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British South Asian Theatres: A Documented History by Graham Ley and Sarah Dadswell (review)

From: Asian Theatre Journal
Volume 30, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 248-250 | 10.1353/atj.2013.0015

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This well-edited book grew from a research project on British Asian Theatre and serves as a model of how the oftentimes ephemeral and fragmentary history of companies that make up a movement can, using a combination of book and digital possibilities, be gathered into a larger nexus that reveals the patterns and differences in these diverse groups. The artistic outcomes that result from the British agitation of the 1970s with the growth of identity politics and the development of a multicultural movement in the 1980s are evident. The material on the DVD is a wonderful addition, with clips of significant productions as well as diverse visual materials culled from the archive: photographs, documents, and programs.

The movement documented here shows the efforts of second- or, in some cases, first-generation Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi British in carving out a theatre by and for their community (and, in some cases, the general public as well). The first chapter gives a short overview and notes the 1976 Arts Council and Community Relations Commission report, The Arts that Britain Ignores: The Arts of Ethnic Minorities in Britain (London: Community Relations Commission) by Naseem Khan as setting the stage by recommending funding for the movement. Ongoing language issues are introduced, and it is noted that Indian-language works may remain contained within each specific community while the use of English could bind diverse artists together and at the same time open material to a general audience (netting greater grant support). Throughout the book the issues of funding are part of the discussion of how these companies rose and sometimes vanished.

In thirteen chapters we get a look at each group: brief overviews of Tara, Hounslow Art Cooperative, Actors Unlimited, British Asian Theatre Company, Asian Co-operative Theatre, Tamasha, Kali, Man Mela, Watermans, Peshkar Productions, Asian Theatre School, Rifco, and Rasa Theatre. In each case the authors detail the founding, clarify the artistic thrust, and give insight into the major work through description of the productions based on interviews with company members, photos, programs, posters, reviews, and video footage. (Those who keep the DVD open while reading can view clips of works being discussed while reading about that work.) Space limits the depth of description but the reader does get a sense of the activities and changing perspectives of major figures or groups. We sense, for example, Tara's beginnings as a rather realistic and polemic theatre, created for social action and providing a space for South Asian voices. We see it evolve into a company exploring Indian movement idioms and/or classical texts in an overall agenda of creating an artistically polished professional theatre where actors and directors of Asian descent could experiment with canonical Western texts and develop their own intercultural aesthetic. Likewise on the DVD we see photocopied and sometimes barely readable sheets with political manifestoes or history lessons become polished PR materials. The theatre training that most groups carried into the work initially tended to be amateur enthusiasm, British drama school or university drama work, or workshops at publicly funded theatres sympathetic to developing diverse voices, like Royal Court or, later, Tara, which after it gained status as a multicultural theatre then helped train a number of artists who went on to found their own organizations.

As with Asian American theatre groups, I was struck by the fact that the traditional Indian genres are not normally a part of these companies' works. Shobana Jeyasingh, as a trained bharatanatam exponent, might in Miti ke Gadi (Little Clay Cart, 1984) add choreography drawn from South Indian dance to Jatinder Verma's Tara production, but Asian dance, music, and theatre genres are far from the norm—most performers lack training in actual Indian practices. This is, of course, understandable when works largely arise from social justice concerns and use comic critique or Brechtian interventions. Some groups (Tara) have approached the aesthetics of the subcontinent and folk or classical dance theatre sometimes attempted Indian based genres, coinciding with the period that Indian modern drama artists began to look for their own "Theatre of Roots."

There is work that links some groups with contemporary artists of South Asia. We see forays into the intercultural experiments...

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