Minal and Dinesh Vazirani remember the legendary Ebrahim Alkazi, who left behind an unparalleled legacy in Indian art and theatre
There are very few people in your life who have such a tremendous influence on it. We had the privilege of knowing and befriending such a person: Ebrahim Alkazi. His passing on 4 August 2020 is a tragic loss to the entire Indian arts and culture community. A colossal figure in the industry, Alkazi’s name is practically synonymous with modern Indian theatre. No one can argue that his vision in the postcolonial theatre space, particularly during his tenure as the director of the National School of Drama (NSD), shaped Indian theatre as we know it. Equally significant is his contribution to Indian art, and the cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas and dialogue that emerged from his presence in it.
He was born in 1925 to wealthy Saudi Arabian businessman, and was one of nine siblings who enjoyed a comfortable childhood in Pune. Arriving in then Bombay to attend St Xavier’s College, Alkazi met Sultan “Bobby” Padamsee and joined his theatre group. These early years were crucial to the development of Indian modernism in the arts. The theatre crowd leaned towards serious material—from Shakespeare to Wilde—and the Progressive Artists’ Group was just beginning to make their mark. They were very aware of the cultural milieu in Europe, thanks to the influence and patronage of émigrés Rudy von Leyden, Walter Langhammer and Emmanuel Schlesinger. Alkazi would come to acquaint with several of the Progressives, and play a significant role in advancing their careers years later.
Initially interested in painting, Alkazi headed to London to pursue art in 1948, where he frequently met with the artist F N Souza and poet Nissim Ezekiel. In fact, Souza even declared that Alkazi was a “poet-artist.” In a letter dated 2 May 1950 to Alkazi’s wife Roshen—which was displayed during the 2019 exhibition Opening Lines: Ebrahim Alkazi, Works 1948-1971 at Art Heritage Gallery, New Delhi—Souza wrote of his early works: “To him life is painting, To me, painting is life… These paintings are not good. They are great.”1
This pursuit of art was short-lived, and Alkazi joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1948, changing the course of his life, and in many ways, India’s cultural history. “What art lost, theatre gained,” said Nissim Ezekiel2, and truer words have never been spoken. What happened next is well-known history. Despite great career opportunities in London, Alkazi moved back to Bombay in 1951 and established Theatre Unit with Roshen and Ezekiel. He started a school at the newly-established Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute, where he closely interacted with the group of artists which included V S Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta and Nasreen Mohamedi. At the same time, he curated a series of exhibitions titled This Is Modern Art at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery in the 1950s.
At various points, Husain and Mehta designed the sets for Alkazi’s theatre productions, each harbouring a respect and admiration of the other’s talents. In particular, Alkazi shared a unique friendship with Mehta, and it was not surprising that Alkazi inaugurated the first and largest solo exhibition of Mehta’s work at the Jehangir Art Gallery in 1959. In a glowing endorsement of Mehta’s work in the Theatre Unit Bulletin that year, he spoke of the “essential significance of [Mehta’s] art” and described it as having “dignity.”
Their friendship would take on an added layer of artist and collector. Mehta’s seminal 1989 painting Kali, which Saffronart sold in 2007 and 2018, and Mahishasuramardini, were both part of Alkazi’s collections. In an earlier interview with Saffronart, Alkazi’s daughter, Amal Allana pointed out that her father and Mehta were kindred spirits in their “understanding of the tragic temperament.” In Alkazi’s elaborate Greek tragedies, one sees his innate and nuanced understanding of the pathos and violence that lies at the core of the human condition — a theme that drove Mehta’s art. Impacted by the events of Partition, Mehta constantly engaged with a fixed repertoire of images that explores this violence, and works such as Kali were a vehicle for this exploration. Alkazi understood the depth of layered meaning in this work, and the inherent sense of drama would have obviously appealed to him. Acquiring this work showed an almost prophetic understanding on Alkazi’s part, of not only Mehta’s artistic trajectory, but that of Indian modernism as well.
His moving to Delhi in 1962 to become the director of NSD—a position he held for 15 years—ushered a new phase in both theatre and art. He was only 36, and found himself having to build an entirely different tone for theatre than he was used to in Bombay. He had to leave the plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekov behind, and adapt to contemporary, political plays with Hindi as the medium. This culminated in seminal productions, including Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq and Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug. Alkazi came to be known for his advances in scenographic design, as well as the meticulous attention to detail and research he conducted prior to any production. At the same time, he remained heavily involved with art, setting up Art Heritage Gallery in 1977 with Roshen. During that time, the art market was virtually non-existent, and Alkazi, through his gallery, became one of the first supporters of up-and-coming artists such as Arpita Singh, A Ramachandran, Sudhir Patwardhan and Bharti Kher, among others.
Our own personal history and friendship with Alkazi is made up of several memorable moments. Lunches once a month in Delhi where we spoke for hours. He was a veritable encyclopaedia of knowledge and information—from theatre, art to film, music, politics and so much more—which was disarming and awe-inspiring at the same time. The most profound, and perhaps most enigmatic, of these meetings occurred in 2007, when he invited Dinesh to his house to show him the two paintings by Mehta, Kali and Mahishasuramardini. Alkazi asked him which one he would choose for the next Saffronart auction. Although flummoxed by the question, Dinesh—upon Alkazi’s cryptic insistence—selected the Kali. Alkazi complimented him on his choice, saying, “that is the one Tyeb would have chosen.” Looking back on this moment, this painting is proof not only on Mehta’s artistic genius, but of Alkazi’s impeccable tastes. It acquires added significance as a testament to the deep friendship between two giants on the post-Independence Indian cultural scene.
In his lifetime, Alkazi refused to limit his creativity, seamlessly transitioning between the roles of actor, director, painter, photographer, writer, collector, publisher and curator. He received several accolades, including the Padma Shri in 1966, the Padma Bhushan in 1991, and the Padma Vibhushan in 2010 for his contributions to the fields of art and culture. Alkazi will be remembered for several things—his sheer depth of knowledge, sense of humour, a kind, gentle nature—and a profound legacy that changed the very face of the arts in India.