Charubala Chokshi as Shanti,
Strictly Dandia, 2003

Charubala Chokshi as Shanti in Strictly Dandia

Winner of a Herald Angel
Award for Choreography

“An energetic style that is
hard to resist”
The Financial Times

Spotlight: Asian Theatre

By Kristine Landon-Smith

The Independent | 16 January 2004


Ask anyone in the business to name an Asian theatre company and they will come up with Tara or Tamasha. The more informed may add Kali or Moti Roti. After that, they are stuck.

Jatinder Verma set up Tara in 1975, Sudha Bhuchar and I started Tamasha in 1989, and Kali and Moti Roti followed in 1990. Recent years have seen a rise in work of Asian influence: the RSC’s Midnight’s Children, Hobson’s Choice at the Young Vic, Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams. It would be nice to think that the influence of Tara and Tamasha is partly responsible. “Two major West End productions with all-Asian casts wouldn’t have happened even five years ago,” says the writer and actress Meera Syal. But does an Asian cast or subject matter make for “Asian theatre”? What is Asian theatre”?

As we open our new show, Strictly Dandia, I have to admit to some apprehension. I have total confidence in the production, but Tamasha now has a history, and I am feeling the weight of it. We previewed it at the Edinburgh International Festival, to mixed reviews. As artists, we’ve all had good and bad reviews. What interests me are the points raised: “This isn’t Bollywood” (we never said it was); “Is this a cross between A Suitable Boy and The Kumars at No 42?” (No, and if you saw the show, why ask?)

Why, in 2004, are we still treated as part of a collective, of a movement labelled “Asian theatre” of “British Asian theatre”. This categorisation is simply not useful. It implies a particular form or approach that sets Tamasha’s work apart from that of other mid-scale touring companies. Complicité are “physical theatre”, Trestle are “mask theatre”, Out of Joint are “new writing” – and Tamasha is an “Asian” company. The difference is that the former are categorised by their art-form, while Tamasha is categorised by its ethnicity,

Of course we do work from an Asian sensibility, but that’s about who we are and what we want to say. With the burgeoning interest in all things Asian, the label sticks. Its effect is to sideline the company’s work as not necessarily legitimate and not part of mainstream British theatre. It’s exhausting; we’ve been around for a long time.

Our current show began as a piece of research into the Gujarati community. “Community” – we have found that the mere mention of that word has undervalued our work. Why? A mainstream company doing the same thing is praised for its diversity. When we explore subject matter from our own community it can be viewed as unsophisticated. We’ve had productions such as East is East, described as having changed the cultural map of Britain, yet we are questioned about a possible “community” approach. This worries me, as I feel that when we tackle areas perhaps unfamiliar to a critical theatre-going audience, our artistic credentials are being questioned for the wrong reason.

It has been suggested that although Tamasha’s stories are fascinating, the way we tell them is confusing. We never tell a story the same way, with the same form – are we trying to emulate some oriental approach? My question is – must we have a house style? I am happy not be pigeonholed as a company that creates theatre in this or that way. For a lot of people, Asian now means Bollywood or sitcom, so as creative artists in this field, are they the only things we’re allowed to do?

Strictly Dandia is about a Muslim boy coming to a Hindu festival and trying to pass as a Hindu – not the obvious East/West interface, but audiences get it. However commentators who view the work through their understanding of “Asian theatre” can be suspicious. My feeling is that my work is being viewed through glasses clouded by preconceptions. So where are we? And where do we go from here?

It’s a complex question. The categorisation I have been talking about means that “ethnicity” not only clouds responses to our work, but is a double-edged sword in terms of programming. We get programmed (good), but possibly for the wrong reasons – to tick boxes. When the Government and Arts Council set diversity targets, we cannot blame the theatres. It does benefit us, but it prejudices us as artists.

In any form of art, at any point in history, it’s about people – who we are, where we are from, our influences, our likes and our dislikes. It is personal and different for every single one of us. So I think it would be useful to have this conversation, to be asked to speak on panels where diversity is not the only issue, and to be listened to as an individuals rather than as an Asian artist.

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