New exhibition of Ebrahim Alkazi's paintings, archival material explores thespian-poet's multifaceted persona
On the occasion of his 94th birthday, Art Heritage, the art gallery Ebrahim Alkazi co-founded with his wife, is hosting an exhibition featuring work from the three solo shows he had of his paintings between 1948 to 1971. If Ebrahim Alkazi wore many hats, this is partly because he was splendidly qualified to do so, says Ranjit Hoskote, the curator of the exhibition
Art Heritage is hosting an exhibition featuring work from the three solo shows Ebrahim Alkazi had of his paintings between 1948 to 1971
My emphasis was to bring long-forgotten paintings and drawings by Alkazi back to light, but also to suggest the diverse debates, discussions and cultural excitements in which he had been a participant, says curator Ranjit Hoskote
If Alkazi wore many hats, this is partly because he was splendidly qualified to do so, says Hoskote
In a letter dated 2 May, 1950, from the painter FN Souza to Roshen Alkazi, the late wife of the nonagenarian, Ebrahim Alkazi, there is ample evidence for the shock and surprise felt upon discovering that the person whom everyone in post-Independent India had come to know for his expertise in theatre, was also a painter. Souza recounts how he, along with the poet and art critic Nissim Ezekiel, had been privy to a private viewing of some new works. “I am not sure if these sets of work can be classified as painting therefore I use the (?) mark in describing them as such,” Souza tells Roshan Alkazi. He elaborates, “Elk hates such classifications and pigeonholing. To him life is painting, To me, painting is life.” He concludes his gushing with a singular statement—“These paintings are not good. They are great."
On the occasion of his 94th birthday, Art Heritage, the art gallery he co-founded with his wife, is hosting an exhibition featuring work from the three solo shows he had of his paintings between 1948 to 1971, and much more. Firstpost spoke to Ranjit Hoskote, curator of Opening Lines: Ebrahim Alkazi, Works 1948-1971, for insights into the life of the multifaceted person whom Souza declared a “poet-artist”.
Can you walk us through the exhibition design of Opening Lines? There's an obvious throwback to Alkazi’s prowess with set design and lighting. Tell us more about what was your starting point.
My usual practice, as a curator, is to design my own exhibitions – the scenography, the narrative flow, the lighting, every detail. Opening Lines is a departure from this rule — given the vibrant theatre ethos of Art Heritage, this project was a happily collaborative one, in which I worked very closely with Amal Allana. We divided our roles early in the process. I focused on the research, the conception and elaboration of the contexts of Alkazi’s work in the visual arts, and the catalogue. Amal led the design of the exhibition, following through from her and Nissar Allana’s design for their major exhibition of three years ago, The Theatre of E Alkazi. We discussed the design in detail, of course. The original idea was to re-enact the original exhibitions, to some extent (London 1950, Bombay 1952, Delhi 1965), adapting the layout for our present venues, Art Heritage 1 and the Shridharani Gallery.
Along the way, we allowed the idea of the re-enactment to give way to a more expanded form of design that would articulate the fact that this is a research exhibition. We brought in layers of supplementary archival and documentary material – the covers of the Theatre Group Bulletin and the Theatre Unit Bulletin that Alkazi edited during the 50s, each carrying the image of an art work, whether a Benin bronze, a Joan Miro painting, a Picasso painting, or a painting by Akbar Padamsee; a letter from FN Souza to Roshen Alkazi; a vase and a wooden sculpture by Alkazi; a replica of the crucifix that the sculptor Adi Davierwalla had created for one of Alkazi’s productions of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral; Alkazi’s notebooks, with his meticulous drawings and diagrams for his productions.
And we followed the conceptual momentum of Alkazi’s original exhibitions, which had been dominated, in each case, by the presence of the Christ figure. His 1952 show, one of the first shows at the then newly inaugurated Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay, had a splendid crucifix. His 1965 show in Delhi, at Shridharani, had as its pivot what I characterise as a ‘painting installation’, three larger-than-life, freestanding images respectively of the baptism, crucifixion, and entombment of Christ. So the architecture of the church suggested itself organically to us, for one part of the exhibition, which draws the visitor along a nave and up to an altar.
Of course, we’ve adapted this design, with ambulatories on either side of the nave. Importantly, we achieved a fit between a design more redolent of Alkazi’s life in theatre and one that focused on the startling, innovative richness of his paintings and drawings. Through the lighting, which was developed by Tariq Allana, we made a distinction between a sunnier, brighter ambience in the Shridharani part of Opening Lines, consonant with Alkazi’s lively work of the late 40s and early 50s, and a more chiaroscuro, subdued ambience at Art Heritage, attuned to his monochrome work in printer’s ink and charcoal of the early 60s.
What was your curatorial process in terms of accessing and using available archives to institute into public memory an otherwise forgotten or neglected aspect of Alkazi's artistic legacy? What were some of the decisions you had to make about what to include/exclude, and how did you evolve a context for framing the show? It could have been a straightforward show, just the paintings from his three solo shows, but you decided to make it bigger, more inclusive. Could you talk us through that intuition?
When I first presented my exhibition proposal, I was working with the provisional model of a concerto – with Alkazi’s own work forming a clear axial line, like the solo violin, with the work of his contemporaries, among them MF Husain, FN Souza, Akbar Padamsee, and Tyeb Mehta, as an accomplished orchestra in dialogue with the soloist. The deeper I went into Alkazi’s voluminous notes, correspondence and lecture texts, the interviews with him – and, fundamentally, into the incredibly compelling nature of his own paintings and drawings – the more I realised that this concerto model would not work as an exhibitionary strategy. I retained it as a research method.
Alkazi was his own soloist and his own orchestra, for the most part!
And, in the early 50s especially, he was remarkably and palpably in advance of the Indian artists of his generation. While they were committed to establishing a purity of style, a recognisable vocabulary, and an alignment with the dominant house styles of international modernism, he was free-ranging in his symbolic commitments, his spectrum of references (from African masks to Benode Behari Mukherjee, from Joyce’s Ulysses to the Christ theme), and his experiments with media (scraperboard, poster paint, watercolour, marker, ink, carbon tracing).
Each of these expansions of consciousness called for testimony to be offered through the form of the exhibition. So we brought into the exhibition a variety of objects that would indicate Alkazi’s intellectual and cultural horizons to viewers. We have West African artefacts as well as sacred images from the Estado da India (most likely Goa) from his personal collection. My emphasis, in Opening Lines, was to bring Alkazi’s long-forgotten paintings and drawings back to light – but also to suggest the diverse debates, discussions and cultural excitements in which he had been a participant during the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Some of this is attested from the archive – his letters to his friend and colleague Nissim Ezekiel, in which he discusses the importance of a multilingual sensibility for an independent India; his drawings of masks, which draw clearly on West African as well as Minoan and Classical Greek models. But some must be inferred from the visual evidence – looking at the work, I imagine him to have read Robert Goldwater’s pathbreaking 1938 book, Primitivism in Modern Art; I intuit that he had seen, and been excited by, Eric Gill’s wood engravings. Eventually, I did manage to work my way back to the concerto model – except that the soloist was now accompanied by the archive, both manifest and latent, as orchestra!
Could you shed some more light on Roshen Alkazi's role in Ebrahim Alkazi's career? It is alluded to, in the show and in the catalogue, but could you summarise for us her influence? Souza writes a letter to her back in 1950, detailing his experience of encountering 'Elk's' "paintings (?)" for the first time. There must be a backstory to that kind of intimacy...
Roshen Alkazi was, in her quiet way, a formidable presence, a presence that guaranteed strength and continuity through Alkazi’s prolific, continually dynamic sequence of projects, and the major change of location when they shifted from Bombay to Delhi in 1962. Parenthetically, I find myself stumbling over the use of her first name; I always called her ‘Mrs Alkazi’. From the early days in Bombay and through the Delhi years, she was a close, resourceful and major collaborator in her husband’s work. She joined Alkazi for part of the time that he spent in London (1948-1951), and they were fellow explorers of that world of concerts, museums, exhibitions, fellow participants in a process of cosmopolitan self-fashioning. She researched and designed the costumes for his plays, drawing on – and improvising around – a sumptuous history of clothing that spanned the ancient Mediterranean, the Noh drama, the Kushan and Sunga periods, as well as the Tughlaq, Lodi, and Mughal styles. Eventually, she published a highly regarded book on the subject, Ancient Indian Costume (1983).
The Alkazis and their Bombay circle, from 1946 to 1962, were bound together by close bonds of family kinship and friendship. Roshen had her own connections with the Bombay artists, both through her charismatic brother, Sultan ‘Bobby’ Padamsee, and her first cousin, Akbar Padamsee. When Alkazi went to London to study art and theatre in 1948, he was joined, at various points, by Roshen, by FN Souza and his wife Maria (née Figueiredo), and by Nissim Ezekiel. The members of this group connected with one another as individuals, and not only as couples. The women in this group were fully engaged in the adventures of cultural discovery, and had their own evolving sense of their time, shaped as much by the post-World War II ethos of regeneration in Europe as by India’s newly gained independence. That generation committed its thoughts to beautifully articulated letters, which allow us to trace the currents of their ideas, the confidence with which they put them forward.
You referred to Sultan 'Bobby' Padamsee as Alkazi's "first mentor". Who would you say were the others?
In this context, I would think, very strongly, of Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, the utopian philanthropists who were influenced by Tagore and established Dartington Hall, an artists’ retreat and educational centre in Devon, as a continuation of the Santiniketan model. Alkazi spent a marvellously productive summer there, on a residency, in 1950. The Elmhirsts believed in a strong and mutually sustaining continuum across life, art, society, and nature – they nurtured the process of creativity across domains and disciplines. Under their aegis, at Dartington Hall, the young Alkazi (he was 25 at the time) met and interacted with figures like the Sinologist and translator of Chinese classics, Arthur Waley, and the pioneering expressionist choreographer Rudolf von Laban. Stretching the definition of a mentor to suit a more equal relationship of collegiality, a mutual replenishment, I would think of Nissim Ezekiel, the distinguished poet, art critic and cultural organiser, who was Alkazi’s closest friend from the late 40s to the mid-60s. They were nearly the same age, Ezekiel born in 1924, Alkazi in 1925. Together, they thought through crises and dilemmas in Indian theatre, worked side by side, and had an ongoing dialogue. One of the ‘Lovers’ series in Alkazi’s 1950 and 1952 shows was a visual interpretation of a poem by Ezekiel. And Ezekiel was the guest of honour who opened both these exhibitions.
As someone who, much like Alkazi, also excels in many fields, from writing poetry, even plays, to translating, to curating, to being an art and literary critic, what was your personal takeaway from extensively researching Alkazi's artistic practice? Did you ever get a sense of how he was able to wear so many hats? Did you find any resonance in his approach to the creative process?
One of the key subliminal reasons why I am so deeply and emotionally immersed in this project is precisely this – the strong resonance that Alkazi’s kind of hybrid, multi-domain practice has for my own. I am painfully aware that the personal joy of working across multiple fields must often be balanced by the knowledge that the coherence and totality of that work is rarely evident to observers – what seems, from within, to be the plural articulation of a set of core concerns appears, from outside, to be a sequence of shifts from one enthusiasm to the next. Or, as with Alkazi, some of the more public achievements of a career eclipse the less visible accomplishments. The moral of the story is to remain true to the current of one’s creativity, without anxiety as to how self-contradictory or incoherent its outcomes may seem to the casual observer – and to trust in audiences, present or future! Working on Opening Lines has been, as you say, a deeply meaningful experience for me – part cautionary tale, part consolation, part re-dedication to such a plural practice. As one of my gurus, the late Okwui Enwezor used to say, every exhibition is an intellectual biography of the curator.
In preparing Opening Lines, I have been deeply moved by my resurgent memories of the figures whose presence animates the project. Ezekiel was – that term again! – my first mentor, and I think back to how he was simultaneously active on a range of fronts in the cultural field, yet found the time to share his experience and insights with such generosity. I’ve been thinking back, also, to the time when I was 22, and was summoned by Alkazi to Delhi, with a view to working with him on projects that were still unfolding at the time. I spent three amazing days with him, taking in a visionary flow of ideas, as he brought out drawings by MF Husain and Tyeb Mehta meticulously, from archival cabinets, or sketched out his plans for institutions yet to take shape. Alas, I did not make the decisive shift he had made from Bombay to Delhi, and so did not have the privilege of working with him.. and yet, here we are, nearly three decades later!
I’ve been thinking, constantly, of the courageous, confident manner in which figures like Alkazi and Ezekiel took on the world as very young men. Barely five years into independence, they were proclaiming their will to globality, Ezekiel through the articulation of Anglophone poetry in India, Alkazi through his bold interpretations of the Euro-American canon from Euripides through Ibsen and Strindberg to Tennessee Williams and beyond, and through his assertively titled cycle of pedagogic exhibitions, ‘This is Modern Art’, aimed to activate a new and enthusiastic audience. It is vital to retrieve the memory of these breath-taking adventures in culture and the definition of a new sensibility, at once engaged with the nation and the world, inclusive and cosmopolitan – it is urgent, at a time when the mind of India is narrowing down, and the memory of the heroic years of the Republic, the 50s and 60s, is sought to be erased.
If Alkazi wore many hats, this is partly because he was splendidly qualified to do so – as a systematic autodidact motivated by a transformative energy – and because he saw so many possibilities, opportunities or deficits across the arts and culture at large, with far too few people to address them. The DIY approach to cultural organising that a number of us take is rooted as much in temperament as it is in circumstances.
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