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Toil and trouble

Jatinder Verma, co-founder of the UK’s first Asian theatre group, on the need for diversity and his play, Macbeth

Written by Dipanita Nath |
Updated: August 26, 2019 12:45:16 am
Macbeth shakespeare, Theatre group Tara Arts, Asian civil liberties movement, Rabindranath Tagore’s Sacrifice A scene from Macbeth

Theatre group Tara Arts was born out of rage. The murder of a 17-year-old Indian boy in Southall, West London, in 1976 had ignited the Asian community in Britain. The Asian civil liberties movement fanned out like wildfire across major cities in the UK. Brown voices rose to be heard. Based in London, Tara Arts took to telling stories. Their first was an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Sacrifice, a powerful narrative that attacked religious bigotry, at Battersea Arts Centre in August 1977.

“Since the very beginning, we have been highlighting Indian people’s experiences (termed ‘Asians’ in Britain as a racial/ethnic category), whether through original or classic productions. We were the first to introduce Indian classics such as Sudraka’s Mrchhcatika to English audiences; as well as the first to produce a trilogy of plays — Journey to the West — charting migration from India to East Africa to Britain,” says Jatinder Verma, co-founder of Tara Arts, whose play, Macbeth, was screened as part of the Old World Theatre Festival in Delhi last week.

Verma has set William Shakespeare’s tale of “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself” in the home of an Indian family in the UK in an attempt to coalesce diverse worlds. “Plays like Macbeth are a part of the overall project of Tara Arts to resist the silencing of voices or talents of Asians. I was questioned at a national forum about my decision to produce Macbeth — the implication being it does not ‘belong’ to me,” says Verma.

He was born in Dar-es-salaam, Tanzania, grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, and arrived in Britain as part of the “Asian Exodus” in 1968. He is the first Asian or Black director at the National Theatre, where he staged Molière’s Tartuffe in 1989. In 2017, Verma was honoured with the MBE. “As humans, we connect through stories. All we can do is present them as best we can. In the times we are living in currently, both in Britain and in India, where barriers are surfacing again between different people, it is even more urgent for artists to tell stories,” he says.

One of the themes of his Macbeth is that migrants carry within them two worlds. “The world that they inhabit and the world of distant memory, of somewhere else,” says Verma. His Macbeth is a young man, who has grown up in the UK but has also been nurtured on stories of an extraordinary past that is full of grandeur and bling. When he meets three hijras, who look extraordinary and remind him of the stories he has heard, Macbeth is ready to drink their potent potion of treachery, passion and ambition. “There’s been an increasing interest in transgender issues in England and I began to wonder what it would mean if an Asian Macbeth encountered hijras as the three witches? They are cross-gender, inhabit a peculiar status of being both inside and outside society and, in the case of Asians in Britain, represent both ‘traditional’ culture and a disturbing aspect of that culture,” says Verma, who brings Indian music and movements to one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.

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