Shanta Gokhale writes: Alaknanda Samarth pushed the boundaries of acting throughout her career.
Alaknanda Samarth’s passing on the morning of Monday, December 6, has come as a deep shock to her numerous friends in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and elsewhere. Although she lived in London, she knew more about what was going on in theatre and politics in India than many who live here.
Alaknanda was one of the most extraordinary actors that Mumbai has produced. Some of her genius was inherited from her lineage, which included the doyenne of Mumbai theatre, Vijaya Mehta, and film stars Tanuja, Nutan and Kajol. But she also stood apart from the mainstream as an actor who never stopped challenging herself and exploring new idioms, new languages, new forms in her work.
Mumbai saw her genius in three exciting spurts. The first was in 1960 when Ebrahim Alkazi cast her as Miss Julie in August Strindberg’s play of the same name. She was around 19 then, hardly of an age to understand Strindberg’s dark world or the sexually complex young aristocratic woman she was playing. Even her costume — decollete gown, heels, glove and fur hat — was forbiddingly alien. And yet, she carried off her role with enough aplomb to impress a professor from an American university sitting in the audience, who was later instrumental in her being offered the Wien International Scholarship in Theatre Arts to Brandeis University in the US. On her way back from the US, she stopped in London, auditioned for RADA (the Royal Academy of Theatre Art) and won the Queen Elizabeth scholarship to study there for a year. By the time she returned home in 1965, her mentor Alkazi had moved to the National School of Drama and Satyadev Dubey was running Theatre Unit, the group that Alkazi had set up in Bombay. Always quick to snap up any acting talent that appeared on the horizon, Dubey instantly cast Alaknanda as Estelle in Band Darwaze, his Urdu translation of Sartre’s No Exit.
Band Darwaze stunned Bombay, Delhi and wherever else it went. There were page-long reviews, congratulatory phone calls to Alaknanda’s parents and a general sense among the audience of having seen a radically different kind of theatre than anything they had seen before. The production became something of a legend. Many who had not seen it were convinced they had, because of the vivid descriptions they had heard of it.
In the same year, 1965, Dubey made the experimental film Aparichay ke Vindhyachal, in which he, the mime artist Irshad Panjatan and Alaknanda did a mock-up of a Hindi film triangle against the background of Mumbai’s trains, slums and the Worli Sea Face. It was a breezy film full of abandon, laughter and Dubey’s personal angst.
After this we lost sight of Alaknanda for a few years. She was travelling with her French husband Francois Duriaud to wherever his organisation, Reuters, posted him. Coming to a halt in London, she was the first Indian actor to play the lead in a classical play at the Old Vic. But that could never be her beat. She was too busy pushing boundaries with London’s avant-garde theatre groups.
Alaknanda returned to India when Duriaud was posted to Delhi. She taught then at the National School of Drama at B V Karanth’s invitation and later at Thrissur, ditching conventional pedagogy for her own methods. During the latter stint, she directed two Malayalam plays but did not appear on the stage herself. That happened in 1987 with two monologues directed by Kumar Shahani, The Human Voice by Jean Cocteau, and Kunti written specially for Alaknanda by G Sankara Pillai, a pioneer of modern Malayalam theatre. This production brought together a group of towering artists. Akbar Padamsee designed the production, Chandralekha choreographed it, Bhanu Athaiya costumed it, Piyush Shah lit it and Veenapani Chawla produced it. To meet Alaknanda in those days was to hear of the painful contortions that her director was putting her through in an effort to bend her body and voice to his vision. Rustom Bharucha, sitting in on rehearsals was to write later in his Letter to an Actress, “You possess what Nina in The Seagull declares as the true mark of an actress — stamina.”
Alaknanda’s final appearance on the city’s stage was in 1993 in a collaborative installation of art and theatre with Nalini Malani. They chose Heiner Mueller’s Medea Trilogy as their text. Alaknanda spoke it in her deep, evocative voice as she moved from one performance space to another against the background of huge panels painted by Nalini. Those images and that soundscape have stayed in one’s memory to this day.
On July 8, 2018 Alaknanda and Francois were on Eurostar en route to France for the funeral of a relative when he collapsed. It was a massive heart attack. He was rushed to hospital but was declared dead. Alaknanda went into shock. Two years later, in July this year, she was diagnosed with cancer. Even while the disease was consuming her, she was reading Eliot’s The Waste Land and the Upanishads in preparation for a recording of the poem that she and her voice guru Patsy Rodenburg had planned. Earlier in the year, Alaknanda had recorded a magnificent podcast of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre and the Plague, turning it into a piece of powerful vocal theatre, using timbre, pitch, modulation and inflection of the voice to make it live for us immediately and urgently. Who knows, perhaps she was still reciting lines from The Waste Land to herself as she breathed her last?
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 8, 2021 under the title ‘Her genius on stage’. Gokhale is a writer, translator, journalist and theatre critic