From March 16, Tara Arts, the pioneer in Asian theatre in English in Britain, will be touring eight cities in the U.K., with its epic trilogy `Journey to the West'. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM interviews its founder - Artistic Director, Jatinder Verma.
Jatinder Verma ... migration, his abiding theme.
JATINDER VERMA'S name evokes instant recognition and respect in cultural circles in England. Tara Arts, the theatre group he founded in 1977, is the pioneer in Asian theatre English in Britain making a vibrant multicultural pluralism accessible to all. The initial members of the group were young Asian migrants from Eastern Africa and the Indian sub-continent. "With bits of memories, jokes, customs, souls in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, Tara tent-pitched in inner city London is literally a window on the world of cultures: a world founded on journeys (on foot, by train, ship, plane)," say its members.
Jatinder, the artistic director of Tara has developed the concept of Binglish theatre theatre infused with the language, colour, music and sensibilities of Asians in Britain. In an interview, he traces the growth and concerns of Tara and throughout, the `I' is conspicuous by its absence. This though he has 60 productions to his credit and is the first Asian to be invited to direct at the Royal National Theatre.
His group has paved the way for development of other Asian theatre companies and has thrown up individual creative talent such as Sanjeev Bhasker, Ayub Khan Din, Sudha Bhuchar and Shaheen Khan. Jatinder's adaptation of Moliere's "Tartuffe" for the National Theatre in 1990 was followed by another production, "The Little Clay Cart" for the prestigious company and in 1995 Tara collaborated with NT in "Cyrano". Contemporary plays as well as Shakespeare, Gogol, Buchner, Shudraka and Bhasa have been staged by the group.
From March 16, for the first time, the full trilogy of plays comprising Tara's epic production "Journey to the West" will be staged in eight cities in Britain beginning from Manchester.
"Migration has been an abiding theme in my work," says the Tanzanian-born director whose parents left India for East Africa in the early years of the century and then settled in England.
"Revelations - 2000, Tara Arts.
The first play "Genesis" speaks about the grandparents leaving India for East Africa in the early 1900s, the second, "Exodus", of the parents leaving Africa for Britain in mid-century and the last, "Revelations", of the children born in Britain who grow into the new millennium in this country.
Jatinder says the epic is based on "living histories, true stories and real lives" as the plays have grown out of interviews held with a wide cross-section of Asians living in Britain. "The 1,500-odd people that were interviewed for this production have been the critical soul of this project. We hope the production echoes the contours if not the details of their stories".
Jatinder says "White writers are not looking at us `so let me', I thought. Why did Asians leave for South Africa and then for Europe? What are the consequences of their being here? The story of any Asian is unknown in this country."
"Journey to the West" is about migration and also women's role in it. "For us, feminism, racism, communalism and casteism have all been part of the same spectrum of cultural discourse. When there is any upheaval, war or migration, women become victims of all kinds of angst." In each of the three plays, the central figure the sutradhar, the iconic figure is a woman.
"I am tired of theatre audiences," says Jatinder. So he has involved the community in his work and the pre-show events are held at schools and market places. "We have had a great response in all the venues from the migrants and it was moving because of their ignorance," he says. "There was such a hunger to know about themselves and they had to come to the theatre to find out."
The multi-media events were an audio book on the Ramayana; a documentary on the Kenyan Asian exodus; a film and an oral history archive and publication of the consolidated interviews.
"In multiculturalism, the truth is something alien and you have to transcend it. Otherwise, you are hiding behind a sweetness like celebrating Deepavali and other festivals `happily' as a group, for the truth is not really happy."
When Tara Arts was founded, "our impetus was to find a voice," says Jatinder. "Then, there was no theatre done by Asians here. Ours was the first English theatre Asian group in Britain." A single event in the summer of 1976 led to the founding of Tara and Jatinder's passion for theatre. "It was the hottest summer in terms of racism there was a real sense of being under threat and the first racial riot broke out in Southall. Many were attacked and a boy, Gurdeep Singh, was killed. But what we see in terms of confidence of the Asians comes out of those protests," says Jatinder.
Tara adopted Tagore's "Sacrifice" and took two important decisions. "Our job was to be critical of society and we also decided we would be looking critically at ourselves. We chose a road and adapted themes of Shakespeare and Moliere as a reflection of our times."
The third decision was to use English as it would reach out to more people.
"From 1977 to 1982, we were probably not different from any other fringe company in England," muses Jatinder. "The dramaturgy was very similar to the English and we thought it was not quite right as we should concentrate on the Asians."
Vijay Tendulkar's "Ghashiram Kotwal" staged in 1981 in London by a group from Pune, came as a revelation. "The dramaturgy was entirely foreign to us but it was entirely understandable; movement and song were integral to the play."
When Kirti Jain from the National School of Drama began conducting workshops for Tara, it set them off on the road to looking at India and at another form of theatre.
"The rhythm of theatre in India and the body language is something we don't have and never will," he adds. "To copy it entirely would be wrong but you can look at its various parts and make some of it part of your own dramaturgy which is what we did.
Moliere's "The Bourgeois Gentilhomme", 1995.
"We have still not established a separate art," he concedes gracefully, "but from 1984, we have established a distinctive dramaturgy inspired by the Natya Sastra."
Anuradha Kapoor came to work with Tara in 1985 for "This Story is Not for Telling" and this was a watershed for she had a sense of the history and variety of theatre in the Indian tradition." Jatinder's face lights up when he talks of Karnad and Tendulkar and their contribution to the Indian theatre movement and the link forged between tradition and modernity in the 1960s and 1970s. A significant leap forward was when the National Theatre approached Jatinder to do a play for them. "I did not hunt the NT out. They came to me because they needed someone like me, an Asian, not because of any inherent merit but because it was politically correct." "Tartuffe", adapted from Moliere and set in the court of Aurangazeb used a range of forms. "It began with a salami in Urdu in the very English National Theatre, which was unprecedented.
"Tartuffe" proved to be a tremendously popular production. Straight after "Tartuffe" came "Oedipus".
The next play for NT was strategic, "The Little Clay Cart". "It was stylised and stunned viewers not just by its form but also the story. It was received well even by the critics."
"Playing the Flame", about young Asians in England, "Inquilab Amritsar 1919" on the Jallianwala massacre and "The Government Inspector" number among the significant productions of Tara.
"Being in theatre is an uphill struggle. Being an Asian makes it that much harder," says Jatinder, who holds a Masters in South Asian Studies from Sussex University. "In our English schools and in the media, there is no study of Asian theatre. The English know only Chekov east of the Urals. You can forget Asia completely," he says with bitterness. "That sort of backwardness of the English is very difficult to understand. Indian actors who work with me have a much better understanding of world theatre.
"In Richard Eyre's recent book Changing Stages: Looking at 20th Century British Theatre, 30 years of Asian theatre has been completely ignored." He is indignant. "Asian TV series, BBC productions have all been totally left out. These categories by writers have no meaning.
"`Journey to the West' is the project I want to tour India with. I have respect for theatre persons in India but till now I did not have anything different to show them," says the winner of Time Out's Outstanding Contribution to the World Theatre Scene Award, with characteristic modesty.
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