British South Asian Theatre Memories
British South Asian Theatre Memories is a collection of interviews from 32 practitioners key to the establishment and development of South Asian theatre in the UK. Their memories and comments are windows into the complexities of their work, covering such breadth of diversity that even the term British South Asian fails to encompass.
The establishment of Tara Arts in 1976 marks the beginning of the period the interviews cover right up to the beginning of 2014. They are not meant to be an exhaustive set of memories, but serve more as an introduction into the fascinating range of work that has been pioneered and developed in the history of British theatre.
The video interviews are available online. They are a wonderful resource to explore and one, which we hope, will encourage viewers to discover and be inspired by.
You can view the interviews here:
Or click this link: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9FnDIEX2woU5ovB1VbvYeVDa8SenMPiN
Atiha Sen Gupta
Harmage Singh Kalirai
Sophie Khan Levy
I think the thing with the Gurdeep Singh Chaggar death was that you knew that but for an accident that could have been you. He was a seventeen year old boy. He got killed because he looked like a Paki. He looked like a foreigner and he was fair game. And, in a way, out of the depth of that hurt welled this thing of no, we are here and we are here to stay. But there has to be one condition of our staying which is that we have to remake this country in our image. And specifically it meant in the theatre
I suppose because of the kind of things that we were exploring within, you know we were also exploring like, Asians coming into Britain, here, and here to stay and all that kind of stuff that was going on at the time, going on marches, anti-Nazi, anti-Apartheid, so it was a really political time. So I know that that certainly impacted on how I viewed the world…when we used to chant “Here, and here to stay!” and I look and think, yes, we did it.
I think we found ourselves quite, inadvertently being pioneers, you know. But also things like, I kind of find it so funny, because when I first came here, I was in a salwar kameez, you know, this whole kind of pashmina shawl syndrome, that, now it’s everywhere, and everyone’s wearing it. In a way I did it all fifteen years before. So I always feel like you’ve kind of been there, at the first wave of things, and things do come in waves.
We went out and said, right, who is the equivalent of Shakespeare in our culture. Who is the equivalent of this and we came across Tagore, we came across the Mahabharata. But then while doing that we also found, well actually not really, this text, this piece of work belonged somewhere else. They don’t belong here for us. So that’s when we started creating our own writing, our own sense of theatre.
You do have a very divided vision, and you’re always looking at the experience as a Third World citizen as well, and however post-colonial we might be, there is an impact, there is a cost of living here. You do have your commitment to the West, but I think you end up having always a sense of being the other, and having a sense of, what it, what it feels like to be the other.
I’m South African. My family still live in South Africa. My Indian family. So my context of being Indian is more South African Indian if you like, than in India Indian. But I think that the way we live in this country is quite different to how people live in India or how people live in South Africa or Kenya or wherever. And the way in which I look with my eyes, I’m looking at in the British way, with all of my references and all of my history that I bring.
It’s funny, because whenever you go across the world, people always say where are you from, and I always find myself saying I’m from London. I never say I’m from England, and it’s strange because when you come back to London, you feel like you’re home. We’ve all got our hometowns and I think that’s what the world is becoming now. I think it’s about what place you’re from and what that does to you. I don’t know what it is to be English. I know what it is to be someone from London.
I think there’s a line in Bend It Like Beckham that says, if you marry a Muslim, you get killed. If you are a Sikh girl who marries a Muslim you get killed. The situation was very much the same for my parents, but they didn’t let that affect how we were brought up. And we had two religions essentially, living in our household, without issues, and a lot of people say, well you have to make a choice. Well my choice really is that I love the world that I live in, and everything that comes in the world.
It’s very mobile, the identity that we bring. So, I grew up in India and when I was growing up, when I did my BA, which was in English Honours, I studied everything from the Bible, which I can recite backwards, to you, the Book of Job particularly. I did the classics. I can tell you all about Milton’s Paradise Lost, which was my favourite book, Chaucer, Yeats, Browning. We did the Victorians, we did the Americans, we did, pretty much everybody. We studied Conrad, we studied D. H. Lawrence. It was a huge spectrum. Not a single Asian author.
But when it comes to the question of authenticity, there I have a big, big question mark that what the hell authentic means? Whose authenticity are we talking about? My life or my experiences are authentic, completely authentic to who I am. But, if you are trying to look at India or Pakistan through the eyes of colonial historians then – no, I am not that. And India is not that, and neither is Pakistan. And you know, everything changes and everything evolves.
I think the work of the diaspora Asian community, especially with reference to the UK, is where I can really sort of comment upon, is quite important in the whole artistic dialogue of work. Because, of, you know, being a British Asian is not just like a racial identity. I think it’s a sensibility and because, it’s a sensibility that’s evolved out of the, relationship of either, growing up in the UK or living in the UK and it’s been in opposition to the mainstream in a subtle way and it’s imbibed influences of that.
It is very difficult to nail down that yes, this was the journey because, it happens subconsciously. It is on autopilot, that you start the journey and you reach somewhere. And you just never set a goal. I think that we artists are wandering, we are just moving, floating all the time, and yah, you’re just searching for new destinations. New goals. So you rate, then you live that space again, you are moving to another space.
Well, I had to learn what it was to be British which meant that Britain had to reinvent itself for my benefit rather than the other way round. By which I mean that Britain had to see that it had become a different kind of place. It took a long time for that penny to drop you know. And one of the, one of the ways in which that penny dropped was because people began to write about Britain differently.
Atiha Sen Gupta
Even today in 2013, where you have Black Playwrights, Asian playwrights, you know, people who are not mainstream, writing work, they might be applauded and, celebrated, but they are celebrated for reflecting the Black condition, or the Asian tradition, or the Chinese condition. You might think you are looking at something very fundamental, but, you’re still seen through a prism of race. By critics, by the theatre establishment.
But I guess I was stubborn and also, very much curious, because not only was it exciting to perform and rehearse, and be part of, let’s say a family, an artistic family, it was also a great time of changing politics, so to be involved in that took up a lot of our time. I’ve observed it, you know as a choice, because it’s choices that you make, which dictate the quality of your life.
I decided I was going to rebel against my parents who wanted me to do philosophy, French, art etc. theatre, and I decided to do sciences so, again it’s a bit unusual. And in fact what happened was that I ended up being, when my parents divorced, ended up coming to this area at the tender age of eight, Harrow, which was just full of the National Front everywhere, posters, leaflets, all sorts of stuff, so, I was actually looking for alternatives even at that tender age.
I decided to take a year out to to do an MA, not because I needed to learn more about the craft but I needed to learn more about me. I needed to give myself the permission to do this work. I suppose that was, that experience of…valuing my voice, whatever that voice is, and allowing it to become, and continue to become something. one of the gifts of our work is to pose questions, is to open things up rather than close them down.
And I really didn’t ever think that I would make it as a writer in this country, so the first thing that was ever published, I was walking on air. For six weeks, you know. I thought wow, I’ve had something published. And then that gives you a bit more confidence and you think OK, I’ve had one thing published. Maybe I’ll have something more published. And so then it kind of builds up. And I do think, that today, it’s not just a wild dream, if you want to be a writer.
My family are incredibly supportive of what I do. You know, as a struggling playwright, it’s not easy to pay rent in London. It’s not easy to survive in London. So they’ve been incredibly supportive on that front. But I think they get frustrated. I’m in my late thirties and I’m not making as much money as the cousins, or the other families, or I don’t have a house. I’m not married. I don’t have kids, so, those are their cultural concerns, whereas for me my writing is the sole priority in my life.
The first play that was produced was entitled Streets of Rage that I wrote in about 2002, and that play was a response to the Bradford Riots, a city that I was, working in and that I came to live in. I was interested in that generation, my generation, and exploring that moment of the riots in Bradford, this really, this significant cultural moment in the landscape of that city. And I was interested in exploring what that perspective was.
I was six. And the sky just changed colour to red, because the neighbouring kampongs which is the word used for villages, around suburbia, that belongs to satellite villages, they were just up in flames, and one day, we would hear rumours that the Indians were killing the Malays, the Malays were killing the Chinese, Chinese were killing… I didn’t go to school. And when we emerged from all of that, you realised that your neighbours could turn against you. That stays with you, that tension.
And I thought, OK, something’s happened here, some something that tells me this is the space that I can create work in which is looking at, and what my work has since gone on to explore, not solely, but one of the recurrent narratives of my work is looking at, how do we tell epic stories with a really full embrace, of the brilliance, of what people would categorise as diverse practice, because for me one of the big things is about our cultural vocabulary shifting.
It’s very interesting because Britain’s Got Bhangra had two set designs. One was a very literal set design. You know we had houses and shops, and everything was really drawn out for you. And then in the next set design we used much more theatrical conventions in it. We had a lot of complaints from some of our really core audience saying, I need the bus to look like this. And why has that door not got a letterbox.
There’s often a debate about quality, in South Asian theatre and essentially, who’s quality are we talking about here quite often. And that’s the thing I’ve noticed from changing the different companies, is actually who’s quality are we being judged by here, and the quality of work that we have is about the texture also that goes within it, and about the appreciation of it. So I think actually, it’s about understanding the quality and knowing how to read that quality.
I think the challenge these days is not so much an art-going audience but actually a wider audience who engages with popular culture because I think the arts are kind of limited because they’re kind of ‘snobbish’. And I’m aware that there are so many things that people engage with that allegedly sit outside the arts, but are cultural. So, think, phenomena like the harlem shake or any of these online social media activities, I think are culturally valid. But I think they’re dismissed by a lot of the cultural sector because they’re seen as low-grade.
I remember the thing that really inspired me was the first show I ever saw in the West End and I must say it’s going to sound really naff, oh my god, what is she to watch, but I went to see, I’d never seen anything really like this and I went with my ballet school and I was like seven, to see Me and My Girl. And I walked away and I was like mum, can I get the cassette for Christmas. She got me the cassette.
My inspiration was Christopher Reeve. Superman. Every Christmas I would sit in my little sledge in the living room and watch ‘Superman’ come on TV and I was in awe and inspired by this, world where man could fly. So that’s where the kind of, the seeds were sown. And I thought myself as a five-year old I’ve got options here. I can grow up and be something like a policeman, an astronaut, secret agent or an actor but if you’re an actor, you can do all of them.
The thing I really enjoyed was Midsummer Night’s Dream school play, when I was four, when I was in Year 10 basically. I had the most amazing time. I loved that performance and I was Oberon, and I had my hair done for it, and it was brilliant. I loved it. It was amazing. It holds importance because it’s something that I really enjoyed and, you know, whenever I get frustrated in something in theatre I always go back to that moment when I really enjoyed that performance.
Drama school was very hard for me ‘cause I just I didn’t I couldn’t. I had a huge culture shock when I moved to London where, I’m from Burnley, I’m from a Pakistani community, I’m Muslim background, and what would probably be described as a chav, you know, in today’s speak, moving to South Kensington darling, which was very posh, lots of big white houses, Porches, Ferraris, Chihuahuas, darling, so going from that to that, straight off the back, my head was, I just, I couldn’t take it.
To be working in theatre is a privilege and a luxury. And I think that the number of actors and directors and writers and designers and stage managers, let’s not forget them, is very limited, you know, who are making their money out of it. And I think it’s a very special thing to be working in theatre, or any of the performing arts professionally. But I think that the technology is enabling us to create work in different ways.
Harmage Singh Kalirai
I think one thing to take in mind is that, without a past, we don’t have a future. So if you ignore the past, you can’t go anywhere. And a lot of the mistakes that are made when you know already what’s been created, already been experienced or that already had been had, and I think it’s, it’s about looking what’s been in order to be where you are now and where you want to go. That’s so vitally important that we miss that sometimes.
I welcome this project. I’m really pleased to be a part of it. I think it comes at a really exciting time. I’m really glad to be amongst the diversity of, British South Asian, theatre practitioners you know. It means so many different things to so many different people and nothing to some. And all of that is part of it’s diversity.
Three Theatre Companies
Tara Arts was founded in 1977 by Artistic Director Jatinder Verma along with Sunil Saggar, Ovais Kadri, Praveen Bahl & Vijay Shaunak. Tara Arts began life as a touring company.
It staged its opening production, Sacrifce, a play by the Nobel Prize-winning Indain playwright Rabindranath Tagore, at Battersea Arts Centre in August 1977. This production marked both a response to Gurdip Singh Chaggar’s death and a critique of injustices within Asian communities.
In September 1983, Tara Arts secured 356 Garratt Lane in Earlsfield as its home. Following minor renovation to create the current look, the building was re-opened in September 1985 as “Tara Arts Centre” – a venue for staging a wide variety of both incoming & home-grown events, from theatre performances to dance, music and arts exhibitions.
This Story’s Not For Telling produced in 1985 was an exploration of communalism amongst Asians: the separation of one community from another because of differences in religious belief, and in economic and political power. The company improvised from an eclectic range of sources: stories, histories, plays and fables that alluded to the points they wished to emphasise about greed, choice, and refusal. The company then linked these stories to the tensions between the idea and the reality of being Asian in Britain today. Anuradha Kapur used techniques derived from Indian folk theatre to devise This Story’s Not For Telling. These involved a bare stage, dance, music, story-telling and chorus.
Funding cuts in the early ‘90s forced the venue to return to being used only as Tara Arts’ rehearsal space.
To celebrate the 30th year of Tara Arts in 2007, the building was re-opened as a theatre venue – hosting and presenting theatre and other live performances, as well as facilitating the development of emerging young artists and mid-career artists.
30 years on from opening Tara Theatre in 1983, renovation is being carried out to the existing building to create a beautiful small theatre in Earlsfield. The objective is to create a landmark theatre as a home for intimate cross-cultural shows, transforming experiences of great theatre for audiences and artists.
Tamasha is an award winning theatre company which specialises in artist training, new writing and intracultural practice.
The company aspires to create theatre that has the multiple narratives and global perspectives of Britain’s evolving culture and audiences at its heart.
Founded in 1989 by director Kristine Landon-Smith and actor / playwright Sudha Bhuchar, with a mission to bring contemporary work of Asian influence to the British stage.
Successes like East is East, Strictly Dandia andThe Trouble With Asian Men have won acclaim from critics and audiences alike.
The company’s debut production, Untouchable – an adaptation of the novel by Mulk Raj Anand following a day in the life of an Indian latrine cleaner – opened at London’s Riverside Studios in December 1989, performed by an entirely British Asian cast and playing alternate nights in English and Hindi.
The company’s second production, House of the Sun, again drew its inspiration from modern literature (in this case a novel by Meira Chand), and provided a window into India’s little-known Hindu Sindhi community.
Ruth Carter’s Women of the Dust followed a year later, commissioned by Oxfam to mark its 50th anniversary, recounting the untold story of all-female workforces drafted in from India’s villages to work on urban construction sites.
Abhijat Joshi’sA Shaft of Sunlight and Ruth Carter’s A Yearning would follow in 1994 and 1995 respectively, the latter transposing Lorca’s Yerma to Birmingham’s Punjabi community. It was among five Tamasha productions that were subsequently adapted for broadcast on BBC Radio 4: the radio versions of both A Yearning and Women of the Dust went on to win CRE Race in the Media awards.
The company was brought to wider attention in 1996 with East is East – a moving comedy about a mixed-race family growing up in 1970s Salford. Ayub Khan Din’s play, based on his own childhood, was co-commissioned and developed by Tamasha and the Royal Court, and opened to audience and critical acclaim. After two London runs and a national tour, the production transferred to the West End, receiving an Olivier nomination, while Ayub collected John Whiting and Writers’ Guild awards.
In 1997, Tamasha was invited to premiere A Tainted Dawn at the Edinburgh International Festival. Marking 50 years since partition in India, this play featured an original score by Nitin Sawhney and the then unknown Parminder Nagra among its cast.
1998’s Bollywood homage Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings a Funeral would prove to be another hit with audiences nationally. For Tamasha, it led to two succesful remounts and a TMA Barclays Theatre Award for Best New Musical.
In 1999, Tamasha began to explore how it could apply its research-based practice in the rehearsal room to develop the teaching of drama in the classroom. TIME: Tamasha Intercultural Millennium Education was a project which worked in schools in London and Birmingham, encouraging teachers to shift attention away from themes of ‘race’ and ‘minority’ in favour of a more confident form of cultural exchange.
Tamasha took over the London venue, Lyric Hammersmith, in 2001 withFourteen Songs… revived in the Main House for a second time, while new play Ghostdancing – Deepak Verma’s transposition of Zola’s Therese Raquin – premiered in the Studio. That year, The Guardian named Tamasha among the ten most exciting theatre producers in the UK.
Responding to the publication of The Eclipse Report, Tamasha launched Design Direct in 2002, becoming the UK’s first positive action training course for British Asian designers and directors. Further initiatives for writers and performers followed, under the umbrella of the Tamasha Developing Artists programme.
The Company’s body of work continued to diversify with 2002’s devised comedy Ryman and the Sheikh, and the vibrant, dance-based Strictly Dandia the following year, which went on to win a Herald Angel Award at the 2003 Edinburgh International Festival for Liam Steele’s choreography. That same year, Tamasha’s first film, Midnight Feast, premiered at the Raindance Film Festival.
In 2005, Tamasha announced its first ‘season’ of work, with three new productions opening withing the space of seven months: the cult verbatim show, The Trouble with Asian Men; an adaptation of Rohinton Mistry’s epic novel A Fine Balance, which enjoyed two sell out runs at Hampstead Theatre; and the Company’s first play for young people, Child of the Divide, which went on to be names as Time Out Magazine’s top kids show of 2006.
In 2008, Tamasha continued its work with secondary schools by turning the verbatim material collected during the TIME project into the youth production Lyrical MC. Sweet Cider, the debut play by Em Hussain, followed in the autumn, becoming Tamasha’s first full production to emerge from its Developing Artists programme.
This was followed in 2009 by the company’s biggest production to date, a Bollywood-inspired musical adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
In 2010, the company celebrated its 21st year with a win for Kristine and Sudha at the First Women Awards and a new middle-scale production The House of Bilquis Bibi, written and directed by Sudha and Kristine respectively and starring singer and Bollywood actress, Ila Arun.
My Name is…. By Sudha Bhuchar is Tamasha’s latest production. It explores the themes of love, families and shifting identities and is inspired by the true story that made headlines in 2006 about a young girl’s disappearance from her Scottish home.
Kali Theatre was founded in 1991 by Rita Wolf and Rukhsana Ahmad to encourage, support and promote new theatre writing by women from a South Asian background.
Kali is the UK’s only theatre company dedicated to championing women writers from a South Asian background.
Kali seeks out original writers who challenge our perceptions, it focuses on content and ideas as much as on style to present memorable theatre based on challenging and innovative ideas.
Of all the new plays by British Asian woman playwrights presented since 1988 in the UK, nearly a third have been presented by Kali and of the plays by new writers, over 75% were presented by Kali.
Since 2002 Kali’s Artistic Director has been Janet Steel.
Kali’s first productions was Song for a Sanctuary in 1991. Written by Rukhsana Ahmad and directed by Rita Wolf in 1991, the play was inspired by the horrific death of Balwant Kaur, a Sikh woman murdered by her husband, in front of their children, for running away to a women’s refuge. It went on to tour with an Arts Council grant and closed with a successful run at the Lyric Theatre Studio in London. It was also broadcast by BBC Radio 4 and nominated for a Susan Smith Blackburn Award.
Kali Theatre under the stewardship of Janet Steel has pushed boundaries in the field of theatre by staging productions in alternative spaces such as Behna a play written by Sonia Likhari was performed in 2010 in the kitchen of a real house.
Upcoming works include Twelve. Inspired by shocking reports from the Metropolitan Police which state that on average twelve women are murdered in the UK in the name of family “honor”, this piece of work features twelve monologues, one from each writer, each exploring some aspect of the lives of one of these murdered women woven together.
Teachers: Please feel free to use this document with suggested questions to guide your classroom discussion: