Alyque Padamsee dies at 90: Partners and proteges remember advertising, theatre visionary
Quite apart from his dominance in the fields of advertising and theatre, Alyque Padamsee was also a prominent figure in Mumbai's social circuit and had many friends, admirers and collaborators over the years.
Noted theatre visionary and ad man Alyque Padamsee passed away on Saturday, 17 November 2018, in Mumbai at the age of 90. Born in 1928, Padamsee received his education at St Xavier's College in Mumbai and then ventured into the world of advertising and theatre — emerging as a giant in both spheres. While he spearheaded Lowe Lintas' advertising campaigns giving India some of its most memorable commercials like Lalitaji for Surf, the Liril girl, Hamara Bajaj and the MRF muscle man, at the same time his theatre productions Jesus Christ Superstar, Tughlaq and Evita received critical acclaim.
About his successful dual endeavours, Padamsee writes in his autobiography (along with Arun Prabhu) My Double Life: My Exciting Years in Theatre and Advertising, [Penguin India]: "Though theatre is as important as breathing to me, I have to admit, godammit, it doesn’t pay a living wage! Where else can one write words, shoot pictures and turn imagination into reality but in advertising, and get paid for it handsomely? No wonder then that creative icons like Ebrahim Alkazi of the theatre, Nissim Ezekiel of the world of poetry and dozens of others from the arts have been tempted into advertising at one time or the other. It’s a fascinating profession which also pays for the bread, butter and BMW."
Quite apart from his dominance in the fields of advertising and theatre, he was also a prominent figure in Mumbai's social circuit and had many friends, admirers and collaborators over the years.
Some among them spoke with Firstpost on Padamsee's passing, recollecting memories, conversations and projects from the past:
Shabana Azmi, actress: It was wonderful that Alyque had worked with my mother Shaukat Kaifi as the lead in three plays more than 50 years ago and that he was working with me so many years later with the same zest, passion and impatience. It was a collaborative exercise and even tho there were some differences in the way we saw certain moments, I have to admit that he had a tremendous pulse on the way the audience would react. I really enjoyed working with him and learned a lot about stagecraft from him. Nothing escaped his attention.
He is easily one of the pioneers of English theatre in India. I remember Girish Karnad being delighted with Alyque’s handling of Tughlaq, which became a breakthrough point for the English theatre. He brought alive large musicals and intimate pieces like Broken Images. He remained a force to reckon with both in the ad world and Indian theatre.
He was very engaged and vocal during the riots that followed the Babri Masjid demolitions. I remember he was doing a huge campaign for a firm but when goaded by Anand Patwardhan, I and several activists pointed out to him how tainted the firm was and asked him to disassociate himself. He did, even though he had to forego huge sums of money.
I wanted to visit him about a week ago because I knew he was very ill but I was told he didn't want anyone to see him in his frail condition. I understood that. It was typical Alyque... proud, dignified self-respecting. I consider myself fortunate that I got to work with him. He sent me many mails, always wishing me luck before every performance. Hopefully, we will carry on with performances of Broken Images but I will always miss him.
Pooja Bedi, actress: I worked with Alyque decades ago on the Kamasutra campaign. However, he's been a close friend of the family even since before I was born. He's always been warm, witty, irreverent and a good version of crazy. I loved his biryani and champagne-themed parties; the Christmas eve at Christmas Eve (the name of his building) which he regularly hosted. Thanks to his play Othello, my dad met the wonderful Nikki Bedi who later became my step-mom...Dolly Thakore is a mother figure to me and it was wonderful to see the camaraderie she shared with Alyque to the very end.
Kunal Vijaykar, food writer, TV show host: Alyque was a fountain of energy and creativity. He was an undying source of enthusiasm, passion, humour, encouragement and till his last breath full of vigour and spirit. Men like him do not die, they live forever.
Mahesh Dattani, playwright, director: Final Solutions (a play written by Dattani in 1992 that found much of its inspiration from the Ahmedabad riots between Hindus and Muslims in the years prior to the 1992 Babri Mosque demolition) was a play about tolerance and I felt that the play ought to be staged then despite the circumstances. In fact, it was possibly even more imperative to do so. Understandably, the circumstances meant that the sponsors pulled out. It was a sensitive time. Then the Bombay riots of January 1993 happened. Alyque Padamsee had commissioned this play and unfortunately found himself in a pickle where some things he had said had ruffled some feathers with the VHP. He had to make a personal apology and so again, the time wasn’t right to stage it.
Despite his vulnerability, though, Padamsee was keen to stage the play. Alyque was very firm that if you have something to say, just say it. When he watched Madhyam’s (a Bangalore-based NGO working with marginal voices) production of it in Bengaluru, he knew he had to bring it to Mumbai. When he announced it, his sponsors backed out...Here was the king of advertising with all these companies and brands working with him, (yet) they all said sorry and backed out. He put in his personal funds to bring this story to the stage. I drew immense courage from him and his ability to take a stand despite all odds. I wasn’t a very courageous person then but Alyque gave me the strength to stick to my convictions.
Tirthankar Poddar, rock artist, stage actor: It's a sad day for me. I was jolted. I have been heartbroken all day, it is like a part of me has died. If I had one guru, it was him. I remember on one of his birthdays, his daughter Shazahn took him for Whiplash on a father-daughter movie date. He watched the movie and he called me, "Hey 2Blue! Have you watched Whiplash yet?" (in his deep baritone). I said that I haven't but I had a slight idea why he called me. He replied saying, "Yes, you watch the movie and let me know who the guy (teacher played by JK Simmons) reminds you of," and he started laughing. You see, what the drum instructor did to the boy in Whiplash is what Alyque Padamsee did to me, only that Alyque was not as heartless. He was merciless, brutal...yes but he had a heart, a sense of humour... We later became really good friends... He would often tell me Usain Bolt hated his coach to the point that he wanted to murder him in the middle of the night. Bolt's coach caused him so much discomfort by making him run in a different way by lifting his knee higher up in the air so that he could leap forward much more than his older pattern — which finally got him the gold medal. Alyque always used to say, "Every good teacher has to be hated by his student at some point because you are constantly breaking the kid to make something." What Alyque did for me was also something similar; I wasn't acting or anything but he made an actor out of me — he taught me breathing techniques, memory practice for acting etc. [Poddar played Judas in Alyque Padamsee's Jesus Christ Superstar]
I will forever be grateful that our lives overlapped. Anyway, it's not the end of everything. He's high above the world and he is watching everything. When you have teachers as good as him, you have to live with a responsibility. I know he's going to watching my every move and I won't let him down; that's my promise to him and to myself. As dramatic as it might sound it is the truth.
Bhargava 'Bugs' Krishna, ad man, actor: I am here because of him. I was 19 years old when I wrote him a hand-written letter from Bengaluru and he hired me. When I met him in Mumbai he told me to start the very next day. I had no education, no qualification...He taught me almost everything I know.
He had a great instinct for people. So people have posted on Facebook, mentioning how he mentored them. He mentored different kinds of people, a vast variety of talent — be it actors, writers, advertising people, social activists. He truly was a force of nature.
I think he was a gardener of talent. He nurtured the things he thought were of value and he would often go out of his way in doing so. There was a great Shakespearean actor from Kolkata who was dying of muscular dystrophy — this great actor who used to dominate the stage wasn't able to move from his chair — and he was in Mumbai. I remember Alyque and I would go and read Shakespeare to him. Mind you Alyque at that point was the head of Lintas and was possibly one of the busiest human beings on earth. He would still make the time to go, sit and read to this man. That's the kind of a guy he was; he was a giver.
Alyque Padamsees are a rare work of human art; it was one found in the last century and we don't know when the next one will be found. He was so organised and I have never met a more organised human being ever. Much of his success is because of those organising skills. He gave me a great piece of advice: "Don't rest by being idle, rest by doing something else," which is resting the muscles you were using earlier but working out with new muscles. I have been following that till date; if I want to rest after writing, I would play the flute.
There used to be a note pinned to his wall which read: "The urgent is the enemy of the important." Sometimes in life, we end up doing things that are urgent ignoring the important.
At the age of 90, he had the vitality of a 35-year-old. He was the youngest man of any age that I have ever met. He never revealed his age to anyone. I never knew how old he was, I figured it now. He sneaked it to me some two years ago narrating how once a tree had fallen down at his house in Alibaug and that's when he told some members of his family, "I will die like that. Like a tree, I will fall and that would be the end." He was absolutely a fascinating human being, wasn't he?
Shiv Subramaniam, actor: I first met him when I was doing a play with Rael. He was like a force of nature, exuding energy and charisma. And fun to hang around with. RIP Mr Padamsee.
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