The Road Back
Well, we know where we’re goin’
But we don’t know where we’ve been.
(Road to Nowhere, Talking Heads)
Weatherwise, as I recall, the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe was something of a washout, but it was also something of a watershed year for me. With my (very) small scale company Wave Theatre, I produced my first self-penned Fringe piece, the monologue ‘Noor’, in a ‘British’ South Asian threesome of one act-ers – alongside pieces written by one of my fave collaborators, the brilliant actor Dharmesh Patel, and another by Mohammed Hanif – a long-lister for the Booker that year with his first novel ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’. The same year also saw a major international conference on ‘British South Asian Theatre’, its origins and players – part of a four year study at the University of Exeter, which resulted in a book of the same name.
As an Indian woman working in Scottish theatre since 1991, the book was hugely important to me, painting the historical backdrop and contextualising the work I had apparently committed my life to pursuing north of the border. Meeting the book’s editor, Professor Graham Ley, a couple of years later, he (and I) lamented the exclusion in the study of South Asian theatre artists in Scotland, and urged me to create an archive of my own theatre work. Else, he said, no record would exist.
‘Our stories are our immortality, but if we don’t tell our own story,
Someone else will tell it, and it becomes their story,
And then we might just…disappear.’ (Home is Not the Place)
Originally an actor, born in Kerala in India, and now an Edinburgh-based writer and theatre maker, I have pretty much turned my hand to most jobs, onstage, offstage, in order to keep working in the profession in Scotland – at times a lonely and unforgiving place. You know how sometimes, you can be in a room full of people, and still feel alone..?
There was no map or compass to direct an artist from an ethnically diverse background, navigating a Scottish theatre with barely any such diversity to show, and little inclination to change. Such a study would have been a welcome companion at the start of my professional journey.
To kick-start the archive project, Professor Ley suggested that I approach an ex-student of his, a lecturer based in Glasgow, to write an article about my work. However, the ex-student declined my request, saying it wasn’t a topic they knew much about. No chance of doing any research then? – my imagined retort.
The late-teen to early-twenties me, would probably have scowled, cursed, and kicked a door or two, but the mid-forties me, having been here many times before, sighed inwardly and sagged into my chair like a spent balloon – once stretched to bursting – propelled to its baggy demise with the air released, to a fanfare of raspberries.
My mind ticked over, scrabbling for an alternative starting point, while the lecturer then proceeded to try and sell me a place on their course for the next year! More training, you say? Mate, that wasn’t what I came in here for. That’d be like going into Lidl for a loaf of bread, and coming out with a saddle for a horse you don’t have. We’ve all done it. Sorry, lecturer-person, no sale – I wasn’t buying.
Not that I’m averse, just that I’m pretty much trained up to the gills at this point, thanks very much. ‘Cos you see, that’s what usually happens with artists of colour, when representation on stage isn’t an imperative, but you as a statistic, are. Good Optics R Us. So the project went on the back burner, and another decade moseyed by.
Fast forward to January 2021, and it is my thirtieth anniversary of working in Scottish theatre. For much of the first two decades, few other visible artists of colour were to be seen onstage with any regularity. The landscape and context in which I worked inevitably influenced the tales I wanted to tell, so fifteen years ago, I graduated from performing and producing to writing my own material (if not me, who?), while negotiating obstacles set by establishment gatekeepers, taste-setters and the arterati – who pay mere lip-service to policies that promise playing field-levelling.
Theatre by artists of colour in Scotland has rarely been documented, featured or appraised fully, academically or critically. At a recent zoominar, I was reminded of this and why it matters. There, a panellist from the current, emerging generation of artists, expressed shock that in previous ones there had been no diverse artists in their particular art form, which I knew wasn’t the case. A line from my ‘heritage’ solo play, ‘Home is Not the Place’, popped into my head, ‘To move forward, one must learn the lessons from the past’. Else we would just continue to cover old ground, endlessly, never really advancing from where we are now.
Across the art forms, ethnically diverse artists are thankfully, finding greater encouragement in their artistic pursuits from the arts ‘mainstream’, albeit as a clear response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. In theatre too, the approach has been reactive but scattergun, still yanking on a creative choker leash. Ultimately, the process of diversifying theatre requires a strategy, and a strategy benefits from the authentic, honest evidence that lived experience provides, if we choose to heed it. Perhaps then can we start to dispel the inkling of an
‘academic and intellectual culture, which would through neglect be mirroring the underlying refusal of a society to recognise the belonging over time that is the reality of any diaspora or post-colonial community’. (British South Asian Theatre, Ed. Graham Ley and Sarah Dadswell).
You see, creating and producing stories about and by people of colour on the Scottish stage is an act of political theatre in itself, elevating what is unseen (or has been hidden) into existence. Visibility. It forces people to look beyond a merely comforting reflection – a mirror image – become active and dynamic in order to effect change, be open to hearing new stories, and, once and for all, create the space for ALL our voices to be heard (forever and ever, Amen!).
Seems apt then to be writing for Bella Caledonia’s Many Voices project at this particular moment in time (and for this Annie-versary of mine), to work on the archive, reflecting on past work, unsung colleagues, collaborators and any pioneers that I may uncover, who might have slipped public attention.
Over the coming weeks I hope to share some of these stories, exploring the whys and wherefores of Scotland’s ethnically diverse artists, met along the way, over time and across art forms; as well as commissioning writing from other, un-usual suspects who (ain’t going anywhere but) continue to interrogate and create – to lesser hue and cry – in a performing arts sector which has taken a meteor hit during the pandemic. Physical proximity may be curtailed as we adjust and adapt our methods of creative expression, but the stories just keep flowing, from the voices needing heard.