by LAUREN CODLING
THE founder of a pioneering Asian theatre group has said he is “shocked” by the number of ethnic minority artists who still struggle to feel accepted in the arts industry.
Jatinder Verma MBE, the founder and artistic director of Tara Arts, admitted he had been approached countless time by artists who said they still feel excluded in the arts sector. Although the cultural industry has accepted diversity as an idea, Verma said, it is important that organisations are not complacent despite a slight increase in ethnic minorities appearing on the stage and screen.
“Diversity has not been completed, it is structurally very unequal,” Verma told Eastern Eye. “There is still a long road to go.”
Verma, who has led Tara Arts since its inception more than four decades ago, recently announced he would be stepping down from his role as artistic director after 42 years. The theatre group has been celebrated for its variety of cross cultural theatre, influenced by India and Europe. It has also supported an array of ethnic minority artists – among them actor Sanjeev Bhaskar, theatre director Nadia Fall and playwright Sudha Bhuchar.
Tara was formed in response to the racist murder in 1976 of teenager Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall, west London. For Verma, it was a tragedy that changed everything. He can still recall where he was when he heard the news about the killing – he was relaxing by the riverside, waiting to collect his degree result at York University and spotted The Sunday Times. The top headline related to the death of 18-year-old Chaggar.
“I saw (the newspaper) and I immediately started crying,” Verma recalled. “I didn’t know the person, but I found out later when I talked to others that we all felt the same. It didn’t matter what age we were – we all felt threatened.”
Thereafter, he met several friends – Sunil Saggar, Ovais Kadri, Praveen Bahl and Vijay Shaunak – and they began to build upon the idea of Tara Arts. Just over a year after Chaggar’s murder, Tara Arts’s inaugural production Sacrifice was staged at Battersea Arts Centre in 1977. The company eventually moved into their own theatre building in Wandsworth in 1983. Since then, it has emerged as one of the leading BAME community theatre groups in the country.
Besides founding Tara, Verma has had his personal share of ground-breaking achievements – he became the first non-white director at the National Theatre in 1990, staging an adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe, and helped to commission the staging of the first all-Black Hamlet in 2016.
In 2017, the 65-year-old was honoured with an MBE for services to diversity in the arts. Verma was, and still is, passionate about promoting inclusion and safe spaces – but said it is ultimately driven by Chaggar’s memory. “Even in 1976, Southall was recognised as an Indian area, a safe space, and yet he was murdered in broad daylight,” he said. “That sort of fused me from then until now to find some meaning in that kind of death – that is the only duty we have for those who go before us.”
Verma spent his earliest years growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, before he arrived in the UK with his family in the late 1960s. His passion for theatre began at a young age – one of his earliest memories of the arts scene was when he was invited to partake in a school play as an Inca emperor. “It sealed my fate,” he joked.
Later, he regularly attended shows at a number of London theatres, including Aldwych Theatre. The venue held several foreign productions and Verma admitted he had “never seen anything like it”. “These were the things that got me very excited about the nature of this art form,” he said.
Determined to get involved in the arts scene, Verma began to consider seriously pursuing a career in the industry. However, his parents were both disappointed by his decision. Verma said he could understand their dismay – the “whole purpose of immigration was for the betterment of their children”, he said. So, his parents would have preferred him to look into typically successful careers fields such as medicine or business.
“My uncle was a high-flying lawyer in Kenya and the expectation was I would follow in his footsteps,” he said. “But quickly my parents realised the work I was doing was taking their culture and trying to put it into the public state and they found it encouraging. After a while, they realised that was all I was going to do, so they stopped badgering me.”
In his early days of theatre, Verma experienced exclusion in the industry. He once joined the National Youth Theatre as a young man – but left after half a day as he felt uncomfortable as the only non-white actor.
His departure from Tara, which has arguably helped to steer the integration and acceptance of BAME artists into the mainstream, is not an easy one. Likening it to a divorce, Verma said he is “anxious, sad and excited” to leave. “It’s a mixture of emotion, but I’m also looking ahead,” he enthused. “It is an astonishing theatre that has been loved by everyone who has come to it. It echoes what we have been about in all the decades that we’ve been working
– in the sense of being able to connect to different cultures that is there in the theatre’s architecture (…) I couldn’t have thought of a better legacy.”