Saturday, September 19, 2020

Dramatis Persona | Outlook India Magazine

Dramatis Persona | Outlook India Magazine

One of my most vivid and precious memories of Mr Alkazi is of him standing at the door of the Studio Theatre in Rabindra Bhavan. It was the mid-1960s and I was still in Modern School. I can’t quite remember the play but his striking presence still comes through the fog of the ages clear as day. But before I describe that memory, I’ll take a detour and set the context around the memory. The most extraordinary productions of the NSD directed by Mr Alkazi had already been staged: Tughlaq, Lehron ke Rajhans, Ashadh ka Ek Din. And I had already seen Andha Yug at Ferozeshah Kotla.

That legendary performance at the old Tughlaq fort made me recognise how site can profoundly imprint a text, and how text can equally, profoundly, imprint a site. The memory even today is so strong that its material atmosphere rises up fully formed in my head: a very spare scenography that took my attention to the very physicalness of the ruins. As we know, ruins tell us about then and now; they are remains of the past, but because they have survived, they are also portals to the present, where they position us. The ruins of Ferozeshah Kotla, with the memory of the Yamuna flowing behind it, offered the perfect spatial conjuncture to play out the story of the Mahabharata, where past and present ever collide in such a way as to force us to look at the remnants of universal truths—about power, about ourselves—flowing through us. After that staging by Mr Alkazi, Andha Yug took its place as one of the most important texts in the canon of modern Indian drama. Till then, it had been categorised more as a radio play and had hardly been performed.

The magic of the theatre is when atmosphere, text and body match perfectly and create, as it were, a sensation. This happened for me in Andha Yug, when the great speech of Krishna accepting Gandhari’s curse was delivered. The text was spoken by Om Shivpuri with magical precision, and the rendering has since become essential listening for actors across generations. Shivpuri spoke the lines with a silvery radiance—his voice placed Krishna’s words precisely between the world of the divine and this, our world of undivine humans. A memorable pitch-balancing between immeasurable human kindness on the one hand and an otherworldly distance on the other. I had never heard text so sensuously spoken. And what of the staging? As I remember, the figure of Krishna didn’t appear, only the words appeared…as if emanating from or hovering on a shimmering bush, lit up to indicate Krishna’s presence.

Courtesy: The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

I may be wrong in some detail, I might even have coalesced one scene upon another. But what I remember is so alive and materially present for me in my body that I won’t test it for facticity. Why? Because the experience, the exudation of text to voice to sound to leaves was so transformational. That transformation came as a shock to the viewer’s system, as it were, and the viewing experience of theatre was never to be the same again. That theatre could deal with site, word, gesture, sound, costume in these precise ways, that the play’s atmosphere could be breathed in and could fill the senses, was vividly new. ‘Atmosphere’, a puzzle in the theatre; and now we had it! At once material and immaterial, subjective and objective.

The word atmosphere links me to the first memory I mentioned at the start of this tribute. I had gone to see a play at Rabindra Bhavan. We were waiting in the foyer. At the second bell, we were allowed to proceed towards the perfect little studio theatre that was designed by Mr Alkazi himself and the likes of which we have never seen again in Delhi; and as we got to the door, we saw Mr Alkazi standing at the door itself. He was welcoming us into the auditorium with formal elegance. But he was also, in that gesture, telling us that our compact with the actors, with theatre, and with our viewing duties as spectators, had begun. We couldn’t shuffle in; we had to be as focused as the actors who, in the greenrooms, were waiting for the performance to begin.  We were entering a world which the actors had spent months preparing; through weeks of rehearsal, research, materialisation, drills with objects, props and costume, to achieve maximal precision, for us. This compact was not about the mysteries of theatre, nor the mystifications of performance; this was about work, labour, and the repetitions that go into creating theatre.

This is the sort of exactitude Mr Alkazi brought into the training system at NSD,  and overhauled the pedagogy through his directorial practice, through the discipline of rehearsal, through the structure of the syllabus where every component—makeup and carpentry and lights; history, literature and interpretation; movement, yoga and voice—were part of making a thoughtful and alert practitioner. This overhaul of training systems produced actors, directors and designers who have since hugely influenced theatre, films and television across India. Across India, Mr Alkazi’s methodologies have affected theatre-making; they have instigated debates and disagreements; they have been reproduced and modified, and they have shaped audiences. His imprint is everywhere, from a tidy greenroom to the ramparts of the Purana Qila to the magical peepal tree of the Meghdoot theatre, which he designed.

Goodbye, Mr Alkazi.

Thank you for giving generations of your students and those of us who were not your students new ways of seeing and experiencing performance. Your interventions developed the very lexicon for a vibrant modern Indian theatre.

(Anuradha Kapur is a theatre director and former director of the National School of Drama)

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