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Rasa artistic director Rani Moorthy: ‘Theatre wants to be diverse, but it continues to reduce cultures’

Handlooms will be performed in sari shops in Manchester. Photo: Anthony Robling Handlooms will be performed in sari shops in Manchester. Photo: Anthony Robling
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When you pick up your suitcase and leave your country of birth, you have no idea that the passport stamp ushering you into the host country brings with it multiple layers of identification, especially for a writer who makes work about migrant cultures.

You learn you can’t just tell a story. Couched within it will be history and geography lessons, nuances of caste, class and religious divides, colonial forces that created schisms in your biography. The list goes on, because you can’t assume audiences have the same information or shared perspectives.

All my life I’ve consumed plays from the Western canon and accepted references, allusions and metaphors from the European cultural pantheon. I could still appreciate and value the story… or indeed not.

As a Malaysian/Sri Lankan Tamil, educated in Singapore and living in Manchester, I can’t take the same for granted. I started Rasa theatre company predicated on the idea that the people I write for will not be familiar with foreign translations or concepts. The onus is on me to explain, justify, validate and add value.

My chosen art form is theatre, where metaphor and allegory give me a level of accessibility, yet sometimes I wonder if brown people are allowed to have complex lives in art. We are beginning to value, even insist on, diversity, “but Rani, try not to be too diverse”.

I used my Malaysian accent, but some thought I was doing Peter Sellers with a Chinese accent

When I wrote my first play in the UK, Pooja, 20 years ago, I naively used a Sanskrit title; it was a play about growing up with Hindu rituals. I set it in Malaysia. I needed a map in the production. I used my Malaysian accent, but some thought I was doing Peter Sellers with a Chinese accent. I was asked if it was in English.

Subsequent productions had accessible titles to make the work marketable, to get past the gatekeepers and to audiences with multilayered narratives about the migrant experience; part creative choice, part necessity.

My new play Handlooms, co-produced by Contact, will take place inside sari shops in South-Asian communities in Manchester and Leicester. It’s a story about the intimate space and language used to sell saris. The shop is the connection between the South-Asian diaspora and the homeland.

The Sari Trilogy opens up views about the rituals and traditions behind it – who buys the sari, sells it, wears it, rejects it; is it an item of oppression and patriarchy or a power suit to be worn proudly, to symbolise identity and retain links to the homeland? A show about the sari. It will be “vibrant and exotic”.

Rani Moorthy: ‘I’m interested in playing funny, loud, badly behaved women’

Write about curry and you are taken literally. Curry Tales, performed on four continents, was reduced to the “one where she cooks curry and feeds the audience”. The way our narratives are interpreted is often bereft of nuance and complexity. Our stories are often appropriated by white writers, empowered to write out our world, apparently better than us.

This is my burden. I carry it. I hope one day to put the suitcase down. In the meantime let the history and geography lessons continue.

Handlooms runs at Alankar House of Sarees, Manchester until March 24

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