As the event begins, it becomes clear that I have stepped into an alternate world. The people at the BIC auditorium are all grey-haired, wearing khadis and greys, some maroon peppered in there. At the edge of the stage is Feisal Alkazi, writer of the book Enter Stage Right. His loud voice bounces across the auditorium, giving the event a touch of intimacy even before it has begun. It is like he is already performing, his directorial authority making everyone sit at attention. This evening, we are all here to listen to Feisal Alkazi speak about his family – the first theatre family in Bombay; while two of his cousins, Raëll and Quasar Padamsee join us virtually over Zoom, displayed on a projector screen that hangs from the ceiling. The Alkazis and Padamsees are in conversation with Bangalore playwright, Surendranath S.
If you are as unaware as I am, you should know that the Alkazi and Padamsee families have been rather important in setting up the contemporary theatre scene in Bombay. Feisal Alkazi’s father, Ebrahim Alkazi was key in setting up the city’s National School of Drama. He is fondly called Alkazi Saab, making it clear immediately to me that Feisal Alkazi is here simply as storyteller, to bridge the gap between 2021 Bangalore and 1943 Bombay. Enter Stage Right is a memoir about the Alkazi and Padamsee families, but in being this, it also becomes a document that chronicles the early history of Bombay theatre.
As he begins to speak in the robust voice I first heard, he says, “The first thing to understand is what Bombay was like at the time. 1940s India was a liberal place, we were in the last stage of the Freedom movement and people wanted to be involved in the arts.” In his book, Alkazi writes — “Bombay at the time had a very affluent, English-speaking, Westward-seeking elite, up with the ‘latest’ gossip from Hollywood and the latest novels from Europe. Pastries were available at Ferlettis on Colaba or at Bombellis at Breach Candy, steaks at Gordons at Churchgate. Parties were held at the Taj Mahal Hotel, then in its heyday, clubs like the Princess Victoria Gymkhana, the Bombay Gym and Willingdon were where you could spend an evening playing cards, dancing to a jazz band, swimming or just adorning the bar.” Money was pouring into Bombay, he says, and this created an atmosphere for young people to learn theatre together.
To sit and listen to Alkazi speak about his family felt much like being told about a story you didn’t know you were missing. My absolute ignorance of the ups-and-downs of Bombay theatre allows me to float through the event in absolute awe. The three cousins on stage share an intimacy that only exists in having grown up together, in being part of something larger than themselves. They speak of the iconic horse-shoe table that resides in their late grandmother, Kulsum’s home. The horse-shoe table, first constructed out of some eclectic desire to emulate a western film, became central to every conversation at home. Every theatre practice they held was at this table. It stayed covered in scripts and food alike, irrespective of the day.
The legacy of this family begins not with Alkazi Saab, but with Sultan, or Bobby Padamsee, who was the eclectic, out-of-the-ordinary artist of the family. He died of suicide after battling depression at a very young age and left behind a host of people who felt it their duty to carry this legacy forward. The family we see today is a result of this loyalty. Throughout his life, Feisal Alkazi says, he grew up around artists as if it were a very normal thing. It wasn’t unusual, he said, to wake up to MF Hussain’s voice at 7:15 am some mornings, just for a simple breakfast. Pre-independence Bombay was a space as open as this. Their home might have been owned by them, but it belonged to everyone. As he says this, I try to reconcile this Bombay with the metropolitans of today, where even stand-up comedy performances appear to threaten our invisibly harmonious world.
“Theatre can only survive in generosity,” Quasar Padamsee says, as he speaks of Kulsum Terrace. What we fail to remember, very often, is that any art form thrives on two important things: intimacy and generosity. The act of watching a person in front of you perform so generously is an unusual thing, where else will you find an individual willing to offer themselves up to an audience? The pandemic has taken away both these things from us, but the simple inventiveness of the art form has allowed it to flourish even further. Digital Theatre, Alkazi says, has opened up his shows to over 25,000 people.
Quasar Padamsee, who works with young theatre professionals in Mumbai, says to the audience that the one thing he misses most about putting up shows regularly is that triumphant hug at the end of a performance. When I ask him how it is possible to compensate for this loss, he says, “It is important to reintroduce this intimacy to the form, to allow for people to be with each other, because that is what theatre does.”
The Alkazi and Padamsee families are the perfect example of the possibilities of an Independent India. The nation that was just learning to be one, but has now seemingly lost track of how to move forward.