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Exit left, from the theatre of life

By November 27, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu – SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Ad man Alyque Padamsee’s alternate world on the stage

Is it true that people call you god,” I asked Alyque Padamsee.

I had been granted a rare opportunity to interview the great man in his lair. Everyone knew him as the Lion at Lintas. In the Bombay of the late 60s and 70s, Lintas was the ad agency with the flair to make Dalda Vanaspati look like ‘the healthy alternative to ghee’; men in suits on the pavement to get their shoes Cherry-Blossomed by a Charlie Chaplin lookalike; make the Liril Girl the epitome of freshness under a waterfall; and, in the later boom-boom years, take KamaSutra, the condom brand, out of the closet and into the sexy everyday.

There was a moment of silence. I realised you don’t just ask such a question to a divinity. Either you know it. Or you don’t. He allowed his lips to part and reveal his teeth in a tight smile. I realised he is more Mephistopheles than god. The tall, etiolated frame, the gaunt, rather craggy face with beard, the long hair, the black framed glasses, they all made him a brand. It was a look that would ensure him a part in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the tall and equally forbidding lawyer. As Padamsee wrote (with Arun Prabhu) in his autobiography A Double Life , Jinnah, when told that minorities would be safe in post-Independence India, growled, “We are not a minority. We are a Nation.” Indeed. Padamsee was not a simple person, nor even a brand. He was a sphinx.

Hunger for theatre

As Padamsee described in the book his early years, growing up under the warm stewardship of his mother, Kulsumbai, he was part of the collective known as the Padamsee family. They were from the mercantile community of Gujarati Kutchis who had prospered in the ‘City of Gold’ that was Bombay. He was among eight brothers and sisters, many of who went on to have connections with either theatre or advertising, and beyond. One of Padamsee’s sisters married Hamid Sayani, the broadcaster famously known as ‘Mr. Radio Ceylon’.

Even living as the Khoja Muslim family did in Colaba, they were part of the thriving Parsi and Anglo-Indian neighbourhood that made up what was then the elite, with all that it implied. The Parsis, in particular, were both patrons and practitioners of the performing arts. Padamsee, inspired by Ebrahim Alkazi during his St. Xavier’s College years, decided to study at the Royal College of Performing Arts in London.

His passion, however, more than for theatre, was for a powerhouse of energy named Pearl (Waiz) Chowdhary. Together, whether married or later divorced, they would be a force driven by their hunger for theatre. When he wanted to marry the divorced mother of two, Kulsumbai put her foot down. They would have to find their own resources to live together. In his book, Padamsee described his first job in advertising as a result of his early marriage to Pearl.

I once asked him: “Why do you work in advertising when your heart is in theatre?” He said, “It’s because it gives me the freedom to fail. I would not be able to take the risks that I have taken.”

We were in the middle of the glory years of theatre in Mumbai in the 70s. It started with Tuglaq (1970) by Girish Karnad with a very young and heart-stoppingly handsome Kabir Bedi standing naked with his back to the audience and a strip of red cloth protecting his modesty. In his book, Padamsee described how when he heard of Karnad’s play that was originally written in Kannada, he was dead set on doing it in English. Bedi was fresh out of college. Padamsee described him as very good-looking but wanted him to be more muscular. Bedi was sent off to train at Talwalkar’s gym. By the time the first night opened, Bedi’s “backside”, as everyone called it, was so spectacular that no one ever entered the theatre late thereafter. Tuglaq dons his imperial robes. He turns to face the audience. He is transformed. As Padamsee wrote, quoting Jean Genet: “Once you wear the emperor’s clothes, you become the emperor.” The man becomes the myth.

In the mind’s eye

Creating myths onstage was a part of Padamsee’s métier as a director. As he described his methods both in advertising and on the stage, the secret is “thinking visually”, creating an iconic moment in the mind’s eye that will resonate long after the words have died. Two years later, there was Mira (1972) by Gurcharan Das, filled with the delirious ecstasy of the Princess of Mewar. The next year, he staged The Birthday Party (1973) by Harold Pinter in the drawing room of his mother’s Colaba house in Kulsum Terrace. The audience seated at the same level as the actors felt as violated by the menace of Pinter’s casual depiction of violence as that inflicted by the characters on each other.

The next year, the sensational Jesus Christ Superstar (1974), the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical, blew everyone’s minds, quite literally, as in the last act, members of the audience became a part of the beatific cast dancing on the stage. To quote Padamsee: “Not since Jesus Christ has a man preached the kind of things that Gandhiji stood for. He knew that you can change more people’s attitudes through warm human sentiment than with cold rationality.”

Pearl however managed to match Padamsee with her own theatrical offerings. There was Godspell before he could stage Jesus Christ Superstar . She followed it up with the equally spellbinding Brecht play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui . It showed with chilling effect the rise of a demagogue (played by Vijay Crishna) who could both control and be controlled by the mindless frenzy of the mass. The brave new worlds re-booted by technology and the state had been imagined long before they became a reality.

Vital link

Just as in today’s atmosphere of an internal crisis affecting the imagination of artists and writers torn between paying homage to the presiding deities of the day, or cowering in silence, there was then a certain resilience that affected the choices made by theatre groups. During Emergency, Padamsee decided to stageGidhade , a play by Vijay Tendulkar. It was translated into English by Priya Adarkar as Vultures (1975). It exposed the violence — internal, social, sexual and communal — lurking behind the façade of the Indian middle-class. It ended with the most palpably horrendous acts of onstage outrage as women were kicked into losing their unborn babies. Karnad described it at the time as “the blasting of a bomb in an otherwise peaceful market.”

“If a production can’t add relevance to the play, let it remain on the printed page,” said Padamsee in his book. The reasons for making a choice of a script is to find that vital link. “Ever since I can remember, I’ve had an obsession about Mrs. Gandhi.” When he found Evita , the musical that created a star out of Sharon Prabhakar, his third wife, he was reminded of Indira Gandhi riding the tiger during the Bangladesh war and the euphoria that followed. “The lines between Indira and Evita merged,” he recorded.

After Gandhi’s assassination, he wrote: “I am an Indian, not because I am a Hindu or a Muslim or a Sikh or a Christian or a Parsi or a Jew. I am an Indian because if I am not… who am I?”

“You know where I get my inspiration?” he told me finally. “From the marketplace. Never stop going into the streets, the markets, the railway stations, where you can observe the daily drama of people taking place. That is theatre. That is where the fire is. The theatre of our daily lives.”

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If a production can’t add relevance to the play, let it remain on the printed page, said Padamsee in his book

The tall, etiolated frame, the gaunt, rather craggy face with beard, the long hair, the black framed glasses, they all made him a brand

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