Prologue: Around the Horseshoe-Shaped Table
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.
Sultan Padamsee’s infamous production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome had recently been refused permission to perform at St Xavier’s College as the ideas in the play were seen as being too ‘salacious’. In Oscar Wilde’s inimitable style and with his fantastic use of language, Salome is based on the Biblical tale in which Salome demands the head of John the Baptist from King Herod. A key turning point in the script is the Dance of the Seven Veils in which the tempestuous Salome performs a Biblical striptease. With great difficulty and after much persuasion, the young Parsi woman who played Salome agreed to act, but she drew the line at doing the dance. So my mother, Roshen Padamsee, stepped in, a young nineteen, willing to do all for her beloved brother’s production.
That’s how my parents met. The intense and handsome young Arab man with the mellifluous voice, and the young, pert and pretty Roshen. My father was eighteen, a junior of Sultan Padamsee at St Xavier’s College, and had just relocated from Pune. My mother had recently returned from her schooling in England because of the outbreak of World War II. They were part of a large group of amateur actors drawn together by a love of theatre.
Moving out of the college auditorium and looking for an alternative performance space wasn’t easy, but the Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Hall opposite the Prince of Wales Museum was selected and booked. With its grand colonnaded entrance, this hall was largely only rented out for wedding receptions, but Sultan decided to mount his play there. Today this building houses the Mumbai chapter of the National Gallery of Modern Art and the museum is now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya!
Salome was one of several plays that Sultan Padamsee was to direct, drawing talent to himself by his charismatic personality. With bravado and full confidence in his abilities, Sultan went easily where no one had been before him. He was a flamboyant personality, tall, well-built, diamond studs in his ears, often dressed in a coloured kurta and pyjamas. Or even in an achkan with one of his mother’s pearl chokers around his throat!
And now to return to that legendary horseshoe-shaped dining table that still holds pride of place in my grandmother’s flat on Colaba Causeway, and that often still has a pile of scripts on it, and a bunch of eager new generation actors grouped around it.
The design of the table had been taken from a Hollywood film. On seeing it, my grandmother decided this was what she needed to host her growing family and their constantly expanding group of friends. She had it immediately constructed in the furniture shop the family owned, named Shiraz.
She was a wealthy woman who had, along with her husband, built eight buildings in South Bombay, each named after one of her children. Four boys and four girls survived out of the fourteen pregnancies she had.
Looking back, my mother recalls: ‘She came from an educated background. She possibly saw the difference between her family and my father’s family, who were just one removed from villagers and their way of life. Mummy didn’t want us to become like that. She had a vision of how she would like her children to be. In those days of colonial rule, the vision was that you should have a very good English education, to help you get into good positions. Being well-educated meant that rather than just going into the family business, you had a choice. Mummy wanted something more which she tried to give us.’
Chapter One: Kulsumbai of Kulsum Terrace
My maternal grandparents belonged to neighbouring towns in Saurashtra and had shifted to Bombay in the early decades of the twentieth century. Over fifteen years ago three of my cousins and I decided to travel back to our ancestral villages and spend five days getting to know something of our past. None of the immediate family had been back for over sixty years. But even as we entered our grandfather’s village and identified ourselves as being from the Padamsee clan, we were welcomed and shown around, for our family had been responsible for bringing piped water to the village eighty years ago! A few kilometres down the road was the town of Talaja where my grandmother had grown up. Her stock were opium farmers, commonplace in the last years of the nineteenth century as much of the opium that was exported to China was grown in Gujarat.
From the late eighteenth century till 1947, opium was the third most important source of revenue for the British Indian government after land revenue and the draconian salt tax. My grandmother’s family rented out small plots to cultivators to grow their opium crop.
But poppies are temperamental plants, and the harvesting of them is complex, as thousands of small incisions need to be made in the seed heads every two or three days over a four-week period. Whole families would work together but if the crop failed and they were unable to pay, the head of the family would be hanged to death from a huge banyan tree in my grandmother’s family farm to serve as a warning against the non-payment of rental.
Of course, there were other stories too. How one of my maternal grand uncles had left home early and returned years later as a holy man with a young gay partner. Even as the holy man cured people and wrought miracles, his handsome partner realized he was really bi-sexual and impregnated many of the women in the village!
Khojas of my grandmother’s generation strongly believed in the Aga Khan, their spiritual leader. His debonair, larger than life, Westernized image hangs in many Khoja homes. The word ‘Khoja’ itself, comes from Khwaja (meaning respectable person) and connotes those from present-day India and Pakistan who converted to Nizari Ismaili Islam from the thirteenth century onwards. This small well-knit community hails originally from Kutch and Saurashtra in Gujarat. Many wedding customs clearly link this community to its Hindu ancestry like the use of the swastika, the haldi ceremony of the groom, the significance of a diya and of a coconut. This is a congregational religion, praying together every Friday in a ‘Jammat Khana’ after which a lavish feast is held with food brought by the believers. However, my grandmother rarely attended any of these events.
Married at a young age, my grandmother moved to Bombay with her husband, Jaffer Ali Padamsee, who joined the family business, Saleh Mohamed Padamsee, that dealt with exclusive glass imported from Czechoslovakia among other places. Till today some of the windows of my grandmother’s flat have her initials KJP etched on them in an elaborate arabesque design. This is only an indication of the kind of affluent lifestyle the Padamsee family could afford. The Khoja community in Bombay to which they belonged was wealthy, progressive and liberal.
This was my grandfather’s second marriage. His first wife had died early after giving birth to five children who had all passed away in infancy. The second time round he would ensure that his children would survive.
And Kulsumbai, my grandmother, was determined to give her children the best possible English education. As each child reached the age of four, they were sent off to an exclusive, elitist residential school in Bombay itself. Here they rubbed shoulders with royalty: the Scindia boys, Princess Diamond and Princess Pearl of the Rajpipla family, among others. For their summer holidays they were whisked away to cooler climes like Nainital, travelling in a large railway compartment that was cooled by melting blocks of ice!
Chapter Six: Educating Themselves in Post War London
After a pause, the Theatre Group decided to mount a production in memory of Bobby. They chose J.B. Priestley’s Music at Night and it was very successful. Gerson da Cunha recalls, ‘All the theatre groups that existed at that time got together to do it. In this play a violinist and a pianist play a sonata, more or less off-stage. And, as the audience listens to it, the play picks out members of the audience one by one, and goes into their thinking. They become single performers who deliver a monologue. And then another person delivers one. Terrific play.’
The Times of India wrote of this production, ‘It is fitting that this production, which Mr Padamsee was working on at the time of his death, should become a milestone in the history of the amateur theatre movement. It gives evidence of a growing maturity in its conception of stage values, in its competent acting, its able direction, and its inspired handling of lighting and stage effects.’
While theatre took a back seat for a few months, my parents involved themselves in the exciting new changes occurring in the Bombay art scene. They bought a tiny little house in the environs of Matheran in the Western Ghats, which they wanted to turn into a kind of adda for artists as it was only a short train ride from Bombay. My father named it ‘The House of the Foolish Virgin’, after one of the stories in the Bible.
The Progressive Art Group had come into being in 1946 and my father was invited to inaugurate their very first exhibition. Pride of place in this exhibition was given to the nude self-portrait of the young rebellious Goan artist F.N Souza that shocked many viewers. Krishen Khanna, the eminent painter, remembers the strong reaction the painting got and the ridiculous way it was dealt with: ‘Of course females in the nude were an acknowledged and much desired subject matter; but males, in spite of the legacy of Michelangelo, had to keep their underpants on and their flies buttoned up. The police intervened and the “offending” portion of the anatomy in the self-portrait was suitably covered, thereby attracting still more attention.’
Souza was a close friend of my parents. He had been born in Portuguese Goa, and spent the initial years of his life there. His father died when he was very young and he grew up ‘fascinated by the grandeur of the Church and by the stories of tortured saints my grandmothers used to tell me. As far as I can recollect, strange fancies always occupied my mind. I seldom had companions. It created the artist in me.’
Souza’s mother disguised herself and fled to Bombay with him, where she started working as a tailor. Souza found that Bombay was a completely different experience from Goa. He now lived in the middle of a busy city, in the final stages of the Independence movement. He chose a completely radical career for himself, the ‘artist’ and all the rebellion it symbolized. So he adopted the mantle of ‘nationalist’ and ‘Indian’, violently discarding being Catholic.
Joining the J.J. School of Art in Bombay, he soon realized that instruction was still carried out in the fossilized Academic tradition. Students were taught to copy from the classical works of Greece and the Renaissance, focusing on a mastering of the art of perspective and proportion. While outside the classroom there was a vast Indian reality crying out to be captured on canvas.
The question of the meaning of art, in an India increasingly aware of its own unique national identity, was under furious debate. Major tectonic shifts were occurring beyond our borders. The whole notion of ‘Orientalism’ and the view of the East as being a colony of the West was being demolished. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had shaken the very foundations of aesthetics whether in art, theatre, music or literature, and now Europe was going through a vigorous churning of culture between the two world wars.
In such a charged atmosphere, Francis, with many others, chose to rebel. Along with five other artists, all belonging to a similar working-class background—S.H. Raza, M.F Husain, K.H. Ara, A. Gade and S.K. Bakre—the Progressive Artists Group was founded in 1946.
Their intention was to ‘paint with absolute freedom for content and technique almost anarchic, save that we are governed by one or two sound elemental laws, of aesthetic order, plastic co-ordination and colour composition.’ Souza claimed that, ‘Our art has evolved over the years of its own volition; out of our own balls and brains.’
Husain, another close family friend, decided to fully devote himself to painting when he was only twenty-two. He lived in a cheap room in the slum area near Grant Road and did all kinds of odd jobs. He painted cinema posters, designed nursery furniture, embellished cots and rocking horses with colourful designs. When Souza saw Husain’s painting, ‘Potters’, at the Bombay Art Society’s exhibition, he decided to bring Husain into the fold of the Progressive Artists Group.
All earlier art had either celebrated the divine in temples or in mosques or dealt with the life of royalty at court. Husain completely reversed this in his trailblazing canvases focusing almost exclusively, for his entire career, on the life of Mahatama Gandhi’s ‘last man’. Living and interacting on the urban street or the rural countryside, rarely within the interior of a house, surrounded by stoic cattle or prancing horses, the common man and more often woman, was the subject of his works.
They were all artists from the ‘other’ side of Bombay, the original ‘native quarters’, who were now crossing over to confront and take on the ‘south Bombay’ crowd. My father, living at Mohammad Ali Road, and Souza, living near Crawford Market, stayed a stone’s throw away from one another, not that they would have met each other at their homes. For the meeting ground for many artists was the vegetarian restaurant and bookshop, Chetna, opposite Jehangir Art Gallery.