Strictly Dandia, 2003

Strictly Dandia

Winner of a Herald Angel
Award for Choreography

Very funny, cutting edge cool and hugely enjoyable”

High Kicking Up a Storm

Strictly Dandia review by Maxie Szalwinska

The Scotsman | 19 August 2003

Tamasha means "commotion" in Hindi and that’s exactly what the theatre company is hoping to create at the Edinburgh International Festival next week.

Their latest production, Strictly Dandia, is a tale of Hindu-Muslim love, billed as a cross between West Side Story and Strictly Ballroom with a Gujerati twist. The setting is the competitive world of the Navratri Festival; nine nights of celebratory dancing in Britain’s widespread Gujerati community.

Tamasha’s artistic directors, Kristine Landon-Smith and Shudha Bhuchar, spent months gathering first person testimony as the raw matter for "a very modern British story". Dandia, a kind of stick dance, is a huge phenomenon all over Britain. Young people turn out at gymnasiums, large halls and leisure centres dressed to the nines: "They plonk this shrine down in the middle and off they go," says Landon-Smith. "It’s ostensibly a very traditional, circular dance."

"But it’s a religious event at one level and a pick-up joint at another," adds Bhuchar. Part of the aim, she explains, is to display your prowess on the dance floor, and caste tensions and rivalries can give a real edge to the atmosphere. The production, they say, will touch on "caste, community, honour, respect and love" - not to mention gyrating bodies.

Tamasha, co-founded by Landon-Smith and Bhuchar in 1989, is considered to be Britain’s foremost Asian theatre company. It shot to prominence in 1996 with its production of East is East, British Asian playwright Ayub Khan-Din’s mixed-race drama set in a Salford chip shop; a show that played to bulging houses at London’s Royal Court and made a successful transition to film. Their reputation was bolstered further by a feelgood Bollywood musical, Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral (1998), and Balti Kings (1999), a play about goings on in the underbelly of a Brummie curry house.

International Festival director Brian McMaster was one of the many who fell for East is East. He asked the company to open the festival in 1997 with A Tainted Dawn, a piece tackling Indian partition. He says he has wanted to bring them back ever since.

When I meet Tamasha it’s audition day and in a London studio Landon-Smith and Bhuchar are putting batches of young British Asians through their dance steps to find "actors who like to move" for their new piece of dance theatre. "When we started out, you might see 30 people and 20 of them would be real duds. These days we see 45 and we’re recalling 20," says Landon-Smith. This group will be pared down to a cast of ten.

Tanzania-born Bhuchar, now 40, came to Britain aged 11. She had a nomadic childhood, shuttling from Dar-es-Salaam to Bombay. Painfully shy until her late teens, Bhuchar compares herself to the boy who hides in his hooded anorak in East is East. Acting was an accident that happened when she stumbled on a performance by Tara Arts, Britain’s oldest Asian theatre company in 1979. It was "the beginning for a lot of us," she says; including the actor-turned-playwright Khan-Din. Bhuchar joined Tara Arts full-time in 1983 and stayed there until jobbing actress Landon-Smith arrived.

"We were a bit like: ‘What’s Jatinder Verma [Tara’s founder] doing bringing this white woman in?’ Though that didn’t last long," says Bhuchar.

In the end Landon-Smith was instrumental in Bhuchar flying the Tara nest. As for Landon-Smith: "Tara didn’t really suit me. It was quite a political movement," she says.

Forty-five-year-old Landon-Smith was born in England of an Indian mother and an Australian father, growing up Down Under. Aged 20, she came to study at The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. The two women set up Tamasha "to give ourselves opportunities as artists", says Landon-Smith. Their first production was Untouchable, an adaptation of Mulk Raj Anand’s classic novel.

The Tamasha partnership seems to have worked because the pair don’t tread on each other’s toes. Landon-Smith directs the shows and covers the admin side of things. She’s also a producer for BBC Radio 4. Bhuchar, the one with the "finance brain," acts (she was Meena in EastEnders) and writes. With Shaheen Khan, Bhuchar was behind the BBC Radio series Girlies, as well as Balti Kings.

Tamasha may be kitted out these days with a groovy little London office - until a few years ago it was run from Landon-Smith’s flat - but it labours under the same difficulties as other national touring companies. Established theatres "put on work of variable quality all the time but we haven’t got that luxury," says Bhuchar. Tamasha has achieved what Landon-Smith calls a "a middle-scale position" on the touring circuit, but finds itself fighting for space now that more venues are developing their own Asian work. "It’s nice to have modest successes but at this stage it’s not enough," says Landon-Smith. It’s hardly surprising that she talks about insidious exclusion by the English theatrical establishment, given the 2002 Eclipse report into combating racism in theatre. The report, put together by the Arts Council of England in conjunction with the Theatrical Management Association and regional theatres, stated that four per cent of the 2,009 people employed in the industry were black or Asian.

However, Tamasha’s detractors say that the company’s work has not always been up to scratch, that it has simply "plugged a gap" and that Tamasha’s success has been predicated on one bit of excellent luck: the East is East script falling into its lap.

When Ryman and the Sheikh ran at the Pleasance Dome last year the critics unsheathed their blades on the satire. A Tainted Dawn has been called worthy rather than moving, and according to some critics Ghostdancing (Deepak Verma’s intriguing adaptation of Therese Raquin set in the Punjab) was a fine idea weighed down by clunky direction.

The importance of Tamasha should not be underestimated, however. "East is East changed the map in terms of people accepting Asian work as mainstream. And that fed into film. And Bollywood is a legitimate musical genre that’s here to stay," says Bhuchar.

The company has been instrumental in nurturing new acting and writing talent, providing a showcase for Asian artists. Bhuchar and Landon-Smith were key in helping Khan-Din to develop the East is East script, which existed for a long time as a string of scenes from the playwright’s family life.

"I’d agree that the quality of the work has been mixed but that has been part of the learning process," says arts journalist Maya Jaggi. Tamasha spotted the potential of Bollywood musicals, a trend that the country was ripe for long before Andrew Lloyd Webber’s £4 million musical Bombay Dreams, Jaggi points out.

"Any company that takes risks inevitably falls flat on its face sometimes, and that’s fine," adds McMaster.

Jatinder Verma, the founder of Tara Arts, claims that "Tamasha, along with other companies, is opening up British theatre. The fact that there are two well-known companies is in itself significant."

Still, there is a lack of high-profile black and Asian theatre companies in the UK. Tara Arts, which has had work on at the National Theatre in the past, has been in the theatrical shadowland for some time. There are other Asian companies around, Kali and The Big Picture Company to name two, but it still "surprises me that there has not been another company of significance", says Landon-Smith. "It’s from the grass roots that the landscape changes."

What’s certain is that the number of Asian youngsters going into acting is on the increase, though the small and big screens are hoovering up many of them. And there are some theatres in the land (the Theatre Royal in Stratford East the Leicester’s Haymarket) with a commitment to Asian drama that goes beyond programming the odd thing. Yet, despite the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent Midnight Children and Tanika Gupta’s plays at the National, major breakthroughs in regional reps and national companies have yet to come.

With the company’s 15-year anniversary looming, "we’re asking what is it that we haven’t done that we should be doing," says Bhuchar.

Tamasha’s future seems to hinge on opening up to collaboration and expanding its new writing programme (EastEnders star Deepak Verma has a play about Indian hijras [eunuchs] in the pipeline).

According to Jatinder Verma, the challenge facing major houses, is "not how to incorporate the odd Asian or black actor - because to a certain extent that’s what they’re doing - but to create genuinely cross-cultural programmes."

The challenge for Tamasha, in other words, is to raise its game and force more of the big boys to open the stage door.

Strictly Dandia is at the King’s Theatre, 27-30 August 2003.

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