The history of British South Asian theatre is primarily a history of companies, each of which has developed their own style and approach to theatre-making. This section gives a brief overview of some of these companies, past and present, which were included in the research and books from the project, showing the rich and diverse range of their work. For more information on these and other companies, see the list of readings on the Resources page. There are also more recent companies which haven’t been included as this website focuses primarily on the histories researched for the project.
Tara Arts was originally started by a group of young coming together in the aftermath of the murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall, in 1976. They wanted to use performance as a means of making political and cultural comment on their experiences. Their first production was Rabindranath Tagore’s Sacrifice (‘Balidaan’), performed in 1977. Jatinder Verma became the Artistic Director, and the company began to receive funding, performing and touring a range of productions. Over time, Verma developed an approach to aesthetics that he called ‘Binglish’, creating adaptations of western and Indian canonical texts. In 1983, the company opened a new venue in Earlsfield, London, as a permanent home for their work, and a venue for ethnic minority arts. The renovated venue was was opened by Sadiq Khan in 2016 as Tara Theatre. The company and venue are still going strong, and have made a significant contribution to the development of British South Asian arts and culture. Jatinder Verma stepped down as artistic director in 2016, and was replaced by Abdul Shayek.
Tamasha was formed by joint artistic directors Kristine Landon-Smith and Sudha Bhuchar. Their first production, Untouchable, was performed in London in 1989, having been shown in Delhi the year before. Together with designer Sue Mayes, they created many groundbreaking productions set in both India and the UK, including their landmark production of Ayub Khan-Din’s East Is East in 1996. With productions including original works, adaptations, and musicals, the company has been highly significant in the history of British South Asian theatre. Fin Kennedy took over as artistic director in 2013.
Kali Theatre Company
Kali was founded by Rita Wolf and Rukhsana Ahmad in 1991. Their intention was to create a space for new writing by South Asian women about issues which concern them. Their first production was Song for a Sanctuary, permed in May 1991, written by Ahmad and directed by Wolf. The company has since provided a forum for many professional and non-professional Asian women writers, directors and performers. Janet Steel became the new artistic director in 2002, succeeded by Helena Bell in 2016.
Rifco stands for the ‘Reduced Indian Film Company’, and its artistic director started creating productions in 1998. His approach has been to attract Asian audiences who wouldn’t normally come to the theatre by producing work that is enjoyable, but still addressing important issues. Often using music and dance, particularly of Bollywood and Bhangra, their productions such as The Deranged Marriage and Britain’s Got Bhangra have been successful in drawing in new audiences. The company is currently based at the Watford Palace Theatre.
Asian Cooperative Theatre (ACT) started in 1983, and over the next six years the cooperative included a number of practitioners including Farrokh Dhondy, H O Nazareth, Tariq Yunis, Dilip Hero, Kipak Basu, Hanif Kureishi, and Jobaidur Rehman. Their mission was to create new plays on contemporary themes to showcase British Asian talent. There were six plays produced during the lifetime of the cooperative.
The Hounslow Arts Cooperative (HAC) played a significant part in the development of British South Asian theatre. It began in 1980 with young artists Poulomi Desai and Hardial Rai, as an arts collective. Their work included a range of activities including visual arts, a magazine, a band, and being part of the political youth scene, particularly in neighbouring Southall, as well as cabaret and theatre performances, particularly once writer Ravinder Gill joined. Rai started a regular cabaret, ‘One Nation Under a Groove’, which developed once he became the Cultural Development Officer in the Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford. These cabarets became the birth of the future of British Asian comedy, with performers including Sanjeev Bhaskar, Merea Syal, Nina Wadia and Kulvinder Ghir, who later went on to create ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ on radio and television. HAC’s final production was in 1991.
Mehtab was formed by writer and performer Parminder Sekhon, with the assistance of Hardial Rai. The company produced some of her evocative and challenging plays, including Kali Salwar (1996), and Not Just An Asian Babe (1997). In collaboration with Rai and the Watermans, Sekhon also produced a South Asian LGBT festival, Sweet Like Burfi, in 2000.
motiroti company was formed by Keith Khan and Ali Zaidi in the early 1990s. Their first main production was Moti Roti, Putti Chunni in 1993, a Bollywood musical theatre performance exploring gender. Tim Jones took over leading the company in 2012, and the final production was in 2014. An archive of their work can be found in ‘Future Histories’ as part of the National Archive: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/d6aae234-88d1-4c43-8da1-e9a3f11090eb
Rajni Shah Projects
Rajni Shah is a performance artist and writer, who produced a range of work as part of her company including Mr Quiver (2005-2008), a durational piece where she juxtaposes the characters of Queen Elizabeth I and an Indian bride. Though she continues to make work, the company closed in 2017 with the performance ‘One Final Act’.
As well as companies, a number of venues have been important in supporting the work of these companies, including the Watermans Theatre; Theatre Royal Stratford East; Lyric Hammersmith; Riverside Studios; Royal Court; Birmingham Rep; Rich Mix; and more recently the Leicester Curve.