Personal Reflections on Ebrahim Alkazi and B.V. Karanth.
Alkazi was my teacher at Delhi's National School of Drama (NSD) (3) between 1973 and 1975, and Karanth a senior mentor and colleague at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal between 1980 and 1984. In both places I observed their creative processes and driving passion. And what connected them was their voracious appetite for work, and how they defined their lives through the world of theatre, seeing relevance in little else outside it. Both combined the roles of teacher, director and head of institutions, almost effortlessly attaining mythological status in the theatre world. They not only reassessed the legacies of European theatrical practices, but also explored Asian traditions and regional forms, in their voluminous work. Their role in the creation of a modern theatre sensibility is something that even their most trenchant critics cannot erase or devalue. Together their work embodied the radical spirit of the times and they refashioned modern Indian theatre through hard questioning, rigorous training, storytelling, space, language and myth. Above all, each in his own special way challenged entrenched assumptions, refreshingly reformulating them anew.
The transitional moment from multiple and distributed identities without communication and consistency, to one where at least there is a touch point/lighthouse from which to define itself, takes place when an institution comes alive with a charismatic head. It is in this zone of potential and desire that Ebrahim Alkazi (1962-77) and B.V. Karanth (1977-81) functioned as Directors of NSD. They did not "change the national consensus" or "revolutionize the creativity of the country". Rather, they created a new planet, where theatre artists could come and discover their own beings in a mixture of rational, creative, historical and traditional ways. They not so much created a revolution as they put stakes in the ground, drew a boundary, created an inside and an outside, and then demonstrated how creativity flourishes and is replenished by communicating and evolving within this, and beyond.
Their oeuvre remains complex, startling with its peculiar distinctive world vision, as no scribe or dramatist or indeed even critic has documented their work in any systematic or ordered manner. However, whatever has been gleaned is from interpretation, observation and anecdotal accounts that still resonate in the corridors of NSD and other spaces, rather than from hard facts or jottings about their methodologies and systems. I can only reconstruct their distinguished legacies from personal experiences over nearly three decades, sometimes as a participant, at other times as a witness to their magnificent productions. The memories I rely upon are definitely subjective.
The two directors made their students realize that working in the theatre was not like joining a hobby class, but entering a profession, which required a similar degree of seriousness, commitment and dedication as needed in the medical or legal profession. The other significant contribution was to shift training concepts in the performing arts from the entrenched systems of the guru-shishya parampara to a formal training system. This became a crucial moment in the history of theatre training in India, as it created a definite rupture from systems that existed in the transference of knowledge and expertise from the past.
Before Alkazi joined NSD, students were exposed to one-act plays that were more in the nature of classroom productions. Even though full-length plays were sometimes enacted, these were never public performances. Alkazi, however, innovatively introduced production work as part of the training regimen for his students. Thereafter, linking professional training with production work became significant, as actor participation in all aspects of a theatre performance, from analysing complex characters to contextualizing them historically through sets, costumes and props, became mandatory. Alkazi also emphasized the importance of the printed word and actively encouraged students to visit the school's well-stocked library. At times, he would check the library records and shame us, saying that he was surprised that not a single book had been issued in our name for that particular month.
No task was insignificant for Alkazi, a facet he passed on to his students and which subsequently stood them in good stead, helping them comprehend that making tea, swabbing and cleaning the stage, ironing costumes, arranging the green room, cleaning the toilets were collectively as much an aspect of training as creating a character. Personally, he thought nothing of scooping up cigarette stubs or soiled paper napkins from the corridors of the school.
I recall Alkazi telling students that after a show the cast must make itself invisible, evading the congratulatory hugs and handshakes from the audience. For Alkazi, curtain-calls were not part of theatre culture and all students and actors were encouraged not to think of themselves as public figures or to luxuriate in the indulgence of praise.
Anuradha Kapur writes:
The toolkit of Stanislavski (4) became popular and then standard through the pedagogical intervention of drama schools (for instance NSD, Delhi) and through the drama taught at universities--in short, modern institutions which are distinct from premodern teaching systems such as the guru-shishya tradition in India. This retooling began to take hold in the late 1950s and grew very rapidly through the 1960s, critically influenced by NSD under E. Alkazi ... I should like to synoptically position the decisive effect of Alkazi in almost single-handedly shaping a modernistic-realistic lexicon for Indian theatre. This was achieved by two moves: first, his authorial mediations, his personal reading of modern Indian text and their consequent staging; second his overhauling of theatre training at the NSD, tilting it towards a realistic discourse. This produced actors, directors and designers who have since hugely influenced theatre, films and television. Both these moves created that rupture with the past which is often seen as the defining characteristic of modernity. (5)
During my days as an NSD student, Alkazi directed three plays that are often hailed as his definitive work: Andha Yug by Dharamvir Bharati, (6) Tughlaq by Girish Karnad (7) and Razia Sultan by Balwant Gargi, (8) all of which were staged at historic sites in Delhi. It was a coup for NSD to have secured permission to perform against such majestic backdrops. The depth of the stage at Purana Qila was raised to 35 feet (10.67 m), atop a chasm, and connected at seven different levels. The brooding stone edifice, obscured by the mists of time, resonated with history. Monolithic arches, columns and slippery stone plinths required tremendous reworking to make them safe. The additional wooden platforms had a massive sweep of steps where all the mythic characters came staggeringly alive in this drama of death and destiny. This impressive space was also accident-prone; I recall one of the actors, who was playing the role of a soldier in Tughlaq, come plummeting down in the middle of Tughlaq's grand soliloquy. A broken leg cut short his career as a soldier, but it did not in any way interrupt the work. The silence of the night was sliced by Alkazi's stridently declaring: "As no one is dead, we continue."
Alkazi had spent time in Japan where he was influenced by Kabuki theatre, (9) and back home he wanted to test the "values" of the characters in Andha Yug (10) on the touchstone of a Kabuki setting. Initially, it was disorienting to see Gandhari dressed as a Kabuki actor in a kimono and winged jacket descending the steps of the ramparts of Feroz Shah Kotla, her long gown trailing behind her. Alongside, a wooden palladium had a formal Kabuki-like chorus chanting to the musical composition created by Vanraj Bhatia. (11) This production triggered criticism, but Alkazi was clear that an epic like Andha Yug, peopled with stories of warriors, nobles, kings and princes could not be performed in a realistic way but only through a traditional form, albeit far removed from its contextual environment. "When I visited Japan, seeing the theatre there, I thought to myself, this is like our epics, even though I understood nothing of the themes or their language. But like our traditional theatre, Kathakali, (12) here also the actors transform themselves into signs, form, movement, metaphor. For me this was theatre," he declared, adding that there are traditions and they belong to all of us beyond geographical lines and borders.
As I write this I can almost hear his clipped and precise voice saying: "Remember that when you enter the stage, the story is already being told. I want to know, who the character is, where s/he is coming from and why the character is on the stage." Alkazi was a master of grand spectacle and instructions flew hard and swift during rehearsals. His crowd scenes, entries and exits were choreographed with precision and nothing was left to chance or improvisation. He held the spoken text and the visual qualities of the play in equal balance.
Actor training at NSD was practice-oriented; we as students realized that every aesthetic choice embarked upon needed to be a practical one as well. What sort of costume should the character wear? What kind of stage business do we give the character? If I edit the character's speech, will this change its meaning? How do I position the actors on stage? An actor, even before he or she mouthed their first dialogue, should let the audience "locate" the character, imagine its life and way of thinking. This constituted part of the actors' homework, and each character sketch had to be drawn prior to entering the rehearsal space.
After this initial task, Alkazi intervened or made suggestions about text, tone, movement and gestures. I don't believe he developed any theory of acting (though I am sure he had one) or even used references from any theorist; his essential theory was that you have to believe in what you do on stage. And what he shared with us was attentiveness to certain theoretical laws that we can find, interestingly, in all traditions of acting. One thing is undeniably clear: Alkazi provided an acting grammar, a protocol of what it means to be onstage and offstage! Reading, rehearsing, analysing plays, relooking at tradition--no more were these activities driven by "mere creativity"--creativity was transformed into the impulse of a thinking being, into a logical and thought-through process that borrowed from worlds beyond itself. Creativity, for audiences as well as artists, was no longer "instinctive" or "fluffy" creativity. It was all of that, but it also had thought and direction. The institution created a new way of looking at what we did, and showed us what we could do, together.
In the history of institutions, transformations are never elegant and immediate. The next conversation takes place over the notion of "bringing alive", and as a result, Alkazi's discipline, like in all good stories, required an anarchy. The conflict that moved the narrative was often represented as "chaotic" and "anti-institutional". But B.V. Karanth who succeeded Alkazi was not engaging in rabble-rousing or chaos. Karanth was engaging in a new debate--what does it mean to "bring alive" and how does it resonate with something deeper and more primal than ordinary modernism?
Karanth was a man in a hurry, expanding the institutions he was associated with in ways that eventually emerged unruly. Brimming with ideas, concepts and vision, his nomadic spirit and love for change kept him in perpetual motion. In essence he was a peripatetic personality who is impossible to slot, define or categorize. In retrospect, it is amazing that despite a huge body of work, he did not leave behind his own particular school of thought, cult or authorial mark, due primarily to his rootlessness and the untrammelled chaos surrounding him and his restive personality.
For Karanth, man, milieu and the moment coalesced, enabling the emergence of regional voices, genres and local impulses. The training in most drama schools in the late 1960s and early '70s was derived from Western forms and traditions. But a decade later this changed, and suddenly folk forms and traditions began to be explored and valorized, based on the assumption that there existed in these forms a theatrical vocabulary that would enable urban theatre to establish links with their past. Consequently, Karanth worked towards establishing that Indian culture was indeed a conglomeration of cultures that could trace its roots to varied resources, enriching itself in the process. "Indian realism has to be redefined and to achieve this there must be a dialogue between contemporary theatre practitioners, folk artists and traditional practices," Karanth said.
He desired to return to the master performer and master practitioners of different cultures, and establish the inspiration that could be drawn from their tools and techniques to create a fresh vocabulary for training a modern actor. He brought a work vocabulary that was varied and eclectic, and a theatre craft that was a hybridization of two systems of working, taking playful liberties with traditional elements, almost being irreverential (according to the purist) by reworking them for contemporary needs.
Karanth's impact on modern Indian theatre cannot be gauged independent of his relationship to musical composition. For Karanth, modernity was "white noise" (13)--a random signal with a flat spectral density. In other words, "white noise" for him, much like the static on television screens, comprised not only completely random and contingent inputs, but also created flat visual and aural effects. Much like the modernity and conformity he saw around him, "white noise" was for Karanth a deafening and crippling force. Rather than seeing traditional music as a "historical" and "pure form" of Indian cultural heritage, Karanth wielded it in his work as an aesthetic weapon.
He called his music "sound plans". He loved sound, from the chirping of the birds, to the human voice, the sneeze, the burp, gurgling laughter, whispers and shouts. The sound of mourning and chanting, the raucous call of hawkers selling vegetables and other wares, the sports commentary on radio and television, all became inspirational tools to be transformed into a theatrical moment. Karanth's music was never performed by a soloist, but always through group singing, alongside assorted instruments from bottles to bamboo sticks or metal bowls--any object that made a sound was for Karanth a valid and effective musical instrument.
Once when asked where his music patterns emerged from, Karanth replied that they did not come from any one particular source, but were the aggregate of sounds and music that he had learnt and heard since he was born, all of which he would reassemble, reconstitute and present afresh. Karanth's ideology and core theatrical politics was that life, free from tyranny, is what theatre can pierce through music.
Karanth interpreted a play musically. His use of music was never decorative, nor an aspect of the narrative, but connected to the dialogue, which in turn became an extension of the speech. Quizzically, he termed his musical scores "sound plans" or an adjunct to the spoken word. In his view, language is not a "sovereign means" to organize and represent text; it is merely an object of history and culture needing to be investigated, in the same way as politics and myth. To use sound not only rhythmically, but also a-rhythmically (or arha-tal, as he called it) in addition to off-beat sounds and a-tonal sounds was for Karanth an endeavour to make the protagonist sing his dialogues, and speak his songs in the grand traditions of strolling minstrels.
Karanth's experience of working with the Gubbi Veeranna company, (14) helped him intuitively fuse the high theatricality of Company Theatre (15) with the folk form, Yakshagana, (16) alongside a sense of modernity. He explored alternative theatre spaces, trying to disengage actors from conventional auditoriums. "Not minars but maidans" (Not formal structures, but open grounds) became his new clarion call.
Back at NSD acting systems were never homogeneous and defied simplistic categorization. The diatribe against both Alkazi and Karanth was rampant, as is the case with most institutional heads. It was critically said that Alkazi taught an "oriental RADA" (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London) course and Karanth "could not see beyond the headgear of a Yakshghana demigod".
To quote Anuradha Kapur once more:
In Mricchakatika (1975), (17) for instance, Alkazi had a stage setting that was composed of a series of arches, curtained with enlarged paintings from the Chaurapanchashikha from the Malwa school of miniature paintings. When the actors playing the minor roles entered the stage, to visit Vasantsena or Charudutta in a manner that was casual, Alkazi would shout across, "watch the bolster, watch the takht, does it not speak?" This production had an assimilation of varied influences, filmy duets, to stylised postures, with a "modernistic exactitude". (18)
Karanth, on the other hand, in Shakespeare's Macbeth, combined elements from Yakshagana with modern dramaturgical tools to make sharp and incisive interventions. He debunked the myth of authenticity in performance, not through any theoretical interjection, but through unique collaborations--Barnam Vana (Macbeth) done in the Yakshagana style, with actors who transformed Macbeth into a performance of mixed cultures. He wanted to create a theatre that was radical, interactive and dialogic. He felt that many of our cultural forms had become ossified and could no longer be recognized as being "alive" or "living" and "pulsating". Karanth felt that actor training had to combine a consolidated approach to dance, music and the martial arts, and to achieve this he invited traditional gurus to work regularly with students. The focus was less on classroom academics and more on voice/body training. In a way Karanth wanted to revert to the master performer and master practitioner of different cultures, and see what inspiration could be drawn from their tools and techniques to fashion a new vocabulary to train a modern actor. Using a variety of devices--the chorus, the rangpatti (a hand-held curtain), dance, music and the sutradhar (19)--his approach was playful and impervious to the discourse of authenticity.
Even the Yakshagana gestures were used to mean something else. "I have used many such gestures in Macbeth. This play by Shakespeare cannot be completely transformed into a Yakshagana because it is not Yakshagana. But I used the Yakshagana mode to suggest some other meaning," Karanth said in an interview to Contemporary Indian Theatre. (20)
Karanth's views about theatre crystallized in the Rangmandal, (21) where he received support from the Madhya Pradesh government for establishing India's first Hindi repertory. (The NSD repertory existed, but it was not independent from the school.) This also became the appropriate moment when theatre arts felt the need to link the past with the present, the urban with the rural, and to creatively articulate contemporary realities, taking into consideration training tools that had local origins, vernacular moorings and regional sensibilities. Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream done in the Chhattisgarhi dialect (with artist J. Swaminathan painting the canopy for the set), King Lear in Bundeli dialect, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht enacted in the Naccha tradition, infused fresh interpretation in these classical works by stripping away the layers of time and allowing the text to speak for itself. (22)
Karanth's passion for curd or dahi equalled his love for theatre. He simply loved curd, and it was not unusual to see him mix spoonfuls of curd with hakka noodles. He would scoop up the bowl of curd from the table, bring it down to his lap, and then double up his body in a way that his head almost touched the rim of the bowl. He would then proceed to pour the curd onto his palm and slowly sip it from his cupped hand. This unusual ritual never ceased to amaze me and sure enough there was a story behind it.
He once recounted that his family was poor and they lived on the farm of a rich landowner. Once a week the landlord would send a bowl of curd to their home and Karanth's mother would make buttermilk for their family of eight. "I had never tasted curd, as curd, and I was determined to do so," he said. 'And, as it was my job to carry the curd from the main house to our hut, I would duck behind a tree and funnel a portion of the curd into my mouth. I would then pat the remaining curd into shape so that my theft would remain undetected," he disarmingly confessed years later.
This endearing habit followed him to London, where we had both gone to work on a project for lift (London International Festival of Theatre). In the supermarkets, where we shopped for food, Karanth would pile up cartons of strawberry, peach, apple and banana-flavoured curd in his trolley as if he wanted to buy up the entire stock, fearful that it would disappear.
The driveway to Karanth's home in Bhopal was a tunnel of trees interlocking into each other, choking off sunlight. He had given strict instructions to his gardener not to cut or weed the plants, which resulted in snakes, birds, rabbits, rats, dogs and cats all taking refuge in this unkempt jungle. To add to this obsession, free access was given to the neighbourhood dogs and cats to loiter in and out of his house where a bowl of milk was always available to them. While walking from Bharat Bhavan to TT Nagar for our afternoon meal, I would suddenly find that I had lost Karanth to a cow or a goat with whom he would engage in intense conversation in a language strangely comprehensible to both!
So, beyond NSD, Karanth intervened in the pulse and direction of India in a way that only the most dynamic and powerful magician could. He was the jadugar to Alkazi's sage. Symbiotically they laid out modernism for us; neither could have done it alone. One of the biggest lessons of any modernist formation is the constant and critical awareness of the discursive baggage a creator is carrying, and the ways in which we need to actively engage with it. This basic lesson in modernism was set in motion by Alkazi, but brought to fruition by Karanth. The modernist impulse is not about "bringing it alive"; but knowing that bringing it alive requires both an understanding of formalized discursive discipline and active awareness of the informal and historical formations around us. In other words, in order to successfully translate into an Indian environment, modernism needed to mutate as only then would it transform the past.
The "virus" that propelled this mutation was introduced by Alkazi and Karanth added to this--hence the argument that both institutionalized and made modernism a self-sustaining system, because of how they incorporated in its Indian existence an institutional equilibrium and a constitutive, yet alien, culturally vibrant disequilibrium. This did not mean that these two stalwarts were changing the fabric of society or ideology, as much as creating new perceptions, new ways of seeing. Alkazi taught us the truth of modernism and created an institution; Karanth, in his own way, went to the core that would activate the essence of modernism in a culturally potent way.
(1) Ebrahim Alkazi is a famous Indian theatre practitioner, who was the first Director of India's premier theatre training institute, the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi. During his time there, Alkazi revolutionized Hindi theatre by the magnificence of his vision and the meticulousness of his technical discipline. He is a recipient of the Padma Vibhushan.
(2) Babukodi Venkataramana Karanth was a much decorated film and theatre personality from India. He played an important role as director, actor and musician within modern Indian theatre and was one of the pioneers of Kannada and Hindi new wave cinema. He directed many successful plays and award-winning Kannada movies. He was an alumnus of NSD (1962) and later, its Director. The Government of India honoured him with the Padma Shri.
(3) The National School of Drama is an autonomous organization under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. It was set up in 1959 by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, and became an independent school in 1975.
(4) Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavski (1863-1938) was a Russian actor and theatre director. His innovative contribution to modern European and American realistic acting remained at the core of mainstream Western performance training for much of the last century. Stanislavski treated theatre-making as a serious endeavour, requiring dedication, discipline and integrity, and the work of the actor as an artistic undertaking. Throughout his life, he subjected his own acting to a process of rigorous artistic self-analysis and reflection. His "system" resulted from a persistent struggle to remove the blocks he encountered. His development of a theorized praxis--in which practice is used as a mode of inquiry and theory as a catalyst for creative development--identifies him as the first great theatre practitioner.
(5) Anuradha Kapur, "An Actor Prepares", Theatre India, Vol. 9, May 2004, pp. 16-17.
(6) Dharamvir Bharati (1926-97) was a Hindi author born in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. He studied there and participated in the Quit India movement. In 1960-87, he became the editor of Dharmayug (a leading Hindi magazine). He wrote only one full-length play, Andha Yug (Blind Age, 1954).
(7) Girish Raghunath Karnad (b. 1938) is an Indian actor, film director, Kannada writer/playwright and a Rhodes Scholar. His rise as a playwright in the 1960s marked the coming of age of modern Indian playwriting in Kannada. He is the recipient of the 1998 Jnanpith Award, the highest literary honour conferred in India.
(8) Balwant Gargi (1916-2003) was the first Punjabi playwright to open up Punjabi theatre to varied influences.
(9) From the mid-17th century to the mid-20th, Kabuki has been one of the most popular forms of theatrical entertainment in Japan and remains the most typical of the theatrical arts of the country.
(10) Written immediately after Partition, the play is a profound meditation on the politics of violence and aggressive selfhood. The moral burden of the play is that every act of violence inevitably debases society as a whole. The action takes place on the last day of the Mahabharata war.
(11) Vanraj Bhatia (b. 1927) is a versatile music composer who lives in Mumbai. He has composed music for films, especially for director Shyam Benegal.
(12) Kathakali ("katha" meaning story, and "kali" meaning drama) is a celebrated dance-theatre tradition from Kerala.
(13) White noise is a term used for sound signals with flat spectral densities. These do not emit a specific sound, but are a combination of sounds (which create the flat white noise structure). White noise often acts as a noise blocker, and is commonly used in working environments, interrogative situations and during sleep exercises to filter out excess noise. The term "white noise" is a metaphor, coined from the term "white light", which is all the colours of the spectrum combined.
(14) Gubbi Veeranna (1891-1972) was an Indian theatre director and one of the pioneers and most prolific contributors to Kannada theatre. He established the drama company Gubbi Sree Channabasavesbwara Nataka Company which played a crucial role in promoting Kannada theatre. It was the first theatre company in Karnataka to employ female artists to portray female characters on stage. Elephants and horses were also brought on stage in the war scenes of Kurukshetra. Apart from theatre, Gubbi Veeranna also produced and acted in films.
(15) Company Drama is a popular term referring to two movements within Kannada theatre: the commercial theatre that was hugely popular in the first half of the 20th century, and the genre that was created and refined during the same movement. Generically Company Theatre is a hybrid version of the Parsi theatre and several local traditions in Karnataka.
(16) Yakshagana ("Yaksha" meaning a nature spirit and "gana" meaning song) is a generic term referring to the traditional forms of Kannada theatre predominant in coastal Karnataka.
(17) Mricchakatika (The Little Clay Cart) is a ten-act Sanskrit drama attributed to Sudraka, an ancient playwright believed to have lived sometime between the 3rd century BC and the 5th century AD.
(18) Kapur, "An Actor Prepares", p. 17.
(19) The sutradhar (literally meaning "thread-holder") is a central character in Sanskrit theatre and head of the troupe, analogous to the modern director, stage manager and producer. Etymology suggests that he holds the metaphorical thread that keeps the play together.
(20) Interview with Kirtinath Kurtkoti, Contemporary Indian Theatre: Interviews with Playwrights and Directors, Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1989, p. 86.
(21) Rangmandal was a professional repertory set up to create a sustained theatre movement that becomes a way of life rather than spasmodic activity. Numerous plays were staged. Rangmandal has at its disposal an indoor theatre called Antrang and an outdoor theatre called Bahirang. It also has a rich library and a theatre museum of musical instruments, posters, manuscripts, costumes and properties.
(22) Chhattisgarhi is spoken in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh by 24 million people. It is an eastern Hindi dialect with heavy vocabulary and linguistic features from Munda and Dravidian languages. Bundeli is a western Hindi dialect of the Bundelkhand district of Madhya Pradesh. Naccha is a folk theatre tradition from the same state.
Caption: 1. The three witches in Barnam Vana, directed by B.V. Karanth, 1979. Courtesy Natarang Pratishthan.
Caption: 2. Tughlaq, directed by E. Alkazi, staged at Purana Qila, 1973. Courtesy Natarang Pratishthan.
Caption: 3. Andha Yug, directed by E. Alkazi, staged at the Feroz Shah Kotla ruins, 1964. Courtesy Natarang Pratishthan.
Caption: 4 B.V. Karanth composing music for Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry's theatre group. Courtesy Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry.
Caption: 5. Bhagvadajjukam, directed by B.V. Karanth, 1979. Courtesy NSD.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Author:||Chowdhry, Neelam Mansingh|
|Publication:||Marg, A Magazine of the Arts|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2019|
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