S M AZHAR ALAM (1971-2021)

Azhar had just turned 50 when Covid cut short his life cruelly. He had just begun to make his presence felt nationally, and his artistry had reached the high points from which I could predict that he would make major future contributions to Indian theatre. I had seen nearly every production of his since Uma Jhunjhunwala and he founded their diminutively-named group Little Thespian as youths in 1994. Two decades later, they had become big thespians in Kolkata’s small world of Hindi/Urdu theatre, and raised the standards of Urdu theatre nationwide, elevating Kolkata into one of its main centres, yet they continued calling themselves “Little”!

The reason lies in another name, Azhar’s own. One of its many meanings is “enlightened”, which fitted his personality and work in every sense. Modest, soft-spoken, polite, liberal, he embodied all the humanist values that seem to have vanished from popular discourse of late. But if you witnessed his art, you would think that he was an activist, so strong and committed were his directorial messages. It was anticipated as early as 2004 when he revived Gyandev Agnihotri’s Shuturmurg, in which a megalomaniacal ruler constructs a mammoth statue of himself. The next year, Uma directed Yadon ke Bujhe Huye Savere, translated from A River across the Unseen Divide by South African-born London resident Ismail Choonara, who suggests that Shah Jahan’s liberalism and strength was the syncretic product of Islam and Rajput blood, and contrasts Aurangzeb as a communal zealot. In probably his strongest acting performance, Azhar poured everything into the title role of the once-proud Badshah of Hindustan languishing in house arrest under Aurangzeb’s dictates. He transformed his own young form into an old, lonely, broken frame, yearning for the past and hallucinating.

Little Thespian’s career took a firmly political turn when Azhar chose the enigmatically-titled “?” in 2007, based on They Burn People, They Do by Ismail Choonara, who had written it about Godhra, though the structure faintly recalled Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, set inside a madhouse. Four mentally challenged men, one of them Muslim, live together amicably in a hospice. Each dreams of a specific person or event to free himself. What happens instead is not anything they could have anticipated, and the haven of security they knew becomes an inferno as the external world smashes in, making their once-cloistered asylum look much saner than the sheer insanity outside. Enactments of collective violence invariably shake audiences, so Azhar didn’t do anything particularly new in this area, while the plot was very simple, too. But sometimes things need to be put simply and directly, and Azhar’s abrupt concluding use of a mannequin shocked us with an unforgettably horrifying image, not for the faint-hearted.

Soon, Azhar realized the applicability of Ionesco’s absurdist classic, Rhinoceros, to our land and times. Gainda (2011) reaped the reward of sympathetic viewer reaction, like some of Little Thespian’s explosive previous works. Azhar translated it from the English translation fairly faithfully, while Indianizing the characters’ names. As director, he did not interpret rhinoceritis too specifically, so we could receive it on at least two levels – the popular fascination with the “holy terror” of fascism or fundamentalism in any hue, and the pressure on an individual to conform with collective trends and lifestyles. Gainda therefore covered both the political and social significances of the original for us, and became a paradigm of sensitivity to minority concerns, whether about the Hindu right or Islamic rigidity. Alam himself acted the Muslim everyman, Sarmad (Ionesco’s Berenger, in the photo alongside), heroically resisting the urge to metamorphose into a rhino whereas everyone around him succumbs.

Going from strength to strength, Azhar put up one of Little Thespian’s most power-packed shows, Bhisham Sahni’s Kabira Kharā Bazār Men, in 2015. The play, based on Kabir’s life, had become long overdue for revival, to propagate its message of inter-religious amity, to shed light on Kabir’s personalized faith mingling the best of Hinduism and Islam, and to educate a new generation unaware of his history. Azhar accomplished all this, particularly the last, by involving numerous young people whose energy on stage under his direction grabbed their friends in the audience, who also responded with spontaneous verbal approval to the inspiring thoughts enshrined within.

Inevitably, Azhar turned to writing original drama to express his own growing concerns. In one of our conversations, I could tell that he was proud of what he achieved in Ruhein (2017). Laudably, it established Kolkata on the rapidly shrinking map of original Urdu playwriting. In such a scenario, it struck me as most appropriate that Azhar located Ruhein in a graveyard, whose caretaker sees the spirits of the dead every night. Amusingly, the man chases them away and they are actually afraid of him. Azhar used this premise to contrast and connect the old and new dispensations, implying that neither is better than the other: both have perpetrated injustice in different ways. Some viewers may have interpreted this, too, as political allegory.

Unlike most theatre artists, Azhar had a deep desire to know more about stage history and classic drama, probably because of his profession as a literature academician. When I headed a project to translate Tagore’s plays anew, I naturally went to him for an Urdu translation of his choosing. Not surprisingly, he selected the revolutionary Muktadhara, because he considered it “marvellous”. I hope Little Thespian produces it sometime soon.

As the world reeled under Corona, Azhar turned with characteristic insight to direct that modern masterpiece about human isolation: Beckett’s Endgame. I couldn’t get myself to break my self-imposed stay-at-home order to attend the premiere in February, and promised to see it later. Little Thespian must keep it running after auditoriums reopen, not only because it was his last production but also because of its meaningfulness in the pandemic.

Under Azhar and Uma, the Little Thespian team developed to exhibit disciplined collective training in performance. They also successfully organized an annual national festival, Jashn-e-Rang, for ten years, which has become the showcase for Hindi/Urdu theatre in Kolkata. As Covid seemed on the wane in March, they went ahead with it, and I went to watch live performances for the first time after a year. That was where I met Azhar last, and we joked about having to maintain social distance. I hope the group can overcome their tremendous loss and continue their trailblazing journey with Uma guiding them. Azhar would have wanted nothing less.