Book Review: Enter Stage Right

Deepa Gahlot

Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi/Padamsee Family Memoir
By Feisal Alkazi
Published by Speaking Tiger Books
Page Count: 256
Price: Rs 699

How can any reader resist a book that begins with the line: 'English Theatre in Bombay was born on my grandmother's horseshoe-shaped dining table.'?

Feisal Alkazi is the son of Ebrahim Alkazi, who single-handedly steered modern Indian theatre into exciting new directions, both as actor and director, educator, cultural evangelist and head of the National School of Drama. He was married to Roshen Padamsee, sister of Alyque Padamsee, so between the two clans, they dominated the cultural landscape of India for decades. The writer has penned a warm, affectionate and enjoyable book, Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi/Padamsee Family Memoir, which is a must-read for every theatre lover, though there is a lot more to it than just a checklist of their stage productions.

The Padamsee Matriarch, after whom their sprawling South Bombay residence Kulsum Terrace was named, ruled over a brood of kids, and later their 'melting pot' bunch of spouses and grandchildren, the horseshoe shaped dining table becoming a symbol of strong family ties and tradition; the legendary table still occupies pride of place in Kulsum Terrace. And many a theatre meeting is still held around it.

The Padamsee children were uprooted several times in their mother's quest for a better education and future for them, and reading about the family is like getting a glimpse of a strange Enid Blyton-like world of boarding schools, picnics, games and most importantly, impromptu theatre performances.

Through marriage to artistic people (the Hameed Sayani, Deryck Jefferies, Pearl Padmsee to name just three) the family's influence in the cultural world of Mumbai was set. The memories Feisal Alkazi evokes-his own and those of relatives and friends of his parents-document a wonderful history of Bombay (it was Bombay then) a truly cosmopolitan city, with a touch of bohemianism, where art, architecture, cinema, theatre, music came together to create a fresh language and form, that accepted the best of the west, but built on Indian thought and style too.

Today, the word nepotism is easily bandied about; the Alkazi kids-Feisal and Amal-could not but escape being infected by the enthusiastic work and innovative minds of their parents. Their homes, first Kulsum Terrace, then the apartment-without-walls at Warden Road, were large rehearsal and performance spaces, and a meeting ground for artists, poets, musicians and dancers. Names like MF Husain,Tyeb Mehta, Krishan Khanna, Nissim Ezekiel, John Cage and Merce Cunningham give an idea of just how magnificent a cultural life the Alkazis were leading. Ebrahim Alkazi set up an open air theatre, Meghdoot, on the terrace of their building, where some fabulous productions were staged, his wife, Roshen, designed costumes for all his productions (and continued even when the marriage broke up). Later, in her role and as a gallerist, she witnessed the burgeoning art scene in India-- both she and her husband guided many gifted artists to success.

Amal and Feisal spent a memorable time in Chennai when their mother, suddenly decided, at the age of 30, to learn Bharatnatynam from Balasaraswati; they met the finest artists in India, and travelled abroad where they were exposed to the best of art and theatre-classical and new. There was a post-War artistic churn happening in the West too, and the Alkazis had a ringside seat observing and imbibing the best work emerging from the ashes of that tumult.

After Independence, India was finding its own voice of modernity too, and there's no arguing the immense contribution of the Alkazi-Padamsee tribe-extended family and friends-to shaping the country's cultural destiny.

The very talented Sultan 'Bobby' Padamsee-poet, artist, designer, director-- whose life was tragically cut short by suicide at a very young age of 23, nevertheless, left his mark on the city's theatre scene. His Theatre Group lives on and the family has established a playwriting award in his memory.

When Ebrahim Alkazi moved to Delhi-handing over his Theatre Unit to enfant terrible Satyadev Dubey-- the family shifted too and the children underwent the full force of culture shock, not to mention a considerable lifestyle downgrade. But they still surrounded themselves with an atmosphere of creativity, and had a charmed circle of artists-those on their way to greatness and those who had reached there. (Girish Karnad speaks of Alkazi's productions inspiring him to become a playwright).

Amal Alkazi (married to Nissar Allana, who gave up medicine for theatre) studied at the National School of Drama with her father, but Feisal made his own way into that world-obviously, there was no shortage of inspiration or encouragement. He also chronicles his own work right from his school and college days, the formation of his group Ruchika, his work with the underprivileged and his continuing involvement with social and political causes.

There is so much information in the book, a little dash of gossip, but no ugliness. It is a fascinating view of a full life, abiding friendships and a richness that is precious and rare, and written in a breezy, unpretentious style, with a charming lack of boastfulness. If Feisal Alkazi were to go into more details of all accomplishments of the two families, of all the trends they set, the people they met and worked with, the memoir would probably run into several volumes. This one, with its lovely selection of photographs and snatches of poetry, merits more than one reading.

(Deepa Gahlot is a journalist, columnist, author and curator. Some of her writings are on deepagahlot.com)

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