Ebrahim Alkazi: The Idealist

Somak Ghoshal is an editor and writer based in Bengaluru
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Ebrahim Alkazi’s lifelong project was to burst the seemingly exclusive bubble in which the appreciation of art and theatre appeared to take place

Ebrahim Alkazi: Directing Art: The Making of a Modern Indian Art World | Edited by Parul Dave-Mukherji | Mapin Publishing |  Pages 300 | Rs 5,550


IN A DOCUMENTARY series that Ebrahim Alkazi directed in 1955 called Indian Art and Modernism, the veteran theatre personality and art connoisseur outlined ‘three main issues that confront… Indian artists today’. Articulated in the form of three questions, these involve matters that have preoccupied artists and art historians for decades, and remain pertinent to this day. His words are worth quoting in full:

“The first question is, what pictorial language is appropriate to interpret our contemporary times?

Secondly, what pictorial language of the Indian artists today have to do with our own artistic heritage? And thirdly, in the West since the end of the 19th Century, there have been a series of art movements—like post- impressionism, cubism, expressionism, abstract expressionism and so on. Does the Indian artist have to relate to these and acknowledge them as part of the universal art heritage, or have these movements been too alien to the Indian experience or in denial of basic Indian aesthetics?”

It is a mark of Alkazi’s singular genius that he could formulate such hard questions in the clearest of terms, shorn of the convoluted jargon of theory, and direct them with as much force at the informed viewer of art as at those only interested in it. His lifelong project was to burst the seemingly exclusive bubble in which the appreciation of art and theatre appeared to take place especially in the country he called home, India. Ebrahim Alkazi : Directing Art: The Making of a Modern Indian Art World, edited by art historian Parul Dave-Mukherji and brought out in a handsome volume by Art Heritage gallery (founded by Alkazi with his wife in Delhi in 1978) and Mapin Publishing, pays tribute to his democratic vision as well as to the extraordinary efforts he made to turn it into a reality.

But given Alkazi’s focus on creating platforms to enable public engagement with the arts, there is more than a hint of irony in the choice of the oversized, high- priced format to present this material, as well as in the choice of the contributors who write about him—some of whom are too deeply mired in the trappings of academic writing to be able to speak interestingly and intelligibly to the common reader. Most of the essays are also burdened with information, invaluable for researchers and students no doubt, but some of which may feel repetitive and tedious to those reading this volume to piece together the story of an incredible man.

The centrepiece of this collection is a stellar interview of Alkazi by art writer Yashodhara Dalmia, closely followed by another interview of artist KG Subramanyan by Dave-Mukherji, and a lovely reminiscence by Amal Allana, distinguished theatre personality and Alkazi’s daughter. Surrounding these texts is a treasure trove of images, photographs and artworks by artists spanning several decades. The book opens a window into the private world of the Alkazis and their friends, their charming, though difficult, bohemian existence in London in the 1950s, fleshed out with anecdotes from their letters and remembrances. From accounts of their peculiar dietary habits, dictated by frugal budgets, to the ordeal of having to share beds with friends, the picture that emerges is amusing yet profoundly moving too.

Born in Pune to a Saudi Arabian father and Kuwaiti mother in 1925, Alkazi grew up in Bombay, before he moved to London to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1947. In spite of his early absorption in theatre, Alkazi’s interest moved to the visual arts seamlessly. For him, these two activities—acting and art-making—were united by a common performative impulse. And in the final reckoning—be it theatre, the arts, or literature—the intellectual canopy under which all these disciplines came together for Alkazi and his generation was defined by European humanism.

Yet, in no way could Alkazi and his illustrious comrades—Nissim Ezekiel, Mulk Raj Anand, Francis Newton Souza, MF Husain, to name a few—could be accused of being imitative of Western models of aesthetics, however strongly the latter may have informed their sensibilities. Rather, theirs was a quest for the kind of cosmopolitanism that would be akin to the spirit of UNESCO. As Alkazi once put it, ‘I felt that after the depression of the war, and also after all the hectic excitement of the freedom movement, now that the country was free, the whole world was there before you… it was almost natural that UNESCO should be established here.’ These words resounded with much more than the sheer optimism of youth. As Allana points out, her father turned his life’s work into ‘a nation-building project for the arts’.

Alkazi embraced his sense of purpose with a zeal that had little regard for practicalities. Since hiring an auditorium was an expensive affair, he decided to convert the terrace of his rented apartment in Bombay into an 80-seater performance space. The story of Meghdoot Theatre, where Alkazi staged several European classics, is made alive in Allana’s telling. For the six flights of stairs that the audience had to climb to get to the venue, they were served coffee on the house—all 80 cups prepared by Allana in their modest kitchen. It’s from her loving account of such details, and of the daily rhythm of life with her parents, that a vivid picture of Alkazi and his idealism emerges. There was no distinction of work from leisure in his family, the two being inseparable in the island of happiness they inhabited, trafficking daily in words, images and emotions.

WHILE ALKAZI MAY be more remembered for his contribution to theatre—he took up the directorship of the National School of Drama (NSD) in 1962 and was a mentor to actors like Naseeruddin Shah—his work in the sphere of drama also inspired some of the greatest artists in India. One of the most fascinating manifestations of this influence is seen in MF Husain’s sketches, reproduced in the book, inspired by the performance of Euripides’ Medea staged by Alkazi at his home theatre. Husain, a friend of the family, would also design the set for TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, staged by Alkazi.

In spite of his obvious interest in European drama and art, Alkazi aimed to create a public sphere in India that would dissolve the barriers between the English elite and vernacular traditions of writing about the arts. When he took over as the director of NSD, he emphasised the staging of Hindi and Sanskrit plays as well as the study of texts like Natya Shastra, which was more firmly embedded in Indian realities than, say, Aristotle’s Poetics. In the journal he published from the Art Heritage gallery, he took note of artistic discourses in languages like Hindi and Marathi, instead of keeping himself confined to the insular world of English-language criticism.

However, conflicts between elite and vernacular, tradition and modernity, persist to this day, making the reception of the arts lopsided and the common viewer hesitant about crossing the threshold into the white cube of the gallery. India still lacks a robust culture of funding and fostering museums that would welcome one and all, irrespective of class and intellectual leanings, to partake of its artistic heritage, thus turning it into a living tradition that is part of the public imagination rather than one that is experienced only by the privileged few and fossilised in idle drawing room chatter.

Alkazi’s response to the arts comes from a deeply personal space and was not borrowed from the stiff parlance of art theory. Speaking of Souza’s late style, which did not have the vigour of his earlier work, he squarely mentions the lack of sexual potency in ageing artists as a reason for the decline in their creativity. ‘I don’t know whether men suffer from menopause, but I think there are other functions that take over the mind,’ he says. ‘There is a stimulation that you find at the intellectual level that makes up for the lack of stimulation at the sexual level. You’ve got to allow for nature.’

His thinking wasn’t as polemical in some other areas, especially when it came to acknowledging the work of ‘women artists’. Unlike the term he used to describe their male counterparts (simply ‘artists’) Alkazi could never think of the women separate from their gender, though he showed some of the best— Arpita Singh, Arpana Caur, Nilima Sheikh, Nasreen Mohamedi, Jaya Ganguly, to name a few—at Art Heritage gallery.

But for all his idealism, Alkazi is sharply aware of the direction in which commercialisation has driven art. As he says, ‘Revolutionary, iconoclastic art is… coming within the walls of the gallery. It will be gazed at by people who are well-dressed and who have glasses of wine in their hands and go simpering around. It’s a social occasion when the whole experience of the artist is tempered down to become acceptable to society. The whole revolutionary bite is taken away.’ Living, as we do, under these specific conditions of creating and consuming art, we can perhaps appreciate the value of a publication like this more fully.