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A brief biography
Ebrahim Alkazi was a colossus of fine arts who created and crafted modern Indian theatre, and as the longest-serving director of National School of Drama (1962-77) taught and honed a fecund crop of first-rate actors like Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Surekha Sikri.
“He was admitted to the Escorts hospital the day before yesterday,” his son Feisal Alkazi told PTI. He was 94.
Alkazi produced benchmark plays such as Dharamvir Bharti’s Andha Yug, John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, Lorca’s Yerma, Mohan Rakesh’s Aashadh Ka Ek Din, Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq. “He created a generation of directors, actors and other theatre people who are engaged in modern Indian theatre from Kashmir to Kanya Kumari, even in Andaman-Nicobar,” says theatre professional and former student MK Raina. Alkazi was also a painter, a trained architect, a photographer and art curator. He designed the Meghdoot open air theatre in Rabindra Bhavan. “He gave you a sense of what the Renaissance man is all about,” says Raina.
His idea of teaching was holistic. Noted actress and former student Surekha Sikri remembers, “He taught us all subjects, including lighting, music, set design and play analysis. He taught me everything I know about the art and craft of acting.” He practiced what he preached. “NSD had a meagre budget those days. During our first year, we worked three hours every day to build the Meghdoot theatre. He would lift bricks with us,” recalls Raina. He was also a disciplinarian. Sikri recalls skipping class to watch the movie, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, and getting caught. “He was very angry. We were suspended for a week from attending classes,” she says.
Pune-born Alkazi was one of the nine children of a Saudi Arabian father and a Kuwaiti mother. He was the only one who stayed back in India after Partition. A graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he returned to Mumbai, his first karmabhoomi in theatre. “Alkazi revealed to Mumbai the riches of Sophocles, Anouilh and Strindberg,” wrote renowned playwright Girish Karnad in India Today in 2005. At 37, he was the director of National School of Drama in 1962.
Firmness was integral to him. “Once then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was supposed to come and watch a performance of Razia Sultan. She was a little late. Alkazi insisted the performance begin at the scheduled time, notwithstanding the absence of the PM of India,” writes Nandita Puri in Om Puri’s biography, Unlikely Hero.
Alkazi also acted as guide and mentor to many students. During his early days at NSD, Om Puri couldn’t follow what was being taught in English and was extremely frustrated. On finding out the problem, Alkazi counselled and motivated him. “This comforted Om. Soon he settled down and began to enjoy NSD as he started to get good roles as well,” she writes.
He also encouraged students to look at regional drama. “I still remember the thrill that ran through the Kannada theatre when we learnt that Adya Rangacharya's Kelu Janamejaya was to be staged in Hindi at NSD. Next year, it was my Tughlaq ,” wrote Karnad.
Raina links Alkazi’s emergence to the time when the Nehruvian dream of New India was still alive. “MF Hussain in painting, Homi Bhabha in nuclear energy, Uday Shankar in modern dance, Alkazi in theatre and many others – they were all creating Nehru’s contemporary India. They were the best people and the best talent of that era in India,” he says.
A Padma Vibhushan recipient, his death was widely mourned. Among those who paid tributes were President Ram Nath Kovind and PM Narendra Modi. In his autobiography, And Then One Day, former student and actor Naseeruddin Shah had aptly summed up Alkazi’s style and substance. “Blessed with impeccable taste, and acutely aware of his place in history, he bestowed a sense of aesthetics and sophistication and, more important, organisation and discipline on Indian theatre. His productions were an example of what ‘finish’ in theatre design actually meant. A designer by training and by temperament, widely travelled and formidably well read, Alkazi’s compelling theatre presentations had, in the context of Indian theatre then, no equal.”