Ebrahim Alkazi (1925-2020) let work coexist with his family life, because for him, art was life
A hushed silence enveloped our home. Beethoven, Stravinsky, Begum Akhtar, Ravi Shankar — the gramophone playing 45s winds on. My father, absorbed in the music, eyes shut, a notebook and a well-sharpened pencil are neatly placed in front of him, aligned at a perfect 90-degree angle to the corner of the table! His body, in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker, is relaxed, but at the same time suffused with a contained energy.
Daylight breaks with its soft, pink light, the sound of the sea and the sparrows melt away to be overtaken by the cacophony of BEST buses. He has been awake since at least 5 a.m., reading, and has already made himself a pot of tea. In a few moments he will offer a fresh cup to my mother, in bed, a small luxury that she appreciates without fail.
I observe the ritual through drowsy, half-closed eyes, while the servants begin to shuffle noiselessly about their chores. My gaze shifts, and is caught by an African mask, then moves to Husain’s sensuous yet stately Blue Nude. It hovers on a bronze Shiv/Parvati immobilized forever in their ecstatic embrace, and finally comes to rest on a seated Bodhisattva Padmapani, graceful in his tribhanga, eyes down, looking inward, in meditation.
The whiteness of our studio flat, without walls to divide it into rooms, takes on the air of a temple or sanctuary, conceived, designed and appointed by my father in such a way as to encourage one to look within, to meditate, to contemplate — a space for thought.
The simple, austere lines of the furniture, modern, yet functional, sparsely yet aesthetically shape the space into areas for sleeping, eating, studying and socialising. This loose definition of space speaks of an attitude, a philosophy, where all daily activities are seen as part of an integral whole. There are no sharp distinctions between our private and social lives, just as there is no strong definition separating work from leisure. All work is seen as pleasurable and fulfilling, and so we ate, drank, did theatre, put up exhibitions, or went on picnics with the same degree and intensity of enjoyment.
Our home doubled as my father’s workspace and so all his activities — discussions, rehearsals, the recording of music for his plays, the preparation of posters, the mounting of slides for his many talks — were done in full view of the family. He actively involved us in all. Thus, we imbibed and developed a love for art, architecture, dance, music, theatre, literature, poetry in a natural way — he awakened our sensibilities to space, light, form, colour, movement, rhythm, and texture.
“Come here I want to show you something…”
My father’s eyes twinkle with excitement as he magically reveals a box from behind his back, wrapped in white muslin. Unwrapping it very carefully, as if it were a fragile piece of glass, he gently lifts each art work out, and arranges them in neat rows on the mirror topped coffee table. This whole process is done slowly, meticulously, in complete silence, creating an aura of reverence and awe we should adopt towards these unique creations. His intentness evokes a similar response from us, so we just wait and watch, and are very still.
In practically a whisper he says, “You will not believe it, but I discovered these beautiful watercolours in this tiny little ramshackle shop, and I was so thrilled that I felt we must look after them and cherish them. Aren’t they exquisite?”
He proceeds to point out a few interesting details in each image: a bird perched on a branch, a man smoking a beedi. This way he arouses our interest; his idea is to awaken our curiosity. He wants us to look, to notice things hidden, half seen, tucked away.
I don’t believe that as children or even as adults, he ever talked about art in conceptual or academic terms, but always referred to art as related to life, as an expression of the human condition.
As he once said: “A student can learn more by listening to the song of a bird, watching the mochi ply his craft, or a weaver work his loom, than by listening dumbly to an old bore who has the presumption to believe that he is paid only to mouth his platitudes.”
The writer is Ebrahim Alkazi’s daughter and is working on his biography
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