Why British Asians don't get the arts and don't want to either

It's all about making money and making good – and that, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argues, is a tragedy
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The Independent Culture

What Good Are the Arts? was the title of a book by John Carey, whose iconoclastic lectures captivated me long ago when I was struggling to adapt to the peculiarly musky atmosphere of Oxford. Grandiloquent claims that the arts fill a God-shaped hole, rouse rapture, or set down ultimate moral templates are, Carey writes, assumptions or exaggerations: "The notion of artworks as sacred implies that their value is absolute and universal. Value, it seems evident, is not intrinsic in objects, but attributed to them by whoever is doing the valuing."

Pragmatic relatives have been asking me Carey's key question for decades, ever since I disappointed them all back in Kampala, Uganda, when I decided not to be a doctor or lawyer, and to devote myself to literature instead. How they tutted and fretted: "What stupidity is this? Will you eat novels?" "Girl given such a huge brain. Foolhardy choice." "Come into my business, you will be manageress earning so much, will give you shares also." I ignored them, never got shares in Uncle's hugely profitable auto parts firm.

British Asians today still don't get the arts, and don't want to either. Got better things to do. They push their young people into real jobs that bring in big bucks, or at least good brides from families with big bucks. A painter, novelist, playwright, actor, cannot be admitted into respectable or wealthy dynasties – unless, of course, there is evidence of stardom.

For me, the arts touched and exalted, took me out of time and place, enabled me to shape the confusion around me made by family, community, politics and God. My generation of East-African Asians were taught to appreciate Rembrandt, Monet, Moghul miniatures and the Pre -Raphaelites; we devoured novels and Tagore, tuned into obscure Indian classical music. At the flourishing National Theatre in Kampala we saw and sometimes acted in plays by Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht. The best Crucible I have ever seen was on that stage with my English teacher, Joyce Mann, as a proud Elizabeth.

My peers, the class of '68, now seek out Bombay Dreams, The Sound of Music and Shilpa Shetty extravaganzas: the more expensive, the better for status. They became creatures of clan and community, governed by manners and petty rules. They wilfully jettisoned art for respectability. They made their families proud. Many accumulated untold lucre, others climbed to the tops of educational and professional ladders. They're driven by ambition and revenge: they tried to keep us down, and we showed the goras, whities, didn't we just?

The Jewish diaspora felt the same sense of victory, but there the comparison ends. Jewish migrants had to prioritise financial and professional security, but they always understood the centrality of the arts. They knew that the soul had to be nourished as much as the body; the eye and ears yearned for pleasures beyond the price tag.

Perhaps Asian migrants yearned for those pleasures too. But the scythe of history cut them off from the imbibed, inherited and continuously revitalised appreciation of the music, colour, dance and folk-theatre tradition of their homelands. The pressures of settlement – racism, poverty, anxiety – drained the desire for beautiful distractions. It was all work and deferred gratification.

Some did try to keep the melodies and images alive. They gathered in homes and cold school halls to sing ghazals and qawalis, musical poetry about loss and love and faith. But these nostalgic, melancholic soirees led only backwards, a lament as the life of the imagination passed away. Utterly focused on making good, Asians became adamantly philistine, and the richer they get, the more determined they seem to keep it that way. My auto-mart uncle puts it well: "My dear, if I watch the trees and flowers when I am driving because they are pretty, I will soon lose my way."

Alina Mirza, an Indie film expert, despairs. "Some businesses do support arts events, but nothing controversial, and if they can advertise their products. They want to be patrons, to show off their saris and jewels at openings. To them it is another Mercedes." Her husband, Suhayl Saadi, the Scots-Pakistani novelist, agrees. "The Asian bourgeoisie are inclined towards kitsch or profit – nothing is important unless it is making pots of money. There is an anti-intellectualism even among those who have excellent degrees."

Jatinder Verma, founder of Tara Arts, the British Asian theatre company, observes some stirrings of interest, but largely superficial. "Over the last two decades, people have become more comfortable, and a small number from this emerging middle class are coming in. But too few are passionate about theatre or dance. There is no understanding that the arts have intrinsic value, that they tell us who we are as a society, our relationships. We have not looked to critiquing ourselves, what our place is in this country, this world. We are not yet in love with ideas."

My folk are also risk-averse. They will not expose themselves to art that might show up awkward truths. Globalisation unsettles them further, makes some retreat into themselves, exert intolerable control over their own. Remember the shame and scandal over Behzti, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play about child sexual abuse by a religious leader? Volatile Sikh protesters spooked the Birmingham Rep, which withdrew the production. Bhatti later explained, overexplained: "It was a sincere piece of work in which I wanted to explore how human frailties lead people into a prison of hypocrisy. Theatre is not a cosy place, designed to make us feel good about ourselves." The pity, the pity of it all. Such successful migrants still so closed off.

In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, plays such as Free Outgoing, by Anupama Chandrasekhar, which deals with consensual teenage sex and ugly social hypocrisy in South India, push the frontier of acceptability and interrogate traditional values. That renaissance has yet to happen here. Sure, Asians flocked to Rafta Rafta at the National. The script was sharp, the acting superb. Yet, part of me regretted that the playwright, Ayub Khan-Din, who gave us the vivid and subversive play East Is East, was making a concession to Asian populism that will serve the National's ethnic audit well but does not push audiences off the comfort zone. It is the same endlessly repeated story of British Asian life: wedding, marriage, extended families. Bold artists who break out of these claustrophobic themes would play to empty spaces were it not for white enthusiasts; British Asians largely ignore their work. Compare this to the thousands of British Jews who flocked to Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years. They came for great lines and characters like the rest, but also to see their stories refracted through the eyes of an unflinching writer.

Asian crowds can be drawn to such work under false pretences, says Sudha Buchar, co-founder of the Tamasha theatre company, which roots itself in Asian entertainment conventions and then upends expectations – clever deception, for a greater good. Their Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral and Strictly Dandia played to full houses.

But finding sponsorship remains a struggle. Wealthy Asians are frightfully mean when it comes to the arts. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, galleries are named after benefactors who went to the US as refugees and made their fortunes. How many British galleries are named after Asian donors? The Mittals throw lavish parties and buy football clubs; the Hindujas gave to the catastrophic Dome for smiley pics with the Blairs. But neither family appears to care for the arts.

Sir Gulam Noon, a Muslim, is one of the rare Asian millionaires who backs exhibitions and theatre productions; he is also an enthusiastic collector of paintings. "I have never sold a single painting," he says. "Muslims in particular have no idea any more of our great artistic traditions. They are indoctrinated by these ignorant imams. It is so sad."

The fear factor cannot be underestimated. British Muslim parents ask teachers to keep their kids from art classes, drama and poetry. Films offend more Asians than excite them: My Beautiful Laundrette ("Dirty bloody film, we don't have homosexuals"), Bhaji on the Beach ("One of our girls having a black boyfriend? Never can happen"), Brick Lane ("Our women do not have affairs, insult to our ways"). The novelist is even more misunderstood. Rushdie is hated beyond belief. Kureishi, too, gets them going, as does Monica Ali. Gautam Malkani, author of Londonistan, isn't even Muslim, objectors said, and had no right to imaginatively enter their ghettoes.

Chila Burman, an exuberant artist whose Indian dad settled in Liverpool, is a success with collectors in India but is finding it much harder to win over British Asians. "They just don't go to galleries," Burman says. "How many of us do you ever see at the Royal Academy? And yet we come from such visually vibrant cultures and traditions. I think it is because they are all into films and community entertainment." Zarina Bhimji, shortlisted for the Turner Prize last year, is another artist who struggles for acceptance from her own community. She did once manage to get her stuff displayed in a Muslim centre, including a piece featuring real female pubic hair. The centre put up with the upsetting image – which shows some change, I guess.

Shobana Jeyasingh, a trained Indian classical dancer and avant-garde choreographer, knows well the clash between Asian heritage or religion and modernity. "Contemporary art is the enemy of everything they value,"she says. She believes this conservatism is a scar of colonialism, the collapse of collective self-confidence. Between Bollywood and Ravi Shankar is where British Asian arts flounders.

"Asian kitsch has cachet now," says one composer who wishes to remain anonymous. "The young would rather go to fashion shows than exhibitions, listen to Britney rather than Nitin Sawhney. There are, of course, brilliant individuals who will always rise, but with no blood links, cultural pathways to and from their people. We British Asian artists are lost before we were found, and I am very depressed about the future."