The Arts

In the Presence of Alaknanda Samarth

The theatre actor who passed away on December 6 in London will be remembered for her pathbreaking portrayals of rebellious, contemporary women with an intelligent, coiled intensity – performances that were a startling departure for Indian audiences.

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I remember ‘Alak’, as we used to call her, from when I was 11 years old. A thin, scrawny 18-year-old whose large, slightly bulging eyes were set in an otherwise vulnerable looking, delicate face with a finely chiselled nose and slightly pouting, full lips. Alaknanda was among a growing generation of youngsters in Bombay who had heard about a new, fiery young theatre director called Ebrahim Alkazi and was impatient to work with him. 

In 1955-56 Alkazi had begun his own School of Dramatic Arts under the auspices of The Theatre Unit, a group he had established in 1954, and was offering, for the first time in India, a two-year-long full-fledged course in acting in Hindi and English.  

Alongside Alkazi had expanded his activities to include directing plays with students for the drama societies of colleges like the Elphinstone. It was here that the young Alaknanda Samarth, along with her fellow students like Farida Sonawala, Shiamak Shahvakshah and Yasmin Mody, began participating in Alkazi’s productions. 

Writing to my mother Roshan, who was then in Madras studying Bharatanatyam under T. Balasaraswati, my father, even at that early stage when Alak was raw and inexperienced, remarked on the kind of talent he was discovering in students participating in his productions of Moliere’s Sganarelle and Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent. Alaknanda, who played Dynamene in Phoenix, showed remarkable spark and potential which he was quick recognise, a spark he felt he could successfully cultivate and hone. He wrote:  

                                                       21st January 1958    

My darling Rosh,

The Elphinstone plays got over last night. There were three shows in all – Sat., Sun., Mon.– with full houses on the first two nights.  All in all they went over excellently with the audiences. […] 

‘Phoenix’ was a much more mature and polished piece of work – comparatively. […] 

In Alaknanda who comes from a cultured family of actresses (Shobhana Samarth is her aunt; Nutan her cousin) we have someone who speaks English beautifully and has a natural flair for acting. She is good in comedy as well as serious plays; Hindi too. So let’s groom her …”

Between 1958 and 1960, Alaknanda completed the two-year course at the School of Dramatic Arts and in the same year she was cast by Alkazi in two powerful productions for the Theatre Unit Repertory – August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, where she played the title role of Miss Julie opposite Alkazi himself as  Jean, and Anouilh’s Eurydice, where she acted opposite Zul Vellani. 

Alaknanda Samarth as Eurydice in Jean Anouilh’s Eurydice, directed by E. Alkazi, Theatre Unit Bombay, 1959. Image source: Mitter Bedi. Image courtesy: Alkazi Theatre Archives.

Only a handful of actors have what one calls a ‘presence’ on stage and Alak had that in full measure. It is a quality that is difficult to define!  It is the quality in an actor that hypnotically commands the spectator’s attention – a combination of striking looks (not necessarily beauty in a conventional sense), expressive voice and an attractive, supple body. But, above all, what all great actors have in common is the manner in which they hold themselves on stage – their bearing – where they display a certain ease, confidence and flair in expressing themselves. Alak had this kind of compelling presence on stage; one could hardly take one’s eyes off her.  

Alkazi had immediately recognised this quality in Alaknanda. This is perhaps what he meant by her having a ‘natural talent’. Alongside this was the fact that Alaknanda had a modern temperament that qualified her to essay roles of rebellious, contemporary women with an intelligent, coiled intensity that was further accentuated by her gaunt, lean, boyish frame, lending her an androgynous air. 

Thus, Alkazi’s casting of Alak as the new, modern woman was a deliberate and startling departure for Indian audiences who had become accustomed to accepting beautiful, simpering, rather curvaceous actresses as ‘heroines’ in plays. 

By all accounts, Miss Julie was a landmark production conceived as a modern ritual. It spoke to the blood, awakening in the audience the need to take cognizance of the deep sexual desires of its young female protagonist. Watching a production based on modern aesthetics and a disturbing theme was a decisive moment in the life of a young Girish Karnad who sat in the audience. It was an experience that prompted and excited him to seriously consider taking up playwriting as a profession. 

As for Alaknanda, working under Alkazi’s guidance in Miss Julie was to leave an indelible impression on her process and approach to role building. Fifty-five years later, Alak shared her thoughts of the Miss Julie experience with me. This was in 2016 when she was unable, due to her husband’s ill health, to attend the opening of the exhibition The Theatre of E. Alkazi and the attendant symposium on Actor Training that the Alkazi Theatre Archives, New Delhi, had organised in Bombay to celebrate and pay tribute to Alkazi in his 90th year. 

Alaknanda Samarth as Miss Julie and E. Alkazi as Jean in August Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’, directed by E. Alkazi, Theatre Unit Bombay, 1960. Image Source: Mitter Bedi. Image courtesy: Alkazi Theatre Archives.

Alak, herself 75 years old at the time, looked back, outlining with great clarity and astuteness what she had learnt from her guru. In her message she said: 

I have no visceral memory of the very first read-through, rehearsal or even the very first performance. So it must’ve happened naturally without fear, anxiety, or conscious pedagogy. 

‘Miss Julie’ in which both Mr. Alkazi and I played the leads, is an overwrought play about overwrought characters. It is a psychosocial drama which is today constantly reworked and replayed, such is its staying power. 

But Mr Alkazi, in that play, and in all the others I did with him, bypassed, completely jettisoned working through psychological realism. There was no talk of ‘motivation’, ‘characterisation’, ‘backstory’ at least to me.

There was no exploitation above all.  No emotional exploitation of the actors frailities, no voyeurism or psychodramatic confessionals. In today’s often self-indulgent, commercially power-driven workshop culture, this seems quite unbelievable. 

What Mr Alkazi did, as I recall, was distance the text in a workman-like way, fairly quickly like a craftsman chipping away at his material.

He did this by giving shape not to ‘moves’ or ‘actions’ or ‘blocking’ (though that word was current then) so much as freeing entire visual images — energy fields — in the text. 

If the actor absorbed them, filled them in, flowed wholeheartedly with them and believed in them, the rest followed. The actor was part of an entire image [emphasis mine]. 

I believe that this brief assessment by Alaknanda carries the essence of Alkazi’s methodology of working with actors – that is, of freeing the visual images evoked by the text and offering them as inspiration and guidelines for the actor to physicalise the role.

Also read | Ebrahim Alkazi: In His Mind’s Eye

Alak’s theatrical career after this was chequered. She won a prestigious scholarship to Brandeis University in the USA to study acting, and thereafter graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). By 1965 she returned to Bombay to work with Alkazi, but by then he had left for Delhi and the National School of Drama (NSD). Working briefly with Satyadev Dubey in Band Darwaze, an Urdu adaptation of Jean Paul Satre’s No Exit, with a few other projects in hand, Alak searched for ways to utilise her training professionally. 

Around this time, she met her husband-to-be, a Frenchman – Francois Duriaud, a senior journalist at Reuters based abroad.  Unfortunately, his work demanded that they constantly move from country to country, making it difficult for Alaknanda to sustain a theatre career either in India or abroad. However, when Francois was posted to Delhi in the 1980s, it allowed Alaknanda to rekindle her association with contemporary theatre workers here.

This was when Alaknanda and I collaborated on a production of The House of Bernarda Alba in Urdu. Raghuvir Sahay, the great Hindi poet, adapted Federico Garcia Lorca’s play for us, calling it Birjees Qadar ka Kunba. It was an enormous challenge for Alak, both in terms of tackling the larger-than-life dimensions of a character like Bernarda and mastering the speaking of Urdu, which was not her mother tongue, to do justice to Lorca’s poetry and rhythm. 

Working under financial constraints, we rehearsed during the sweltering summer months of 1982 in my mother’s drawing room. The cast, led by Alaknanda with her vast experience and training, consisted of Maya Rao, playing the maid, and Mona Chawla, Anita Kanwar, Tani Bhargava, Aparna and Shelly essaying the roles of the five daughters. Many of these actresses were to rise to eminence in either theatre or related fields in the years to come.

I think as a group of women working together for the first time, we became palpably aware of the inherent sexual power of the woman as we saw Alaknanda visualise female sexuality with raw explicitness, yet tremendous restraint. 

Alaknanda Samarth (centre) as Birjees Qadar in Birjees Qadar Ka Kunba, an adaptation by Raghuvir Sahay of The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca, directed by Amal Allana, Studio One, New Delhi, 1982. Photo by Nissar Allana. Image courtesy: Alkazi Theatre Archives.

For me as the director, Birjees Qadar Ka Kunba (1982) could be singled out as an example of my continuing preoccupation with characters of ambivalent gender. In the play, the masculine in Bernarda wages a war of total destruction against the feminine in her. 

The play begins with the death of Bernarda’s husband. Immediately assuming the role of the patriarch, she dons the black garb of a widow, downs the shutters of her house, incarcerating and entombing herself and expecting the same of her five daughters. 

Authoritative and unswaying, Bernarda attempts to stifle and castrate every trace of womanhood in herself or her daughters by denying the female body its instinctive needs. Ironically, the ‘house’ she seeks to uphold in this manner, will surely collapse without an heir. 

In this silenced world, the air is charged with violent aggressions of woman against woman. For the women in the House of Bernarda Alba, the male world is a distant utopia. The men’s songs waft in through the shuttered windows, stirring the sexual fantasies of the women with unspeakable desires. 

There were significant moments in the performance of Alaknanda as Bernarda, where she succeeded in exhibiting the gender ambiguity. Her Bernarda was a woman who wills herself to be male. It is a strenuous effort to suppress the needs of the female body. One particularly fine sequence was a piece of business we introduced where Poncia the maid (played by Maya Rao) massages Bernarda. This we felt would display a momentary sexual weakness on Bernarda’s part. 

In this sequence Alaknanda as Bernarda practically surrendered her body to Poncia. Her portrayal of the sexual gratification she received at being touched was expressed in guttural groans and purring as she gradually allowed her body to slacken, only to revert to her physically taut and upright stance a short while later. 

At the end of the play, we sought to generate an image which could express both Bernarda’s untold grief as a mother at the loss of her child and her male stoicism – the denial of grief was to be seen as her being resolute and strong, and the submission to it, as an act of being liquid and frail.  

Alaknanda had naturally abundant and fizzy hair. I had asked her to henna it for the play. Throughout the performance it was not visible, as it was bound securely by her dupatta. At the end, after killing Pepe and Adela hanging herself offstage, Bernada enters with wild, unbound, streaming tresses, gun in hand, the released red hair an expression of her crazed grief. The gun falls to the floor from her loosened grip, she sinks down and clenching both her fists in a downward thrust, with great effort she stretches her upper torso to its maximum, her head flung back, eyes shut, mouth open, mouthing “Silence! Silence!” with hypnotic determination. 

One must not forget that Alaknanda came on the scene at a time when women in India were coming into their own and asserting their independence in multiple directions. It is these women, who have sought to be liberated from patriarchal suppression, that Alaknanda Samarth was able to sharply etch and articulate, in performances that were unforgettably disturbing, of characters like Miss Julie, Bernarda Alba, and finally Medea, in Heiner Mueller’s Despoiled Shore/Medea Material/Landscape with Argonauts  – a performance-cum-installation created by one of India’s most respected women artists, Nalini Malani. 

In such performances Alaknanda assumed classical proportions and revealed with a knife-like sensibility, the truth and depth of a woman’s exploitation and the lengths she is willing to go to, in order to safeguard her sense of self. 

Amal Allana is an established theatre director. Former chairperson of the National School of Drama, she has established three theatre companies with husband Nissar Allana and is currently involved in writing a biography on her father, Ebrahim Alkazi.