Asian theatre


Asian theatre
   British Asian theatre embraces the work of writers, performers and companies, with the involvement of musicians and choreographers such as Shobana Jeyasingh. Leading performers such as Saeed Jaffrey, Jamila Massey and Roshan Seth work in film, television and radio as well as in mainstream theatre, and the writer Ranjit Bolt primarily translates and adapts European classics. Writers such as Hanif Kureishi and Rukshana Ahmad (both in fiction as well as drama), Tanika Gupta, Parv Bancil and Ayub Khan Din have concerned themselves with issues of Asian identity; so too have the leading companies Tara Arts and Tamasha, and the independent director Indu Rubasingham. Diversity increased sharply during the 1990s, with multimedia presentations coming from companies such as Man Mela and Moti Roti.
   Two independent British productions in 1970 involved the established performers Massey and Jaffrey in dramas about India: Dilip Hiro’s To Anchor a Cloud and Partap Sharma’s A Touch of Brightness, which engaged with the lives of prostitutes in Bombay. In 1974 Roshan Seth became an assistant director for Cymbeline for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and during the 1970s increasing pressure for integrated casting was put on the subsidized theatres by the Afro-Asian Committee of British Actors’ Equity. Critical recognition was achieved by Hanif Kureishi, with his plays The Mother Country (1980), performed at the Riverside Studio, and Borderline (1981), devised with Joint Stock. The principle of integrated casting became more thoroughly established during the 1980s, with productions such as Hedda in India (1982), directed by Madhav Sharma, and Joint Stock’s The Great Celestial Cow (1983) at the Royal Court. David Hare’s A Map of the World (1983) at the National Theatre included an original role for an Asian actor, realized by Roshan Seth, and Seth also took the role of Lear’s Fool in the National Theatre’s King Lear (1986). Of the British Asian theatre companies, Tara Arts staged its first production, Rabindranath Tagore’s The Sacrifice, in 1977. Tara’s artistic aims have been to examine the cultural position of Asians in Britain, and its artistic director, Jatinder Verma, stated that ‘we need to be as critical of ourselves as we are of the society outside’. The company is based in London, and has a tradition of touring. It has also worked on co-productions with Contact Theatre (Manchester) and the Lyric Theatre (London), and has twice been invited to produce at the Royal National Theatre. The company has only ever had a small workshop space of its own, although funding allocated in the 1990s will see its facilities in Wandsworth enhanced.
   Early plays such as Inkalaab 1919 (1980) and Lion’s Raj (1982) were devised, or scripted by Verma, and thematically they mediated between the historical experience of the Raj and contemporary society. In the 1980s Tara began to explore plays from the ancient Sanskrit tradition, such as The Little Clay Cart, and to develop the kind of theatre established in Indian performance, using the resources of dance, movement and music. With Buchner’s Danton’s Death (1989) Tara began an exploration of European classics, including Molière’s Tartuffe and Gogol’s The Government Inspector (1990), Sophocles’s Oedipus the King (1991), Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1994), and Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1995) in a version by Ranjit Bolt. Of these productions, Tartuffe was a major critical success which transposed Molière’s hypo-crite into a parasite in an Indian household, in a production which toured nationally. A further stage in this development was represented by productions of Shakespeare, featuring Troilus and Cressida (1993) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1997). For the latter, Verma acknowledged influences from Beijing Opera, West African dance, Morris dancing, and Indian classical and folk dance, and Tara remains committed to what Verma calls ‘the aesthetics of multiculturalism’.
   Tamasha was founded in 1989 by Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith to produce Untouchable, an adaptation of the novel by Mulk Raj Anand, which explored the treatment of India’s lowest caste. Tamasha has produced plays on contemporary life in South Asia, and on the lives of Asians in Britain. Ruth Carter’s Women of the Dust (1993) commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of Oxfam by focusing on the lives of women construction workers in Delhi; the production was researched in India, and returned to India to tour. Abhijat Joshi’s A Shaft of Sunlight (1994), which examined the marriage between a Hindu and a Moslem in Ahmedabad, and Carter’s A Yearning (1995), an adaptation of Lorca’s Yerma to the Punjabi community in Britain, were coproduced with the Birmingham Rep, and concluded their tours in London. Ayub Khan-Din’s East is East (1996 and 1997) looked at the history of a Pakistani immigrant in 1970s Salford, and the cultural clash experienced by the son of the family: the play came from a script workshop for British Asian writers held at the Royal Court. The company-devised production A Tainted Dawn (1997) commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of partition by drawing on the work of leading South Asian writers, examining the lives of ordinary people caught in the political events of 1947.
   Independently of these companies, the director Indu Rubasingham has promoted multicultural casts and aesthetics in her productions of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala (1997) and of two scripts by Tanika Gupta: Voices on the Wind (1995) and Gita Mehta’s A River Sutra (1997), adapted by Gupta. Rukhsana Ahmad has written for theatre and radio: Song for a Sanctuary, on the loyalties and fears in a women’s refuge, was produced at the Lyric Theatre (1991) and then on radio (1993), followed by the radio play An Urnful of Ashes (1995). Ahmad and Rita Wolf founded Kali Theatre in 1990, using workshops and rehearsed readings to support and develop the role of Asian women writers. Keith Khan and Ali Zaidi have explored visual and physical theatre with their company Moti Roti, and taken their work abroad to Canada, Pakistan and the USA. Man Mela, founded in 1993 and directed by Dominic Rai, has brought classical and contemporary music and dance together with contemporary Asian literature in multimedia events, and developed scripts on HIV and club culture.
   See also: black theatre
   Further reading
    Ley, G. (1997) ‘Theatre of Migration and the Search for a Multicultural Aesthetic: Twenty Years of Tara Arts’, New Theatre Quarterly 52: 349–71.
    Verma, J. (1996) ‘The Challenge of Binglish: Analysing Multicultural Productions’, in P. Campbell (ed.), Analysing Performance, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
   GRAHAM LEY

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.