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Through his works, the Baroda-based artist questions the ideas of social beliefs and their relationship with our built surroundings
30.01.2021 | 06: 56 PM IST
Could a visual of a space, an imagined room, or an illusionary yard, evoke emotions? Would surrealistic architecture be unnerving if it did not follow ‘mathematical principles’? Visual artist Dilip Chobisa attempts to answer these questions through his art practice.
Chobisa grew up in a middle-class, nuclear family. His father had a transferable job, as a result of which he moved cities often, uprooting and settling down in new homes. His engagement with the ideas of space and belonging emerged organically from this. At school, lessons in art were limited. “While I was studying in school in a small town, Salumber in Rajasthan, I was introduced to art by way of calligraphy,” he reminisces.
He was also intrigued with murals, especially the ones created for wedding celebrations. Seeing his creativity and interest, Chobisa's teachers encouraged him to pursue a career in the arts. Much later, when it was time for higher studies, he ended up ‘casually’ (and not consciously) applying for a bachelor’s programme at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. Chobisa says, “I am an introvert by nature, almost socially anxious. So, making art an independent pursuit became my source of happiness.”
He began his explorations with paper and graphite, as the material was inexpensive and also easily available. His early work featured abstract forms that he made in the confines of his room. “I was emotionally invested in my work and, I guess, it became my way of self-discovery,” he adds. Doors and windows, surfaces and floor patterns became significant to his work, and the study of manmade spaces his lifelong vocation.
'Adjoining Dialogues' by Dilip Chobisa
Through his works, Chobisa questions the ideas of social beliefs and their relationship with elements in our built surroundings. His works never refer to an actual existing place in its entirety, and neither are the works created with mathematical precession. “…Constructed structure has so much at play through light and shadow, perspectives and angles. Though I am not a trained architect, these elements are magical for me. For others it may be an illusion, but for me it is a deep personal process of layering motifs and components, eventually developing into my dream-space—one that has a story to tell,” he explains.
Chobisa confesses that he has developed the style by himself and the very process of making art is full of errors and unpredicted results. “What you see is not planned work. There is randomness and happenstance. over time a composed frame emerges. There is an element of surprise till it reveals itself even to me,” he adds.
When one enquires of his understanding of photography as a medium, he says that the photographic image is a time-bound documentation, with little room for error. “To make my work, I rely on my memory. I render what I recollect, add to it, and rework it. That is a very spontaneous and impulsive.” And rightly so as his works become imagined spaces rather than ‘documenting’ anything that exists.
He enjoys the meditative nature of the creative process. Graphite on paper renders a monochromatic palette. “Adopting a medium is a challenge if it does not align with the creator’s attitude and approach,” says Chobisa. “The visual as seen in my work could be photographic because it looks like that, but it is not. And that is exactly what my expression is all about. I intentionally choose to create textures and patterns, depth and voids. I introduce elements from my imagination. They are neither illustrative in nature, nor real.” For him, the lack of colour in his work was not a conscious decision. It was the love for graphite that led to the monochrome. But in hindsight, he feels that colour is destructive. It takes away from the form itself, adding an unintended layer to be interpreted. Further, ‘black-and-white’ instantly takes the viewer to the era gone by. This distinct feeling of being in a flashback contributes to his surrealistic expression of emotion and memory, silence and mystery.
| 10: 00 AM IST
Spiced with curry powder and flavoured with coconut, this dish from Somalia feels close to home
31.01.2021 | 08: 17 AM IST
The pandemic could have been a time when home cooks grabbed every available chef’s cookbook in an effort to recreate their favorite dishes from dining rooms that were mostly shuttered. Indeed, several knockout chef- and restaurant-driven books have been released over the past year, including Jonathan Waxman’s The Barbuto Cookbook and Chasing Flavor by Dan Kluger.
But clearly, this is a moment that demands comfort, and that kind of cooking is best left to a parent—or better yet, a grandparent. For that, we have In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmother’s from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean, by Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen (Penguin Random House; $35).
Hassan, who is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is the owner of Basbaas Foods, which specializes in condiments from her native Somalia. At the age of four, Hassan and her mother were relocated to a refugee camp in Nairobi; she then went alone to Seattle and was separated from her mother for 15 years. She wrote the cookbook as a way to reconnect to her family and identity.
“When I was doing research for the cookbook, I realized that food from Africa was pretty much a blank slate,” says Hassan via phone. “I saw it as an opportunity to talk about the different foods on the continent, which people aren’t aware of.”
Bibi means grandmother in Swahili. Among the 75 recipes in Hassan’s book are 24 from grandmothers, including Ma Jeanne’s braised oxtails from Madagascar and Ma Josefina’s plantains with coconut and shrimp from Mozambique. Each chapter delivers information about the eight African regions, from economy to resources, as well as conversations with the esteemed recipe providers.
In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmother’s from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean, by Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen (Penguin Random House).
A remarkable digaag qumbe, or chicken stew with yogurt and coconut, is based on a recipe from Hassan’s family. “All the women in my family make it,” she says. Her mother and siblings are in Oslo, and “sometimes they make it when we’re FaceTiming,” she says. Although everyone applies some personal preferences, Hassan’s mother now uses Hawa’s recipe.
The straightforward-sounding dish offers an incredible depth of flavor, given how easy it is to make. Her hack is to make a puree of tomatoes, yogurt, and fragrant spices that in the pot at the beginning, rather than the end, to make a sauce into which chunks of chicken and potato and carrot are then added to simmer. Warm, generous flavors of ginger and chile, along with creamy coconut milk, suffuse the meat and vegetables. The dish is far more than the sum of its parts.
Hassan serves it with bananas alongside, “for the most authentic Somali experience.” In the book, she writes: “the combination is not well known in the United States, but you can help it become known—it’s great.”
Another, all-important reason to make Hassan’s dish is to get to know a cuisine you almost certainly aren’t familiar with. “It’s warming and earthy and introduces people to new flavor combinations they don’t quite know.” Hassan adds. “This is an easy way to expand pantries—and minds.”
Later this year, Hassan plans to expand Basbaas to include snack foods that highlight African grains. She’s already started to work on her next book, loosely based on civil war, displacement, and cooking. “It’s the time when people are all ears, and one of the good ways to tell your story is through food.”
The following recipe is adapted from In Bibi’s Kitchen, by Hawa Hassan. In the book’s recipe, Hassan uses a “Xawaash Spice Mix” made with freshly toasted and ground spices; this version substitutes store-bought spices.
Digaag Qumbe (Chicken Stew With Yogurt and Coconut)
2 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 jalapeño, stemmed and coarsely chopped
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and coarsely chopped
1 tbsp. tomato paste
½ cup plain yogurt
1/2 tbsp. curry powder
1/2 tbsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
Large pinch of ground cardamom
Pinch of ground cinnamon
2 tsp. kosher salt, plus more as needed
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil
1 large red onion, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp. minced ginger
1 baking potato, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 carrots, cut into thin coins
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 cup full-fat unsweetened coconut milk
Large handful of cilantro leaves, finely chopped
Cooked rice and bananas, for serving
In the jar of a blender, combine the tomatoes, jalapeño, bell pepper, tomato paste, yogurt, curry powder, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, and salt, and puree until smooth.
Warm the oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot set over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger, and cook, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in the blended tomato mixture, bring the mixture to a boil, then immediately lower the heat, cover, and cook until very fragrant, about 10 minutes. This initial cooking forms the base of the sauce.
Stir in the potato, carrots, chicken, and coconut milk. Cover the pot and cook, uncovering to stir occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and the chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes.
Season the stew to taste with salt. Serve hot, sprinkled with the cilantro, over cooked rice, and with bananas alongside. (Don’t slice the bananas; just serve them whole and take bites as you devour the stew).
| 08: 30 AM IST
In the backdrop of Munawar Faruqui’s arrest, watching the work of other Muslim comedians is telling—because far from making fun of Hindu gods, they are busy owning their own identity as Indian Muslims
“I started off doing the typical ‘Muslim jokes’ about circumcision and suicide bombers, but after a while I started questioning myself—why am I doing this? Am I punching down at myself and my community so that upper-class audiences who come for comedy shows feel more comfortable about accepting me?” says comedian Abbas Momin, 32, halfway into a conversation about Muslim comedians in India.
Momin is a Mumbai-based stand-up who also writes comedy scripts and is head of production at Maed in India, a podcast production company. He started his career as a dental-college dropout working with comedy collectives, and as a journalist with Rolling Stone India and GQ India, while developing his stand-up career. Like most comedians, his first material came from his own life—living in Byculla in Mumbai, the heart of “Muslim Bombay”, there was no dearth of material.
Momin, who comes from a fairly orthodox Muslim family, had been quite religious until, he says, he started doing comedy. “I started questioning many things about my Muslim identity,” he says. The process of writing comedy helped him come to terms with some of the contradictions that were part of this identity—maybe even the low-hanging-fruit jokes about being a (fake) terrorist helped. But over time, Momin realised that there were other issues he could address using comedy—he started doing routines about homophobic Islamic preachers, for instance, and about relatives pushing him to “be more religious”.
One of his sets is about an uncle who lectures him on being a better Muslim because when he dies, there’s either heaven or hell waiting for him. Momin asks his uncle to describe hell, and hearing all about fire and pain, about burning and sweating, comes to the conclusion that hell is a gym. “I have been overweight all my life,” says Momin, “and my family is obsessed with my weight. They are also obsessed about making me more religious. Well, this seemed a great way to combine the two.”
Even as Munawar Faruqui, an Indian Muslim comedian, continues to be held in jail for a joke he did not even crack, a joke that purportedly would have “made fun of Indian gods and goddesses”, it is interesting to actually watch Indian Muslim comedians at work. It’s fairly obvious that far from being obsessed with bringing down Hinduism, as those who tore into Faruqui’s show in Indore allege, these comics are actually far more taken up with dissecting, examining, and fully owning their identity as Indian Muslims, and how this collides with the realities of urban life.
Comedian Urooj Ashfaq has a telling routine that demonstrates this neatly. She starts by talking about a universal woe—finding an Uber driver ready to go to the city’s outskirts—and makes it her own by revealing the increasingly casual Islamophobia of Indians. When she complains about three other drivers cancelling the trip, the driver reflexively replies, “They must have been Muslim.”
Instead of dissolving into outrage, she decides it’s a good way to “find out, for free, what Hindus say to each other, when they are alone, about Muslims”. She proceeds to have a long conversation with the driver, who trots out the usual aspersions against Muslims: “They eat non-veg, they don’t bathe, they marry their sisters.” The interaction ends with Ashfaq finally telling the driver that she’s Muslim, and the driver replying, “But please give me five stars.” Except that’s not how it ends—in the concluding minutes, Ashfaq talks about her grandmother and her brand of insularity and bias.
Or take Md Anas’ routine about a friend asking him in school, “We will be preparing for IAS after graduation, will you be preparing for ISIS?” To which Anas, 23, responds, “Yaar I can’t clear the group bombing round, I come out alive each time.” Anas also talks openly about being “a pure secular product” of a marriage between a Hindu mother and Muslim father, the only advantage of which, according to him, is that he needs to fast for only half a month during Ramzan and four-and-a-half days during Navratri.
It’s not like Muslim comedians are doing something spectacularly different—most comedians, including stars like Jerry Seinfeld and Hasan Minhaj, use their own lives as material; overwhelmingly so at the beginning of their careers.
“Most comedians make fun of their own lives, and I don’t want to be perceived as a ‘Muslim comedian’. There is no quota that I am filling,” says Anas, who lives and performs in Delhi. “Like I was at this show where there was this other Muslim comedian, and a third guy came to me and said ‘woh tere se better Muslim jokes maar raha hai (he is cracking better Muslim jokes than you)’. Yaar, I don’t represent all Muslims,” says Anas, laughing.
What sets the current group of Indian Muslim comedians apart is their place in the here and now of Indian society. There is an urgency to their work that comes from responding to a creeping Islamophobia in India, and to perhaps show that Muslims are not the stereotypes that WhatsApp jokes make them out to be; that they are complex, contradictory, often biased and flawed human beings like everyone else.
Urooj Ashfaq (Photo: YouTube)
Another upcoming Mumbai-based comedian, Saad Shaikh , 24, says he felt there was a “void” in comedy that Muslim performers are filling by talking about their own lives and experiences as Indian Muslims,experiences that no one else was talking about. “When I was starting out in the comedy circuit, there were hardly any Muslims around. And there were so many stereotypes—some of them are even a little bit true, and I have made jokes about family planning and becoming a nana at 13. But there are many funny and weird stereotypes as well, like how people keep saying ‘wah wah Urdu Urdu’ about us when so many Muslims don’t know a word of Urdu. Maybe this is a way of making people think ‘they are like us only. They face the same things in life’,” says Shaikh, a close friend of Faruqui’s.
It’s common to come across trolls on Twitter saying things like “if you were really brave you would make fun of Islam”—with an implicit challenge—when Muslim comedians have been doing so for years, says comedian and podcaster Azeem Banatwalla, 32. He was influenced by the likes of English comedian Eddie Izzard, who routinely takes on religion in his work, and says “people making fun of religion and politics has been done all along in India”. Muslim comedians combing their lives for material is a way for them to work through the dichotomies in their lives and identities, he believes.
“It is partly a way of embracing that identity, and partly a rejection of that identity. When done right, it is satire and social commentary. When they are still young and just starting out, a lot of their material is raw, and they can perhaps offend someone who is not used to the rough edges of stand-up comedy. But now we have reached a point where a comedian just saying a name is somehow offensive,” says Banatwalla, referring to the names of Hindu gods.
They all believe that Faruqui’s arrest has had a chilling effect on the comedy scene, especially among Muslim comedians. Many of them feel they are being singled out because of their religious identity and that even though there have been reprisals against non-Muslim comics, none were as serious as the trouble Faruqui finds himself in. A few comedians Lounge reached out to for this story did not want to comment. However, the ones who did are open about admitting that conditions are becoming increasingly difficult for them. Ask Momin why many of his videos are not available on YouTube and he says, “Because Munawar is in jail.”
“I don’t think any of us was shocked by his arrest. It was probably a matter of time before one of us was jailed,” says Momin. “And that’s because we know now that the offence-taking machinery is not random. There are some people sitting through hours of comedy videos and scanning them and then buying tickets to go watch a particular comedian’s show because he has been identified. And let us not pretend that Munawar’s religious identity had nothing to do with his arrest,” he adds.
“Of course, there was trolling earlier, like people would comment on my videos saying ‘chup baith, jaake puncher bana de’ (referring to a stereotype about Muslims running puncture shops). So it’s like you don’t even want to listen to me, you are just exasperated ki yeh chup kyun nahi ho raha (why isn’t he shutting up)? But this? This will really define how we do our comedy from now on,” says Anas.
Ironically, the performers are aware that they are not the darlings of Muslim society either. There are fundamentalists on the other side as well who can easily take offence at being satirised and made fun of. “Aisa nahi hai ki they love us,” as Shaikh says. But the difference, probably, is that they would find it tougher to get the entire state machinery—from the police to the judicial system—so ready to take offence on their behalf.
It has been a month since Faruqui was arrested and incarcerated, and there is no saying when he will get bail, let alone be acquitted for what would amount to at most, if at all, a thought crime. “Don’t worry, he will get out. We used to sit and joke earlier that if ISIS comes to India, Muslim comedians will be the first to be beheaded. And I am sure that we will write jokes about this episode too,” says Shaikh.
| 09: 43 AM IST
From compassion to climate change, the Tibetan leader has a message on every aspect of life to help you gather the tools to weather the covid-19 crisis better
31.01.2021 | 09: 43 AM IST
As a public figure, His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, is a truly extraordinary presence. Not only is he the supreme religious authority of the Tibetan people, he is also a global statesman, one who is concerned with the well-being of the entire planet. From climate change to sectarian violence, clean drinking water to universal healthcare, he has spoken up on a range of issues all his life.
Now, as humanity reels under the covid-19 crisis, his words may help steer us to the right path. It is with this intention that The Little Book of Encouragement compiles some of His Holiness' best known sayings, as well as thoughts on the current state of the world. Some excerpts from the book of 130 quotes, edited by Renuka Singh.
Scientists have evidence to prove that basic human nature is compassionate. They have also found the opposite, that constant anger and hatred weaken our immune system. Therefore, just as we teach people physical hygiene to help preserve their physical health, for a happy and peaceful mind, we need to teach people about emotional hygiene—how to tackle their destructive emotions.
On bringing hope to people
Resting our hopes on the younger generation is not sufficient; politicians too must act urgently. It is not enough to hold meetings and conferences; we must set a timetable for change. Only if we start to act now will we have a reason to hope. We must not sacrifice our civilization for the greed of a few. Journalists have an equally important role. I tell them, that in these modern times, they have a special responsibility to bring awareness to the people; to not just report bad news, but bring people hope.
Religion should not just be limited to praying. Ethical action is more important than prayers. What are Buddha, Allah or Christ supposed to do if we human beings destroy our earth, fill the oceans with plastic so that fish, seals and whales perish, and cause rapid desertification and vast amounts of greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere?
On environmental damage
Our environmental recklessness has brought the planet to a stage where she can no longer accept our behaviour in silence. The sheer size and frequency of environmental disasters—hurricanes, wildfires, desertification, glacial retreat, and melting of the polar ice caps—can be seen as her response to our irresponsible behaviour.
On asking why
Regarding mental bullying on the internet that leads young people to self-harm and suicide—as human beings, we are intelligent and can evaluate and choose what to take seriously. Even the Buddha advised his followers:
‘As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so bhikshus, should you accept my words only after testing them, and not merely out of respect for me.’
As a Buddhist and a follower of the Nalanda tradition, I find it very useful to always ask, ‘Why?’
On emotional education
Education is another preoccupation I have. The whole world should pay more attention to how they can transform their emotions. This should be part of one’s education and not religion. Children need to be educated about the inner world; we must teach them how to develop peace of mind.
No matter how difficult the situation may be, we should employ science and human ingenuity with determination and courage to overcome the problems that confront us. Faced with threats to our health and well-being, it is natural to feel anxious and afraid. Everyone, at present, is doing their best to contain the spread of the coronavirus. I applaud the concerted efforts of nations to limit the threat.
In this time of serious crisis, we face threats to our health, and feel sadness for the family and friends we have lost. Economic disruption is posing a major challenge to governments and undermining the ability of so many people to make a living. The crisis and its consequences serve as a warning—only by coming together in a coordinated global response, will we meet the unprecedented magnitude of the challenges we face. I pray we all heed the call to unite.
The Little Book of Encouragement by His Holiness The Dalai Lama, edited by Renuka Singh, 160 pages, ₹299
| 11: 00 AM IST
French luxury goods group LVMH plans to overhaul Tiffany & Co's vast merchandise lineup and build a stronger presence in Asia
31.01.2021 | 11: 47 AM IST
French luxury goods group LVMH plans to overhaul Tiffany & Co's vast merchandise lineup to focus more on gold and precious gems while going more upmarket with its silver bangles after closing the $15.8 billion takeover of the US jeweller this month.
Six sources including two people with inside knowledge of Tiffany's operations told Reuters the owner of Louis Vuitton would also likely revamp the appearance of the jeweller's stores and boost its presence in Europe and Asia.
More than a third of Tiffany's 320 shops are in the United States and two sources described some of them as out-of-date, shoddy and in need of refurbishing.
"LVMH can give Tiffany the kind of time and money needed to make some big investments in the product range and in stores worldwide, and wait for those to pay off in the medium term," one of the sources said.
At a town hall in New York for Tiffany's 14,000 employees on 8 January, a day after LVMH installed a new leadership team - the group's new bosses laid out their initial plans to focus on high-end, sparkling jewellery, said one person who attended it. The group is also considering building out Tiffany's lineup in watches, another source familiar with its thinking said.
Unlike such rivals as Richemont-owned Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, as well as fellow LVMH brand Bulgari, Tiffany's products range from $150 silver pendants to diamond necklaces priced in the tens of millions.
Silver jewellery has gross margins of around 90% and offers a perfect entry point for younger, less wealthy shoppers, but top industry names also need the medium- to high range - with a price tag above $100,000 - to create an aura of exclusivity, experts say.
In a video message to employees during the town hall, LVMH boss Bernard Arnault, who is also France's richest man, said he wanted to elevate Tiffany's standing, even if that took time.
"We will also prioritize Tiffany's long-term desirability over short-term constraints," Arnault said, according to a person who attended. At one point brandishing one of Tiffany's signature robin's egg-blue boxes, Arnault underscored the label could count on cash-rich LVMH's resources.
The world's biggest luxury goods group, also home to Moet Chandon champagne, was shaken by the covid-19 pandemic and sales in airport stores plunged, but its biggest labels have stayed the course.
The mood among some of Tiffany's workforce is anxious nonetheless.
A senior store employee in Europe said the jeweller would benefit as a more sophisticated, exclusive brand under LVMH, but also worried about the group's reputation as a demanding owner.
"If a store doesn't quite work, they just shut it down," this person said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Arnault is known for dropping in on stores unexpectedly - including at a Tiffany store in Seoul after the deal was announced in late 2019, where he pointed out blips such as a cleaning product that had been left out on a stand and a pink Post-It note saying "not available" that had been put up on a product, people familiar with the group said.
LVMH and Tiffany declined to comment. LVMH is due to report full-year 2020 results later on Tuesday.
After a bruising court battle midway through the acquisition process, which ended with Tiffany and LVMH renegotiating the price tag slightly downwards, Arnault had soothing words for the US jeweller.
He told the town hall Tiffany's resilience in recent months had exceeded LVMH's expectations, one of those present said.
The group had previously called Tiffany's prospects "dismal" due to poor management during the COVID-19 crisis.
Tiffany regained some ground through online sales and in China in its last quarter. Jewellery as a whole, one of the fastest growing luxury sectors in recent years, has resisted more than other areas during the pandemic.
Tiffany is less exposed than rivals to Asia-Pacific - a major driver for luxury sales - which accounted for 28% of its worldwide sales of $4.4 billion in 2019. Europe stood at 11%.
LVMH will scrutinize store performance and locations, and could use its clout to get better leases or find better showcases freed up by other brands within the group.
New York-based Tiffany, founded in 1837, achieved world fame with the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany's starring Audrey Hepburn, but a fresh marketing push could help the brand.
Alexandre Arnault - one of four Arnault children with roles at LVMH and now Tiffany's executive vice president, in charge of product and communication - told the town hall he would focus on advertising campaigns and luring young customers.
The 28-year-old helped LVMH acquire luggage maker Rimowa and gave it a hipster edge while CEO there, through collaborations with Dior that made it sexy for the runway.
The young Arnault will work alongside new CEO Anthony Ledru, who ran Vuitton's global commercial activities but is also known for rolling out its high-end jewellery line and had a previous stint at Tiffany and also at Cartier.
He takes over from Alessandro Bogliolo, who had already overseen a multi-year renovation of Tiffany's flagship New York store on Fifth Avenue, and the purchase of an 80-carat-plus oval diamond to be set in a necklace that will become its most expensive piece of jewellery.
| 01: 00 PM IST
The family memoir looks at the evolution of Indian theatre and art from the 1940s-90s through the lens of Alkazi-Padamsee family ties
"English theatre in Bombay was born on my grandmother’s horseshoe-shaped dining table in 1943. Literally. A group of young college students, among them my father, Ebrahim Alkazi, listened wide-eyed as my uncle, Sultan Padamsee, spoke of how they intended to form their own group, simply called the Theatre Group.” This is how Feisal Alkazi starts his book Enter Stage Right, published by Speaking Tiger. The memoir looks at the evolution of Indian theatre and art from the 1940s to the 1990s through the lens of Alkazi-Padamsee family ties. Alkazi has likened writing this book to opening an old cupboard filled with memories, with some familiar and easy to recount, while others, hidden at the back, reveal secrets he never knew.
The roots of Enter Stage Right were sown at a Diwali party hosted by author Paro Anand in 2018, when Renuka Chatterjee of Speaking Tiger suggested he write a family memoir. “I was gobsmacked by the idea,” he reminisces. But his wife felt it was a great idea, for Alkazi was always full of anecdotes about his family. And when he actually sat down to write the initial chapters, he was surprised at just how effortlessly the story was coming together.
“In 2019, when I had written a fair bit, I felt I needed to make a trip to Mumbai to spend time with my cousins. One of them, Ayesha Sayani, gave me open access to the long video interviews she had done with my mother, Roshen, aunt Candy, uncle Alyque (Padamsee) and family friends like Gerson da Cunha,” he says.
Ebrahim and Roshen on their wedding day, October 1946. Photo: courtesy Alkazi Theatre Archives
Alkazi finished the book in early 2020 but the pandemic delayed publication. In August, when his father—the doyen of Indian theatre, Ebrahim Alkazi—died, he added an epilogue. “Everyone in my family was a raconteur. One got to hear so many stories. Even if some of them took place before I was born, one tended to believe you had lived through them all,” says Alkazi. “And not much has been written about Bombay theatre between the 1940s and 1980s—decades which were crucial to the development of Indian theatre. While my father’s days at the National School of Drama (NSD) are well-known, not many know of how he got there, and of the Padamsees’ influence on him.”
One of the most significant figures in this context is Sultan, or Bobby, Padamsee, one of Ebrahim Alkazi’s closest friends, to whom the author dedicates the first few chapters of the book. In fact, it was while Padamsee’s infamous production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome was embroiled in controversy, for being too “salacious”, that his younger sister, Roshen, met Ebrahim. The two married years later, bringing together the Alkazi and Padamsee families.
'Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi/Padamsee family memoir' By Feisal Alkazi, published by Speaking Tiger
Bobby is seen as pivotal to the evolution of English theatre in India. He had been at Christ Church College, Oxford, for just six months when World War II broke out and he had to return to India, which was in the midst of its quest for independence. In search of his own identity, Bobby turned to painting, poetry and theatre. “It was April 1942, and Bobby was nineteen years old. In the next three and a half years he lived the most intensely creative period possible for an artist. He wrote more than a hundred poems...he turned out artworks in watercolours, oils and crayons, and his biggest achievement was founding the Theatre Group, bringing a new meaning to theatre, by making it an integral part of our contemporary lives,” writes Alkazi.
That period was a watershed one for Indian theatre, with new sensibilities being ushered in for a new audience. Marathi theatre had just celebrated its centenary, and continued in its vibrant tradition. The early years of the 1940s also saw the establishment of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta) in both Calcutta and Bombay, with plays imbued with nationalistic fervour, dealing with issues such as the Bengal famine.This was about the time Prithviraj Kapoor’s travelling theatre company was presenting plays on social themes such as the need for communal harmony. And in 1943, Unity Theatre, headed by Utpal Dutt, was formed, moving from Shakespearean dramas in English to the plight of coal miners.
Alyque Padamsee in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman'. Photo: courtesy Alkazi Theatre Archives
Alkazi alludes to all these movements in his book, offering context to the genesis of the Theatre Group founded by Bobby Padamsee, who wanted to bring part of the New York ‘Group Theatre’ movement of the 1930s to Mumbai—to give a voice to playwrights and actors who were shut out of commercial theatre. He managed to do this, with a group of theatre lovers like Ebrahim, until his death on 9 January 1946.
In the subsequent chapters, Alkazi goes on to talk about his father’s visit to England, soon after Bobby’s death, where he frequented places like Dartington Hall (which focused on the arts, social justice and sustainability) and interacted with personalities in the theatre and arts such as American theatre critic Harold Clurman and Michael Chekhov, a noted follower of the Stanislavski method. This would have a far-reaching impact on his own productions as he took theatre out of the proscenium. The book also sheds light on the rift in the Theatre Group in 1952, when Ebrahim broke away, set up his own theatre company and moved to Delhi to head the NSD in 1962.
The aspects that really touch a chord in Enter Stage Right, though, are the stories of the strong women in Alkazi’s life—whether it was his maternal grandmother, Kulsumbai, mother Roshen, or aunt Pearl Padamsee. Each of these women stands out for her courage in breaking the rules. Kulsumbai, after whom the family home in Mumbai, Kulsum Terrace, is named, grew up in a village in Saurashtra.
“Even though she didn’t know English, she undertook a long journey to England for her children’s education. The boys were put in one school and the girls in the other, and she stayed in the middle in a village touching Sherwood forest for some time before coming back to India,” says Alkazi.
Later, when the world was on the cusp of World War II, and ships were getting torpedoed, she journeyed to England to bring Bobby back home from Oxford. “She was a very gutsy woman, someone who wanted to make sure that her children’s stories would be different from hers. Her sisters were not like her and were happy to live a circumscribed life,” says Alkazi.
His mother, Roshen, too learnt to live life on her own terms. He terms her work on costumes for her brother’s and husband’s productions—from the age of 17 to 77—and on costume history, as formidable. Working with her in the back rooms of museums in Russia and Turkey was an enriching experience. Alkazi writes of the time she packed her bags and moved with her two children to Chennai to learn Bharatanatyam under the tutelage of Balasaraswati. “After her separation with my father (in 1963), my mother embarked on an independent career in the arts. She was a published poet, an art critic and a historian—as much a renaissance person as my father,” he says.
The book has an entire chapter dedicated to Pearl Padamsee, who was married to his uncle Alyque, though they later separated. He describes her as a person with a vibrant personality, “tiny in height but gigantic in talent”, someone who nurtured an entire generation of artists. A deeply caring person, she would regale Alkazi with stories and songs, send letters packed with news, becoming more than an aunt to them—a close friend. “Both my mother and Pearl were married to formidable figures, and yet they held their own ground. A lot of my work as a gender activist comes from my mother’s life, the choices she made and the readiness to take in the consequences head on,” he says.
Through the book, one sees Alkazi growing up in a vibrant environment, filled with art, theatre and literature. He writes about evenings in the 1950swhen his parents would host the likes of dance choreographer Merce Cunningham and musician John Cage at their home in Vithal Court, Mumbai. Or breakfasts with poet-playwright Nissim Ezekiel, and watching M.F. Husain and members of the Progressive Artists’ Group at work. The house doubled up as his father’s workspace, with the children completely involved in all his activities. “It was always such an adda, and we grew up around the art and theatre community. My friends, Ram Rahman or Malati Khanna, were children of artists. Every house was a studio, and we took it all in,” he says.
People often describe his childhood as “unusual”, but it was the only way of life Alkazi knew. And he imbibed his family’s priorities, of buying a Tyeb Mehta painting or prioritising spending on a book or a concert. In fact, the book seems to close on the end of an era of intense creativity, with a new discourse marking the beginning of an independent India, and the figures that shaped this period of optimism.
It is only apt that Enter Stage Right concludes at the very same table at Kulsum Terrace it started with. “My father was the last survivor of those who had gathered at the horseshoe-shaped dining table seventy-seven years earlier to establish the Theatre Group,” writes Alkazi. “With his going an age has ended forever.”
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