Book Review by Rakhi Dalal
Title: Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi Padamsee Family Memoir
Author: Feisal Alkazi
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021
Feisal Alkazi is an educationist, a theatre director, and an activist. Over the past 40 years, his group, Ruchika, has directed over 200 plays in Hindi, English, and Urdu. Noor and A Quiet Desire, two plays written by him, were produced recently. He has also directed thirty films, and more than 100 productions for schools all over India. He is actively involved in heritage education, initiating projects in Delhi, Jaipur, Srinagar, and Hyderabad each of which has culminated in a book. He has written over 20 books.
Enter Stage Right by Feisal Alkazi is a family memoir which recounts the story of two families intertwined by a single love – theatre, of people who helped shape much of the Indian theatre from 1940s to 1990s, of people who came together by chance and stayed on to weave a rich tapestry which not only included theatre but also art, media, cinema and advertising. A memoir which draws an exhaustive portrait of one of the first families of theatre in a subtle yet candid manner, unveils some secrets, shares some anecdotes while capturing the complete attention of the reader.
The prologue of this memoir titled ‘Around the Horseshoe – Shaped Table’ starts with:
“English theatre in Bombay was born on my grandmother’s horseshoe-shaped dining table in 1943. Literally. A group of young college students, among them my father, Ebrahim Alkazi, listened wide- eyed as my Uncle, Sultan Padamsee, spoke of how they intended to form their own group, simply called the Theatre Group.”
These lines open the book with a perfect scene for the reader, drawing attention to the setting which was at the core of foundation of theatre group formed by Sultan Padamsee, the eldest of the Padamsee siblings including Roshen and Alyque. Roshen became a costume designer for plays directed by Sultan and later by her husband Ebrahim Alkazi. Akbar, their cousin, though not a part of the horseshoe table gathering, became a famed painter, one of the pioneers of modern Indian art, while Alyque a famous theatre personality and ad film maker, probably best known for playing Mohammad Ali Jinnah in Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi.
How in the 1940s, the entire Padamsee clan would come together for the preparation of plays directed by Sultan, or Bobby as he was lovingly called, is well recounted by Alyque Padamsee, who was then a kid and Sultan’s younger brother.
“There was a little trellis in our bedroom, the roshandaan. We used to climb up on stools and peek through that window to watch what was going on in the drawing room. Bobby reciting Shakespeare, Roshen stitching costumes, Zarina painting posters, Shiraz making some props. It was like a cottage industry, and it was so thrilling to be in a family that had something so exciting to do!”
The seed of this industry, as he calls, was sown by Sultan’s mother Kulsum Padamsee, who had determined the best of English education for her children, which meant that her children were all sent to an elite residential school in Bombay where they had their first lessons in theatre. At her home in Kulsum Terrace, overlooking Colaba Causeway in Bombay, she would allow them to enact plays. Later, she took them to Shropshire, England for further studies where the worlds of Shakespeare and Dickens and Hardy were revealed to them. However it was Sultan, who — having spent six months at Christ Church in Oxford before World War II — began directing plays for the St. Xavier College’s Shakespeare Society in 1943.
Feisal writes about the flamboyant and bold Sultan who revolutionized the theatre scene in 1940s, about his choice of directing Oscar Wilde’s Salome which was controversial enough for the times. His restructuring Shakespeare’s Othello was also a move towards the unimaginable in those days. He writes about Sultan’s suicide at the age of twenty three, the cause of which remained a well-guarded secret of the family for many years. Though Sultan’s untimely demise did create a void, the revolution helmed by him was forged further by the rest of Padamsee clan. As present on the horseshoe – shaped table that day in 1943, was also Ebrahim Alkazi, mentored by Sultan, who was later to become the director of National School of Drama and to shape the subsequent theatre milieu.
In the successive chapters, Feisal delves into the history of his father’s family and staging of plays by the Theatre group after Sultan’s death, about the split in Theatre group with Ebrahim and Alyque going separate ways, about his parents’ stay in post War London and the influences they carried back to India, about his early years at Vithal Court where his father, perhaps continuing the tradition of Padamsee family, turned the whole house into a rehearsal space for theatre! Imagine a life where entire days of the family were spent in reading, rehearsing, soaking in various forms of art, hosting the likes of Nissim Ezekiel, M.F. Hussain, Tyeb Mehta, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Adi Davierwala, where the house constantly bubbled with activities stimulating the mind, where the children, joined by their numerous cousins and friends, would perform plays for the audience, constituted of their families. Fancy having a childhood like that!
Feisal describes the experience:
“Sound, smell, touch, flavor. Open windows that allowed the world in, and that allowed me to peep into the world from my tiny height. Not the isolated ivory tower of the Padamsee childhood but a vibrant, open, engaged view of the world.”
In one of the chapters, aptly titled Six Women Who Revolt, Feisal gives us a glimpse into the choice of plays his father directed during his last phase of directing for the Theatre Unit in Bombay. Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and Eurydice, Lorca’s Yerma and Euripides’ Medea – plays with strong female central characters. While offering critique of these plays and sharing some anecdotes about their production, Feisal interestingly remarks how through the exploration of these characters, his father seemed to be trying to comprehend his own equation with women. It is a discreet, well intended remark which somehow seems to familiarize the reader with the relationship shared by Ebrahim Alkazi with his wife Roshen and then with his later partner, Uma Anand.
In writing about his parents, Feisal dwells more upon his father’s professional life, the plays he directed, the experiments he did with the use of space and light, the revolutionary ideas he brought to NSD (National School of Drama, New Delhi), the fine actors he mentored during his years as Director, but not upon the personal life which Ebrahim shared with his mother. In the chapter where he writes about his parents’ separation, he does write about his mother’s sadness and their difficult initial years in Delhi but focuses more upon his mother’s endeavour in establishing and running an art gallery with her husband and continuing designing costumes for all of his plays even after their separation. What’s even more intriguing is that his parents continued travelling together, every alternate year, to Europe and Beirut to visit Ebrahim’s parents and siblings. Despite their differences, they came together to enrich their children’s lives by revealing to them the best of art and theatre the world had to offer and by letting them spend time with their paternal grandparents, soaking in love, and mores of a culture they lived far away from.
Back home in Delhi, both Feisal and his sister Amal would spend time at NSD, where their father would rehearse and direct plays and their mother would design costumes. During his college years at St. Stephens, Feisal made his own theatre group called Ruchika and spent considerable time in acting and directing the plays. However, it is while he writes about the theatre of questioning and dissent which gained momentum during the late 1970s and 1980s, that the readers get a peek into his role in taking theatre to wider audiences. He talks about the Sikh pogrom of 1984, the rallying of Narmada Bachao, Babri demolition, brutal murder of Safdar Hashmi and about terrorism in Kashmir. Despite his very humane account of repercussions of violence in a society in those times, he does not anywhere refer to the present regime and the sufferings faced by people in the current times.
In writing about his family, he also gives an account of his maternal grandfather Jafferbhai and his aunt Pearl Padamsee, wife of his Uncle Alyque Padamsee. He credits Alyque for making English Theatre accessible, popular and relevant to middle-class audience of Bombay. According to him, Safdar Hashmi, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Alyque were three individuals who widened the scope, subject matter and audience for theatre in 1970s and 1980s, so that it never looked the same again.
Feisal pays homage to his mother by saying that it was the greatest privilege of his life to have been her son — an endearing tribute to the one who taught him all he ever learned of life. He ends the memoir befittingly with an epilogue in which he mentions the death of his father in August 2020. Ebrahim Alkazi was the last survivor of those who had gathered at the horse-shoe shaped table in 1943 and his going marked an end of an era.
Writing a family memoir comes with its own challenges, especially when the entire family is engaged in pursuits which are open to speculations and public opinions. There is always a risk of either going overboard or offering little to the reader in terms of a relevant account. Feisal does a brilliant job in maintaining that balance while offering this memoir. He gives us a detailed account of what matters and merely touches upon that which can be omitted. His writing is astute, rational and pragmatic while being vigorously ebullient.
This memoir is not only the story of a family dedicated to theatre but also an important document which chronicles the history of Indian theatre as well as arts centred around the two important cities of Bombay and Delhi, of the plays which shaped much of the theatre’s panorama in India, of actors, playwrights and directors whose entire lives revolved around enhancing and taking the form to a wider audience, of the efforts the theatre and people associated with it made to give voice to the common man’s concerns in difficult times. This is an essential read for anyone interested in theatre and in the broader art scene happening in the country during the period.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
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