked up a Nirmal Verma short story collection which he had given me. As I opened it, there was a note that read ‘Feisal, look at the story ‘Zindagi Yahan aur Vahan’. Consider it for a theatre production.’ This was the first time I was seeing that note. I immediately did a production of the story which revolves around a middle-aged man’s affair with a much younger college student. We pulled out some lovely old visuals of Connaught Place. Verma used to come for all my shows and we would chat for long. I knew his brother Ram Kumar too. So far, 25,000 people have seen the live and recorded productions. We as a group had never done anything on Zoom earlier. We also explored some scripts which we would have never done on the stage because they were too niche.”
Currently rehearsing for his play ‘Noor’, this time in English, which will also travel to Dehradun, Hyderabad, Bangalore and the US in December, Alkazi says, “We may not have full auditoriums, but at least people are coming back to the theatre.”