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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 24 New Delhi June 4, 2016

Whither Indian Theatre: an interview with alkazi

Monday 6 June 2016, by Anees Chishti

Veteran theatre personality Ebrahim Alkazi is now ninety. In this year, a number of programmes have been launched in different parts of the country to highlight the life-time achievements of this stalwart theatre director who has produced an illustrious crop of actors, directors, playwrights and practitioners of other crafts of theatre. Many of his students have become renowned film personalities as well. We reproduce here an interview of the theatre legend with Anees Chishti, conducted over half-a-century ago for Mainstream, covering different aspects of his creative life. This was among the first few such comprehensive interviews of Ebrahim Alkazi at a time when he was the Founder-Director of the National School of Drama. It brought out the state of the theatre in India at that point in time. 

There is something of the theatre in all that Alkazi possesses, from a highly cultivated accent to a marked fondness for dark bush shirts.

Talking to him is a pleasing experience. He has a tremendous sense of responsibility and does not utter a single word without weighing it on the sensitive balance of his conscience.

Question: “Has the theatre in India really arrived? In other words, is our theatre tradition merely a survival from history or does it possess vital contemporary trends?” I asked.


: “I do not know what we mean when we ask whether our theatre tradition is merely a survival from history. What theatre tradition are we referring to? It is said that our ancient classical tradition has been practically non-existent for about a thousand years. On the other hand, there are theatre traditions in Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra etc. created in the last hundred and fifty years or so. These two traditions have very little in common.

“The question whether the theatre in India has really arrived can be answered only by finding out whether the theatre has become an inseparable part of the life of a large number of people; by knowing if one, as a matter of habit, goes to theatre not merely as an intertainment but some kind of special experience which no other art form is able to provide. I refer to the highest form of theatre experience from which one emerges refreshed, cleansed, restored to the dignity of a sensitive, thoughtful, intelligent human being.”


“Indian theatre, today, derives its values from three distinct traditions—ancient classical, folk and purely Western. Since a vigorous modern form of the theatre is the need of the hour, we have to give some new direction to our plays. Which of the three traditions should be followed and why?”


“The question is not what particular tradition should be followed. Any living theatre movement gets its inspiration from wherever it can, either from its own earlier development, or from its environment or from ideas or influence beyond its geographical frontiers. The artist can be creative either by following a tradition or by rebelling against it. He would be uncreative if he merely followed or repeated the dead elements in a particular traditional form. A tradition that is already dead cannot be resurrected; nor can a live tradition be killed. I think it was Christ who said: ‘Let the dead bury their dead.’

“There is no point in being dogmatic about any one of these traditions. Whatever lives has my reverence.

“Consider, for example, what some people regard as being the most vital theatre movement—the modern theatre in Bengal. We could hardly say that it stems from ancient tradition. If anything, they stem largely from the Western tradition. Take the case of Utpal Dutt or Shombhu Mitra. The influences on them have chiefly been Stanislavsky, Bertolt Brecht, Piscator and some of the later Russian directors. I do not think we can talk of an ancient classical tradition for the simple reason that such a living tradition in the theatre does not exist.

“About the folk tradition we tend to be rather sentimental and feel attached to it because a large number of us are barely a generation away from the village or small town life. There are many picturesque and attractive elements in it, an earthiness, even a simple poetry. The folk tradition can contribute to a modern theatre movement but cannot by itself bear the burden of contemporary drama.”

“Today, when we are talking about the atom bomb, about the obliteration of the world, the issues have become very crucial and, therefore, the work of the theatre can no longer be carried on at the level where it cannot revolutionise the whole being.

“There would be some sense in talking about the classical Sanskrit tradition if there were significantly large number of plays by contem-porary producers, to contemporary producers, to contemporary audiences, in a contemporary style or a style which is an authentic classical Indian style. If I were to take anybody seriously who is talking about the Sanskriti classical tradition, I would like to know how many classical Sanskrit plays he has produced in the last three years. And if he has not produced any in the last ten years, I do not find any point in talking to him about it, because these problems have got to be solved in practical terms on the stage. It is not a question of quoting from the Natyashastra but of actually applying it.”


”In this context, what importance should be attached to such theatrical forms as Raslila, Ramlila, Nautanki, and Bhavai? Should we preserve or neglect them?”


“I do not think we should neglect them. There is the need of trying to preserve them. In a fast changing society this is, of course, difficult.”


“What, according to you, is the scope of presentation of translations from Sanskrit? What should be the correct way of producing them?”


“I find no reason why translations from Sanskrit into different Indian languages should not be produced. The way of production would depend entirely upon the imagination of the particular producer.

“There may be a person, for example, who would like to know how these plays were presented in ancient times. Instead of theorising about the proportions etc., of the stage it would be much more useful for him to build one according to the specifications in the Natyashastra and produce a classical Sanskrit play in Bengali, Marathi or any other language. Any producer interested in this type of research would certainly be making a contribution to the investigation of the classical Sanskrit form.

“On the other hand, there might be a person who says that, after all, he is presenting the play to a modern audience and wants to stage the Mrichchakatika on the proscenium stage of the AIFACS theatre. I think that such an experience could also be quite exciting.

“A third person may argue that the days of proscenium stage have gone and he may like to use an arena stage for a classical Sanskrit play. The arena style is supposed to be one of the latest innovations in the theatre movement, though actually it is nothing of the kind at all. It is one of the most ancient forms. It is a form which is instinctively used by every type of street performer be he a magician or a snake charmer.

“If such performances are given, we can learn a great deal from the people who are making such experiments, and many difficult problems are likely to be solved. But any approach to the classical Sanskrit plays would be valid so long as their essential beauty, their authority and significance are retained, for it is not the style that matters but it is the imaginative spirit and the essential form of the play that has to be valued.”


“Please allow me to ask something about one of your experimental plays which, after its production, became much talked about—Andh Yug. It has been alleged that a fantastic amount of money was spent without achieving anything significant. What are your own pesonal reactions to such criticism?”


“First of all, it was not an experimental play. It was a straighforward simple production. The mere fact that it was presented imaginatively against a background of historical ruins does not make it experimental. There are claims made about quite a few of my productions which I myself do not make. Secondly it is erroneously assumed that since a play is produced against a monumental background, the expenses would also be monumental. The cost of mounting the production at the Ferozeshah Kotla was considerably less than the cost of mounting the same production for an equal number of nights at the AIFACS theatre would have been.

‘I think I have achieved a certain reputation for putting on austere productions, for doing a great deal with very little. Let us put the whole matter relatively: for the same amount of money which some local groups themselves claim to have spent on a single production, the School has presented at least five major productions. Does this give you an idea of our sense of proportion?

“Finally, shall we try and see what Andh Yug achieved? It has given a new dignity and dimension to Hindi drama; it has proved that what was before considered a failure as a play was in reality one of the great landmarks in Hindi drama; it has proved that a single first-year first-term student of the School can stand and perform with supreme self-confidence on an 80 foot stage.”


Is a National Theatre immediately rquired or whould it be wiser to use our present resources towards extending theatrical activities throughout the country and wait for the time to be ripe for a National Theatre?”


“I think the time for a National Theatre is always now, not at some remote time in the future. There is already a considerable theatre movement. Every large city of India is worked up about the theatre. If you go to Bombay, you would be amazed at the scores of theatre organisations, heard of or unheard of, that are putting up plays and rehearsing them. In Calcutta, Madras, Bangalore, Hyderabad and even in Delhi the same situation prevails.

“A National Theatre should perform in the Capital as well as in the rest of the country. It would be a valuable experience for a National Theatre troupe to go round the country to perform against the country to perform against the national landscape as it were. There should be an Art Director for the National Theatre. He should work in consultation with a Board of Management. It should appoint three producers on a contract basis who would work in the residential repertory company of trhe National Theatre. There should be a nucleus of about twenty actors. They may work with a man like, say, Shombhu Mitra, who might be invited to do a production of a play by Tagore in a particular season. The same group of players should be given to another producer for some other play, possibly translated from Kannada into Hindi. As part of the same season of plays, a third producer may be invited to do a Western classical play translated into Hindi with the same group of players. In addition to this resident troupe there may be another troupe travelling throughout the country.”


“What should be the role of amateur theatre in general and universities in particular towards the establishment of a good theatre?”


“The greater part of the theatre movement in the West has been started by amateurs. A large number of great directors including Stanislavsky started as amateurs.

“The amateur theatre has certian advantages. It has enthusiam. It has a certain daring. It has its freshness of outlook, its own intellectual integrity and, therefore, it need not sell its soul to the devil.

“I think universities should be in the vanguard of the progressive theatre movement. In the West too it has often been that the universities have led the theatre movement. The Oxford University Dramatic Scoiety has a long and ancient tradition of its own. Frequently it is not the professional theatre which sets the standard to the amateur theatre but the other way round.”

And thus concluded my memorable conver-sation with the first man of the Indian theatre.

(Mainstream, October 10, 1964)