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Proud to be called – ‘Student of Alkazi’

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It’s a rather gloomy August morning, when I hear the news. Alkazi sir is no more. I rush to check in on Ma. A faint nod. She knows. Her phone hasn’t stopped ringing. My visibly shaken mother tries her best to honour calls from friends, fellow theatrewallahs and from the media for ‘reactions’. It takes time, for there is much to remember and share. An hour or so later when things have settled a bit, we talk about the man who single-handedly shaped an entire generation of theatre practitioners. A name that I have been familiar with since childhood – a household name if you will. A moment of silence at first, followed by a conversation that happens somewhat spontaneously.

So, Delhi is where you first met Alkazi sir, right?

No, actually the first time I met him was in Kolkata. I had heard about him from Baba (Anant Oka, my grandfather) long before I met him. Baba, who I did theatre with growing up in Pune, had seen Alkazi sir on stage and really admired his work. I remember, it was 1970. I was applying for a central government scholarship to study theatre. I had to fill in the name of the institution I wanted to study in and the guru I wanted to study with. Theatre, unlike other art forms doesn’t have a formal guru-shishya parampara, so I was a bit confused. Baba suggested, “Write NSD as the institution and under guru, write Ebrahim Alkazi.” So in a way, I had made Alkazi sir my guru even before I met him!

Tughlaq at the Purana Quila. Image Courtesy - Alkazi Theatre Archives

What was your first impression of him?

He was a well-dressed man. Smart suit and tie, trimmed beard. Sharp. And very knowledgeable.

You were part of the famous “Alkazi Era” at the NSD. Do you feel that he helped shape the professional that you would ultimately become?

He led by example. His principles rubbed off on us – discipline, meticulousness, take up new challenges, never say no to try new things.  He was extremely persistent and committed to his vision. I remember, it took him four years to get permission to use the Purana Quila as a performance space for Tughlaq! Persistence is such an important quality to have as an artist.

You met and fell in love with Dad (thankfully for me!) at the NSD. Did Alkazi sir know about you two?

I’m sure he knew about us! But he didn’t interfere in our personal lives as long as it didn’t affect our studies. I remember, our Movement and Dance teacher Ritaji (Rita Ganguly) once told Jayadev and me, “Ishq karna buri baat nahi hai, lekin apne studies pe bhi dhyaan rakho”. If Ritaji had an inkling, I’m sure Alkazi sir knew about us as well! But we didn’t give anyone reason to complain. In fact in our third year, I stood first and Jayadev came second!

Rohini Hattangady and Satish Pulekar in Changuna direted by Jayadev Hattangady

I’ve seen so many black and white photos of Alkazi sir’s productions where I get the feeling that he experimented with form- the way he used sets, lights, even real locations. His theatre visuals were fantastic, almost like a painting…

Oh yes! He loved to experiment. He always tried to create something different, something fresh. For him the image was tremendously important.

I actually understood the importance of the final image or gesture through Jayadev. After passing out of NSD, we were working on our first production in Mumbai, “Changuna”…a Marathi translation of Federico García Lorca’s Spanish play Yerma. In the climax, the central character Yerma strangles her husband Juan in a fit of madness, anger and heartbreak. On realizing what she has done she breaks down – “Don’t come near me, because I’ve killed my son. I have killed my son!”

Jayadev was very clear what the final image should be. He said, “Rohini, I want you to come downstage, put your hands over your eyes and wail. Then I want you to be silent. Hold that image for a few seconds and collapse.” It was a little confusing. I kept asking myself, how do I perform this? All he said to me was, “Remember M.F. Hussain’s painting of ‘The Wailing Horses’? Use that as a springboard.” And believe me it worked. I really felt the power of that last scene.

That’s when I realized why Alkazi sir was so particular about final images. And being such a great director and painter, he was a genius at creating them.

Om Puri in Suryamukh by Lakshmi Narain Lal. Image Courtesy - Alkazi Theatre Archives

You know, there is always that one thing a great teacher tells you that that changes your life forever. In your case, what would that be?

(Laughs) In my first year, we were working on Suryamukh, written by Laxmi Narayan Lal. The character I was to play was tough. I had so many doubts about how to approach the part that I didn’t know what to do. The NSD librarian coaxed me to go talk to Alkazi sahib. It was his lunch break and I would find him working at Meghdoot, the open-air theatre at NSD.

I remember it so clearly. He was sitting with the script at a small table. On it were four sharpened pencils, four different coloured pens, a ruler and an eraser. I gathered my courage and approached him. He smiled, asked me to take out my pencil and mark the script as he instructed. My pencil was so blunt that it wouldn’t write. Looking at my obvious embarrassment sir said, “Rohini, your intellect is as blunt as your pencil… sharpen it!

This was a lesson for life. I’ve been blessed with some amazing teachers, yet this is the one teaching I can never forget!

Rohini Hattangady as Gandhari in Andha Yug. Image Courtesy - Alkazi Theatre Archives

I’m sure you were an amazing student, but did you ever feel that you were unable to achieve something he wanted you to do?

Not really. I worked tremendously hard, completed all my assignments and was fortunate enough to play great characters in prestigious NSD productions. But I remember in the third year Alkazi sir suddenly said to me, “Rohini everything is okay, but I think you should concentrate on your speech now.” I was confused…‘concentrate on your speech’ meant what? Diction? Projection? Is there a problem with my speech that I’m not aware of? It became clear soon enough. We were to do Andha Yug at the Purana Quila…a difficult text to perform and I was to play Queen Gandhari. Every morning at 7:30 am sharp I would report to the studio theatre, where sir would work with me on important passages from the play. Looking back, I think he was experimenting with form and text. He wanted to create a fresh interpretation and needed an actor to explore it with him. I’m fortunate he chose me. It was a fantastic production…people remember it to this day.

Did he ever compliment you on your work?

You know, he never made it apparent and never played favourites, but many people felt that he really liked me. I remember in my second year, Aai and Baba came to Delhi to visit. Baba was keen to meet Alkazi sir. And though I wasn’t in the office when they met, he later told me that Alkazi sir had said, “I am fortunate she is my student.” For me that was enough!

How approachable was he? Could you share your anxieties or insecurities with him? Or was he intimidating?

He was certainly approachable and many of my batch mates would freely go to him with their questions and doubts. But to be honest I was a bit in awe of sir. It wasn’t his fault, it was my own. You can’t help feeling intimidated by someone you respect so much.

How well did he understand actors? Was he able to empathise with them?

You can’t be such a wonderful influence on people’s lives without having empathy and a deep respect for humanity. Not just actors, he understood humanity. He knew exactly kaun kitne pani main hai. For example, at the end of the 1st year we were asked to choose our specializations – Acting, Direction or Stagecraft. Most students opted for Direction. I got carried away and decided to choose Direction as well. Alkazi sir just laughed. Finally he decided to assign the specializations himself. I was assigned Acting and thank God for that!

The Chorus in Andha Yug. Image Courtesy - Alkazi Theatre Archives

I guess, failure and disappointment are part of every creative artist’s life. Growing up, I have always seen you and dad really take it in your stride and move on. I’m sure Alkazi sir influenced you in some way when it came to success and failure and your attitude to your work…

As students we never saw our work as success or failure, because Alkazi sir was only concerned with exploration and experimentation. He didn’t want us to get affected by reviews. I remember once during a production, a bunch of us went to the administration office saying “Aaj kya chapaa hai, dekhte hain!” The office happened to be right opposite Alkazi sirs. We were so engrossed in reading the review, we didn’t notice him standing behind us! He stared at us and then said rather sternly – “Don’t pay attention to that. Leave it.” And that was that. You see, he wanted us to focus on the learning process. I mean, I didn’t get favourable reviews for my portrayal of Sultan Razia and got some great ones for Gandhari, but that shouldn’t in any way affect my performance. That’s what he wanted to teach us. If the goal is to learn, explore and experiment, then failure as a concept ceases to exist.

Would he have loved to teach this tech savvy generation? Would his approach to the theatre have been different today given the advances in technology?

Absolutely! I’m sure he would modified his approach to teach this generation. In fact, most of his work is preserved and can be viewed by everyone through the Alkazi Foundation’s YouTube channel. He knew the importance of different media…including films. He started an exchange program with the Film Institute of India, Pune, (FTII), where for a period of six months students of the NSD could stay on the FTII campus, attend classes and learn different aspects of filmmaking. It’s a program which continues to this day.

To watch an Alkazi play on my IPad or mobile phone…would that be too far-fetched?

That’s a tough one! He loved the space, you know. In the theatre, it’s the space. In painting, it’s the canvas. It’s pure speculation on my part, but I think he would have missed the space – the three dimensional aspect of creating onstage. Like all of us today, desperate to get back to the stage, he would have felt the pinch too. But as a man of experimentation, I’m sure he would have taken up the challenge and created something online…though he probably wouldn’t have called it “theatre”.

Why do you feel the world needs teachers like Alkazi?

Alkazi sir wasn’t the kind of teacher to say “Do exactly what I tell you and nothing more”. He wanted us to go beyond his teachings. He didn’t want us to be straight jacketed by our individual specializations. As actors, we didn’t need to study the art and craft of the Gupta Period or of Mohenjo-Daro. I mean, what does that have to do with acting? And yet he made us study elements of design and aesthetics. I remember, Jayadev was once asked to create a presentation on the paintings of Amrita Shergill. Again, what’s the connection between painting and stage direction? Its only years later that we realized the importance of what he was trying to achieve… the all-round development of the “artist” regardless of the specialization. I think that’s why there is an entire generation of us who swear by him…proud to be called “students of Alkazi sir”. It was an experience.

If you had to sum up the Alkazi experience in one word or sentence what would that be?

Guru! The perfect guru. If Alkazi sir wasn’t teaching at the NSD and had an ashram instead, I’d be the first person to enrol, just to work with him. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

– Aseem Hattangady

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