Tara Arts co-founder and artistic director Jatinder Verma tells Theo Bosanquet why he has decided to leave the multicultural London theatre company after 43 years, how he sees the theatre sector’s development over that time – especially concerning funding and diversity – and what he plans to do next
Standing on the earthen stage of Tara Arts’ home in Earlsfield, south London, behind its beautifully ornate Indian doors, Jatinder Verma is discussing the reason he is leaving after 43 years. “The creation of this theatre was a long-held dream,” he says – Tara was set up in 1977 as a touring company, before moving to its permanent home in 1983 – “This is a true crucible for drama.”
His decision to depart now is not just based on a nostalgic sense of mission accomplished. There is anger behind it too. The venue has seen no uplift in funding following its extensive refurbishment in 2016, a situation Verma describes as “ludicrous”.
“There’s a paradox whereby Arts Council England commits to capital funding without any commensurate increase in revenue funding,” he says. Tara weathered a 50% cut to its core funding in 2008 and has remained at this level ever since. “You just don’t understand the logic behind it.”
It’s a familiar story from long-standing artistic directors. Nicolas Kent left the Tricycle Theatre (now the Kiln Theatre) in 2012 in protest at funding cuts, while Sam Walters, whose tenure at the Orange Tree was as long as Verma’s, left just before the venue lost its national portfolio organisation status.
Verma says rather than continue to “battle with the funding”, it felt like the right time to stand aside. “What else is left in me?” he adds wearily.
Funding issues aside, he has much to look back on with pride. He founded Tara with Praveen Bahl, Ovais Kadri, Sunil Saggar and Vijay Shaunak in 1976, in response to the racist murder of 17-year-old Sikh schoolboy Gurdip Singh Chaggar, who was stabbed to death outside Southall’s Dominion cinema. Verma says the killing, which sparked riots from the Asian community, reflected the “overt racism” of the time.
How does he assess the landscape today? “Diversity has become to some extent the norm; colour has seeped into Britain,” he replies. “However I think it’s hiding a covert racism that is still there, and events of the last few years have shown the world has drifted right, towards a more fascist and insular state, which is deeply worrying.”
This covert racism, he says, extends to the arts. “There was this phrase that came about in the 1970s and 1980s: ‘institutional racism’. It used to be used mainly in conjunction with the police but we now see it applies to a whole range of public life – and it applies when it comes to artistic funding structures. If you look at the last round of NPO awards, from our own calculations, only 2% of funding went to black, Asian and minority ethnic companies, despite a national population of 15%.”
Verma goes further. “There’s still a sense [in the arts] in which diversity is a social matter – ‘Let’s give these diverse people representation and then they’ll be quiet’ – which I feel is a new form of colonialism… I don’t think the question of multiculturalism has in any way been solved.”
He believes these problems go back to the British army’s colonisation of India in the 19th century, when it recruited ‘ethnic’ battalions to enforce their imperial laws. Verma suggests this laid the foundations of a model of colonial multiculturalism in which diverse people “must be fashioned in enclaves and given a common purpose”.
The central problem of this approach in a cultural context, Verma believes, is that, while sustaining a dual heritage, it prioritises Western works over others. “Shakespeare is in my head at the same time as Kalidasa and [Rabindranath] Tagore. My question to the white establishment is: are they in your head? Because if not, we are doing a disservice to our society.”
Verma has spent his artistic life working to redress this balance. With Tara he has given a platform to leading Asian artists, from Tagore – whose classic anti-war play Sacrifice in 1977 was the company’s first production – to contemporaries including Ayub Khan Din, Shaheen Khan, Sudha Bhuchar, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Nadia Fall.
Journalist Suman Bhuchar, who acted in some of Tara’s early productions, recently wrote: “I, along with many others, would not have got into theatre if it were not for Verma… [He] was inspirational in helping us find our individual voices and developing a style of performance as distinct from a Western theatre form. He introduced us to the Sanskrit classics and when I joined, even taught us our history classes so we could learn about our own shared colonial histories – a cry which has become louder over time.”
Verma says a big turning point for the company came in the early 1980s when its members met Delhi-based director Kirti Jain, and saw an Indian production of Ghashiram Kotwal, set during the early days of the British colonisation, at Riverside Studios. “Our minds were completely blown… The play was in Marathi, which we didn’t speak, but we absolutely understood the story. That’s when I began to make some serious study of Indian dramaturgy, and hit on the irony that the avant garde of Europe were already in dialogue with India.”
Another significant influence was Anuradha Kapur, a pioneer of Indian street theatre whose work included staging performances outside houses of those accused of ‘honour killings’. Verma says he found an echo in her concerns about India with his about Britain – namely, how you marry the legacy of empire with theatrical practices that predate it. “[She taught me] how vital it is to be open to a multiplicity of forms and languages.”
Once he leaves Tara later this year he will continue putting this thinking into practice when he directs Japanese performer You-Ri Yamanaka and English actor Michael Mears in The Mistake, a multilingual production about the bombing of Hiroshima. He hopes to take it to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and on tour, produced by the newly formed Jatinder Verma Productions. Also on his radar is Ben Musgrave’s Indigo Giant, a new version of Dinabandhu Mitra’s seminal 1860 play Nil Darpan, about the Inidgo Revolt, which was censored by the British. He plans to present the play in Bengali and English and will stage it in Bangladesh, India and the UK.
Any notion that he is heading for a gentle retirement is clearly wide of the mark. But the adjustment to freelance life will no doubt take time; after all, Verma has been anchored by Tara for the majority of his career. He says the board has agreed another artist should take over from him, and that the theatre must remain a “place of conversation”; he wishes his successor well, and gives them the advice to “make it as open as possible, so people can paint over it”. He would hate to see the building Tara has occupied since 1983 become a cultural museum, he adds.
Whatever the next chapter holds for the venue, and for Verma, its legacy seems assured. His work has been recognised at the highest political level. When the refurbished Tara Theatre was unveiled in 2016 by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who grew up on the nearby Henry Prince Estate, he said Tara “held a special place in my heart”, and revealed he had spent many hours there, watching productions and even stuffing envelopes. The following year, Verma was awarded an MBE for services to diversity in the arts.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I fetched egg curry for a banker. It helped pay for Tara.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Tara Arts. I briefly formed a company after leaving the National Youth Theatre, but we only did one production.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To cultivate people who are not necessarily involved in theatremaking, but are sympathetic to it. They are the ones who will actually sustain you.
What is your next job?
Continue working as a director, doing the job I love.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Anuradha Kapur, who marries an acute sense of modernity with the distinctiveness of Indian theatrical traditions.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Before you start speaking, look at everyone for five seconds. In that moment they will become impatient, and that’s when you’re in control. Also, it will calm your breathing down.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
An airline pilot – I like going to other worlds. Freud would say: ‘Obviously he likes to be in control.’
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, though I have begun to notice that the first thing I do whenever I come into Tara is open the shutter over the window above the stage. That’s the biggest thing I will miss, to open that window and let the light in.
And his artistic footprint stretches far beyond Tara’s Earlsfield home. In 1990 he became the first director of colour to stage a show at the National Theatre, a version of Moliere’s Tartuffe transplanted to 17th-century India. He fondly recalls telling the all-Asian cast ahead of the first performance that “no one in this audience will have heard Urdu or Hindi on this stage before”. His production embraced this fact, and poked fun at British stereotypes about Indian people. “We accepted the foreignness and moved on from it, to achieve a commonality.”
The exploration of the uneven confluence of British and Asian culture is a thread that runs throughout his work, and indeed his life. Verma was born in Tanzania and grew up in Nairobi, Kenya during the colonial era.
His childhood comprised a heady mix of cultural influences. His first memory of theatre was playing Herod in a school play, but he also recalls the impact of watching the local African Goma dances.
He learnt Hindi, Punjabi and Swahili alongside English, and witnessed the independence ceremony in 1964, sitting on his father’s shoulders as the Duke of Edinburgh lowered the British flag. A few years later, in 1968, his family came to Britain as part of the exodus that followed the introduction of draconian laws in Kenya that forbade non-nationals from holding jobs. At the same time the British government rescinded the right for Kenyan Asians to receive automatic citizenship, something Verma describes as a “great betrayal”. His family was one of many that immigrated just before the bill – which was hurried through parliament in only a week – became law.
He was 14 when he arrived at Heathrow, and remembers struggling to understand the conductor on the bus due to his cockney accent. He also recalls seeing bin collectors, and being shocked to see “white men picking up rubbish – I came from a world where the white man did not pick up rubbish”. His mother started working in a factory, and he tells of the pain he felt at seeing her being forced to wear Western clothing rather than her sari. “In a sense my mother died that day,” he says. This, along with the alarmist rhetoric being spoken around immigration – Enoch Powell made his infamous Rivers of Blood speech a month after they arrived – made him feel distinctly unwelcome.
But the streets of south London gradually became home, and at the same time he started to learn about his own roots. A friend of his mother’s pointed out that Kenneth Clark’s epic series Civilisation – which Verma had enthusiastically consumed – neglected to mention Asian cultures. He became increasingly aware of his paucity of knowledge and began to read in earnest, starting with an English translation of the Gita from the Mahabharata. “I began to look at myself and my culture with a literary eye and started on this journey, searching for connections.”
That journey is ongoing, and he is keen for the next generation to continue it. He is particularly enthused by the entrepreneurial nature and “infectious energy” of today’s young artists. He cites Nyla Levy, whose play Does My Bomb Look Big in This?, produced by Tamasha, returned to Tara in April, and Milli Bhatia, whose credits include The Hijabi Monologues at the Bush, as examples of rising stars to watch. Such talents “give me hope that the fire is not lost,” he says. “It’s the hubris of all older people to think they were the only ones with fire.”
Verma is one of those rare figures whose passion for his art seems inexhaustible. So it is somewhat surprising when he reveals that early on he discussed with his Tara co-founders launching a magazine or radio station before landing on the idea of a theatre – the medium was secondary to the message. His co-founders moved on to other projects but Verma held firm, and a lifelong love was sealed. He remembers telling a colleague during that first production in 1977: “This is it, this is life for me. I know that all my life I will be beating my head against this wall and that my blood will be nourishment for others.”
He soon realised Tara’s early audiences comprised other young people like himself, and they had to broaden their approach to appeal to other demographics. He turned to Bollywood for inspiration, and started drawing on the techniques used by those films. “We [at the company] said to ourselves, what do we listen to? And the answer was a range of music, including Indian music. We realised we talked in a multiplicity of languages. And we started to bring these influences into our work.”
Ever since Tara Arts has firmly linked the Eastern and Western canons, blazing a trail in the process. It has staged retellings of classics from the West, such as The Government Inspector and Oedipus the King, alongside works of Asian origin. Verma’s own productions have ranged from pantomimes to epic cycles to adaptations. In 2009 he returned to the National to adapt Hanif Kureishi’s second novel The Black Album, presciently exploring the rise of radical Islam. If such a kaleidoscopic directorial approach seems de rigueur today, it is thanks in no small part to his example over the past four decades.
Returning to his formative years, Verma reveals that when he was a teenager he crafted his own symbol, a mixture of icons ranging from “the Hindu om and Egyptian ankh to the Islamic crescent and the Christian cross”. He stamped it on his books, and saw it as a personal crest. He now realises, he says, that it was reflecting the extraordinary range of global cultural influences he was consuming, influences that he has continued to channel throughout his career. It does not seem a stretch to suggest that symbol became manifest in Tara Arts, and the many multicultural companies that have followed in its wake.
Born: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 1954
Training: BA (hons) in History at York University; master’s in South Asian studies at the University of Sussex; “One afternoon at the National Youth Theatre”
• Sacrifice, Battersea Arts Centre (1977)
• This Story’s Not for Telling, Tara Arts (1984)
• The Government Inspector, Tara Arts (1989)
• Tartuffe, National Theatre (1990)
• Oedipus the King, Tara Arts (1991)
• Journey to the West trilogy, Tara Arts (2002)
• The Black Album, National Theatre (2007)
• Dick Whittington Goes Bollywood, Tara Arts (2012)
• The Game of Love and Chai, Tara Arts (2018)
• Time Out Award for Tartuffe (1990)
• The Stage Sustainability Award for the refurbished Tara Arts venue (2017)
• Eastern Eye Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts (2017)