Enter Stage Right: A compelling, evanescent memoir of the Alkazi-Padamsee family, and their theatrical imprint
A marriage eventually frayed at the edges but robust in its critical mass of shared cultural persuasions irrevocably linked the Alkazi and Padamsee families in the artistic sphere.
The reams of Indian newsprint lavished on the cultural exploits of the Alkazi and Padamsee clans over the decades might easily fill several volumes, even if one were not to take into account the sustained cycles of recapitulation that feed arts coverage in the country. A marriage eventually frayed at the edges but robust in its critical mass of shared cultural persuasions irrevocably linked the two families in the artistic sphere. Born of that providential if star-crossed union, theatre director Feisal Alkazi, son of Roshen and Ebrahim Alkazi, delivers a personal take on a multi-generational saga with its own intrigues in his new book Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi / Padamsee Family Memoir.
Brought out by the independent publishing imprint Speaking Tiger, the opus attempts to chalk out a lucid chronicle from the haze of familiarity that visits its most notable figures and their kin. As the author says in the blurb, “Writing this book was like opening an old cupboard stuffed full with memories. Some were familiar, easy to recount, others I had heard so much about that I felt I had been there. And still others, hidden away at the back, revealed secrets I never knew.”
The book follows a largely chronological path, cutting to the chase with an emphatic claim to legacy in the first line itself, “English Theatre in Bombay was born on my grandmother’s horseshoe-shaped dining table.” Of course, the history of theatre in a colonial tongue in a colonial city stretches back almost a century and a half before that, but Feisal is likely referring to the undeniable influence of the company founded in 1941 by his uncle, the enterprising Sultan ‘Bobby’ Padamsee. Called simply Theatre Group, it had an unprecedented focus and prolificacy in staging English theatre, and reached its zenith in the 1970s. They were rightful pioneers of a now entrenched city tradition.
From those beginnings, the book traces the career trajectories of his father and his uncle and aunt, Pearl and Alyque Padamsee — illustrious names from the world of theatre with distinctive approaches to their respective practices — while contributing detours that illuminate a constellation of other principals. Although assuming the mantle of the first-person narrator, it’s only halfway through the book that Feisal emerges as the young protagonist slowly taking over the reins of the narrative. In his parents’ generation alone, there were a mind-boggling 17 siblings on both sides — understandably not all their stories or those of their offspring find an airing in this volume. This doesn’t appear to have contributed to any significant lacunae — the book is simply another perspective of a cast of characters first introduced in Alyque’s 1994 autobiography, A Double Life.
Like that book did in passing, Enter Stage Right also casts the dashing Bobby as the fountainhead of the clans’ entwined artistic destinies, despite his untimely death by suicide in 1946 at the age of just 24 — which the book openly discusses, perhaps this expansively for the first time on record. One of Bobby’s talked-about shows was a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, outlawed by his alma mater St Xavier's College, but staged anyway by Theatre Group at the Sir Cowasji Jehangir Hall at Colaba, that now houses the National Gallery of Modern Art. Salomé’s suggestive dance of the seven veils was performed by a 19-year-old Roshen, Bobby’s sister, after the Parsi actress originally cast backed off. Written in 1892, Wilde’s play was first staged in 1896 while he was incarcerated on account of his homosexuality. In recent years, queer writers like Hoshang Merchant have attempted to instate Bobby as another iconic martyr on the altar of alternate sexuality. Feisal’s account of Bobby sidesteps such conjecture, but doesn’t shy away from painting a disarmingly candid portrait of a persona so comfortable in his own skin and so prodigiously accomplished that he easily commanded awe, attention and adulation.
Linked by loss and a commitment to his burgeoning legacy, three of Bobby’s protégés, including Ebrahim, went on to marry three of his sisters. Feisal takes pride at the melting pot his family represents. While the Padamsees were of Khoja Muslim stock, and the Alkazis came from Saudi-Kuwaiti antecedents, all of Roshen’s siblings settled into cross-community marriages. “Our generation has gone the same way with Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Buddhist partners. We have had to be very inventive, constantly designing cross-cultural marriage ceremonies, [often heavily relying] on texts like Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet!,” writes Feisal. It’s a remarkable heritage of heterogeneity and inclusivity that stood in some contrast to his grandparents. In the chapter dedicated to his grandmother —Kulsumbai of Kulsum Terrace — she occasionally comes across as intransigent in her views but was nonetheless a matriarch whose steely resilience fired the spirits of her children.
The interior worlds of Bobby, Ebrahim and Roshen are made all the more piquant and poignant by the poems written by them that Feisal includes in the book. Roshen’s forlorn separation from her husband, albeit not in her professional capacity as an accomplished costume designer and fine arts curator, is a study in intimate and tender observation that only a child of estranged parents could have done justice to. Ebrahim’s tryst with Theatre Unit in Bombay, after breaking away from the Theatre Group in tumultuous fashion, and his pioneering stewardship of the National School of Drama has been written about extensively, and was the subject of an archival art exhibition by the Alkazis. But Roshen’s existence has been delicately offered up by her son in an account that provides the book its emotional spine, alongside the tale of Bobby and his mother Kulsumbai — which Feisal likens to the central conflict in Tennessee William’s Suddenly, Last Summer, in which “a possessive and grasping matriarch’s gay son is driven to suicide.” Staged by Ebrahim at Meghdoot Theatre, the open-air space on the terrace of their residence (not to be confused with the similar venue he established at NSD), in quick succession of Euripides’ Medea, prompts Feisal to liken the plays’ “violent themes of disintegration and collapse of [families] torn apart” with the disintegration of his own extended family, even as his artist’s eye ascribes telling symbolism to household artefacts and paintings in drawing rooms, as the living circumstances of the Alkazis and he Padamsees change over time.
Less successful is Feisal’s descriptions of the changing cultural zeitgeist in which successive generations of the family came of age. The breathlessly kaleidoscopic accounts of a city (Bombay, and later Delhi) in constant flux, read at times like Who’s Who primers or entries in an encyclopaedia. Occasionally, they might evoke a sense of the active ferment of a renaissance perpetually in the making looked at with a decidedly halcyon gaze, but incisive commentary or social insight remains thin on the ground. When he dips into the world of the stage into which he was born, there are the details that bring alive an intense engagement of some longevity with the performing arts, but not necessarily a personal vision or a raison d'être.
In the telling of episodes from his own life and practice, Feisal is much less revealing of his motivations or conflicts, letting exposition rather than argument, punctuated by carefully selected plaudits, drive the story forward. As the book’s epilogue reminds us, the passing of Ebrahim last year meant that all those who were gathered at Kulsumbai’s horseshoe-shaped table on the fateful evening described so nostalgically in the book’s prologue, have passed into the sands of time. While the next generation continues to deliver on the promise of following worthily in the footsteps of their illustrious predecessors, there is a sombre sense of a full circle in the journey Enter Stage Right takes us on, which makes it a compelling read of a strangely evanescent quality all the more.
Feisal Alkazi's book Enter Stage Right also contains rare archival pictures of scenes from theatre productions by the family over the years. View them here: From Oedipus to Yeh Bhi Jungle, Woh Bhi Jungle — a look at theatre productions under the Alkazis over the years.
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