The canvas of young Ebrahim Alkazi

Amit Sengupta | Updated on October 31, 2019

Portrait of an artist as a young man: Ebrahim Alkazi

Veteran theatre director Ebrahim Alkazi’s early art works are on show in Delhi’s Art Heritage and Shridharani Gallery

Amal Allana was rummaging in an old trunk when she found a treasure — her father Ebrahim Alkazi’s artwork. Few know that the legendary theatre director was once a painter. His works had first been exhibited decades ago, but never again. Two years ago, Allana, a theatre designer and scholar, invited Mumbai-based cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote to curate a show of her father’s art. The outcome — Opening Lines: The Artworks of E Alkazi — is currently on view at the Art Heritage and Shridharani Gallery, Delhi. The show highlights works exhibited at the Asian Institute, London (1950), Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay (1952), and Shridharani Gallery (1965).

First impressions: Ebrahim Alkazi’s ‘Elopement’ (1949)   -  IMAGE COURTESY: THE ALKAZI FOUNDATION


On view till November 11, Opening Lines is an ode to the great mentor of Indian theatre who turned 94 on October 18. “Remember that we are looking at the work of a very young man — the London and Bombay shows presented work he made while yet in his early twenties; and he was only 39 at the time of the Delhi show,” Hoskote says.

Alkazi’s works are largely on paper, rendered with what Hoskote calls “an extraordinary range and combination of media”: Charcoal, ink-and-wash, printer’s ink, graphite, pastel, poster paint, carbon-tracing, and frottage or textural rubbing. “There is a single oil-on-canvas work in the exhibition, a self-portrait,” he adds.

Hoskote points out that Alkazi’s legendary reputation as a theatre maker, institution builder, and mentor to several generations of actors and other theatre-persons — along with his position in the art world as a patron, archive builder, and gallerist — eclipsed his own work as a visual artist.

But Alkazi, he stresses, has always believed in a continuum of the arts. “This is why, even as he developed a rigorous theatre training programme at the Theatre Group, Theatre Unit, and the Bhulabhai Institute in Bombay during the 1950s, he was also lecturing on modern art and organising exhibitions such as ‘This is Modern Art’, a survey of the key movements within this rubric.”

Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), London, he staged more than 50 path-breaking plays. His acclaimed productions include Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq, Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug, Mohan Rakesh’s Ashadh ka ek Din and numerous Shakespeare and Greek plays.

“I knew him personally during the years when he was active,” says Hoskote. “One of my treasured memories is from when I was 22, and was summoned to Delhi by Alkazi, with the intention of drawing me into his archival and research projects. I spent three marvellous days with him, during which he gave me a very privileged glimpse into his practice and his collection.”

Hoskote recalls how he would “very meticulously” draw out carefully maintained works of Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain from filing cabinets. “He spoke of (FN) Souza and (Akbar) Padamsee. He was always formal and formidable, and yet passionate about art, artists, and the flow of creativity across fields and disciplines.”

According to Art Heritage, Alkazi’s works from the early 1950s find their historical context in a widespread post-World War II artistic fascination with primitivism — his references embrace Neolithic drawings, African masks and Oceanic sculpture, as well as the key myths of the hunt, the sacrifice, and sexual communion.



“He brings to his art a preoccupation with Shakespeare’s complex and indecisive anti-hero Hamlet, and with TS Eliot’s poetry and James Joyce’s fiction. In the work of the 1960s, we find him embracing the architectural forms of a sedimented and layered imperial history — he had moved to Delhi in 1962 — so that the dark, brooding drawings of this period evoke the presence of Purana Qila and Feroze Shah Kotla, where he would also mount grand theatre productions such as Andha Yug and Tughlaq,” Hoskote adds.

The curator interprets the painting ‘Reclining Jesus’ in relation to the compelling presence of Christ throughout Alkazi’s oeuvre. He was an alumnus of two major Jesuit institutions, St Vincent’s School in Poona and St Xavier’s College in Bombay. In his work of the 1960s, he focused on the Crucifixion as well as the baptism and the entombment of Christ.

Explains Hoskote: “The reclining figure of Christ is a version of the deposition — after the body of Jesus is taken down from the cross and prepared for burial. It is a melancholy moment, between the sacred drama of the Crucifixion and the sacred mystery of the Resurrection. ‘Ophelia’ belongs to a series of drawings on the‘Hamlet’ theme, in which Alkazi uses a minimal, electric line to invoke the Prince of Denmark, his ill-starred lover Ophelia, and his complex mother, Queen Gertrude. In this minimal evocation of Ophelia, we see prefigured the derangement that overtakes her, following Hamlet’s unpredictable behaviour, and her sad end in the water.”

For the artist, clearly, the canvas is the stage.

Amit Sengupta is the executive editor of Hard News

Published on October 31, 2019

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