The Arts

Remembering Ebrahim Alkazi, the Master Who Helped Shape Modern Indian Theatre

During his 15-year tenure as NSD director, Alkazi moulded it into one of India’s premier institutions, which produced a generation of remarkable actors and directors who had a seminal influence on India’s theatre scene.

During the 1960s when I was young, as was also the National School of Drama (NSD), Ebrahim Alkazi was already a name on everybody’s lips. He was not only widely regarded as an institution-builder; he was himself an institution. For decades, the stage was all the world for him. An outstanding teacher, his craftsmanship as stage director was legendary.

Ebrahim Alkazi (October 18, 1925-August 4, 2020)
Photo: Courtesy of the Alkazi Theatre Archives

Born in Pune in 1925, he went to England in 1947 to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). On returning in 1951, he started a group of his own and continued to stage English language plays. The technical perfection and professionalism of these productions was hailed as unprecedented on India’s urban stage.

Some years later, he moved to Delhi and, in 1962, took over the directorship of the newly reconstituted National School of Drama, a position that he held until 1977.

NSD under Alkazi became a full-fledged institution which brought into theatre training a high degree of professionalism. Among the first things that he did was to restructure the School’s training programme on the model of RADA.  He introduced a three-year course with the option of specialisation in acting or design. He put in place a clearly defined and rigorous academic calendar. The syllabus that was formulated for the purpose was systematic and had consistency and logic.

It was Alkazi’s idea that the work done with, and by, students should be presented to the wider public. This idea eventually crystallised in the establishment of a repertory company attached to the NSD.

Alkazi also helped develop new and interesting performance spaces within or around the School. The intimate studio theatre and the beautiful open air Meghdoot theatre in Rabindra Bhavan were his creations. In short, those years under Alkazi were a period of such growth and vibrancy as was not witnessed again.

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It would not be an exaggeration to say that those 15 years represent the most glorious chapter of NSD’s history. To a large extent it is the work of that period that made the School one of India’s premier institutions. Also, it is almost entirely on his work of all those years at the NSD that Alkazi’s own reputation as one of India’s foremost theatre persons rested.

It was during this period that a number of remarkable actors and directorsfor instance, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Uttara Baokar, Rohini Hattangadi, Ratan Thiyam, Manohar Singh, B.V. Karanth, Neelam Mansinghwere trained. Many of them are still around and continue to remember and speak of their guru with respect and affection.

Razia Sultan by Balwant Gargi. Directed by Alkazi, the NSD production (with Rohini Hattangadi playing the eponymous character), was staged at the Purana Qila in Delhi, in 1974. Photo: Courtesy of the Alkazi Theatre Archives

To many, Alkazi was not merely a teacher but also an excellent and indulgent mentor in everything from academic issues to personal hygiene and sartorial tidiness. Vijay Kashyap, an actor, once recalled an interesting experience. He and his batch were rehearsing a play on the stage of the studio theatre in Rabindra Bhavan and Alkazi was watching their progress.

Suddenly he went out and returned with a shoe polish kit. He then went to the edge of the stage where the students had left their shoes. He quietly picked up Kashyap’s shoes and after shining them returned them to their place. The students watched this in amazement and Kashyap himself was so embarrassed by it that, he claimed, he never wore unpolished shoes ever again!

A period of memorable NSD productions

That period also witnessed several memorable productions by the School. Among the ones directed by Alkazi himself were plays by new Indian playwrights (Dharmvir Bharti, Mohan Rakesh, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Girish Karnad), Sanskrit classics  (Kalidasa and Shudraka), as well as modern and old western classics in translation (Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere, Osborne).

Some of these are remembered to this day as among the best productions ever seen on Delhi’s stage. They tended to be outstanding in their technical polish and professional quality, and impressed with their meticulously blocked scenes, perfectly delivered lines, and elegant, though sometimes grandiose and monumental, sets, and lovely costumes (usually designed by Roshen Alkazi).

The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht, was directed in 1968 by visiting German director, Carl Weber, who worked with NSD students. Photo: Courtesy of the Alkazi Theatre Archives

It was also during Alkazi’s tenure that NSD students as well as Indian theatre audiences in general had their first taste of Bertolt Brecht. This was in 1968 when a visiting German director, Carl Weber, worked with the young theatre trainees at the School and produced The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

The experience was repeated a couple of year later when another German director, Fritz Bennewitz, visited NSD and staged The Three-penny Opera with the students. I am often reminded of the songs from these plays which were set to the original Brechtian music, executed by Vanraj Bhatia, and rendered beautifully by the likes of Uttara Baokar and Surekha Sikri.

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Alkazi’s own productions, although tremendously strong in visual terms, often seemed rather staid and without that sense of excitement and frolic that, to my mind, is the sine qua non of the theatre as an art form. I felt that he was most comfortable with a non-frolicsome, more or less realist style. I did not see his early NSD productions, particularly his staging of Rakesh and Moliere, and I wonder how he handled the latter’s texts which were originally written in the exaggerated and blatantly playful style of commedia dell’arte.

But, judging on the basis of the plays I did see, he did not seem to believe in experimenting much and tended to adhere to the conventional ways of performance. However, he did possess and demonstrate remarkable skill and energy when it came to finding or inventing unusual sites for his productions.

This was evident in his use of old historic sites, such as the battlements of the Firoz Shah Kotla or the Purana Qila ruins for his staging of Andha Yug, Tughlak, and Razia Sultan. All those who saw these productions still remember them with nostalgia.

A taste for using historic sites as monumental sets: Tughlaq by Girish Karnad. The NSD production, directed by Alkazi, was staged at the Purana Qila in Delhi, in 1976. Photo: Courtesy of the Alkazi Theatre Archives

End of an era

The end of Alkazi’s tenure at the NSD was mired in controversy. One possible reason for this could be that new ways of doing and approaching theatre had begun to gain ground. Another possible reason could be that the academic environment too had changed. The cultural profile of students was now different from the earlier culture of gentlemanly politeness.

Alkazi, a thorough old-fashioned gentleman, could not adapt to this new situation. He quit NSD’s directorship in 1977 after an ugly incident. He remained in complete exile from the theatre for nearly a decade-and-a-half. However, he returned in the early 1990s and guest-directed a set of three plays for the NSD Repertory Company, including the Hindi premiere of Karnad’s Rakt-Kalyan.

He tried to continue to be active in theatre during the subsequent years by instituting a part-time theatre training course under the name Living Theatre, which did not survive for long. During its brief existence, Alkazi directed and produced several plays. Although the public performances of these plays were well attended, they lacked the vibrant quality and appeal of Alkazi’s earlier productions. By the end of the 1990s, Living Theatre ceased to exist, and Delhi did not see another production by Alkazi ever again.

Conversations with Alkazi about the art of theatre and his own approach to it

In the course of my work as a freelance theatre critic, I had the opportunity not only to see many of Alkazi’s productions but also to meet and talk to him, and even watch him at work during rehearsals. He was a gracious man whose sophistication did not allow him to flaunt the aura of greatness which reputation had bestowed on him. In fact, he tended to go out of his way to make a person feel comfortable in his presence.

It was a fascinating experience to watch him at work. What came across most powerfully was the immense amount of care with which he visualised each little segment of the action and scene, the meticulous eye for detail with which he prepared a performance and invested it with visual and cognitive power.

Much of what I write below is based on the notes and recordings from those conversations. He was always obliging and readily answered all my queries about the art of theatre and his own approach to it as a director as well as a teacher of young actors, articulating his views with absolute confidence, clarity and persuasiveness.

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Alkazi’s answers to any general and innocuous questions tended to be equally broad and text bookish. It was always the more pointed and polemical sort of question which provoked him to a sharp and passionate response.

For example, when I asked him to respond to the charge that all his ideas and notions of theatre were Western in origin, quick came the angry rejoinder:

It would be interesting for me to know, for example, as to what were the elements that were so western in my production of Mrichchkatikam? Or in my production of Mohan Rakesh’s Ashadh Ka Ek Din, which was presented on a small, simple stage plastered with cow-dung? What was uniquely western in that approach to this Sanskritised Hindi interpretation of Kalidasa? Or my interpretation of Andha Yug against the battlements of Firoz Shah Kotla, and later in the Purana Qila? I think that when people can’t put their finger on what in my production is distinctive, they find it convenient to beat me with the stick of being westernised….

I think what is important is the ability through the visual imagination to bring characters to life on a scale which is commensurate with what the playwright has created. You have the epic characters of the Mahabharata. In what way will you give them epic proportions? You can do this through some of the conventions of the traditional Indian theatre, you can have masks, padded bodies, etc. As you have in Kathakali and Yakshagana. On the other hand, you can get that same kind of monumental quality without resorting to any of these, through a capacity for visual imagination, or by provoking the visual imagination through your choreography, your use of lights, through the sound patterns of your actors.

Alkazi in rehearsal at the Purana Qila in Delhi, in 1974. Photo: Courtesy of the Alkazi Theatre Archives

‘It is absolute rubbish to say that my style of work does not give freedom to the actor’

Watching him at work was an experience. He not only wanted each scene neatly visualised and packaged but also fixed each position, each movement, and each gesture in advance. Once I remarked: “You want everything carefully planned, learnt, and reproduced night after night. While this may be an excellent method in itself, what freedom does it allow to the actor.”

My comment brought forth another angry response from the master:

It is absolute rubbish to say that my style of work does not give freedom to the actor. It liberates the actor in many ways. The very idea of art is precision and control. In any one of the disciplines of dance or traditional theatre (for example, Kathakali) you have a basic training of something like 14 years which eventually takes you through a very limited range of characters which you interpret for the rest of your life. Therefore, this business of improvisation comes only when a basic discipline has been mastered over a period of years….

It is assumed that acting largely consists of emoting on stage, but a master of that craft will tell you that it is not a release of emotion, but it is indeed a control of emotion. Can you imagine in a play like Julius Caesar or any other play with a large cast, what would happen if each person improvised his speech on the pattern of his own speech, his movement on the pattern of his movement? Therefore, discipline is required in a field like the theatre where the meaning of a very difficult text can be altered by wrong stress on a single word.

He went on like this for a while and added:

I think what you have [in my productions] is an absolute clarity of ideas which is carried through in the interpretation of the character, and in the visual concept of the setting, costumes, and so on. Therefore, what you really have is indeed a completely unified experience. As you work with an actor, as the actor develops his confidence in you and as you develop the confidence of the actor, I think you are sharing an experience that becomes a revelation for both. For it is a very gratifying experience for a director to see a role slowly come to life and even more gratifying to see a large number of roles coming together and acquiring that kind of unity. And you can sense that in a rehearsal. Nothing is more gratifying than a series of rehearsals where each person does bring to it a considerable degree of creativity.

I persisted, saying that the merits and strengths of this particular view of theatre were not in doubt – it had a very long and rich history in the artistic practice of a certain kind – but was it the only possible approach? Alkazi was horrified at the suggestion and vehemently protested:

No, no. I am not saying that. Not necessarily. Why, not at all. It happens to be my approach. I am not saying that it is the only approach. And that has not been my only approach either. My approach differs from production to production. I have done plays with masks, for example, in my production of Moliere’s Bichchoo with students of NSD which required tremendous amount of improvisation during rehearsals.

‘I have done theatre under all circumstances’

During the Living Theatre years, Alkazi did not have the institutional support and enormous resources of the NSD. One day, watching him at work, I asked: Didn’t his kind of theatre presuppose an established, stable professional company—a company rich or at least secure, in material resources?” His answer was:

No, you are completely mistaken. I have done theatre under all circumstances, have created theatre in my drawing-room, created it in the arena style. You have seen the theatre (the studio theatre in Rabindra Bhawan) that I have created, which consists of rooms with two walls broken down….

I think theatre is something we create. I really think it is ultimately created in the imagination, in the minds of audience. I have always worked in the simplest as well as in the most arduous conditions. On the other hand, if you have the resources which have been provided to you, it would be absolutely ridiculous to deny them all.

After leaving NSD, except for that short and rather lacklustre second coming, Alkazi virtually faded from India’s theatre scene. The theatre in India moved on as did theatre training, following a trajectory which was in many ways very different from the one during his time. Radically new ways of thinking about and doing theatre had come up.

These changes may have made the master’s method and style seem limited, traditional, and not of direct relevance to India. But all this does not, should not, take away from the seminal importance of what was accomplished during those years under Alkazi’s leadership. That work provided a firm and sound foundation to theatre training in India.

Javed Malick is an academic and well-known theatre scholar.