‘If you are not dead, come immediately’

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry | Updated on August 04, 2020 Published on August 04, 2020

Man on a mission: A man of immense personal discipline, Ebrahim Alkazi set high standards for himself and his students   -  VV KRISHNAN

A student pays tribute to theatre legend Ebrahim Alkazi, who died in New Delhi on Tuesday

What was the one moment that altered my life, I ask myself. Was it the people I met or the experiences I had? The person and the theatre director I am today is a mixture of what I have seen, heard, smelt, experienced, eaten, remembered and forgotten. But the one moment that shaped and defined me was my first meeting with Ebrahim Alkazi, or rather his work. He is the man who formulated the concept of modern Indian theatre.

In the early ’70s, I had come to Chandigarh as a student of the History of Art at Panjab University. I can still recall the night I decided theatre was what I wished to do. Two NSD [National School of Drama] productions helmed by Alkazi were in town and I had volunteered to help backstage — organising ‘chai’, handling the dhobi and similar quotidian tasks.

What struck me that day more than the mirrors, spotlights and smell of greasepaint was the energy and bonhomie among the actors. The ease with which they related to their bodies was a world I was unfamiliar with. It contrasted sharply with my own restrictive and inhibited lugubriousness. In that darkened auditorium, watching the performance, I realised that theatre was a space where many worlds intertwine.

I joined NSD without knowing what ‘drama’ meant. Alkazi [who was the director of NSD from 1962 to 1977] taught me that theatre was not a hobby but a profession, one that required serious dedication like any other. He drew a boundary, created an inside and an outside, and then demonstrated to his students that the success of creativity lies in communicating and evolving with this outside.

Taking the casual approach I was used to in my previous student life, I once wrote a note explaining my inability to attend rehearsals. A curt reply came my way, “If you are not dead, come immediately.” That was an invaluable lesson on the ethics of community work. It also had to do with Alkazi’s complete rejection of self-indulgence.

To be: Ebrahim Alkazi as Hamlet in the play he directed for Theatre Group Mumbai in 1947   -  PHOTO COURTESY: ALKAZI FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS



It was during my NSD days that Alkazi directed the three plays that went on to become his definitive work — Andha Yug by Dharamvir Bharati, Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq and Razia Sultan by Balwant Gargi. All three were staged in 1974 at the Purana Qila, which was a coup by itself for the institution. The stage was built above a chasm and had seven inter-connected levels. The challenge was to organically connect it with the tiered wooden seating for the audience. Even the green rooms, toilets and lighting booths had to blend in with the environment.

Influenced by Noh and Kabuki theatre during his time in Japan, Alkazi wanted to create a resonance between Kabuki principles and the characters from the Mahabharata. Initially it was disorienting to see Gandhari dressed as a Kabuki actor, with a winged jacket worn over her kimono and descending the steps of the ramparts with her long gown trailing behind her. I had the task of shadowing the actor and making sure the kimono did not meet with any obstructions, which could be anything from the jagged edges of boulders to a startling snake!

During a dress rehearsal, a swarm of bees was found trapped in the fibrous platinum wig worn by an actor. The timely intervention by a colleague with a mashal (lighted flame) saved the day. I had the minuscule role of a maid in the play. After my scene I would quickly get out of my mauve-and-black tunic and rush to watch the rest of the play.

In the vast empty space behind the audience, I once found Alkazi pacing up and down. On seeing me he remarked, “You have also come to see my monumental blunder?” The iconic Alkazi became terribly human at moments like these.

At NSD, Alkazi made production work a part of training, ensuring that the actor was familiar with all aspects of a performance — acting, costumes, set-designing and even handling the box office. I recall how he hinted that actors should not hang around the audience after a show, fishing for compliments. Curtain-calls were also not a part of the culture of Alkazi’s theatre. In a way, actors were not allowed to turn egoistic, or think of themselves as public figures.

His syllabus tried to “establish links between traditional forms of Indian theatre and ‘modern’ expression; to encourage playwrights to respond to the challenges of contemporary Indian situations, and at the same time be aware of the developments in other parts of the world”. Rather than treat ancestral material as ‘holy cow’, he recommended viewing it as ‘an expression of its own time’.

Alkazi had no patience with intellectuals who created watertight categories of ‘tradition versus modernity’, arguing that academics advocating this had no experience of translating a text into a performance. For him, modern consciousness meant a rejection of the caste system, of dissolving religious and class discrimination; being imaginative and open.

Rejecting the guru-shishya parampara in favour of a formal training module, Alkazi at NSD consciously discouraged any display of sycophancy, no touching of feet prior to a show, for instance.

His students were exposed to a range of creative experiences, from traditional theatre to realism to the experimental. This, he felt, allowed the actor or director to dip into the vast pool of knowledge and make his/her choices.

His influence permeated even into the daily lives of his students. In the hostel, Sundays would see most of us either sprawled on the lawns or lounging in our rooms. Alkazi would arrive at six in the morning and urge us to do some exercises. Sometimes he would enter our rooms quietly, look around at the strewn clothes and dust-covered bookshelves, and walk out as unobtrusively. The mess, so natural to us, was suddenly seen through Alkazi’s eyes. His visits always sent us into a frenzy of cleaning.

To stress the importance of hygiene in theatre, he would periodically remind us to wear fresh underclothes. Even though this embarrassed us, its significance was not lost on us. Nothing is fouler than doing a scene with a co-actor who has a bad case of halitosis along with smelly underarms.

A man of immense personal discipline, he set high standards for himself and his students. Very often one would find him cleaning the toilets and sweeping the stage. No part of the theatre experience was taboo for him.

(Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry is a Chandigarh-based theatre practitioner and founder of The Company. This tribute appeared in BLink in 2016).

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Published on August 04, 2020
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