The doyen of Indian theatre (1925 – 2020)

Ebrahim Alkazi was a contemporary theatre director, legendary drama teacher and connoisseur of the arts credited with changing the lexicon of Indian theatre. A man of few words, extremely disciplined, and with a charismatic personality, the perfectionist was considered the father and engineer of modern Indian theatre. The visual grandeur of his productions made his works incredible. His rigorous research before producing a play, led to important advances in scenographic design and revolutionised the art form.

Born in Pune, Maharashtra, Alkazi, one of nine siblings, was the son of a wealthy Saudi Arabian businessman trading in India and a Kuwaiti mother.  While his family migrated to Pakistan in 1947, Alkazi stayed back. He schooled at St. Vincent’s High School, Pune and later St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. As a college student, he joined Sultan Bobby Padamsee’s English theatre company, Theatre Group. He later trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London in 1947. Honoured by both the English Drama League and the British Broadcasting Corporation, despite career offers, he returned home to lead the Theatre Group, from 1950 to 1954. He founded the monthly Theatre Unit Bulletin in 1953, reporting on theatre events around India. He initiated his own Theatre Unit in 1954, including all aspects of the craft, from stage management to character delineation to lighting and props. Associated with the Bombay Progressive Artist’s Group, who were later to paint for his plays and design his sets, he established the School of Dramatic Arts and became the Principal of Bombay’s Natya Academy.

At 37, Alkazi moved to Delhi in 1962 as director of the National School of Drama (NSD), a post he held for 15 years. He catalysed NSD into India’s premier theatre training institute, along the lines of R.A.D.A in London. While there, he also created the Repertory Company in 1964 and directed its productions. He introduced cutting-edge training methods, academic rigour, technical discipline, and international standards in an attempt to professionalise the already-vibrant Indian theatrical scene.

Alkazi made Hindi drama a phenomenon by staging Oedipus Rex , King Lear and Moliere’s The Miser. He produced /directed over 50 plays like, Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq,  Mohan Rakesh’s Ashadh Ka Ek Din, Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and numerous adaptations of Shakespeare and Greek plays. An inspiring teacher, he guided and pushed hard his students to realise their potential. He also mentored well-known film and theatre actors and directors like Vijaya Mehta, Naseeruddin Shah, Uttara Baokar, and Pankaj Kapoor. In 1977 at 50, Alkazi quit the NSD and theatre (though he returned briefly in the 1980s with three plays). He tirelessly patronised related aesthetic endeavours, and set up the Art Heritage Gallery in Delhi with his wife, Roshen who had designed costumes for all his plays, and built his collection of art, photographs and books.

To enlarge the audience for contemporary art, he launched several large projects, including international exchange exhibitions, publications and scholarship awards. The Alkazi Collection of Photography at Sepia International Gallery in New York City is one of the world’s largest private collections of historical photographs, with emphasis on 19th and early 20th century images of India, Myanmar (Burma), and Sri Lanka. He was a winner of many prestigious awards, including all three Padma awards, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Direction (1962), the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship, the BBC Broadcasting Award (1950), the Kalidas Award (1986), the Harmony Heritage Award (1999), the Roopwedh Pratishtan’s Tanvir Award (2004) and the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters from France (2012).

Alkazi died in Delhi of cardiac failure aged 95. He is survived by son Feisal Alkazi and his daughter Amal Allana, both well-known theatre directors.

A. Radhakrishnan

A. Radhakrishnan is a Pune based freelance writer, poet and short story writer.