Critical Essays on British South Asian Theatre

Critical Essays on British South Asian Theatre

by Graham Ley

Critical Essays on British South Asian Theatre marks a major contribution to the understanding of one of the most remarkable examples of diasporic artistic activity in recent history. The second volume on British South Asian theater compiled by Graham Ley and Sarah Dadswell, this volume provides detailed critical analyses of theater practice and performance


Critical Essays on British South Asian Theatre marks a major contribution to the understanding of one of the most remarkable examples of diasporic artistic activity in recent history. The second volume on British South Asian theater compiled by Graham Ley and Sarah Dadswell, this volume provides detailed critical analyses of theater practice and performance from the last thirty years.

Editorial Reviews

Chris Banfield

“A carefully considered and most welcome planned addition to the (surprisingly neglected) documenting and appraisal of British South Asian theatre.”

Product Details

University of Exeter Press
Publication date:
University of Exeter Press - Exeter Performance Studies Series
Product dimensions:
6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Critical Essays on British South Asian Theatre

By Graham Ley, Sarah Dadswell

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2012 Graham Ley, Sarah Dadswell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-909-3


British Asian Theatre

The Long Road to Now, and the Barriers in-between

Naseem Khan

It is impossible to even start to consider British Asian theatre without engaging with the wider cultural context of race, representation and integration. Virtually since its inception, the genre (if genre it is) has based itself in a controversial area—hard to define, difficult to place and impossible to simplify. Both its existence and its struggles to find a foothold have said more about the British social scene than they have about the intrinsic quality and merits of British Asian theatre itself.

There is a commonly held myth about the British capacity to absorb. Part of Britain's virtue is held to be its tolerance, seen in the way that it can take in difference and make it its own. But the last half century has demonstrated nothing of the sort. It has seen struggle, disappointment and confusion, lit up by several bright sky-rockets in the dark and trackless night.

To be fair, the theory of absorption held water in times when change was slow and gradual. Dissecting the English language, for instance, reveals layers of vocabulary laid down by conquests, trade routes, religious practice and empire. I have always been struck by the experience of visiting London's Museum of Garden History. You might think that little could be more quintessentially English than an English country garden. But you must think again. The Museum's sample garden has all the usual suspects (roses, hollyhocks, irises, geraniums and the like). But closer examination reveals that they are all incomers. Notices by each one give the date at which it was first recorded. It transpires that truly 'British' native species are few and far between, and that those few consist of green and undifferentiated foliage. The familiar colour of 'traditional' English flowerbeds came in through trade routes, colonisation and plant collectors such as the Tradescants and Joseph Banks.

The slow change of outline that took place horticulturally no longer holds good. The pace of change has quickened and international tensions have made accommodation a far more troubled affair. Nowadays the description of cultural diversity expounded by the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, in the 1960s, which stressed tolerance and laissez-faire, can seem sadly old-fashioned. More recently the ground of the debate has shifted and tangled up with it British Asian theatre and culturally diverse expression at large. Attitudes to difference have taken a sharp turn, to focus on the threats of mixed societies rather than—as in earlier times—on the advantages. Anxiety over the development of a fragmented society with no central allegiance has meant that diversity policy is beginning to be questioned. The doubt has been reinforced by a number of artists of black or Asian origin who publicly reject any identification of themselves in racial terms as stereotyping, constraining and racist.

Behind it all lies an uneasy new malaise that ponders wider fundamentals. What is 'Britishness' and 'British culture'? Is it in danger of dilution, as some claim? What relevance do new cultural voices, springing from different ethnic roots and experiences, have? Or old non-indigenous traditions kept up by diverse ethic communities?

Looking at this concern from the standpoint of culture is a curious experience. It is hard to see the dangers in cultural diversity that are now increasingly cited in broader society. How has this panic arisen or where has it come from, we might wonder? It differs from confusion. Confusion over the true nature of other cultures or cultural voices has been present as an element ever since those voices were officially recognised some forty years ago and, when they had become openly acknowledged, it then increasingly underpinned policy. The turns and shifts reflect policy's constant search for the 'right' solution. What seems curious in the current climate, however, is the way in which general (and legitimate) concern over a socially unified Britain has apparently come to mean a similarly homogeneous cultural life. How this conflation has arisen is hard to understand. It is well known that culture has always grown by accretion, and that its influences observe no territorial boundaries. Rather than creating exclusion and incomprehension it enables connection and makes for empathy. But we seem to be in danger of losing that perception in anxiety over national security.

This is not to say that today's more complex societies do not pose profound issues. But it is disappointing that the terms of the debate have been dictated so largely by a different agenda and that so few voices are raised to challenge what is fast becoming received wisdom: that 'multiculturalism has failed'.

The impact of multiculturalism

How has 'multiculturalism' affected Asian arts? A seemingly simple question becomes more complex the more we look at it—what is 'multiculturalism', firstly? And, secondly, what are 'Asian arts'? The first term is taken to imply official approval—if not a downright encouragement—for people of different ethnic origin to cut themselves off and define themselves solely in terms of their once mother culture. Is this reading correct? A look back at the history of cultural policy—with its regular attempts to build bridges—will tell us that it is certainly not the case. The second term is, of course, so broad as to be meaningless, leading to yet another one of the many problems in this highly complex arena.

Terminology has been an issue throughout the history of this country's varied ethnic engagement. It signifies more than a confusion over what to call various manifestations of the arts. For, unpacked, it can be an extraordinarily revealing guide to unarticulated attitudes. The long chain of title and counter-title started in the 1970s, with the first research into the nature and scale of activity, when the term 'ethnic minority communities' arts' was coined. It was generally considered reasonable, by artists as well as what was still then called 'the host country'; at that time, with communities still fragilely settling in, it was not disputed. The bulk of the (considerable) arts work that emerged was very locally based and community-focused. Overwhelmingly, it took the form of activities promulgated by community associations or held together by highly motivated individuals. Very few people could aspire to earn their living via the arts and they were technically 'amateur', which should not be taken to mean poor quality. Interestingly, strong feelings towards rejecting professionalism and official support made themselves known in the conferences that followed the publication of the research I undertook at that time as The Arts Britain Ignores. Partly this was an act of shrewd protectionism. People—and especially community leaders—realised that official funding would bring in other criteria and lead to a loss of control. In this they were correct. But partly it was a reflection of the role that the arts played in their communities' lives—from Poles to Pakistanis, Cypriots to Sri Lankans. Nationally there was an impressive record of community endeavour and support—community halls of varying status and stature (Derby's Poles, Manchester's Indians and Ukrainians, Cardiff's Pakistanis) and a flowering of celebratory events around Chinese New Year, Eid, Baisakhi and Diwali. Largely invisible to the mainstream, this work entered the public arena mainly in the form of Multicultural Evenings frequently organised by the active network of community relations councils that was at that time a force across the country.

The 1970s and the publication of The Arts Britain Ignores brought a wealth of creative work out of the closet and challenged funding systems to define their attitude and response. Typically they did so in terms of their own perspectives and frameworks, first of all linking the new work that had appeared on the scene with the then emerging Community Arts movement. This linkage failed to appreciate the distinctiveness of the work itself—the difference between, for instance, classical music training with its strict adherence to tradition, and moves towards South Asian contemporary dance. Again, from the viewpoint of the funding system, because very few 'diverse' artists earned their living in the arts it followed that they were not professionals and therefore could be funded only via Community Arts. At a local level, the youth services started to take a hand, funding, for instance, the energetic National Association for Asian Youth and the Southall Youth Movement, which, in their turn, gave rise to a quantity of energetic profile-raising competitions, activities and festivals, from bhangra to pop music to amateur theatre.

The social work and community arts connection turned out to have longer-lasting implications. It was responsible for persistent suspicions about 'quality' and motivation. What was the apparently hidden aim of the policy? Was it instrumentalist in nature, concerned more with building community than with the arts and artistic quality? A feeling persisted that official approval of 'ethnic arts' was really part of a tacit plan to create racial harmony or—as we would put it now—'community cohesion'. And good old racism surely played its quiet part in questioning whether 'ethnic arts'—as they then became more snappily called—were really on a par with native indigenous Western arts. It could be argued that, despite progress, this incipient sense still colours reactions.

But there was another element that helped to shape the stance and perception of 'ethnic arts'. This came about through the alliance that the arts at that time made with the rights movement. The 1960s and 1970s saw significant popular protests, across the board, around discrimination and inequality. Statistics showed clear disparity—fewer and less good jobs, fewer economic opportunities, worse housing, worse schooling: the list could go on. The fight for equality had, of course, to include a fight for the individual creative voices of people who were oppressed, and whose inner lives had a value that had not been recognised officially. But that sense of special pleading has also marked the perception of the 'diverse' arts, and it may be that we need to look more closely at the connection nowadays between equal opportunities and artistic practice.

Right from the start, the contradictions in assuming a homogeneity became apparent. 'Ethnic arts' were not 'community arts', or only occasionally so. New arrivals on the cultural scene felt no identification with that siting and insisted on the wider relevance of their work. Tara Rajkumar, for example, started the Academy of Indian Dance in the 1970s—renamed the Akademi and one of the major forces now in South Asian arts development—not as a suburbs-based enterprise but with clear aspirations to the mainstream. Classically trained in India, Tara had been appalled at the amateurish opportunities she had found for her work when she had arrived. She had found herself put on stage, she said with some alarm, in a mixed variety show to promote 'intercultural understanding', sandwiched between a limbo dancer and an Armenian poet. A generation that had largely or entirely grown up in Britain wanted to escape the backward gaze of the community-focused work but its close coupling with community and equality in terms of funding at that stage did not help.

The attempts to get out of the box have involved a process of negotiation and have involved a raft of conflicting expectations. Young Punjabi-based theatre work in the Midlands in the 1970s used techniques similar to the style of Hindi movies, but struggled to find an audience since the older Asian community generally preferred—understandably—to go to real Hindi movies. The funders (namely, the Arts Council) remembered ethnic roots and still tended to believe that non-white work needed to speak to non-white audiences. This was not confined to Asian work. Frank Cousins, founder of the Dark and Light Theatre, is categorical about the way in which he believes funding stipulations cramped and finally destroyed his pioneering company. The Arts Council had made its grant dependent on tours that were black community-based. And given that no theatres existed that fitted that bill, it meant the company had to find, book and play in adapted community or school halls for one- or two-night stands. The theatrical experience was of course diminished and the expense of hiring in equipment in itself was prohibitive. And a newly black British audience that had little theatrical tradition behind it was predictably slow to come forward.

What was the work? Who was it for? Who were the main movers and players? None of these questions was easy to answer for South Asian arts practitioners at that stage. As with the burgeoning Fringe theatre of the 1970s, there were varying models and aspirations. Anti-racism gave fuel to a number of young theatre groups such as the Bangladeshi Youth Movement in East London. Now a venerable thirty years old, the company was formed in 1977 in sympathy with demonstrations in Southall and the death of activist Blair Peach. But it equally took its energy from outrage at the invisibility of an Asian presence and Asian issues on the main stage. Early productions acknowledged the lack of contemporary material that reflected them adequately and took the very simple step of making their own. In the way of Joint Stock and other radical theatre groups of the time, the group set out to research specific issues and brought material back to base where it was crafted into plays.

Material was one thing, aesthetic another. New performance work had provided a problem for the Arts Council in early days because the work rejected the art-form differentiation that constituted the historic basis of its grants. This new work could wander across boundaries, taking in music, dance and theatre all in one production: so where would it go for funding? Even large-scale events such as the Notting Hill Carnival needed a new department—named, rather weakly, Special Applications—since it could legitimately claim to come under Music and Visual Arts.

The terminology was changing, however, showing that the exclusive linkage to communities was being modified by experience. The phrase 'ethnic minorities' communities' arts' had implied openly that the arts in question were by communities and for communities, and that they were 'minority' in scope. But time was bringing change in both the so-called mainstream and the area of diversity arts itself. World music (the start of Womad, for example, in the 1980s) opened ethnicity out, and 'ethnic arts' came to accompany 'ethnic dress' and 'ethnic food' as a marketable commodity. But the sobriquet 'ethnic' became rightly troubling to practitioners, with its connotations of distance, exoticism, orientalism and glamour. Claims were even made that the dictionary definition of 'ethnic' was 'primitive'. But the real issue was that the title had been applied by the outside world, not by practitioners themselves. One particular segment of the diverse theatre movement adopted the term 'Black Arts', which provided an umbrella that they themselves felt was respectful and appropriate. But not everyone agreed.

Diversity policy and the arts: evolution

In general, when there is no easy answer to a question, the question itself needs to be re-examined. This is the case here too. For the anxiety over terminology actually reflects something wider—a deep-seated confusion over the relative place of new arts and new peoples in the whole pantheon of British arts and society. Previously it had been relatively simple—newcomers were absorbed over time and always had been. But the scale and speed of migration and the fluidity of migration patterns in recent times necessitated other responses. They involved a fundamental reassessment of internal relationships and of the rights and duties of contemporary citizenship. The notorious Behzti story, where a playwright's right to offend seemingly came into conflict with a community's right not to be given offence (though the story in fact was more complicated) illustrates the fault-lines that can appear. Critics took it to be proof that a pusillanimous attitude towards other cultural traditions and mores had led to the undermining of Britishness and its treasured free speech.


Excerpted from Critical Essays on British South Asian Theatre by Graham Ley, Sarah Dadswell. Copyright © 2012 Graham Ley, Sarah Dadswell. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Graham Ley is professor of drama and theory at the University of Exeter. Sarah Dadswell was formerly a research fellow in the Department of Drama at the University of Exeter. Together, they are the coeditors of British South Asian Theatres: A Documented History, also published by the University of Exeter Press.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >