- Critical Essay on British South Asian Theatre ed. by Graham Ley and Sarah Dadswell
A companion volume to British South Asian Theatres, this collection adds to the growing literature on artists of South Asian descent working in English theatre since the 1970s. Essays range from historical overviews that set the stage for contemporary work to discussions of specific companies or individual performers. Most of the papers were presented at the 2008 British Asian Theatre: Past to Present Conference at the University of Exeter. The book is less useful [End Page 250] to scholars of South Asian theatre in Asia than to those researching Indian diasporic artists working in Anglophone cultures. While there is limited discussion of the use of Indian aesthetics in developing Western plays (as in a discussion by Chandrika Patel of Jatinder Verma's "Binglish" version of Marriage of Figaro placed in Mughal India and using Guajarati bhavai as a "style"), most discussion is of contemporary text-oriented modern drama by British of South Asian descent who use theatre as a forum for cultural-political examination.
In the introduction the editors note that, given the visibility of British South Asian work in the theatres since the 1980s, "Its absence from the academic or critical record seems inexplicable"—the book intends to redress this lack of "an appropriate level of secondary reception . . . from an academic or critical standpoint" (p. 1).
The first essay is an overview by Naseem Khan. She is author of the groundbreaking book The Arts Britain Ignores: The Arts of Ethnic Minorities in Britain (London: Community Relations Commission, 1976), which laid the groundwork for the change in government funding policy by the 1980s and helped landmark companies like Tara Arts and Tamasha to emerge as strong producing units with significant public funding. Khan discusses the multicultural movement from the 1970s to the present, noting the generational divides within the South Asian community and the confusion over what British Asian arts are (classical or contemporary? community-based or in professional venues?). She acknowledges weaknesses of the Arts Council policies, but she also asserts successes. The support encouraged British South Asian artists to look outward, partnering with non-Asian artists and producers or bringing in noted artists from the subcontinent as collaborators. The funding, she states, created a "stepping stone from ethnic specificity to mainstream statement" and "nudged Britain into seeing itself as a multicultural society" (p. 13). Khan contrasts the firm basis from which South Indian dance launches into its postmulticultural-era existence. She praises such extravaganzas as Escapade (directed by Keith Kahn, 2003), mounted by the dance institution Akademi with 137 performers in a piece that combines club culture, film, and skateboarding. Khan sees it as part of a dance new wave, but she questions whether theatre moves from as strong a base, given the more fragile place theatre holds (compared to dance or music) within the the diasporic community (pp. 18-19).
The next few essays help the reader see aspects of the chronology. Colin Chambers's in "Images on Stage: A Historical Survey of South Asians in British Theatre before 1975" (pp. 21-40) considers depiction of South Asians, noting the early use of the Indian (usually Native American) as "other" in the English Renaissance literature, the rise of East Indians [played by British] as peripheral characters onstage accompanying the rise in the importance of the British East India Company in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and nineteenth-century orientalism and the ethnological fascination of cultural exhibitions. Chambers takes time for the twentieth-century phenomenon of Tagore's dramatic work, as well as discussion of the importance of Indian student theatrical activities at British universities. This overview is a useful survey. [End Page 251]
The next essays give insights into transformations in the 1980s. Susan Crofts discusses the emergence of bilingual (English-Bengali) theatre, especially the participatory Half Moon Young People's Theatre in London, which worked on "bridging the gaps between language communities in Tower Hamlets and between the theatrical...