Telling political stories

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Yes-Memsahib-rehearsal---Tara-Arts-1979.jpg

Rehearsals for Yes, Memsahib at Tara Arts in 1979

In 1977 Jatinder Verma got together with some like-minded friends in south London and founded Tara Arts — the first British Asian theatre company. It was a political act, fuelled by resistance against racism, and it catalysed an Asian theatre movement in this country, with many of Tara’s early associates going on to found their own companies. This movement linked up with other radical theatre makers, including those coming out of the struggle of African-Caribbean youth, such as the Black Theatre Co-operative, which also emerged in the late 1970s. Four decades later Tara Arts is still going strong, with Jatinder Verma at its helm. Continuing Socialist Review’s series on political theatre, Hassan Mahamdallie talked to the company’s founder about the political roots of Tara Arts, what it was trying to achieve and its continued relevance today.

Act 1: Arrival

Fourteen year old Jatinder Verma arrived in London in February 1968 with his mother and sisters. The Vermas were one of many Kenyan Asian families who came to “the mother country” that year rather than face increasing hostile measures against them brought in by the “Africanising” government in power in the former British colony. They were exercising their rights as British passport holders. A month later the British Labour government, shamefully bowing before a racist campaign headed by Tory Enoch Powell, rushed in blatantly discriminatory legislation to stop any more Kenyan Asians claiming their citizenship rights. Then in April 1968 Powell made his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech that unleashed a tide of violent racism against blacks and Asians, breathing new life into Britain’s far-right. Arriving at Heathrow Airport in early 1968, Jatinder found himself having to cope with profound shocks — both cultural and political.

JV: When I arrived in London I had a book knowledge of England and white people from my colonial education. But it had no correspondence with reality. On the bus journey from Heathrow to north London the ticket inspector asked for our tickets, but I couldn’t understand him. He was speaking cockney. I had no idea that English had any variation. Then, looking out of the window, I saw a dustman — a white dustman! My world crashed.

I had arrived in that iconic year, 1968. Enoch Powell’s prominence was at its height. It was really hot in terms of race. Indeed, the evening we arrived I saw myself on television — the news headline was “The exodus of the Kenyan Asians”, with footage of Asian people streaming down aircraft steps. It was very strange to arrive and be immediately made public, and to realise that public persona was an entirely negative one, which you had no control over.

But the image which sums up the entire period for me is of my mother. I had grown up in Nairobi with an idea of her as a housewife, dressed in a certain way, in a sari. On her first day of work in a factory she was told she could only work there if she wore slacks and a blouse. No saris allowed. So the next morning I saw my mother in slacks and a blouse. For the first time I saw her shape, and she was no longer my mother — she was a woman. Again my world crashed.

For me, that sums up migration; a palpable physical loss, a stripping down. Equally — and this is looking back on my mother and other women at that time — it was also a re-birth. Not in a way I would wish on anyone, but I have to accept that. My mother became a much more dynamic woman than if she had stayed in Africa.

In that early period we knew we were not welcome. At school, walking down the road, it was “Paki” and “Nig-Nog”. It was constant. But for a lot of us, for a time there was a sense that you could keep the Enochs at bay by being among yourselves in the family or the community. You found ways of keeping your head down. However, by the mid-1970s you were absolutely aware that you were all prey to violence; that there was nowhere to hide, you couldn’t escape and that it could happen to you. If you were dark skinned you had to be careful — you had to go out in groups, there were certain parts of the city you shouldn’t go, and certain parts of the tube lines you knew you shouldn’t go down at certain times of the day. This was the real impact of the killing of Gurdip Singh Chaggar.

Act 2: Murder and rebellion

On 4 June 1976 Gurdip Singh Chaggar, an 18 year old Sikh student living in Southall, west London, was stabbed to death in the street by a gang of white racists. The police refused to accept a racist motive and Gurdip’s murderers were never brought to justice. The murder and the community response galvanised a generation of young Asians unified against police harassment and racist violence. Young Asians took to the streets in anger and formed Asian Youth Movements, first in Southall, then across the country. That political anger spilled over into other arenas of struggle, including the arts and culture. Jatinder Verma, by now a young university graduate, fed up with racism, decided to use theatre as a way of dramatising the defiant slogan of Asian youth in revolt: “Come what may, we’re here to stay.”

JV:While the murder itself was horrible and enormously tragic, it was the first time there was a sense that every single Asian, whether they were young or old, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, realised that “there but for the grace of God go I”. When news of the murder broke, wherever and whoever you were, you felt the same thing. By then there was a generation born or growing up here who could see nothing but their future being in this country, and they said, “Fuck it — this is not going to happen to us — we are going to resist.” They said, “No — the streets are ours as well as yours,” and we will achieve a public presence. A sense of public community emerged.

It was in that context that Tara Arts grew up. Up to that point, by and large, the Asian who appeared on stage or screen was nothing more than a glorified spear-carrier. If you like, Tara was another act of resistance — using our stories and connecting with the stories of others. Those were the origins of Tara Arts and African-Caribbean companies at the time like the Black Theatre Co-op, Temba, Keskidee. There was a commonality between us all. Black and Asian companies were emerging as a response to “colour” and how it was reducing us to outsiders.

Theatre was a way of changing minds, both our own and those we wanted to talk to and interact with — the white majority. It was a statement of principle that our theatre would communicate in English, because after all that language was our most potent claim to being “English”. We didn’t want to do plays in Hindi, or Bengali or Punjabi, because that would be going back into our communal groupings and keeping our heads low. But we also wanted to make English our own — to inflect it with our stories and our way of speaking it.

Act 3: Only connect

Tara Arts’ first theatre production in 1977 was Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore’s 1890 pacifist play Sacrifice. The programme notes announced Tara Art’s manifesto and unity with black youth:

“We seek to express the young coloured experience in Britain…To truly appreciate our position here in British society is to give life to our cultural heritage. This means reacting to the National Front and others like them; and not dismissing but rather feeling for Lewisham, Notting Hill, Southall; what happens to them happens to us… We dedicate this initial venture of ours to the memory of Gurdip Singh Chaggar. It was his misfortune to have been a lesson to us only in death.”

JV:For our first play we chose one by an Indian playwright that the English had forgotten — Tagore. But then we wanted to tell our own stories, but how to create our own plays? We weren’t from drama schools — no one had formal training. We knew the Royal Court Theatre had a writers’ programme; were there people there willing to work with us on devising new work? Very fortunately we got help from the director of the Royal Court’s Young People’s Theatre programme, Gerald Chapman, as well as the playwright Alan Bennett. They were both very willing to impart their skills. We sucked them dry! And then we began to devise and put on our own plays.

After Sacrifice we did Fuse, which was a devised show about Asian kids and schools. There were two central characters; one was a boy who had been in the country for a while and felt kind of settled, the other had just arrived. It was about the conflict and interaction between them. We did the first performance in a school.

In 1979 we did Yes, Memsahib, which looked at the racist rhetoric about Britain being “swamped by aliens” used by Margaret Thatcher in that year’s general election. We took a historical parallel — that of the transportation under the British Empire of Indian “coolie labour” to build the railways in Kenya, and how they were exploited and then shafted. It mirrored the way South Asian and Caribbean migrants had been invited to help rebuild Britain after the Second World War, and build the NHS and public services, and how they too were now being shafted.

In 1981 we put on Vilayat (England your England), which was about an Asian man who loves all things British, decides to be a Labour councillor, and then switches to the Tories, and the impact that has on his family.

But from the late 1980s we saw the beginnings of the process of globalisation and also an unravelling of a certain world order — East and West — with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I wouldn’t say that the commonality disappeared, but there were gradual shifts — for example, from race and class to religion.

With the rampant global capitalism we see today you also began to make different sorts of connections. At a particular moment in time you may find your connection is more with peasant fighters in Peru rather than necessarily Asian youth in east London. Our audiences also changed. In the first period our audience was mostly young people like ourselves, both Asian, black and white, because you were all part of the movement. But we didn’t want to be just talking to ourselves, and we began to ask new questions — what about the elderly? What about the working class?

So, for example, in 1983 we went out into the community and talked to young and older people. Out of that came a play called Ancestral Voices about the generational divide and the way in which elderly people felt in some sense set adrift and cast aside by the youth.
This is, of course, a general question, but we put our own cultural and historical spin on it.

We began to look at different ways of telling stories, using dance and music and parables. We know we will always be foreigners, and have our own cultural baggage, but how do we connect with someone who is not like us and take them on a journey with us?

We began to do our own adaptations of classics of Moliere, Ibsen and Shakespeare and twist them in our own unique way. So in 1990 we became the first Asian theatre company to have a co-production with the National Theatre, when I directed an adaptation of Moliere’s comedy Tartuffe, transporting the action to 17th century Mughal India. We used various theatrical techniques, including rituals and popular traditional forms from India, and had live music by an Indian master percussionist.

If today I still subscribe to the notion of “Asian Theatre” it is because I can see in it the theatre of the world. It is a way of connecting with the world, not a way of separating ourselves. I know the paradox is that the big funding and theatre institutions may use the label “Asian” to put us in the margins and ghettoise us. I can’t help them thinking that. But do I believe or accept that? No. Either you are imprisoned by the label or you’re not. That’s why it is so very, very important that I continue to keep myself open to the stories of the world.


Timeline of British Asian theare

Tara Arts was the first in a long line of British Asian theatre projects.

The west London Hounslow Arts Cooperative (HAC) was founded in 1980. HAC was influenced by a combination of the militancy of punk rock and the political resistance of the Southall Youth Movement: “Because of the influence of punk we wanted it to be…much more open in the sense of being a challenge, but also a challenge to the authority within our own communities.”

Actors Unlimited, which grew out of the National Association for Asian Youth, was launched in 1981 by Indian RADA-trained actor-director Madhav Sharma, and was “dedicated to multi-racial and multi-cultural theatre”.

The British Asian Theatre Company was set up in Hackney, east London, in 1982 to “produce plays about social issues facing Asians in Britain”, and the Asian Cooperative Theatre (1983) was the fruit of a typically ambitious intervention into the theatrical arena by high profile radical cultural activist Farrukh Dhondy.

Two companies led by women emerged from Tara Arts during the late 1980s and early 1990s with the founding of Tamasha (1989) and Kali (1991). Tamasha, run by former Tara actors Kristine Landon-Smith and Sudha Bhuchar, turned the artistic gaze back to the sub-continent with its inaugural production of Mulk Raj Anand’s famous tragic novel about the caste system Untouchable. Kali’s first production Song for a Sanctuary, written by Rukhsana Ahmed, who had her first commission as a playwright at Tara Arts, took a violent event in an Asian women’s refuge as its subject material. It had originally been commissioned by the radical feminist theatre company Monstrous Regiment.

Man Mela was founded by Dominic Rai, who was inspired after seeing a Tara Arts production in 1984.

Between 1992 and 2000 former Hounslow Arts Cooperative co-founder Hardial Rai programmed a huge array of new Asian theatre and performance at the Waterman’s Arts Centre in Brentford, west London, and developed many new playwrights.

Peshkar began life in 1991 as a community-based theatre project in Oldham, Lancashire, and then developed into an Asian theatre company.

The Asian Theatre School was set up in 1996 by the left wing Leeds-based theatre company Red Ladder. The School was run by Madani Younis, who then went on to found Freedom Studios in Bradford before becoming the present artistic director of the Bush Theatre in west London.

Rasa Productions, founded in 1998 by Rani Moorthy, a Sri Lankan Tamil from Malaysia, came to prominence with one-woman shows performed by herself, such as Curry Tales.

Rifco (Reduced Indian Film Company) was founded in 1999, and has become successful in creating “vibrant, accessible and high quality theatre which reflects and celebrates the contemporary British Asian experience”.

Later this year Tara Arts will launch a new season of work in a new purpose-built 100-seat auditorium in Earlsfield, south west London, the only venue nationally to be dedicated to small-scale multicultural theatre.
www.tara-arts.com