Theatre: A force to be reckoned with

A new generation of Asian theatre is exploding on to the scene. There's everything from culture clashes to the staging of a Bollywood blockbuster. But what exactly is Asian theatre anyway?
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The Independent Culture
In 1968, curry was a bad word," Jatinder Verma remembers. "Asians couldn't rent rooms because their cooking was supposed to stink. 30 years on, curry is a virtue of British life." Thirty years ago, British Asian theatre wasn't even frowned upon; it didn't exist. Over the next few weeks, however, London theatre-goers will have plenty to chew on: there's a haunting portrait of the mass migration of Kenyan Asians to Britain in 1968 (Exodus, mounted by Verma's company, Tara Arts); an adaptation of Mulk Raj Anand's novel, Across the Black Waters, about Indian soldiers in the First World War; a play anatomising the career of a young Asian pop star (Made in England) and a lavish staging of a Bollywood blockbuster (Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral).

It's tempting to view this impressive, diverse array of work as proof that homegrown Asian talent is on the verge of making the same kind of splash in theatre as it has done in the club, music and comedy scenes over the past few years. Asian artistic endeavour is as hot as the curry dishes the nation's collective stomach now so famously holds dearest. But while those companies producing shows this autumn are confident that Asian theatre is becoming a force to be reckoned with, it's a position they want on their own terms, rather than on the back of any passing fad.

These companies are in the paradoxical process of enhancing their profiles by focusing all the more boldly on Asian communities. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Tara Arts, the country's oldest, and for many years, sole- funded Asian theatre company, which Jatinder Verma helped set up in 1977 in the wake of the Southall Riots. Tara has gained wide recognition through its re-working of classics such as Gogol's The Government Inspector and, more recently, its work at the National; an adaptation of Tartuffe, transposing the action to the court of a 17th-century Indian Mogul; an eighth-century Sanskrit play, The Little Clay Cart, and, in 1995, a British Raj reading of Cyrano de Bergerac.

But with Exodus, the first of a trilogy, Jatinder Verma has gone back to his roots, both in terms of the venue (the company started out with community projects at the Battersea Arts Centre) and subject-matter. At the age of 14, the director found himself part of the biggest single migration this century, when the combination of Kenyan independence and the Commonwealth Immigration Act prompted tens of thousands of Kenyan Asians to quit the land they had helped Britain settle and enter Blighty before the door was shut on them for good.

On one level, the intensively researched play, which sketches 10 happy and 10 not-so-happy years either side of the exodus by following the fortunes of three families (one Sikh, one Hindu, one Muslim), provides an invaluable social document. But Verma aims to do much more than that, suggesting an epic experience with sensual immediacy - through striking visuals (moody lighting, dance and puppetry), rousing song, the intoxicating smells that rise from a simmering jiko, and the feel and taste of the chapatis that are offered round at the end. The crucial ingredient is the blend of languages used to lend the piece rus (Hindi for flavour); a swill of English, Swahili, Gujarati and Punjabi. Taken together, this mix comprises "Binglish", a way of collecting, as the director puts it, "the seepage" between cultures.

"The legacy of migration is a multiplicity of languages and therefore a multiplicity of sensibilities," he explains, "and the challenge is to engage with that - to be able to create a text that offers a series of openings for different sets of audiences." It's a challenge Exodus meets - any non-Kenyan Asian can follow the sense, even though individual phrases may prove elusive, and the influence of the Hindu epic, Ramayana, go undetected. A simple image such as two British custom officials suspiciously unravelling a sari carries eloquent force even though it harks back surreptitiously to the Mahabharata.

Tamasha, the second major Asian theatre company after Tara, which has been touring work since 1989, takes a slightly different approach. According to its artistic director, Kristine Landon-Smith, "our `Asianness' lies in the wide range of subjects we deal with and the actors we use rather than in the presentation techniques. We don't have a house style". The company is frank in its desire for an audience divided equally between Asians and non-Asians.

Still, Landon-Smith admits that the show that put them on the map after work dwelling on life on the subcontinent, was East is East, Ayub Khan- Din's sparky debut comedy, staged in 1996, about arranged marriages in Seventies' Salford. "Clearly, with 35,000 people coming to see the play, it would be great to get that audience again. So we're going to do another British Asian comedy called Balti Kings about Balti houses in Birmingham, while a Bollywood play seemed a good thing to do now, because so many young Asians are into music."

Hardial Rai, who runs Tabularasa Arts, a four-year-old company that now produces six to eight shows a year, and is currently producing Parv Bancil's Made in England, sounds a warning note. Bancil's play, he suggests, which records the bitter recriminations between an older Asian punk musician and his young protege who snaps up a recording contract to churn out imitation- Asian teen pop, encapsulates his company's concern that Asian-related work address an Asian audience first and foremost. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic. "Up until now it's been `about' Asians rather than `for' them. Increasingly, it's for them, which generates huge confidence. If you are confident about your culture, you are in a position to share it."

All agree that there is a long way still to go, both in terms of nurturing playwrights (Parv Bancil and newcomer, Ravi Kapoor, aside, there are few who can approach the reputation of Hanif Kureishi in the early 1980s), and acquiring commissioning power within British theatre. Jatinder Verma looks with cautious optimism to the future: "We are fortunate to have more companies around today but there is still no building-based company. There ought to be, now that we're entering a new millennium; a building that is dedicated to Asian theatre. At the moment, we are still in the condition that our parents were in when they first migrated into the country; a time when you were always a tenant and never a landlord. It's now time for us to become landlords."

`Exodus', Battersea Arts Centre, London, SW11 (0171-223 2223), till 1 Nov and then touring; `Made in England', Watermans Arts Centre, Brentford (0181-568 1176) till Sat; `Across the Black Waters', 4-22 Nov, Hackney Empire Studio (0181-985 2424); `Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral', Lyric Studio, Hammersmith, London, W6 (0181-741 2311) 11 Nov-5 Dec and then touring