How Akademi’s touring show The Troth is saluting India’s wartime sacrifice through dance
British South Asian company Akademi is marking the centenary of the First World War with an adaptation of a short story commemorating the Indian soldiers who died fighting for the Allies. Fergus Morgan joins the first leg of the tour, as the production visits five cities across India
India’s Jaipur Literature Festival is an extraordinary event to attend. Since its inaugural year in 2008, it has blossomed from a tiny affair involving 14 authors and 100 delegates into a major international event: a bright, bustling event for writers from across the world that occupies the Diggi Palace Hotel for five days in January in the state capital of Rajasthan.
It’s not like British literary festivals: the crowds are bigger, the audience younger and the cheers louder. There are performance art pieces, late-night parties and a Glastonbury-esque music stage. It is, I am constantly informed, the cultural face of Narendra Modi’s New India.
This year, it’s also the first stop on UK-based South Asian dance company Akademi’s month-long Indian tour, visiting five cities across India with The Troth, a new show commemorating the 60,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting for Britain in the First World War. It is adapted from Chandradhar Sharma Guleri’s 1915 work Usne Kaha Tha, widely considered the first Hindi short story.
I tagged along on the Jaipur leg of The Troth’s tour, following the six performers and the small supporting team from sprawling, smoky New Delhi on an excruciating, eight-hour bus journey to its candlelit world premiere in Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal palace.
It’s a remarkable work that’s already been on a remarkable journey from initial idea to transcontinental tour, as Akademi’s director and executive producer Mira Kaushik tells me.
It began as her idea – a project that simultaneously commemorates the centenary of the First World War, the 100th birthday of Guleri’s story and the 70th anniversary of India’s independence. Getting funding, however, was a challenge, particularly after 14-18 NOW, the official First World War centenary commemoration project, turned her proposal down.
“The Arts Council and the British Council had a funding pot called Reimagine India, part of last year’s UK-India Year of Culture,” Kaushik explains. “We applied in the first round and were rejected. But I didn’t give up. We applied again and got a small amount in the second round – about a quarter of what we needed. Then the challenge of getting the rest started.
“As part of Reimagine India, we had to take this show to India, so then I thought, ‘We’re going to India, maybe I should ask some Indians to consider helping.’ We approached the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and they gave us all the hospitality for the tour: the hotels, the food and the hosts. That’s worth a lot in kind.”
The Troth’s eventual funding structure involves the Arts Council, the British Council, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and its London base the Nehru Centre, the Indian Ministry of Culture and the British army, among others.
“I was invited to a dinner with the head of the British army, General Nicholas Carter, and in the middle of all the debate about how poorly Indian soldiers who gave their lives in the First World War are remembered, I mentioned my show,” Kaushik recalls. “So while everyone was attacking and questioning them about the lack of acknowledgement, I had a solution – a very small solution, but it got their attention. And so the army came on board and supported us as well.”
Liaising with so many parties and satisfying so many invested organisations has proved tricky at times. “It’s been a great challenge,” confesses Kaushik. “It’s been like walking on a tightrope at times, that whole year of intense work, of finding so many stakeholders. As a South Asian dance company working at the margins of our creative industry, it’s been a massive task to keep everyone happy.”
Despite Kaushik’s efforts, the development process has not been without controversy. Her choice of director – Gary Clarke, the choreographer behind 2015’s Coal – was called into question by some. A white British man with no experience of South Asian dance, chosen to take an Indian story around India. Why, critics asked, would you not hand this opportunity to a choreographer of South Asian heritage?
For Kaushik, it was an artistic decision. A much-loved work in its home country, Usne Kaha Tha is curiously progressive for its time, jumping across years and continents to tell the tragic tale of the Punjabi Sikh Lehna and his unrequited love for the married Leela, which eventually results in him sacrificing his life for her. Accessibility, says Kaushik, was key, so she sought out a contemporary director who could handle narrative confidently.
“I kept wondering, ‘Why me?’ ” Clarke confesses, over breakfast at Akademi’s hotel in South Jaipur. “I have no connection to India, I have no Indian heritage, I don’t know much about India. But I think I’ve been chosen because of my storytelling. That’s something I think I do very well – something I’ve developed over the years.”
To aid its authenticity and its accessibility to Indian eyes, Clarke’s show was developed with the help of several creative consultants. Experts in Indian theatre, in Indian theatre architecture, in Usne Kaha Tha’s literary significance and in First World War history were all involved.
“It was quite full on – very overwhelming,” Clarke tells me. “At the time I thought it was an overload of information. However, on reflection, all of that was vital to the development of the piece. The more questions I asked, the more I realised I couldn’t just do what I wanted with it. I asked them, for example, if I could modernise it, move it from an Indian bazaar to a shopping mall, and they said no.”
5 things you need to know about the Jaipur Literature Festival
1. Its first edition in 2006 had 14 speakers and 100 visitors. The 2017 festival had more than 250,000 attendees.
2. Previous speakers have included Ian McEwan, Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Fry and the Dalai Lama.
3. Since 2014, it has developed satellite festivals in London, New York and Boulder, Colorado. Last year’s London edition was at the British Library in May.
4. It’s the world’s largest free-entry literature festival, although pre-registration is required to avoid lengthy queueing.
5. The festival is no stranger to controversy. In 2012, Salman Rushdie had to cancel his appearance, fearing assassination; this year the festival is at the centre of public argument over controversial Indian blockbuster movie Padmaava.
So much for the struggle of getting the show on its feet. Flying it out to Delhi, moving it from city to city on bumpy buses and sleeper trains, and constantly competing with the chaos of India, is another matter entirely. Over the few days of the tour I witness, the company has to compete with unprepared accommodation, aggressive officials, relentlessly delayed transport and even the infamous ‘Delhi belly’.
“I was nervous about coming out here, because I’d heard about what it was like and what it could do to you, physically and mentally,” Clarke tells me. “I have peers and friends who have toured here, and their experiences have been tough: people constantly being late, people not providing the right equipment, always having to think on your feet and change things quickly, which for an artist is really not what you want. It compromises the art. So far, it’s been great, though.”
Part of the reason for Clarke’s anxiety is that this is not a typical tour of India. British companies usually visit the major cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai. Wayne McGregor’s company stopped at Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru when it toured India before Christmas.
Akademi is ticking off only one of those cities with The Troth. After Jaipur, it heads back to Delhi, then to Bhopal, Jabalpur, and Kurukshetra: one major metro, two second-tier cities, and one third-tier one, with day-long coach journeys and overnight sleeper trains in between.
The departure from five-star convention is partly a political move, a small prong in the UK’s soft diplomatic efforts to strengthen ties with India. “It’s a core part of our strategy,” the British Council’s director in India Alan Gemmell informs me over a buffet lunch amid the babbling crowds of authors, artists and enthusiasts in Jaipur.
He continues: “We want to partner India in knowledge, ambitions and economic growth, and we want to do that across all 16 states, and that involves taking work away from the five big metro cities. We see significant interest in other second and third-tier cities in UK education and in UK culture.
“There’s significant growth in these areas, so tours from great British companies like Akademi help us add another dimension to that interest. We want to convert that into a richer, deeper engagement. Post-Brexit, these cultural ties with India are so critical.”
It’s difficult to think of Brexit at The Troth’s world premiere later on. It’s the evening event on the festival’s second day. About a thousand audience members make their way across old Jaipur in auto rickshaws and taxis to the Hawa Mahal palace, glowing orange against the night sky, tealights floating on the dark pool in the middle of its central courtyard.
The Troth is a striking work: a vibrant blend of contemporary movement and traditional South Asian dance, delivered by its six-strong cast against projected First World War footage courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, and to a stirring score from Shri Sriram.
Guleri was born in Jaipur. Although about Punjabi Sikhs, Usne Kaha Tha is a cherished piece of Rajasthan’s heritage, and Akademi’s adaptation gains a profound resonance here. The Troth is an exercise in soft diplomacy, but it’s also an act of remembrance, an emotionally charged piece of movement, and, as it unfolds with poignant clarity under darkening Rajasthani skies, so much more.
Director/executive producer: Mira Kaushik
Administrative director: Tim Foxon
Turnover (2016-17): £455,761
Funding levels (2016/17): Arts Council England NPO (£215,000 annually), plus Big Lottery Fund and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation in 2016/17
Audiences: about 60,000 worldwide per year
Employees: Four full-time, five part-time
Key contact: Antareepa Thakur, sales and communication manager, email@example.com
The Troth is touring UK venues including Leicester Curve, ArtsEkta in Belfast, Tacchi Morris Theatre in Taunton, Edge Hill Arts Centre in Ormskirk and the Dukes in Lancaster until March 16. Details: akademi.co.uk