It was at the the celebration of Ebrahim Alkazi’s 90th birthday five years ago, when I met him for the last time. His loving family had organized the event on a grand scale and there was even a stage for him to preside from. Seeing that a crowd of people was thronging around him, I decided to wait for the right moment to wish him. By the time I returned to the same spot, Alkazi was not there. He had found the spotlight on himself too unbearable and must have insisted on being brought to the ground level, away from the limelight. To me, that defined what Alkazi was all about: an ambitious visionary, a driven man, a Renaissance figure who refused to be defined by a single field, whose passion went beyond the world of theatre, direction, acting, towards building a finest archive of modern and contemporary art, even creating a blue print for a future museum. But despite all his multivalent accomplishments, he remained utterly unpretentious and modest.
There are so many grander achievements of Alkazi that are circulating in many obituaries- his transformation of the National School of Drama into a thriving creative space, his training of young actors who went on to become great thespians, raising the bar of both Indian cinema and theatre, his grasp of the idea of an archive as early 1980s when art documentation was not heard of, his ideals of theatre pedagogy, his role as an inspiring teacher, and so on. Around the time of working on an edited volume on Alkazi entitled Directing Art: The Making of a Modern Indian Art World, I had several sessions with Amal Allana, his daughter. I was curious about what it must be like living with a father like Alkazi and it is the little personal vignettes that stayed with me: Alkazi’s Gandhian values embodied by a style of living, and micro details, that after every cup of tea , he would insist on washing his own cup. Here is someone who worked with his mind and hands. Since then, I have come across many similar incidents that talk about what ‘work’ meant for him. When he first joined the NSD as its director, the dirty basins in the toilets irked him and he would set about cleaning them himself! These are big gestures in a culture where there is a long history of hierarchy between those who work with their hands and those, with their heads -between manual and intellectual labour.
I had once been a recipient of his unforgettable generosity as a struggling researcher in Oxford but the manner in which he stepped in made me feel as if it was I who was doing him a favour by accepting his benevolence. Perhaps he thought less of benefiting people than disciplines, fields, institutions. I am certain that I am one of many people whose lives were shaped by his timely intervention.
If there was one field that Alkazi was deeply dissatisfied with, it was art writing. As a staunch modernist, he believed that art is not just a matter of practice but also discourses and the two must go hand in hand. It was this vision that underpinned his endeavour not to just set up an art gallery in the heart of Delhi but also run an art journal side by side by the same name- Art Heritage (1977-2017). At a time when there were hardly any private art galleries, this art gallery at Trivedi was at the centre of Delhi’s vibrant cultural life and in due time, achieved an institutional status.
For Alkazi, art making was not a romantic, solitary indulgence of a creative genius but had to have a public role. It is here that he envisaged art writing or art criticism to function as a means to make art accessible to the wider audience. Developing almost an anthropological and even sociological understanding of art, he looked upon art critics not as those who wrote on artists and restricted their focus on only the genre of monographs- a trend that has been flourishing within many private art galleries after the 1990s. If one revisits the articles published in the many issues of Art Heritage, they were not just about the high art genres of painting and sculpture but also photography -the art of mechanical reproduction, ceramics, heritage site, and later even posters.
Alkazi wanted to revitalize the art scene in the same way that he had infused a new life into Indian theatre. With art writing featuring high in his priorities, he looked upon the Art History department, Baroda, which had started to offer MA in Art Criticism from 1980s, as a possible training ground for young critics. Feminist art history around this time was yet to make its presence felt in an institutional sense but the issues of his art journal were already carrying articles on women artists, some of them he had penned himself. This was only possible because the doors of Art Heritage opened to young, aspiring women artists, some of whom are now among the leading figures in the art world.
Alkazi is often considered as an architect of liberal, Nehruvian India but today such a claim has to be qualified. Although he fully embraced cosmopolitanism that is usually associated with high modernism and was well versed in European theater and art, he was equally critical of blind emulation of the West. The key to meaningful engagement with modernism was through understanding of where one is located. What better way to understand this ‘situatedness’ other than through the prism of language? It was through language that one could capture a local experience, a lesson taught to him by theatre. If English is the sole language of theatre in India, not only would it narrow the range of audience who could comprehend its meaning but also the kind of experiences, memories and associations that an actor has to necessarily work with. It was through bilingualism, mainly Hindi and English, that he saw a continuity and conviviality across anglicized India and vernacular Bharat; not in terms of hostility but hospitality, a constructive attempt at resolving the contradiction between his cosmopolitanism and nationalist allegiances. In turn, his creativity and all-encompassing vision which made his contribution to theatre and art meaningful to the Indian audience won him some of the most prestigious civilian awards from the Indian nation state. One last such honor conferred upon him by the end of the first decade of 21st century was when he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan.
One wonders where would his aspiration take him if today he were to start all over again and head a state institution? The day he breathed his last on 4th of August 2020, the India he had devoted his life to had fundamentally altered. The recent National Education Policy has once again highlighted the issue of language in improving education in India. Perhaps, the state has a lesson to learn from Alkazi about pedagogy, multi-disciplinarity and all-inclusiveness of imagining its public. Or else, the legacy of Alkazi would risk seeming to the present generation more asanenigma and an anomaly, rather than as a culmination of humane genius.