South Asian Theatre in Britain
By Dr Alda Terracciano
The early 1900s – dramatic beginnings and “exotic” imports
The development of South Asian theatre in Britain reflects the wider sociological dynamics of South Asian Diaspora and migration to the Mother Country. While in the eighteenth century maritime journeys to and from the subcontinent had brought to the British shores “ayahs, lascars and princes” – to quote Rozina Visram – by the nineteenth century street players and visiting dance companies had become the exotic entertainers respectively in town centres in London West End theatre houses. At the same time, group of theatre amateurs (mostly students and professionals) produced work that drew both from Indian and European theatre traditions. Among them was the Indian Art and Dramatic Society, (on 4 November 1915 the group presented the Grand Performance in Aid of the Wounded Indian Troops at the Town Hall in Chiswick with a mixed cast of Indian and white British performers), and the Indian Players, whose production of Niranjan Pal’s The Goddess had an all-Indian cast “speaking in accentual English”, as the programme of the show states. Such an interest in exploring similarities and connections between the European and South Asian subcontinent anticipated the research of later theatre groups, which emerged in the 1970’s mostly in London and the Midlands.
Politics and theatre – the years after WW2
The years after the war witnessed an increase of political activity within the various South Asian communities settled on Britain. At the same time, organisations of self-help and support, often set up in conjunction with white liberals and radical activists, provided a space for social activities and various forms of entertainment. By 1945 – the year in which Asians, Africans and West Indians living in Britain united in a Subject People’s Conference and in the later Fifth Pan- African Congress on Manchester – nearly all associations in Britain were leaning towards a common front for the colonial independence of their countries of origin and international black struggles.In particular, the many Indian leagues and workers associations, which after Indian independence started to concentrate their efforts for the improvements of their living conditions in Britain, were pivotal in bonding their people’s struggles to those of other African and Caribbean groups. Within such organisation different forms of entertainment also started to thrive – in the case of the India League it was the newly emerging Indian film industry. Conceived initially as what Dilip Hiro termed “the spearhead of the Indian Independence lobby”, after 1947 it focused its activity on easing the relationship between Indian and British people by the distribution of the films imported from India.