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Reviewed by:
  • British South Asian Theatres: A Documented History
  • Kathy Foley
British South Asian Theatres: A Documented History. By Graham Ley and Sarah Dadswell, editors. Exeter: University of Exeter Press (distributed by University of Chicago Press), 2012. 265 pp. + DVD. Paper $37.25.

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 development of a multicultural movement of the 1980s are evident. The material on the DVD is in a wonderful format with 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 by Naseem Khan, as setting the stage by recommending funding for the movement. Ongoing language issues are introduced, noting that Indian-language work 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 the general audience with 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 in each individual company. We sense, for example, Tara’s beginnings as a rather realistic and polemic theatre, created for social [End Page 580] action, which provided a space for south Asian voices. We see it evolve into a company exploring Indian movement idioms 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 aesthetics and ideas. 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 either amateur enthusiasm, British drama school or university drama group experiences, or workshops at theatres outside the movement but sympathetic to its aims, like Royal Court, or groups within the movement like Tara that helped train and launch a number of leaders in subsequently founded organizations.

As with Asian American theatre groups, I was struck by the fact that the genres or experiences of Asian traditional performances are not normally a part of the companies’ works. Shobana Jeyasingh, as a trained bharatanatyam exponent might on Miti ke Gadi (Little Clay Cart, 1984), adds choreography drawn from South Indian dance to Jatinder Verma’s Tara production. But Asian dance, music, or theatre genres are far from the norm, and most performers lack the experience of such forms. Something which is understandable when works are largely rising from a social justice concerns, comic critique, or Brechtian interventions. The longer-term aesthetics of the subcontinent in folk or classical dance theatre sometimes...