Jatinder Verma: Tara Arts, and Protecting Multiculturalism

Sunetra Senior Wednesday 11th December 2019 06:37 EST

Jatinder (MBE) is the founder of Tara Arts: a key player in driving multicultural theatre throughout London. Over the last 40 years, the lauded theatre company has helped raised the profile of a diverse range of diaspora narratives, from keeping alive the viewpoints of traditional culture to exploring the newer, existential questions of the mixed-race experience in a modern, post-colonial world. This includes the company’s first landmark piece, brought to the stage in the mid-Seventies, Sacrifice by the famed Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore. Jatinder commented: “It was great to be able to re-introduce Tagore’s work to Britain, and comment on what was going on in our own era.” A more recent production, which just ended its run at Tara, is Homing Birds by the Lahore-born writer Rukhsana Ahmad, “which asks if a place can ever be home without a connection to family and roots.”


Tara Arts has a very unique history. It was the first establishment to be owned and run by BAME dramatists, when the term ‘black’ was a badge of honour under which anyone who was not deemed the then lionised status of white could unite. “I welcomed the voices of any marginalised culture, and happened to be an artistic leader of South Asian descent”. Over time, individual cultural narratives became increasingly nuanced given the prior platform and an increasingly accommodating artistic society: “I have worked with some fabulous Indian actors, introducing Indian dramatic form into my theatre too.”

The theatre has then charted the progressive trajectory of cultural integration from the time of mass migration, following formal decolonisation to the current era of globalisation with cosmopolitanism at its height. However, here Jatinder poignantly emphasised a new yearning in minority communities for a supportive social space: “a lot of BAME artists are again longing for security in expressing themselves. They are feeling unwelcome.” This mood is undeniably connected to the xenophobia surrounding the phenomenon of Brexit. Jatinder elaborated on the resurgence of this anti-immigration sentiment within the context of his own migratory experience:

 “I was part of the Kenyan exodus in 1968. This made national headlines at the time. I remember having a conflicted response as a fourteen-year-old. It was thrilling to see myself in the news, but at the same time disconcerting. Immigrants were being told they were unwanted. There were rentiers with signs that said ‘No Curries’. It was ambivalent. We were being asked to come over, but targeted as a source of trouble in the public eye.” The catalyst for Tara Arts theatre was the murder of 17-year-old Gurdip Singh Chaggar by racist thugs in 1976. Today, Jatinder reports “actors being slapped in the street, and a senior member” of his own staff being told to go back to her own country. He also reminded of the recent case of a Punjabi couple being refused adoption rights due to racial discrimination. Again, though the government seems to deny a latent nationalist stance, society’s actions say otherwise.

This cultural regression is due to the fact that the close-minded legacy of imperialism has fundamentally persisted. In effect, we are not witnessing a new racism, but rather racism resurfacing. Jatinder elaborated: “colour is about more than skin. It is about the stories of a particular group of people, which have not yet made it into the mainstream.” This can be seen clearly in the fact that traditional European plays are being rewritten through a colonial perspective on bigger and bigger stages, but rarely “the historic plays of marginalised people.” Jatinder continued: “Yet India and Africa have such vast literature denoting their own pasts – where are they?”

This is, of course, especially important since Britain legitimately shares a close history with its ex-dominions. Jatinder commented: “People like to believe we’ve taken tremendous strides in cultural progress, but there’s been stagnation. For example, 15% of Britain is made up of BME communities, but only 2% of arts funding goes to representing arts led by minorities.” He highlights a bureaucratic gap in equality. Indeed, broadcaster Anita Rani has also recently campaigned to have Indian Partition nationally commemorated alongside a widespread call to have colonial history taught comprehensively in the UK’s schools.

The consummate, conscious projection of a plethora of emotive perspectives into the public realm would unconsciously rewrite the wider narrative of national identity to be more open. Here, Jatinder quoted James Baldwin as a famous post-colonial critic: “he stated that you should not drown in history, but rather learn from it. In terms of identity politics, you can either spell ‘roots’ conventionally or as ‘routes.’ The latter takes you forward while the former traps you in the past. We can either be compelled towards making connections amongst ourselves in the future or continue to fear difference.”

He further emphasised the power of storytelling, or narrated accounts, in reshaping personal perception to accomplish this. “Just witnessing an alternative imagination invites you into the wonder of another world – you don’t even have to know the religion, nationality or culture to which it belongs.” For example, the company recently staged a children’s production, drawing on Hindu mythology: “The children were amazed to see an apparently mortal man, the God Krishna, contain the whole world in his mouth! They were fascinated by this magic.”

This latent appreciation can certainly be applied to adults. To be British could easily mean feeling part of a vibrant democracy. However, far from coming to terms with the colourful inner architecture that constitutes it, the country remains beholden to a one-dimensional concept of superiority. Multiculturalism then cannot just be spoken; it must also be deep-rooted. This is why Tara Arts’ sole force has been BAME subjective expression. “We want to utterly deconstruct the historic notion of ‘the other.’ It’s a western distortion. Historically in Britain, there has been conflict between Christians and Jews, then Protestants and Catholics, and now colour and whiteness.”

It's the preservation of this particular harmful mentality that repeatedly catalyses hate. Institutionally overturning a splintered past based on this default psychology is to truly negotiate modern British identity. And so fittingly intuitive, Tara Arts not only tells of the importance of underrepresented stories, but also politically protects the strong character of multiculturalism that underlies them.

Tell us a bit about an upcoming show?

Very soon it will be the 185th anniversary of the end of slavery, which marks the beginning of a new system of Indian slavery. At Tara Theatre we’ll be hosting a new play about Indians who were taken to Mauritius to work in British sugar plantations. This will be called The Great Experiment.

Tell us a bit about the Tara Theatre?

It is based very near Earlsfield overground station - which is only 10 minutes from Waterloo. As well as welcoming in a range of BME theatre, the physicality of the theatre is unique. It’s a meeting of East and West, and has been a source of delight for visitors and artists alike. We have authentic ancient Indian doors, welcoming in an audience to a stage floor which is made of earth. The mood is very intimate, with comfortable seating.

Finally, exactly how can we make multicultural imagination part of the national dialogue?

Our own communities must become active champions of the arts. We must demand that our stories be shown on major public platforms such as the BBC. Secondly, we must be philanthropic in our endeavours, being prepared to financially support our own young peoples’ efforts. Finally, we need critics to counter the way mainstream critics are looking at the world.

W: https://www.tara-arts.com/


“Colour is about more than skin. It is about the stories of a particular group of people, which have not yet made

it into the mainstream.”

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