On 4th July, 1976, five years before the murder of Satnam Singh Gill in Coventry, another student by the name of Gurdeep Singh Chagger was murdered in Southall.
Just as it would in Coventry, the murder galvanised Asian youths into a response quite different from the non-confrontational approach of their parents. Starting with four days of spontaneous street possession in Southall, the reaction spread out across the country, spawning the Asian Youth Movement.
With slogans such as ‘Come what may, we are here to stay’ and ‘Here to stay, here to fight,’ the AYM was radical, secular and prepared to take the fight to the opposition. Many of those currently involved in fighting for civil rights - such as Suresh Grover from Liberty - cut their teeth with the AYM.
Chaggar’s murder also galvanised a young Jatinder Verma. Verma had arrived in the UK from Kenya as a teenager in 1968 – the year of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech. As he told the Guardian in 2008, “I saw my mother struggling with four children in a strange land, wading through torrents of abuse, repeatedly refused rented accommodation because of the smell of her cooking, disparaged and devalued by shopkeepers and landlords, stripped of her sari and her dignity on the factory floor.”
Convinced of the need to forge life out of Chaggar’s tragic death, in 1977, Verma set up Tara Arts, Britain’s first Asian Theatre Group in Britain.
Here he talks to me about humour, self-censorship, and why he still sees colour as the central issue in inter-cultural exchange.
Jatinder, could you start by telling me a bit more about why you set up Tara Arts?
Until Chaggar’s murder in 1976, Asian youth had been largely invisible. Asians were perceived as a law-abiding community, and Asian youth were ‘not a problem.’ But here they were saying, “These streets belong to us too.”
There is another less well known line from Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech:
"It is by Black Power that the headlines are caught, and under the shape of the Negro that the consequences for Britain of immigration and what is miscalled 'race' are popularly depicted. Yet it is more truly when he looks into the eyes of Asia that the Englishman comes face to face with those who will dispute with him the possession of his native land.”
We needed a space in which to debate these issues and the feelings they aroused.
I strongly believe the way to break through cultural barriers and break down prejudice is through empathy. Through challenging the imagination. Arts in their various guises have always suggested the nature of society. They contest myths. (To paraphrase Shelley) artists are the unacknowledged legislators of tomorrow.
This isn’t just about new writing. It’s also about how you reinterpret the classics. Look at Othello. At least today he is usually played by a black actor, which is a step forward from Lawrence Olivier blacking up! But Othello is not black. He is a Moor. An Arab. A non-Christian. That’s been addressed academically but never yet on stage. I know that sooner or later that is something I am going to have to do.
You have said that the dialogue between ETHNICITY AND NATIONHOOD is central to Tara’s work. Can you tell us a bit more about what you mean by that that?
Britain is an island, with all the faults and riches of an island nation. We don’t like people coming in. We still haven’t forgiven the French for the Norman Conquest.
It is only really since the Second World War that coloured immigration has impinged on the British consciousness. So coloured immigrants have been caught up in the midst of huge challenges for Britain in determining its identity in a post colonial world – such as, do we align ourselves with a European axis or an American axis? Does the kingdom stay united, or break up into nation states?
I remember taking one of our plays to Dewsbury. When we got there, we found ourselves surrounded by Victorian non-conformist buildings. Yet the inhabitants of those streets were dressed as if they were still living in NW Pakistan. That is a challenge to a nation whose self-image is still white.
As Ivan says in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “One can love one’s neighbours in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters, it’s almost impossible.”
I have always suspected that both xenophobia and elitism run much deeper in the British character than racism itself. But you clearly believe colour is the central issue.
I agree that Britain likes to imagine that it is a meritocracy. It isn’t. One of the reasons that the British Raj felt so at home in India was that, in its caste system, they saw themselves in the mirror.
And yes, today a lot of the ill feeling is directed against Islam as a faith, but how do you recognise a Muslim? I have walked down the street outside this theatre and been called ‘Osama’.
In all the literature around race, there is no real investigation of the visceral impact of colour. There has been a failure to engage with questions that we find difficult to examine. Our framework for discussion, such as it is, has been borrowed from the US.
A couple of years ago, you adapted Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album for the stage. [The Black Album is about a search for identity amidst the clash between fundamentalism and liberalism. Written in the wake of the Rushdie affair, Verma staged the play twenty years later, in the shadow of 9/11.] You said then that one of the things that you wanted to achieve was to make a comedy out of racism. How successful do you think you were?
What Kureishi is able to do so brilliantly is see fascism for what it is, irrespective of race or faith.
But in terms of comedy? No, not all that successful, if I am honest. I still have in mind to do a cabaret on race – to make use of all those 19th Century writers whose work is infused with racism.
We are just beginning to see comedy that is self-referential, prepared to lampoon oneself. But there is still a nervousness about making fun from without.
I know you’ve said that, in the wake of the Rushdie affair, we began self- censoring over words like Muslim’, ‘Islam’, and ‘’Race’. Can expand on that?
I have come to realise that there can be times when a small amount of self-censorship can be the right thing to do. Take the play we currently have on: Domestic Crusaders by Wajahat Ali. Three generations of a Muslim family come together in the wake of 9/11to celebrate the 21st birthday of the youngest son.
The oldest son is pursuing the American Dream. He comes home to find his younger brother wearing a beard and looking as if he is on the road to radicalisation. The play had a line where he says to his brother (referring to the beard), “And what’s this filth on your face?”
Now the beard represents the beard of the Prophet. To call it filth would be extremely challenging. In the end we decided to have the actor simply swallow the word. (“And what’s this ... on your face?”) And we did that for two reasons. First, if anyone did decide to take offence, it was the actor, not me or the writer, who would be in the line of fire, who might get beaten up. And secondly, it would get in the way of the story. The story is about young Asians seeking to carve a space for themselves in the American landscape while remaining connected to their own cultures.
But censoring ourselves over what issues we are prepared to discuss? That can never be right.
There are very few British Asian playwrights. And none of our major playwrights have tackled these issues. Our major theatres are all looking for ‘the Muslim play.’ At the same time, they won’t touch Muslim plays. But not to do so is a failure to reflect the country as it is.
I know there are playwrights who won't write about the Asian experience because they 'don't know the culture'. What do you mean, you don't know the culture? What about Shakespeare, your literary 'god'? 'If you prick us, do we not bleed?'
What matters is that someone has been seized by an idea and has sweated for it.
Thank you, Jatinder.