Sometime during the early decades of the 1900s, with India in the throes of the anti-colonial movement, Kulsumbai decided that her family—the couple and their six children, three boys and three girls—would move to England, and the kids would be admitted to a boarding school there. Since they already had ‘all the mannerisms of English people’, ‘wore European Swiss dresses’, had ‘no contact at all with other Indians’, to the extent that during the once-a-month tram ride in the city, they weren’t allowed to ‘touch the natives’, the Padamsee kids were overjoyed with the decision. In the excitement of the impending journey, they ‘tore up sheets of paper and threw them over the balcony, littering the ground below with ‘‘snow”.’ Of course, the snow stood for how they imagined the cold and exciting London to be like, and the anecdote—one of many that Feisal Alkazi narrates in his family memoir, or as the book says, in his mini history of contemporary theatre in India—is striking in conveying creativity, aspiration and performance. If there were children who were going to be at the receiving end of so deliciously forgivable and creative a mischief, it had to be the Padamsees! Likewise, a few years later, to escape the bombings and the threat of the war, when the family relocated back to India, to their ancestral home in Talaja, in Gujarat, these anglicized kids nicknamed their grandmother’s sisters Hoorubai and Noorubai ‘Horror’ and ‘Norror’!
Is it in the veritable nature of Padamsees that dramatic moments befell them, or is it specific to their recounting that these stories come to achieve that special brilliance? Counted among India’s foremost theatre families, they—collectively and its individual members—emerge from Alkazi’s book as ingenious and imaginative figures around whom the crowds swell and people gather. Theirs is not only a talented family, but one embraced with all good things and happy accidents, enduring friendships and perfect loves, delicious laughter and culinary feasts. In a similar vein, theatre practice here also emerges not as a space of struggle—for freedom, ideologies, or livelihood—as it might have been for some of their contemporaries like the artists of the Indian Peoples Theatre Association, Prithviraj Kapoor’s travelling theatre company, or Utpal Dutt’s Unity Theatre, but as a charmed and exciting ‘cottage industry’ with ‘Bobby reciting Shakespeare, Roshen stitching costumes, Zarina painting posters, Shiraz making props,’ while the younger Alyque and Chottu joined in as eager audience. In this enchanted world were to enter none other than lighting expert turned businessman Deryck Jefferies who married Shiraz, ‘radio celebrity’ Hamid Sayani who married Zarina and the maverick and brilliant Ebrahim Elkazi who married Roshen.