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British Asians and the art of diversity

Writers united: (From left) reshma ruia, radhika Kapur, Catherine Menon, shibani Lal, Mona dash, Farrah Yusuf and Kavita Jindal
Writers united: (From left) reshma ruia, radhika Kapur, Catherine Menon, shibani Lal, Mona dash, Farrah Yusuf and Kavita Jindal

Ethnic minority Talent is increasingly Finding a place in mainsTream culture

Eastern Eye’s inaugural Arts, Culture and Theatre Awards (ACTAs) on May 22 at the Royal Festival Hall appeared to fill a real void in the lives of British Asians.

“I’m surprised no one thought of doing something like this before,” was a typical comment at the Southbank Centre event.

But this was probably the right time to recognise British Asian artistic talent. When I was an undergraduate, one of my jobs was to get speakers for the university’s India So- ciety. But we were not exactly spoilt for choice as would be the case today.

When immigration from the Indian sub- continent began in earnest 50 years ago, the arts were not a preoccupation with the new- comers, who sought to establish themselves economically in a foreign land. The myth of return was dispelled with the arrival of Asians who were edged out of East Africa in the late 1960s and early 70s.

To be sure, well-known artists from the subcontinent – Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha, Vilayat Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, and later Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – came and per- formed in Britain. But home-grown British Asian art did not develop until the second and third generations began to make their presence felt.

I began going to British Asian plays only after the Tamasha Theatre Company was set up in 1989 – its first production was an ad- aptation of Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, which opened at the Riverside Studio on December 4, 1989. It was magical night, heralding the dawning of a new age.

It has taken from then until now for the British Asian artistic fraternity to evolve to the point where Eastern Eye felt able to hold a function in which talented people in such diverse fields as cinema, television, theatre, dance, music, literature and photography could be recognised.

I feel we have had a perfect partnership with Alchemy, which was dreamed up seven years ago by Judith Kelly, the Southbank’s artistic director, and curated this year by Rachel Harris.

So far as the pool of talent is concerned, the future seems promising.

Last week, for example, I went to the Ne- hru Centre for the launch of Love Across a Broken Map, An Anthology of Short Stories by the Whole Kahani Collective.

The seven women who have set up a writ- ers’ collective – Reshma Ruia, Radhika Ka- pur, Catherine Menon, Shibani Lal, Mona Dash, Farrah Yusuf and Kavita Jindal – read extracts from their stories, which had been edited by Farhana Shaikh at Dahlia Publish- ing (£9.99).

Reshma, a published author, and her businessman cum philanthropist husband, Raj, are old friends of mine. Over dinner that evening, I could chat to their son, Ravi, who is just finishing at the London School of Economics, and daughter Sabrina, who is about to go up to Exeter College, Oxford, to read French. My guess is that such children will ensure British Asian arts is an integral part of the British arts scene as a whole I mention this because one Asian director refused to be nominated for an ACTA, with this implied explanation: “I think of myself as white – I don’t want to be described as an Asian artist. I am mainstream.”

However, it is the mainstream publishing industry which has enthusiastically em- braced crime thrillers written by three Asian authors – Abir Mukherjee (A Rising Man; Harvill Secker; £12.99); Vaseem Khan (The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra; Mulholland Books, Hodder; £7.99). Omar Shahid Hamid (The Prisoner; Pan Books; £12.40 from Amazon).

I have read the first two books and am halfway through the third. The journalist Arifa Akbar did a very good Q&A last week with the three London-based authors at the Southbank Centre last week as part of the Alchemy Festival.

I will write about the three (excellent) crime books in detail later, as I will about Love Across a Broken Map

The authors come from diverse back- grounds but are united by a love of writing.

For now, it seems everyone I know in the Asian community has either published a book or is in the middle of writing one.

“And you know that can’t be bad,” to quote The Beatles