Monday, December 29, 2008

Vyakti Ani Valli (Personalities And Characters): 2008- # 1

The magazine Outlook does manage to surprise me sometimes. At a period in time, when most popular Indian magazines publish / rehash garbage, Outlook once in a while manages to be original, serious, not trivial and mature.

The latest issue (the New Year Double Issue) has a series of articles on ‘The Native Place’ that make quite interesting reading. But what delighted me particularly was the article by Ebrahim Alkazi, an Arab of Saudi Arabian descent but an ‘Indian’ by birth and belonging: a tremendous influence on the theatre and acting crowd in India, frequently unsung and more in the shadows.
But a giant in his own right, as acknowledged by many greats time and again.

Here’s the article reproduced below with due acknowledgements to Outlook magazine. Also at

My roots extend back to Saudi Arabia, but the richest years of my life are the ones that I spent in Poona, where I was born and raised. The education I received there—from my father, and from the Jesuit school I attended—and the rich life of the area around me, have shaped me into the person I am today.

I have never really gone back to Poona except for a short trip a couple of years ago, and I have never staged a play there. It isn't that I don't miss it, but places change and some have changed beyond recognition. The Poona I knew, of my family and neighbours, no longer exists for me to go back to.

My father was the first member of the Alkazi family to leave Saudi Arabia.

He was an orphan, who had to make his way in the world, so his uncles sent him to Bombay, which had a centuries-old tradition of Arabs coming to trade. He worked initially with the Bassam family, who were primarily in the tea trade, but then went on to become a businessman in his own right, trading in textiles, tea and whatever else was in demand. The Arab traders made their presence felt through business or from things such as Iraqi horses imported for the Poona races. Many of the Arab families did not circulate much beyond this circle, but my father preferred to mix with others.

Although he continued to work from Bombay, where his office was on the fifth floor of the building, and his flat on the fourth floor, my father decided to rent a house in Poona, which was a military town known for its quiet and salubrious environment, and a good place to raise children. Our house was in the cantonment area, but just at the edge, so we enjoyed the quiet of the military areas but were not that far from Poona city. I grew up in a family of nine children.

Beyond my immediate family, there were three other families living in the compound, each in their own villa. There was a Parsi family, where an emigre German-Jewish music teacher would come to give piano lessons every day. Then there was an English family in the next villa, and an emigre Persian family in the last. This created a very cosmopolitan environment. There was a tremendous feeling of good neighbourliness and a great tradition of visiting each other, very informally. On top of which every family—the Parsis, Christians and us—would celebrate its own festivals and invite everyone from the compound. This was a taste of the "communal" in the very best sense of the term.

In the neighbouring compound, there was a long bungalow divided between a Goan Christian family and a Parsi one. The Parsi women were very skilled at playing Western classical music, while the Goan Christian family loved jazz, so different types of music were constantly in the background as I grew up. Beyond the compounds were the green fields of a Maharashtrian farmer, from whom we bought our greens and vegetables. He was one of my father's closest friends, although they really had no common language to communicate in. The farmer spoke only Marathi and my father had some knowledge of Hindustani but they were both drawn to each other. As I think back, all of this was also my education in theatre. Theatre is primarily about social observation and I saw a really rich slice of life, including a Parsi family that was like out of a Chekhov play. The sisters were all spinsters, and the one brother was a weak man, always drinking and borrowing money from the Pathan moneylenders.

My father was a self-taught man, and created libraries everywhere he went. These would include encyclopaedias, books in English, and he also subscribed to the latest journals from the Arab world, such as Al Ahram from Egypt

We read Naguib Mahfouz when he was just starting out, long before he became famous or received a Nobel. My father firmly thought that our cultural roots were in Saudi Arabia; we spoke only Arabic at home, and we had a teacher of Arabic and Islamic studies who was brought over from Saudi Arabia and lived as part of our family.

I never had a day's vacation from studying. My brothers and I would return from our Jesuit school—St Vincent's High School—to the study of the Quran and its interpretation at home. My sisters were taught at home. This gave us a solid foundation in Islam and Islamic studies. The second great influence on my early life was also a person in charge of a library—Father Riklin, who was also the principal of St Vincent's, and it was he who encouraged me to participate in the annual school play. I acted in those plays from age nine to 14.

Outside our immediate lives, other great events were happening. Poona played an important role in the Independence movement, which was at its height at this time. Gandhi and other Congress leaders would stay at the Aga Khan Palace in Poona city and I remember cycling around it. At night we could hear the Congress leaders working up the crowds. At the same time, you would have regimental bands marching through the streets, emphasising the presence of the British army. It was exciting, and scary.

I remember that on Saturdays, which were half-days, I would carry my bicycle over the sandy patch in the compound so that my mother wouldn't hear me leaving the compound. Some instinct would still alert her, and she'd call, "Ebrahim, Ebrahim!" But I'd pretend not to hear and cycle to Poona city. There I'd go to the International Book Service, which used to get the finest of new English literature from Europe. The intellectual fraternity of Maharashtra would also gather there, and they'd be discussing all the important issues of the time with the shop owner, a Mr Dikshit.

Then World War II broke out in 1939, and a great transformation took place. The Fathers at St Vincent's were Swiss and German; the Germans were taken to the internment camps. We watched it happen, feeling almost bereaved. My father, who had bought a plot of land in our compound and had made me measure it, also began to feel increasingly like an unwelcome alien. He had to carry his passport; every Friday evening when he returned from Bombay, he had to report to the police.

I left for Bombay soon afterwards, in 1941, to study at St Xavier's College and to work with my father. Bombay was where I really became involved in drama and this was deeply tied to my connection with the Padamsees. To a certain extent, Bombay was also my native place—of my life in theatre. Sultan Padamsee had just returned from Oxford. He was a young man in his 20s then, but he had such a strong personality, and such command over poetry and production. I also met Roshen, Sultan's sister, who I would later go on to marry. At this time I was also getting more entwined with India. You could go from listening to Gandhi at Chowpatty, to Mohammed Ali Jinnah's house to see what he had to say. I won an elocution contest on behalf of the Communists, but when I visited Calcutta and saw the results of the Bengal Famine, I was disgusted that the Communists were taking part in these petty things rather than dealing with the famine.

My father felt a greater bond with the larger Islamic world, and he moved to Karachi after Pakistan was founded, as he had once gone to Turkey when he had initially been enthusiastic about Ataturk. In Pakistan, too, he was disappointed.The army had its eye on the building he owned, and one day they just came in, threw all his beautiful furniture out, and took it over. He went on to Beirut, and later most of my family would end up in Kuwait. I've gone to Saudi Arabia with my mother and the family as part of Haj, but not to Aniza where my father came from. But I consider India as my homeland, and I have a debt to repay.

Although I have no real "native place" to go back to, nevertheless I am very, very attached to Poona. In a sense, my native place has followed me rather than I ever going back to it. When I was at the National School of Drama, many of my finest students were from Maharashtra.

A couple of years ago I was honoured for my work in theatre at an award ceremony in Poona. When the door of the car opened, there was this old man who tapped me on the shoulder. I had no idea who he was and couldn't meet him then, but I met him again as I was leaving and he handed me this small envelope. Inside was a photograph from my wedding. Early in his life, he had worked as a very young peon at my office in Bombay and he had kept that picture all these years.

The people of Maharashtra have taken to me in a great way, and shown me tremendous regard. At times I am so overwhelmed by this that it becomes harrowing because of the responsibility it puts on me to return that regard. My work, in preserving and presenting India, is a part of what I give back.

(Ebrahim Alkazi, the founder-director of the National School of Drama, has recently established the Alkazi Foundation of the Arts in New Delhi.)

As told to Omair Ahmad

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