“He was not merely a teacher, he was a life coach,” says Shabana Azmi, of the theatre legend Ebrahim Alkazi.
Initially in Bombay and later in Delhi, Alkazi — who died in his Delhi home on Tuesday, aged 95 — developed a reputation as a director who brought a new sense of realism and modernism to Indian drama.
As a teacher, he nurtured some of the leading talents of the age, including Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Rohini Hattangadi and Manohar Singh, all of whom were students at the National School of Drama (NSD) when Alkazi served as director from 1962 to ’77.
He was a truly exceptional teacher, says actor Neena Gupta, who joined the NSD to learn from him. “I was very unfortunate because Mr Alkazi left as I enrolled. But I remember watching Alkazisaab directing Satish Kaushik in a play and thinking to myself, I want to learn to act from this man someday.”
Alkazi revolutionised theatre, bringing a visual approach to the form when most others were concerned with a literary approach. He dazzled with lavish productions and minute attention to detail. He brought regional languages to the NSD.
In Bombay, Alkazi did powerful renditions of Greek tragedies, Shakespearean plays, works by Ibsen, Chekov and Strindberg, the global greats of theatre. When he moved to Delhi, he realized that the language of his presentations would have to change to Hindi. He began looking for contemporary Indian plays, and these were the grand spectacles that he would come to be known for. His most renowned of these productions included Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq, Ashadh Ka Ek Din and Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug.
For his contributions to the field, he was conferred a Padmashri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan.
Alkazi was also a painter and avid art collector and, at 50, he set up the Art Heritage gallery with his wife Roshan, focusing on building up his archive of art, photography and books.
“What he taught me was to think trans-nationally,” says Rahaab Allana, Alkazi’s grandson and curator and publisher of what is now the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts. “When it came to curation, he was always looking for cross-cultural and interdisciplinary strains. I would say he represents that kind of trans-generation that went through analog and arrived at digital. And then also went back to analog after the digital.”