Theatre pioneer Jatinder Verma: 'I was simply not wanted'
Forty-two years ago Jatinder Verma and some friends decided it was time Britain had an Asian theatre company. Now, as Verma prepares to hand over Tara Arts to a new artistic director, he says true diversity in theatre has a long way to go.
Verma was 14 when he arrived in Britain from Kenya in February 1968. The Kenyan government was making life very uncomfortable for thousands of Indian families who since the 1890s had moved to East Africa to help build Britain's Empire. Most had a right of entry into the UK.
"I was part of this great exodus of Asians to Britain," he remembers. "There was no way we could stay in Kenya so my family came to London. It was a pretty disturbing year: there were marches on the streets saying Asians out and Enoch Powell made his iconic 'rivers of blood' speech.
"Looking back I see that effectively there'd been a betrayal by the British of the Asians in Kenya. New legislation (the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968) removed the automatic right of Commonwealth citizens to come to the UK.
"I had grown up with an idea of London as a place of great houses and of all the literature. But my own lived experience was often that I was simply not wanted. I went to Spencer Park comprehensive in Wandsworth which I enjoyed. But the sense of hostility was still on the streets. It was another couple of decades before I felt okay, I'm here."
The school is gone but nearby is the base of Tara Arts, the organisation which Verma started with friends in 1977. Since 2016 the building has contained a 100-seat theatre. So did the young Verma always know he wanted to set up the country's first English-language Asian theatre?
"It wasn't that straightforward. One of the things which inspired me was the racist murder in broad daylight in 1976 of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall in west London.
"I think Asians of all generations thought 'there but for the grace of God go I'. It crystallised my sense of wanting to do something to help the Asian community. I talked with friends about producing a magazine or making a film. But a theatre company seemed more practical and it involved immediate conversation with audiences. We wanted to make a statement that we were here to stay."
The first Tara production was at the fringe Battersea Arts Centre in 1977. "The play was Sacrifice by the Indian Rabindranath Tagore. It's telling that this great man won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1913) yet he was all but forgotten in Britain."
Verma says 42 years ago it was tough to find an Asian cast of a dozen or so. "We were desperate to seize the public stage on our own terms. So we looked around and encouraged and cajoled people. In 1977 the number of professional actors in London who could be cast in a Tagore play was very small but there was a sort of community fire and we made it work."
Tara has worked in South Asian languages and there will be a play partly in Bengali later this year. But mainly the medium has been English: Verma knew he didn't want to address only Asian audiences.
"We weren't interested in simply talking to ourselves so the nature of productions and even the advertising was carefully designed to draw in the widest possible range of people. Tara was committed to diversity long before diversity became so fashionable.
"And there were always non-Asians who came and some of that was simply because the play seemed exotic. But over the past four decades I have come to see that the word exotic is an intimate part of what theatre does. We reaffirm ourselves through seeing the difference of another character or another world."
Government figures show that 18% of the population of London - Tara's home city - is Asian or of Asian descent. Yet the percentage of Asian faces in theatre-audiences is seldom near that figure. Does that worry Verma?
"We are definitely seeing more Asian performers on stage and more Asian stories. The Asian audience has also increased since the 1970s - but change is patchy.
"As a rule you won't see many Asians at the National Theatre or at the RSC unless the performance has a particular Asian stance. How far are most productions in London open to a whole variety of people to come in, Asian or otherwise? Partly it's to do with casts but also it's the way you do a production.
"We're still only 50 years from the first large numbers of Asians arriving in the UK. So we are still not at the time where all the peoples who make up modern Britain fully participate in the culture. So how do you attract the very diverse audience in London? That's a question for the National but it's a question for Tara Arts too.
"For instance in the theatre we constantly try to make Shakespeare relevant for modern audiences. But if you assume, as I do, that audiences are increasingly diverse you have to think about how in Shakespeare music and movement and costumes might attract more of an Asian audience."
The process of finding a new artistic director for Tara Arts will continue into 2020. But does Verma fear that when that person is appointed they will face the same battles he has fought since 1977?
"Major institutions in this country have been thinking about diversity for several years and they're starting to think they've just about solved it. There are more and more brown or black people you will see on stage. There are more people who run theatre buildings or perhaps sit on boards.
"But to me that's a colonial attitude straight from the British Raj: 'We've sorted the natives out so now we'll get on with the art.' As an ex-colonised person Shakespeare runs in my head just as much as Tagore does.
"Shakespeare may be in a white person's head but does Tagore run there? Of course not. In a British school people will study British classics and modern work too. But we don't study Indian playwrights or African playwrights.
"So the stories of white culture exist in my head but my stories need to be in the heads of white people too. That's the challenge of the next few decades."