He was, therefore we are: Theatre stars on Ebrahim Alkazi

“He is definitely responsible for what I am today. It was Ebrahim Alkazi who laid my creative foundation,” says actor Pankaj Kapur, adding that the three years of training under Alkazi at the National School of Drama (NSD) in the capital were the best years of his life.

Remembering the theatre doyen, who passed away on Tuesday after a heart-attack, the actor says that he was a remarkable talent, not just in theatre but diverse creative fields.

“His vast knowledge, ability to minutely analyze, give a unique world view and impart world class education will make him stand out long after he has gone.”

Kapur says that the legendary theatre practitioner, teacher and architect of modern Indian theatre who joined NSD as Director in his 30’s and held the position from 1962 to 1977 took immense personal interest in grooming him as an actor.

“I joined the school at the age of 19 and came from a background where my influences were not world theatre but mainstream Hindi cinema. He told my father — ask Pankaj to diversify his talents. That is one of the major reasons why I am a writer, and became a director apart from being an actor. He might have passed away, but has left a legacy which will keep him alive for centuries to come,” Kapur tells IANS.

Recipient of the Padma Vibhushan (2010), Padma Bhushan (1991) and Padma Shri (1966) honours, this Royal Academy of Dramatics Art (RADA), pass-out staged more than 50 plays during his distinguished career including Andha Yug and Tuglaq at Purana Qila, and won the BBC Broadcasting Award in 1950.

Instrumental in making the blueprint of modern theatre training in India, Alkazi was known to be a strict disciplinarian and demanded total commitment and absolute professionalism.

As Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, one of the early women graduates of NSD, who has been running the theatre repertory ‘The Company’ for more than two decades remembers, “Before joining the NSD under him, I didn’t even know that theatre could be a subject of learning — that there could be a system, method and design behind training — the very idea seemed unique. When he taught, he became every character — his classes were like a performance. We learnt so much from just observing him and the unimaginable rigor he put in.

“The man gave us an ‘eye’ for what all goes into making a production. His most significant lesson was that art was hard. It just cannot be treated as a hobby, but demands the same seriousness as becoming a doctor or a lawyer. A profession which had the same validity and required the same discipline as any other. He insisted that art is about discipline, structures and living a very ordered life. We were trained in every aspect — how to usher the audience in, the backstage discipline, to even ascertaining that the bathrooms were clean. He was a teacher who had captured the mind and heart. You had to even think right, lest Alkazi got to know and frowned.”

Born to parents of Arab descent, the young Alkazi, also a painter, sculpture and photographer, who was also associated with the Bombay progressives had made a name for himself quite early in Mumbai where his group ‘Theatre Unit’ that staged plays in the 40’s and 50’s. Besides ‘Andha Yug’ and ‘Tuglaq’, he directed major plays including ‘Oedipus Rex’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Ashadh Ka Ek Din’ and several Shakespearean plays and Greek tragedies during his time at NSD.

Pune-based actor Uttara Baokar, who passed out from NSD in 1968 feels that it was the maestro who taught her the first alphabets of acting.

“We thought theatre was just about learning your lines. He imparted us the depth, the vision to look more closely at characters, to imagine, and the method. In those three years, we learnt so much, not just in his class but also by observing him — how he implemented things. He grilled into us the fact that it was important for an actor to understand and appreciate other art forms and relate art with life.”

Rewind to the times when Actor Rohini Hattangadi was a student at NSD. She took out her pencil to take notes while Alkazi spoke. But it was blunt. He looked at her, paused and whispered, “Sharpen your mind. And yes, your pencil too.” She laughs, “Even that short exchange had a dramatic quality.” Distinctly remembering how he conducted rehearsals, Hattangadi says that it was during those moments of observing him that one caught a glimpse of greatness.

“His reach of going beyond the text, the small things he added, the almost fanatic attention to detail. The man was unwilling to accept anything except best. You had to come up to his standards, there was no other way.”

When during the convocation held by NSD after eight years, Alkazi took Saba Zaidi’s name among five others, it was the real degree. “That’s what mattered most — his acknowledgment,” Zaidi, who is now based in Australia tells IANS.

For Zaidi, who also worked with Satyajit Ray in ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’, Alkazi was an institution who liked to break one’s ego on day one. “He would always say — you cannot afford to be arrogant, have the modesty to learn. The man prepared us for life, his training emphasized on how to pursue passion. He made it clear that this art form was just not for the faint-hearted.

“He prepared us for the hard. I remember when we did a French play, he ascertained that we were acquainted with the intricacies of the French Revolution — the period, the history and the art. Same when ‘Sultan Razia’ and ‘Tuglaq’ were staged at Purana Qila, which became landmarks in Hindi theatre. He took us to the Tughlaqabad Fort and other historical sites. There was much emphasis in understanding costumes, the music, the literature and socio-cultural practices of that period. The key was to build up something with immense knowledge and awareness. It had to be out of the ordinary. Being a perfectionist himself, he detested mediocrity. The man was never happy with less.”

Smiling that he was one of his “good, bad and the ugly students”, theatre director MK Raina says that he shared a fantastic relationship — fighting, laughing, arguing and discussing” with the master.

“Though it’s an extremely sad day for me, somewhere I am relieved that he is no longer in pain. On his 90th birthday, he couldn’t even recognise us… But he has seen his full life. This can’t be said for many people. What a full fledged spell of Renaissance quality theatre. He was one of the pillars who came as young men when India attained independence. In science, we had Homi Bhabha, agriculture saw MS Swaminathan, Hussain in art, Satyajit Ray in cinema… They were young men with a dream to build the country, and had the vision and awareness of the freedom movement.

“When these people were at the helm of affairs, and took decisions, they were not petty. There was a larger goal for the nation. Alkazi wanted contemporary Indian theatre to be at par with world theatre. He was aware about the traditional culture here, and how to create modern theatre. Once a director from abroad came to NSD. He was and was stunned to note that we were learning about Japanese and Chinese theatre besides folk. His teachings were not limited to the classroom. Alkazi would take us to different monuments in Delhi, and yes, he told us where to find excellent second hand books in Old Delhi. Every Sunday, we would bump into him, and he would be excited to know what he had bought.”

Delhi-based Raina, who has been consistently working in Kashmir adds, “Whenever faced with a crisis situation there, which is often, I always think — how would Alkazi solve this? And believe me, the answer always comes.”

Suresh Sharma, Director-in-Charge of NSD says, “Alkazi will always be credited for highlighting the importance of training in theatre. Many of the finest actors in the country today are the ones who were trained by him. He has been instrumental in establishing several playwrights too. During his stint at NSD, he would ascertain that even the hostels were functioning properly. His time at the school will always be remembered as the golden era.”

Arvind Gaur of Asmita Theatre Group, who has had a long association with another legend, Habib Tanveer, may not have studied under or worked with Alkazi, but he remembers the 90’s when Alkazi’s theatre group ‘The Living Theatre’ (it staged ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Din ke Andhere Mein’ and ‘Rakt Kalyan’ for NSD Repertory) would be doing its rehearsals at LTG auditorium.

“We would be at the terrace, and would often talk. I had just started out, but he was always all ears to know about what I was doing and the kind of plays that fascinated me.”