Tamasha is a Hindi word meaning a commotion or creating a stir. And for the last 25 years, the Tamasha Theatre Group, founded by Sudha Buchar and Kristine Landon-Smith, has been creating a stir, first as a voice for the South Asia diaspora in Britain, and more recently as a voice for a whole range of rarely represented cultures.
|Sudha Bhuchar - photo by Robert Workman|
“I began working with Jatinder Verma at Tara Arts. At that time it was just a community group, and I
wasn’t a professional actor. I was a chronically shy teenager and it would never have occurred to me to be an actor. But I became involved because I was hungry to engage like-minded people,” Bhuchar begins.
Her long-term partner at Tamasha, Kristine Landon-Smith, was already a professional actor when she joined Tara a few years later, playing a male part in Broken Thigh, a play based on a story from the Mahabarat. In the course of that tour, the two became close friends.
It was on one of her occasional trips home to see her family in India that Landon-Smith became involved in promenade performance of the modern Indian classic novel Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand. She brought a video of the production back to show Bhuchar, and the two realised there were no equivalent contemporary stories of the Asian diaspora on the British stage. It was to fill that gap that the two women set up the Tamasha Theatre Company in 1989.
“We had some seed funding from Tara and they hosted a reading of Untouchable. Then we got some Arts Council funding to do a tour and got into Riverside Studios. But we were incredibly naive. We didn’t realise that we had effectively underwritten the show. If the production had failed, we would have been £60k in debt. Fortunately it didn’t fail.”
Some of their casting challenges were extraordinary. “Untouchable was a cast of 10 or 11, mostly young boys, and we had this crazy idea to perform it one night in English and one night in Hindi. So we were looking for a cast of bilingual boys! But we have always searched for new talent – not necessarily on the radar, not necessarily from drama schools.
“Back then, there was a real hunger among Asian audiences. Phillip Headley at Stratford East wanted to engage with the audience on his doorstep, so he asked us what we could do. Our first couple of shows – like House of the Sun which was set in a block of flats in Bombay – were adaptations of novels. Back then, there was still subsidy available, so one show led to another.
“That went on for several years. We didn’t think about this ‘company’ per se – we just thought about the next show. Then in 1993, Oxfam approached us to do something connected with their work for their 50th Anniversary. Out of that came, Women of the Dust, a play inspired by Sunil Gupta’s photographs of the women labouring on construction sites in India.”
But it was the success of Ayub Khan Din’s celebrated play, East is East, which Tamasha first brought to the stage in 1996, that proved the real turning point.
“That play went mad and at that point we decided to accept that Tamasha was a company and not just a successions of projects.”
At this point, for the first time, they applied for fixed term funding from the Arts Council. Landon-Smith was becoming serious about the directing side of things, and also about teaching. So Tamasha began to develop a training side, which has now grown into Tamasha Developing Artists (TDA).
TDA, which was formally launched in 2004, is an artist-led professional development programme for emerging and established talent. It offers training courses, workshops, masterclasses, bursaries and ongoing professional support, and aims to ‘train and nurture the artistic individuality of the theatre voices of tomorrow, and to take positive action to encourage greater diversity in British theatre.’ It now represents fifty percent of Tamasha’s business.
Bhuchar has worked as actor, playwright and artistic director. Does her heart lay with one of those roles, or does she see them as interconnected?
“It has all come out of being young and Asian in this country. When we were growing up, we thought what we were experiencing, only we were going through it. Then my sister and I went to a Diwali function at Tara. They were doing sketches about the generation gap and questioning religion and our parents and racism.
“It was all those things that led you to hang out with people like yourself, which somehow led to acting. And then the writing came out of a lack of opportunities as an actor. And the need is still there.
“But I never woke up one day and thought ‘I’m going to be a pioneer.”
Does she think it would it be harder to start something like Tara now?
“It is harder, because the funding it not there. On the other hand, nowadays there are unpaid opportunities like development and scratch nights.
“In the 80s, if you went to the National Film Theatre to see a Satyajit Ray film, everyone you knew would be there. Now there is a lot more going, yet it is still on the margins. It is hard to see proper change, proper shaking up of the mainstream.
“For a while, there a wave both in theatre and in television. I was in an all-Asian programme on Central television that went out at seven thirty in the evening. Yes it was a niche programme with a niche audience. But now there is an assumption that we are all integrated. You have your Asian family on Eastenders and Emmerdale and sure, fine. But the community has grown enormously and the representation is abysmal. So people like me go, ‘Oh, my god, where is the tangible difference?’
“If Tamasha has branched out over the years, it is not because the need to represent South Asian voices has diminished. Rather, we have branched out because we recognised that need was shared by many other groups too. We used to have courses for British Asian writers only, and then we would have others knocking on our doors, saying ‘there is no other place for us – can we be British Asian for the day?’ So we started to ask ourselves why we were creating these barriers.
“Now, someone has said to us that being in a Tamasha rehearsal room is like being on the top of a London bus and actually there are no other places like that.”
Landon-Smith went back to Australia in 2013, and now Bhuchar herself is looking to move on too. So why now?
“We used to say Tamasha was Kristine and me and if we didn’t want to carry on, we would fold up and someone else could start something new. But with the growth of TDA, we realised Tamasha had grown beyond the two of us. And once you acknowledge something has outgrown you, then you start thinking how and when you will be succeeded.
“We had talked about 25 years being the right time to move on. Then she was headhunted for a wonderful job in Australia. [Landon Smith is now a lecturer in acting at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, in Sydney.] We were in the first year of a three year plan for Tamasha, and it made sense for me to stay on. It was very important for us to pass on the identity of the company, its legacy, its history, to someone who had time to be embedded. Finn Kennedy was appointed through a huge open process. And now he and I are coming towards the end of an eighteen month process of working together.”
So what does the future hold for Tamasha?
“Finn talks about ‘making work along cultural fault lines’ - whether that is race or class or religion. He has had ten years as writer-in-residence at Mulberry School for girls in Tower Hamlets. He has changed the culture of that school, from a time when girls were not allowed to be in a drama group, to taking an all Muslim cast in a play written by him to the Edinburgh Festival.
“Finn was also behind ‘In Battalions,’ a report into the effect of Arts Council cuts on theatres' capacity to develop new plays and playwrights. That came about in response to a conversation with Culture Minister, Ed Vaisey, in which he claimed the cuts were having ‘no effect.’ That has been like a call to arms.
“So he is someone very passionate. Quite political. And he is a writer. So maybe things will become a little more writer-focused.”
And what lies in the future for Sudha Bhuchar?
“That is hard to answer, because I don’t have a new job to go to.
“My job has been about nurturing other artists, about administration, about fundraising. I want to catch my breath, think about myself. I am not a teacher in the way that Kris and Finn are. I want to be creating work.
“Part of our work over the last three years has been under the umbrella of Small Lives, Global Ties. I guess I will always be interested in ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. So I will be exploring new collaborations to tell those stories.
“I do have a couple of projects in mind. One is called Golden Hearts, which is about the fact that Asian men are particularly vulnerable to heart disease. That began as a Scratch Night and then I realised I needed to do something more with it. I am hoping to work with the British Heart Foundation on that.
“The other is an adaptation of White Mughals by William Dalrymple (the true story of a love affair between a British army officer and a Muslim woman in 18th Century India). I am trying to get that off the ground with a company called Dash Arts, who did a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in eight different Indian languages!
“But the whole thing is predicated on getting partners and getting money. So we will see. Maybe I will just decide to go and do yoga and recharge my batteries for a while!
“As one of the TDA artists told me, ‘Jump off a cliff and the universe will be there to catch you.’”
East is East is being revived in the West End this autumn. Read more here.
And you can read about the development of Sudha Bhuchar’s play My Name Is... here.
We hope to have an interview with Finn Kennedy, Tamasha’s incoming Artistic Director, in a future issue of Words with Jam.